Armenians in America

Armenians America

Jan Franz in 2008 at her Native American wedding, Yahoo Falls, Kentucky

Something was wrong in Phase III of the Cherokee DNA Project. Call it the Cher syndrome. A majority of the Cherokee-descended test subjects were receiving high Armenian matches—yes Armenian, not American. Conversely, a few customers who had no way to have any Native American or New World ancestry would get Cherokee as their top match.

One of the enigmas was Jan Franz, participant no. 24 in the second phase of mitochondrial testing, who later took autosomal updates with the company’s Cherokee DNA Test, a version of the DNA Fingerprint Test that searched for three Cherokee populations and some fifty American Indian groups in all. Born in Florida and originally adopted, Franz did not meet her birth parents until she was in her thirties. Her birth mother was the first to tell the young woman about her Cherokee heritage as well as her Scots-Irish and other ancestry.

“I knew before that,” says Franz. “There’s no explaining it, I just knew.” Bagpipe music always gave her goose bumps. In her teens growing up in rural Virginia, her classmates called her “half breed.” She wore feather earrings and dyed her auburn hair black. In 2008, she married Chuck Franz, another part Cherokee, in a historical tribal bonding ceremony at Yahoo Falls, Kentucky. They both became active members of the Piqua Shawnee Tribe, which accepts admixed natives of all backgrounds.

In the years since then, the litigation paralegal and artist built a family tree that went back to the 1600s. She verified historical figures that were said to have intermarried with the Cherokee—Saunders, Sizemore and Green—and traced a number of Melungeon connections as well as Mennonite and Pennsylvania Dutch. One line on her mother’s side snaked back to Jonathan Greenblanket Green, a Seneca chief who signed the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1788. Chief Green was married to Betsey Jemison, whose mother was Mary Jemison of “captivity narrative” fame in American colonial history.

Franz’s mitochondrial DNA was tested in 2012 and came out as H11a. This ancient subclade of H (the most common European lineage today) occurs across most of northern, central and eastern Europe, but also in Central Asia, where it might have been propagated by the Indo-European migrations. Franz’s rare form of H11a was a unique haplotype, its exact set of mutations unmatched anywhere. Such rarity had become to us a familiar feature of Cherokee project participants. Again and again, they matched no one, or else they matched only other Cherokee descendants. (At this point, it is perhaps advisable to put quote marks around Cherokee.)

Franz’s maternal line was traced to Elizabeth, who married a Way (Scottish surname) and whose female descendants are registered as non-white in South Carolina records, as follows:

Mother: Gail Annette Greene (b. 1940) Fla.

Grandmother: Lucile Aurora Futch (1914-2002) Fla.

Great-grandmother: Daisy McArthur (1896-1998) Fla.

Great-great-grandmother: Martha L. (Lulu) Green (b. 1879) S.C.

3rd-great-grandmother: Louisa Wade          (1861-1920) S.C.

4th-great-grandmother: Mary Way (b. 1839 d. May 30, 1920, race: black/non-white, occupation: midwife) S.C.

5th-great-grandmother: Elizabeth Way (maiden name unknown, b. 1822) S.C.

After Elizabeth, the line disappears, and as blacks were not named in pre-Civil War records, seems untraceable. Elizabeth’s husband may have been Joseph Way, born about 1808, in South Carolina. The rest of Franz’s tree is strongly centered on Georgia and central Georgia in former Creek territory, now known to be of pervasive Apalache, Yamasee and Apalachicola culture. There was a possibly of Cherokee connections with her Sa(u)nders families in Georgia. Otherwise, no definite Cherokee ancestor could be identified.

After the company added Cherokee and other Native American population data in 2015, Franz retested her ancestry. In the meantime, she had begun to suspect that she had significant Middle Eastern ancestry in addition to Native American. Her mother’s mother was named Lucille Aurora Futch (a corruption of Fuchs) and had jet-black hair.

