Thanksgiving was always a Southeastern Native American holiday!

Native American Heritage Month

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

While each year, some Native American political activists always demand that their fellow indigenous peoples not celebrate Thanksgiving, the descendants of the lower Southeast’s indigenous peoples should ignore this call. You see . . . a feast in late November, which gave thanks to the Master of Life for bounty given them in our fertile lands, has a long, long tradition, which predates the European colonies. The first Thanksgiving feasts at Jamestown and Plymouth merely imitated what was already a cherished custom.

The above map was prepared by Fort Caroline’s resident artist, Jacques Le Moyne, and based on sketches made by Lt. La Roche Ferrière, during his six month exploration of what is now Georgia and the Southern Appalachians.

Forgotten American history

In 1621, a party of especially religious, British intellectuals and natural scientists sailed to the New World on a Dutch ship with the intent of settling in Jamestown, Virginia. They seem to be members of the same English colony in the Netherlands, which produced the so-called Pilgrims, who sailed that year from Plymouth, England to Cape Cod.

Upon arrival at Jamestown, they learned that there was a smallpox epidemic, plus the colony was at war with many of the Indian tribes nearby. The Dutch captain suggested that they settle farther south in the Kingdom of Apalache, where the far more numerous Indians were civilized and welcomed Europeans as a means of acquiring European technology. He had visited there and said the climate of Apalache Highlands was far superior to that Virginia’s coast.

The English colonists agreed and after being disembarked at what is now Savannah, somehow made their way to the interior. They were welcomed by the High King of Apalache and were shocked to learn that the nobility of Apalache were Christians, who had converted from a religion similar to Judaism, but with a female God (Amana) to the beliefs of the French Huguenot survivors of Fort Caroline, who established the colony of Melilot in the autumn of 1565. However, the Apalache still believed in a female God, because only a mother could love her human children, despite all their failings.

Melilot appears on European maps from 1570 until 1700. The 1696 Great Appalachian Smallpox Epidemic probably caused its demise. Why was Melilot left out of the American history books? It was founded at the same time as St. Augustine and 41 years before Jamestown. See the map above!

The English were allowed to build an English style church at Melilot and apparently prospered. I have a copy of a 1660 letter, written in French, to a French Protestant minister in the Netherlands from natural scientist Edward Graeves, who was one of the leaders of Melilot. I am fairly certain that Melilot was located at what is now the Little Mulberry River Park near Auburn, GA in Gwinnett County (NE Metro Atlanta). I have identified stone foundations at the park, typical of 17th century English and French Norman houses.

Apalache elite looking at the European village of Melilot

Apalache’s celebration of Thanksgiving

In 1653, British planter, Richard Brigstock, traveled on a Dutch cargo ship from Barbados to the coast of what is now Georgia. Brigstock was a royalist and Barbados was under siege by a fleet of ships from the English Commonwealth government. His purpose was to determine the feasibility of the Barbados plantations moving to the kingdom of Apalache. In 1646, his cousin, Edward Bland, had financed a Spanish trading post in the Nacoochee Valley, after moving to Jamestown from Spain. Brigstock ultimately decided to move to Virginia, because the Apalache in Georgia refused to allow slavery of Africans and Native Americans.

Slavery, human sacrifice and animal sacrifice were forbidden by their religion. No blood of any kind could be shed within one Creek mile (2.2 English miles) of an Apalache temple or shrine.

At the time, there were many Spanish missions on the coast of Georgia, which was part of the province that the Spanish called, La Florida. Apparently, Spain and England were at peace, because he was conveyed up the Altamaha River and then the Oconee River on a large Native American cargo canoe. At the headwaters of the Oconee, in what is now Northeast Metro Atlanta, he was conducted to the capital of the Kingdom of Apalache. By this time, the capital of the kingdom was located in the Nacoochee Valley and shows up on European maps as the town of Apalache.

Brigstock later provided details of his year in the future state of Georgia to French natural scientist, Charles de Rochefort, who in 1658 published 10 chapters on the Native Americans and natural environment of Georgia in L’Histoire Naturelle et Morale des isles Antilles de l’Amérique.

Brigstock described two major religious celebrations, held in the Kingdom of Apalache during the autumn. In late September, the Painted Buntings, who lived in the mountaintop and hilltop temples, would fly south to Mexico, which was considered the home of the invisible Sun Goddess . . . whom the Apalache now considered to be a universal god for all mankind, named Amana. All the people would climb up to the temples to give prayers to the Painted Buntings to carry to Amana.

As soon as the first frosts occurred in early October, the young men would head out into the wilderness to hunt deer and elk, the grasslands of eastern Georgia to hunt bison or down to the large rivers farther south to catch giant catfish, sturgeon, turtles and alligators. Slabs of meat and fish flesh were soaked in brine then smoked until fully cured (and much lighter).

The men returned to their towns and villages in late November, whereupon great feasts were held in each community to prepare for winter and to give thanks to Amana for allowing them to live in such a bountiful land. Charles de Rochefort recorded the name of this national feast day as Mauto. It is now the Creek word for “thank you!”

Now you know!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and your families!

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