Those names, I told her, were an important sign. Melungeons, a population from the same Tennessee/Virginia homeland as the Cherokees, were fond of giving a daughter a name that started with the Lu- sound. Supposedly, it was a reminder that their ancestors came from Lusitania, the ancient name for Portugal.  Portuguese and Jewish were synonyms. Common names were Lucinda, Louise, Lucille and Lucretia. Bizarre, inventive forms like Louhanna (the Blevins and Bolling families) and Lucinderella (the Cooper family) and Luta Mae (my wife’s Box family, originally Fox) were known to occur. Franz’s South Carolina and Georgia branches included the names Lulu, Lovey, Lurency and Luvaney.[i]

To everyone’s surprise, Franz’s top ethnic result on an autosomal basis was Armenian. In her megapopulation analysis, Armenian was no. 1, with a strength factor of 108, while Middle Eastern was no. 2, with a strength of 104. The term Armenian came from from over a hundred Armenians sampled in four different places with Armenian parents and grandparents in three countries whose DNA was studied in 2011.[ii] These top two results were much more prominent than American Indian, the no. 3 result, and 10 times stronger than the lower tier mega-populations in her makeup. One of the four Armenian populations, Gardman, Azerbaijan, was also reported as a leading result in her country population matches (no. 6), just below Afghan, Turkish and Cherokee.

Both Turkey and Armenia, as well as Israeli Jews, are considered European populations for the purposes of DNA comparisons. In this section of her report Franz got Armenian as her no. 3 hit. Armenian came after Northern Ireland and the Netherlands, both countries well adduced in her genealogy. Armenia was followed by England/Wales, France, Scotland, Italy and Portugal, nationalities also strongly represented in her family tree, as confirmed by surname origins (list about 10 that are English etc.).

Franz told the author that she was not aware of any Armenian connections in her family tree. No other company’s DNA tests had pointed to Armenia.

About the same time as this mystery was unfolding, a man in Canada contacted customer service with a question about his results. Why was his no. 1 world match Cherokee? He told us all four grandparents were Armenian, born in Armenia of Armenian ancestry all the way back. No one ever suspected any Native American DNA. Was it a mistake?

Who are the Armenians?

Armenians are a distinct, isolated ethno-national group that can hardly be mistaken for any other. Their homeland is a landlocked country at the geographic junction of Europe and the Levant. It is bordered by Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. The region has acted as a crossroads for human migration from Europe and the Middle East since at least the Neolithic Period and emergence of agriculture. The Armenian people’s unique ethnic stamp was created in the Late Bronze Age and is more European in nature than Middle Eastern. It persisted virtually unchanged for three thousand years.[iii]

Generally speaking, Armenians carry genetic traces of both the ancient peoples whose descendants make up the current population (Armens, Colchians, Hattians, Hayasa, Hayk, Hittites, Hurrians, Kaskians, Luwians, Mitanni, Mushkis, Pala, Phrygians, Urartians, etc.) and the ancient invaders who conquered or passed through the Armenian lands (Assyrians, Gamrik-Gimirri-Cimmerians, Galatian Celts, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Scythians, Macedonians, Medes, Persians, Mongols).

In genetic terms, the isolated cluster we know as Armenian took final shape about 500 years ago when Armenia was divided between the Ottoman Turks and the Safavid Empire in Iran. During the medieval and early modern period, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire became more and more marginalized and were often attacked and enslaved. Although Christian like many other subject peoples in the Islamic state, they suffered more persecution being almost constantly in a war zone.

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 was the culmination of an official policy of eradication pursued over centuries. In the short span of a few years, Turkish authorities killed millions of Armenians, leaving only 400,000 out of an estimated 2 million present on the eve of World War I. The pitiless mass executions caused an explosion of refugees fleeing Turkey.

The largest Armenian diaspora  settlements today are located in Russia, the United States, France, Georgia, Lebanon, Iran, Germany, Syria, Ukraine, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Brazil. There are around 5 million people with full or partial Armenian ancestry situated outside of Armenia. This is more than the number of Armenians who live in their old homeland, split between the Republic of Armenia (formerly part of the USSR), Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, the de facto independent Republic of Artsakh and Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran and Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan to the south.

The Armenian people are given short shrift in most historical accounts, but there is at least one book where they figure prominently. Johns Hopkins historian and MacArthur Prize recipient Philip D. Curtin in his Cross-Cultural Trade in World devotes an entire chapter to the position of Armenian merchants as carriers of goods, ideas and people between Europe and East Asia. Surprisingly, according to Curtain, the Armenian trade diaspora was more active and influential than that of Jews. The Armenian involvement encompassed both overland as well as maritime routes, reaching from China, India and the Indian Ocean to the Americas.[iv]

Armenians are united by a common language, religion (a form of Christianity similar to Greek Orthodox) and distinct culture. Their language belongs to the Indo-European family, where it constitutes a one-language linguistic group. Experts in the past classified it with Persian, but its separate status and autonomy are now recognized. It was one of the earliest languages in the region to be written and enjoys its own distinctive alphabet with a long-flourishing literature and traditionally high literacy rate.

The Armenian Church has a venerable history. It originated in the missions of Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the first century, according to tradition. Armenia was in contact with Rome but had the good fortune to lie outside its frontiers. Partly for this reason, it looked for religious authority within and was separate doctrinally from both the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and Nestorian Christianity, the sect that spread along the trade routes between Rome and China.

With the rise of Islam in the Middle East, Armenia became a Christian island in a Muslim sea. Curtin believes that the Armenians’ isolation as a separate religious community underlined the need to deal tactfully with their Muslim neighbors. Such a position probably spelled their commercial success as long-distance traders through Muslim lands.

Strategically placed, Armenia acted as a crossroads for trade passing from China and India to Europe and the Near East along the famous Silk Road and other routes. The phenomenal success of Armenian merchants was spread over three periods in the ancient past. In the sixth through the ninth centuries BCE, the Armenian kingdom of Urartu enjoyed great prominence. As Rome rose to power in the second century BCE, the Armenian empire controlled all overland trade to and from China, belonging to the Parthian bloc rather than Roman orbit. And finally, in the tenth century CE, Armenia became again prosperous and powerful, its reach extending even to the Mediterranean. Not until it was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in 1070 did Armenia decline. Later, Armenians were confined to a small conquered area and not allowed to visit their former extended lands.

At the end of the barbaric Turco-Mongol invasions of the fourteenth century, Armenia was partitioned between the Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persia.

“With the Turkish seizure of Crimea in 1475, not a few Crimean Armenians were forced to move west as refugees into Moldavia, Transylvania and mainly to Galicia, now in southern Poland. In central Europe, they made contact with other Armenian communities in closer touch with the homeland. They therefore changed their culture once more—back to norms more nearly those of contemporaneous Armenia. In spite of many vicissitudes, the Polish and other Armenian settlements in central Europe kept their position in the overland caravan trade till they were finally displaced by railroads in the nineteenth century.”[v]

Such a conjoining of peoples squeezed out of Khazaria, together with Armenians driven eastward into Central Europe, may explain a genetic confusion of Ashkenazi Jews and Armenians. Could Cherokees be mistaken for Armenians (and vice versa) because Cherokees included a lot of Jewish DNA?

The heyday of Armenian merchants came in the seventeenth century, after the Safavid rulers of Persia established New Julfa, an all-Armenian suburb outside their capital, Isfahan. There resided the khojas, an Arabic term of respect for scholars, teachers, writers and very wealthy merchants; it meant “rich” in the Persian language. Armenians enjoyed a monopoly on the raw silk trade, which flowed into the thriving fabric industries of Europe through their warehouses at Aleppo and other way-stations. Subsidiary centers, all staffed by family members and fellow Armenians, operated at Paris, London, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Marseilles, Seville, Cadiz, Venice, Florence, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Oran, Riga and other cities.[vii]

In 1620, there were no fewer than forty Armenian trade houses in Amsterdam alone. New Julfa ships flying the red-yellow-red flag with the Lamb of God ensign sailed all over the world. Commercial republics including Courland and Ragusa were governed by Armenian merchants, often acting in concert with Jews. Did Armenian merchants reach the American frontier and trade with and intermarry with Indians like the Jews?

Where there’s smoke there’s POOF

Richard Thornton is today a respected architect, author and museum exhibit designer specializing in Southeastern Indians. He lives in a house on the eastern end of the Nacoochee Valley near a Creek sacred site called the Alec Mountain Stone Circle. But it was not always so. On the morning of December 24, 2009, as the Great Recession kicked into high gear, two deputies showed up unexpectedly at his mountain home with an eviction notice that said he had to vacate the premises by 6:00 p.m. that day, Christmas Eve.  He showed them a letter from Fannie Mae, dated December 12, 2009, which set the closing date for a mitigation loan on January 12, 2010.  It was not their concern, they said.  He left in a panic, abandoning most of his food, gear, appliances, books, drafting equipment and other possessions.

As a young man, Thornton served in the Navy, traveled to, among other destinations, Sweden, studied at Georgia Tech, went on a fellowship to Mexico, and lectured around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, without knowing very much at all about his own Creek heritage. Then, three Christmases after his eviction, History Channel’s H2 network premiered a new series entitled “America Unearthed,” the opening episode entitled “American Mayan Secrets,” based on Thornton’s exotic theories and out-back rambles around Georgia. It became the highest rated show ever for History Channel’s H2 network.

Nowadays, after collecting several feathers in his cap, as well as his share of criticism and death threats, Thornton is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Coweta Creek Confederacy and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe of Pensacola, Florida. He writes the newsletter titled People of One Fire (POOF), where he publishes articles on the hidden history and forgotten diversity of Southeastern Indians. His writings are provoking as well as provocative; it is hard to keep up with them. Among the ancestral peoples he covers are:

  1. Uchee (also called Euchee and Yuchi), whose origins he has traced to the Saami of South Sweden in the Bronze Age.
  2. Paracus,  Satipo, Conibo, Shipibo, Cashibo,  Ashinanka, Chiska, Tupi,  Panoan, Southern Arawak (South America).
  3. Choctaw
  4. Maya, Totonac, Huastec, Tamaule, Tamale, Zoque, Pima, Chontales de Oaxaca, Tolteca  (Mesoamerica).
  5. Taino, Arawak . . .  All indigenous peoples of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto  Rico, Virgin Islands.

Although he is interested in the original People of One Fire or Creek Confederacy, that is, the Alabama (Alibaamu), Chickasaw, Kashe-te (Upper Creeks), and Apike/Abeika (Upper Creeks), he reserves his greatest admiration for the Kingdom of Apalache, the namesake of the Appalachian Mountains, a confederacy that flourished until the early eighteenth century. Tribes in alliance with the Maya-style kings of North Georgia include, for him, the Apalachicola, Palachicola, Florida Apalachee, Coweta, Cusseta, Ogeechee, Cusabo, Itsate (Hitchiti), Koasate, Oconee, Okate, Tamatli, Tamahiti, Tamali, Toasi, Toasee, Chiaha, Taskeke (Tuskegee), Tuskete and Talasee.

In 1717, as Thornton likes to remind those who think Georgia had only Cherokees and Creeks, the Creek Confederacy included the following groups: Tocasee, Tuckabatchee, Culasee, Cullawhee, Oakfuskee, Eufaula, Ilape, Pee Dee, Hillabee, Talwaposa, Tallapoosa, Etalwa, Shawnee,  Savano, Xuale, Suwanee, Sawakee, Sawate (Sautee), Sawakli, Atasee, Chattahoochee, Pakanahuere (Peachtree), Echete, Yamacraw, Okamule-ke, Okmulgee, Westo, Bohuron, Thamacoggin (Tamakoa), Keowee, Thloplocco, Conchakee, Hontaoasee, Hontawekee, Anawakee (who gave their name to what became Trenton, Ga.), Kataapa (Catawba),  Satipo and Santee.

In August of 2016, Thornton published a study on Access Genealogy called “Cherokee DNA.” Taking aim at DNA testing companies, especially DNA Consultants and Family Tree DNA, Thornton laid bare their statistical biases, inadequate geographical coverage and flawed knowledge of Southeastern Indian history. He added some inaccuracies of his own—such as writing that DNA Consultants had tested subjects at the Qualla Reservation, and that news releases had implied, without qualification, that Cherokees were Jews and Middle Easterners, not American Indians after all. He also thought that “Brent Kennedy’s Melungeons” amounted to a mistaken identity for the same false Indians. But the main points of the take-down were clear:

In 1794 the federal government gave the Cherokees most of northwest and north central Georgia. In the mountainous sections of this new Cherokee Nation were other ethnic groups. Their names survive as the names of mountains, creeks and rivers. There are relatively few true Cherokee place names in the entire Southern Highlands. From that day forward, the federal government labeled these minorities as “Cherokees. . . .” Because of their relatively small numbers, these minorities were far more likely to have concealed their locations from Federal and state troops assigned to round up the Cherokees. However, virtually all their descendants in Georgia today call themselves Cherokees. Physically, they bear little resemblance to Qualla Cherokees.[viii]


Apalache Indians from a 1673 map. The English in Virginia depicted the first native peoples they encountered in the American Southeast as dark-skinned, muscular and statuesque with European features and curly hair. They were dressed in flowing garments and wore a hat with a pointed crown that curled forward. This was the Phrygian cap, a type of headdress worn not only by Phrygians but by all inhabitants of Anatolia and of nations farther east according to the ancient Greeks. It was later adopted by Creek leaders. Public domain.



Thornton’s candor and bluntness produced a cry of “Foul!” from federally recognized Cherokee groups and caused a torrent of anguished objections from readers who had been told they had Cherokee ancestry. As of November 2019, there were 71 comments to the post. An article titled “Cherokee Tribe” published the next month in the same forum attempted to correct users’ shaken confidence in the standard version of America’s native heritage. It countered with potted histories reprinted from the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Links were given to treaties, rolls, censuses, chief lists, tribal names and official histories. This correction resulted in an outpouring of 148 comments. Many readers sought help for proving great-grandmothers were “full blooded Cherokee.”[i] If Thornton was reading these, he probably said to himself, “That’s exactly what I was talking about.”

The band played on. Thornton was harassed and threatened by trolls from the Cherokee Nation Office of Recognition, academicians with a vested interest in Cherokee history and know-nothing racists. He was also lauded and encouraged by those who took more open-minded positions.

From Armenia with love

As early as 2013, after a series of articles on Appalachian colonists from the Mediterranean basin amounting to a declaration of war on the history and anthropology establishment, Thornton turned to Arabs, Armenians and Ottoman Turks in the Southern Highlands. Drawing attention to a 1693 English map and a French one from 1701, he claimed that “western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia [were] occupied by a mixture of Muskogeans, Shawnees and Yuchi,” and that the Cherokee were nowhere to be seen. “In 1693,” he wrote, “the Creek towns of Apalache and Itsate occupied the Nacoochee Valley of  Georgia.”

The evidence we have accumulated strongly suggests that many of the ancestors of the Cherokees were Christians or Jews from eastern Anatolia and Iberia, but there were definitely some Muslims . . . . The Georgia Cherokees had an Arabic name for their band and spoke a language that mixed Turkish, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Creek, Dutch and Algonquin words.[ii]

And what about Armenians? They belonged to the offscourings of Ottoman and Moroccan society. “The atrocities committed by Islamic armies from Turkey and northern Africa during the 1500s and 1600s,” Thornton wrote, “dwarf the sins of the Spanish Inquisition.” He pointed out that in 1600, “a third of the Ottoman Empire’s population was composed of Christians,” and “at least 3 million Christian and Zoroastrian civilians died during the Turkish invasions in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, while at least another 2½ million were made slaves . . . In just one Armenian province, a Turkish general killed over 250,000 Christian civilians several weeks after occupying their undefended lands. In the province around Mount Ararat, a Persian Islamic army evicted over 300,000 Christians from their lands because Mount Ararat was mentioned in the Quran.”

Some of the refugees came to North America, Thornton argues. Most of the galley slaves in the Turkish navy were Christians from conquered lands such as Austria, Hungary, Bosnia and Croatia. During almost continuous warfare along religious lines, a mixture of Protestant Christians, Eastern Christians, Jews and Muslim prisoners were taken on as galley slaves by Spanish ships whenever the Catholic Hapsburgs won a battle against the Ottomans, Dutch or English.

A key witness to Thornton’s version of the commingling of tribes and possible early presence of Armenians is a journey into the interior undertaken by the Virginians James Needham and Gabriel Arthur in 1673. They are described in a letter from Abraham Wood to John Richards, dated August 22, 1674. A mysterious church with a giant bell was reported in the interior, along with men with long beards. Thornton thought the description “seemed to be a Georgian or Armenian Orthodox Church.” But where exactly did James Needham travel to see such a sight in 1673?

Although the brick church, bell and hairy men have traditionally been located on the Tennessee River in Tennessee and presented as evidence that the Cherokee were situated upstream from these “white folk” in the seventeenth century, a consensus now inclines toward placing the theatre of the Virginians’ first interactions with the Indians of the Appalachians not along with Watauga River where the Cherokee were believed to have lived but in a surprisingly different direction.

The true facts emerge from close scrutiny of this important historical document.[iii]  In the interests of developing the deer and beaver fur trade, Abraham Wood sent James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, an indentured servant, with eight Indians and four horses westward from Ft. Henry (present-date Petersburg, Virginia) to explore uncharted lands. Wood was responsible for three of the most important explorations of the Appalachian Mountains in the seventeenth century.  He went on his own trip with Edward Bland in 1650, he mounted the Batts and Fallam expedition of 1671, and he dispatched Needham and Arthur in 1673. For many years, the New River was known as Wood’s River.

According to the report Wood sent back to promoters in London, the two Englishmen were provisioned with supplies for three months. After a false start and torrential rains, they set forth from Ft. Henry on the 17th of May in the year 1673. On the Occaneechi Trading Path they met “with the Tomahitans as they were journeying from ye mountains to ye Occhonechees.” The Occaneechi Trading Path linked the English settlements, starting across the river from Jamestown, with Indian territory to the west. For a long stretch, It followed the Eno River. The Tomahitans offered to accompany Wood’s English party to their home territory and its capital. “Ye Tomahitans went away, and my two men with them . . . they jornied nine days from Occhonechee to Sitteree: west by south, past nine rivers and creeks which all end in this side ye mountains and emty them selves in ye east sea.”

This route would have taken the party in a southwesterly direction across the Piedmont. They would have passed the Yadkin and other rivers that flowed into the Atlantic. Sitterree, the midpoint of their journey and “last town of inhabitance,” has not been definitively identified. Presumably, it lay somewhere in Catawba country, perhaps between present-day Charlotte, N.C. and Spartanburg, S.C.[iv] Up to now, the travelers had had nine days of easy going. After Sitteree, Wood says, there was “not any path further until they came within two days jorney of ye Tomahitans.”

They go due west toward the mountains and in four days reach a divide which takes them abruptly from the Atlantic watershed to the Gulf watershed. “Ye ridge upon ye top is not above two hundred paces over; ye decent better then on this side.” This was probably a point in the Eastern Continental divide similar to the famous gap near Highlands on the way to Keowee in South Carolina, on the present boundary between Georgia and North Carolina.

It could have been Cowee Gap (elevation 4,199 ft.), a mountain pass on the Eastern Continental Divide between Highlands and Cashiers in the far southern part of western North Carolina. Cowee Gap forms the watershed between the Cullasaja River and Chattooga River basins, which belong in turn to the much larger Tennessee and Savannah basins to the west and east, respectively.

A pass like this was later described by James Adair. A traveler could pour out water from a jug, he wrote, and half of it would flow west to the Ohio and Mississippi river valley and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico and half escape via the Savannah River to the Atlantic:

From the head of the southern branch of Savanah-river it does not exceed half a mile to a head spring of the Missisippi-water, that runs through the middle and upper parts of the Cheerake nation, about a north-west course,—and joining other rivers, they empty themselves into the great Missisippi. The above fountain, is called “Herbert’s spring:” and it was natural for strangers to drink thereof, to quench thirst, gratify their curiosity, and have it to say they had drank of the French waters.[v]

The Cullasaja River tumbles down the mountains from a spring near Highlands and joins the Little Tennessee near Franklin. Now, at any rate, the voyagers were in French territory, not English. The French Broad River, rather far to the north of them, was so named for the same reasons. At this time, however, neither the French nor the Cherokees were in evidence. The travelers reported that the area was wild and trackless.

In half a day, they came to level ground in a valley after continuing west. “The water runs to the northwest.” They were now on the other side of the divide. They continue west several days, with “straggly” hills to the north, and cross five fordable, shallow, “pebbly” rivers that run to the northwest. This perfectly describes north Georgia topography. The rivers appear to be the Hiwasee, Nottely, Ocoee and their branches.

It was a tough terrain. “By this time they have lost all their horses but one; not so much by the badness of the way but by hard travel, not having time to feed.” The most important aspect of this stretch of their journey is the absence of inhabitants. There is no path until they come within two days of the Tomahitans. It is fair to conclude that this part of North Georgia, later the heart of the Gold Belt, was depopulated. It certainly did not belong to the Cherokees, as was later claimed in official histories.

After entering an area with great game, the Tomihitans lead the Virginians on a continued westward course:

At ye end of fifteen days from Sitteree they arrive at ye Tomahitans river, being ye 6th river from ye mountains. This river att ye tomahitans town seems to run more westerly than ye other five. This river they past in cannoos ye town being seated in ye other side about foure hundred paces broad above ye town, within sight, yet horse they had left waded only a small channel swam, as they were very kindly entertained by them, even to adoration in their cerrimonies of courtesies and a stake was sett up in ye middle of ye towne to fasten ye horse to, and aboundance of corne and all manner of pulse with fish, flesh and feares oyle for ye horse to feed upon a scaffold sett up before day for my two men and Appomattocke Indian that theire people might stand and gaze at them and not offend them by theire throng.

It is apparent that our travelers are now back within the pale of civilized society, even if it was an Indian one. “According to archeologists, the most thorough investigation . . . places the Tomahittans around the vicinity of present-day Rome, Georgia”—the heart of the Coosa chiefdom, which had been abandoned after Soto. Archaeologist Gregory Waselkov suggests that they were a Hitchiti-speaking group, probably a splinter from the Ocute paramount chiefdom on the Oconee River who moved to this vicinity in the late seventeenth century after the fall of Ocute.”[vi]

Georgia on my mind

The site of Rome is where the Coosa, Oostanaula and Etowah rivers meet. The east branch of the Coosawatee River, which joins the Conasauga to form the Oostanaula,  must have been the sixth river from the mountains, for it is the first to be oriented in a westward direction rather than northwesterly one. The travelers would have encountered it and thus entered the Tomahittans’ home country two days distance from their ultimate destination. The main town was a major commercial center with a powerful fort on a cliff and “one hundred and fifty canoes.”

According to Richard Thornton, Tamahiti is the generic Itza and Creek word for merchants. He believes Arthur and Needham were going “where Itsate Creek-speaking merchants lived.” He suggests that “Tomahittan Town” (if we wish to designate it such, as the travelers did, calling the river the Tomahittan River) corresponds to the seat of the Apike, as shown on the De L’Isle map of 1717. The Apike, he discovered, were one of the four tribes that formed the first Creek Confederacy, formed in the seventeenth century. The others were the Alibamu, Kaushite, and Chickasaw. At first, these initial members of the People of One Fire, as the Creek Confederacy was called, did not include their enemies, the Coweta Creeks, Tuckabatchee Creeks, Itsate Creeks and Apalache Creeks, with whom they were at war. The Creek capital was always called Etalwa (“Hightower” in colonial English and early American records), a Creek word that means town,  capital or city. It lay in present-day Rome, Ga., when de Soto came through, though it had nothing to do with the “paramount chiefdom of Coosa,” which was an invention of the archeologists, writes Thornton.[vii]

All official Cherokee and federal Indian information puts Tomahitan Town in the Tennessee River drainage and equates the Tomahitans with the Overhill Cherokees. It is a central tenet of Southeastern Indian history. But this interpretation is plainly mistaken.

The location of the then capital of the Creek Confederacy in North Georgia on the Coosa-Alabama-Mobile river valley has important consequences for the stories of people downstream. The Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers were the homeland of the Middle Creeks before their removal by United States forces to Indian Territory in the 1830s. At that time, Etalwa was located near Center, Alabama. Andrew Jackson delivered a resounding and final defeat to them at Horse Shoe Bend on the Tallapoosa. But in the seventeenth century, these lands were dominated by the Alibamu, one of the four original “Peoples of One Fire.”

The Alabama River unites with the Tombigbee, forming the Mobile and Tensaw rivers, which discharge into Mobile Bay. This was a corridor of mixed cultural influences, which gave birth to Mobilian trade jargon. It was roamed, south to north, by the Tihanama Indians, who ranged from Fort Walton, Florida to the Great Lakes, making Tennessee a favorite stopping place.

According to Wood’s report:

Eight dayes jorny down this river lives a white people which have long beardes and whiskers and weares clothing, and on some of ye other rivers lives a hairy people….

Here is the first mention of a white people among the Indians (which we have identified as Creek rather than Cherokee). Later in the report, a returning Tomahitan tells Wood:

…that ye white people have a bell which is six foot over which they ring morning and evening and att that time a great number of peple congregate together and talks he knowes not what. They have many blacks among them, oysters and many other shell-fish, many swine and cattle. Theire building is brick, the Tomahittans have a mongest them many brass potts and kittles from three gallons to thirty. They have two mullato woman all ye white and black people they take they put to death . . . .

Who were these whiskered white people with brick buildings and a large bell and black people among them? How far down the Alabama River were they? Oysters cannot survive in freshwater, and if the reference is correct, not a mistake for a fresh water cousin resembling oysters, the mysterious interlopers must have been close to Mobile Bay, the site a quarter of a century later of the French colonization efforts centered on the middle Gulf Coast. But on the other hand, is Mobile Bay only eight days downriver from Rome, Ga. by canoe?

The whiskered people on the Alabama River are unlikely to have been French (unless from an undocumented, pre-1699 intrusion into the region) or Spanish (the Spanish did not build frontier settlements out of brick, only clay and wattle, and had set their missions around Tallahassee as the farthest west on the Gulf Coast and its hinterland). They were not Jews or Muslims, as they seemed to follow Christian customs and ate shellfish and raised and consumed swine. So Thornton puts forward the solution that they were Armenians, ostensibly escaped slaves of the Ottoman Empire or Kingdom of Morocco, a theory that might also explain “the negroe town.”

But there is a lot more to consider. Wood’s report was filed a year after the expedition set forth, and “my people returned affecting little.” The rest of the letter describes Gabriel Arthur’s treacherous murder and the captivity of James Needham, who was forced to participate in the Tomahitans’ wide ranging rampages. It becomes clear that these “traders” were also robbers, slavers and murderers who ranged up and down a lawless swathe in the interior. This zone extended from the middle Gulf Coast to Port Royal in the Carolinas and northward into the Kanawa River valley and what is now West Virginia. It was not an ideal country for establishing trade relations with the Indians, as Wood confessed up front (see App. C.).

The Indians of the Appalachian Southern Highlands and the river basins that led down to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, according to Thornton, were inhabited by a welter of peaceable tribes, warlike kingdoms and mixed bands of lawless renegades. Their names, mostly recorded through the French, include: Tamahitan, Weesock, Moneton, Koasati, Kaskinampo (“Many Warriors” in Koasati), Shipikesippi (Panoan), Chiska (Panoan, a South American group, coincidentally the name of the Cherokee Bird Clan), Talikoa, Cataloochee, Mosopeleacipi alias Olighin (Allegan), Chaskepe, Agoa, Ossachil, Coweta, Kaushite (Koasati), Chickasaw, Apike/Abikas, Apalache/Apalachee (Itsa Maya), Apalachicola, Chawowanous (Shawnee), Caouitas, Couih, Taogana, Tionontatecaga, Esaw, Wateree, Conchatez, Katapas (Catawbas), Taskogan, Talabouchi (Tallapoosa), Têtes Plates (Flatheads, Choctaw), Mobilians, Tapa, Natchez, Paducahs, Pani or Paniases, Natchitoches, Washas, Yamasee, Altamaha, Chitimachas, Taensas, Yuchees, Biloxi, Chatos, Naniabas, Towasas, Tomes, Pensacolas, Pascagoulas, Alabama, Cheraqui and Chalaka.

Of this long, but by no means exhaustive list, only the last two names designate tribes who could possibly be Cherokee people. Tchalaka is a Shawnee word meaning the “people over there” and is apparently an adaptation of the Cherokee tribal name Tsalagi, as is also Cheraqui. Tchalaka is named on the 1684 Jean Baptist de Franquelin map of North America and placed in a location on the Little Tennessee River, upstream from the later site of the English Ft. Loudon near Knoxville, Tenn. Cheraqui appears as a town on the headwaters of the Savannah River on the 1717 De L’Isle map.

Such are the tenuous traces of the Cherokee People in a vast sea of other Indians consisting of Apalache, Algonquian, Creek, Yuchi, roving bands of Caribbean Indians and other surprising ethnic groups. Somewhere in the same mix are Arabs, Moors, Armenians, Jews and Croats—ghost populations which do not survive as the same individual cultures in the same places today. After 1800, there was room in the white man’s version of history only for Cherokee, Creek and a few other tribes.

“Don’t you wish you had a time machine and could go back and see for yourself who they were?” asks Thornton.

The answer to this question is: We do. It’s called DNA.

The next chapter will put us firmly in the driver’s seat of this time machine.

[i] “Cherokee Tribe,” Access Genealogy:

[ii] Richard Thornton, “From Armenia with Love, the Cherokee Connection,” People of One Fire:

[iii] See Appendix A, “Needham and Arthur Expedition” for the original text.

[iv] David G. Moore, Catawba Valley Mississippian: Ceramics, Chronology, and Catawba Indians (U of Alabama P, 2002) 31-34.

[v] James Adair, History of the American Indians, ed. Samuel Cole Williams (Johnson City: Watauga, 1930) 242-43. This place was named for Maj. John Herbert who made a map of “Cherokee Country” in 1715 after accompanying Col. George Chicken on an expedition into the Tennessee country.

[vi] Robbie Franklyn Ethridge, From Chicasa to Chickasaw: The European Invasion (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2010) 86. Cf. Gregory A. Waselkov, and Bonnie L. Gums, Plantation Archaeology at Rivière aux Chiens, ca. 1725-1848. Archaeological Monographs 7 (Mobile: University of South Alabama, 2000).

[vii] “The Secret History of Northeast Alabama”:


  Comments: 1

  1. My grandmother was apparently Melungeon. My Ancestry saliva test came back with Mediterranean not Indian.

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