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During the early 1800’s, many Indian families from the Carolinas moved to the Florida panhandle. They established two main communities, one at Scotts Ferry on the Chipola River (Scotts Ferry), and another on Scotts Church Road in Jackson County (Scott Town), with smaller settlements in Calhoun, Liberty, and Holmes counties as well. These 2 core communities were the only documentable Indian COMMUNITIES in the panhandle, as established by hundreds of records from the federal and state census, military records from all the wars, local tax, court, and voter records, and special Indian School records from the Cherokee Indian Normal School in Robeson County, North Carolina, where many of the families came from. Under “Jim Crow” segregation these communities were treated as “colored” and waged a constant battle against being pushed socially into the Black community. In the second half of the twentieth century, after the end of segregation, the core communities went into decline and the population predominately shifted to other areas including Lakeland in the east, Blountstown and Marianna, in the central panhandle area, and Escambia counties Florida and Alabama in the west. This is a small part of their story.
Note to the Reader concerning the term “Cheraw”:
In this text the term “Cheraw” is used to describe the remnants of large eastern Siouan tribes who did and still do live in the Carolinas and Virginia. The terms “Cheraw Indians of north Florida, Florida Catawba, Florida Cheraw, Cheraw Catawba” etc are used to describe the families of these Indians who had moved to the Florida Panhandle from the Carolinas and settled there in the early 1800’s. It should be noted that in the same time period as such families as Scott, Oxendine, Jacobs, Hill, Conyers, Copeland, Bullard, Bass, Johnson, Blanchard, Brown, Moses, Long, Hicks, Barnwell, Stephens, Chavis, Bunch and many other Indian families from the Carolinas were settling the areas that would become Scott Town, Scotts Ferry, and Blountstown, the historic “Apalachicola Creek Indians” were being removed to Texas and Indian Territory by the federal government as part of the larger forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes that occurred during the 1830’s.
Various bands of Muskogee speaking Indians under Chiefs John Blount, Ecconchatamicco, Neamathla, and Yellow Hair were removed or harassed into other areas during this period. As for the Indians living in Blountstown on the reservation, (Tvlwv Rakko) Apalachicola was their tribal town name, and they were one of many within the larger Creek Nation’s confederacy of tribal towns, (half of which spoke tribal languages other than Muskogee). The Apalachicola Creek Indian Reservation at Blountstown, headed by Chief John Blount, an Alabamu Indian, as well as 4 other Muskogee speaking reservations in the panhandle was abolished in the 1830’s and the people told to prepare for immediate removal to the west. The Apalachicola Indians from the John Blount Reservation on the Apalachicola River (today’s Blountstown) were removed to the Alabamu Tribal Reservation in eastern Texas, where John Blount’s uncle, Red Shoes was Head Chief.
According to all available documentary evidence the social relationship between the in migrating “Carolina Cheraw” Indians and the departing Apalachicola Creeks is unknown. Oral histories with particular Blountstown Indian families speak of intermarriage with individual Apalachicola Creeks who did not go on the removal, but no documentary evidence has yet come to light to substantiate the large amounts of oral histories within particular families claiming these events. The degree of social interaction during the late 1830’s and 40’s between departing Apalachicola Creeks and recently arriving Cheraw Lumbee, Catawba and other Carolina Siouan stock Indians is as yet unknown, but to date there is no documentary archival evidence of a remnant Apalachicola Creek Indian population remaining in the Jackson, Calhoun, or Liberty Counties area, though there are many descendants of other Creek tribes in the area.
Some Creek families, like the Hill, Holly, and other families, did migrate to Florida from areas of the southeast that had formerly been in or near the Old Creek Nation, mostly South Carolina from the documentary records indications. Some of these families were of mixed Creek and Cheraw origins before coming to Florida. But upon coming to Florida, and some of these incoming Creeks did marry into the Cheraw’s settlements already established there. These families and there settlements were the roots of the established “Indian” settlements like Scott Town and others. This is different from the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of descendants of removal era Creek Indians who remained and whose descendants are everywhere in the southOver the past twenty years, my cousin, Steven Pony Hill and I have compiled records, interviewed elders, and spent hundreds if not thousands of hours in the Florida State Archives and in a dozen or so courthouse records rooms across the panhandle. This has been a search to find out the documentary history of our people. This search was encouraged and supported by our elders and community members, elders who told us the rich oral history of our people. It’s a story that we found to be very different when viewed from the outside, viewed from the perspective of non Indians who wrote about us, knew our ancestors, and who controlled the institutions of the society that surrounded us. We found it a dark time, when we stayed as insulated within our own community as possible. Ancestors who we knew to be Indians from our grandparent’s stories and personal recollections, to our surprise the historic records called other names like Mulatto, Negros, Dominickers, and White.
What continues to emerge as the endless work of documenting our history through the records of the dominant mainstream society is a steady confrontation with challenges to our survival as a group of people, a community, legally, socially, and spiritually. This is a struggle that from the very beginnings of our identity as a unique people on the American scene many centuries ago to our contemporary fight for a place in the America of the twenty first century, we have won, if only by our continued survival.
The story of the Cheraw Indians of north Florida, a tribal people who have lived in the Apalachicola and Chipola River valleys of Florida for nearly two hundred years, is a long and circuitous one. Though far from having the large populations of the past two centuries, today there are still many individuals and families living in several historic rural hamlets. Since the 1950’s, the heart of this tribal community is Blountstown, in Calhoun County, the center of Indian political life for the past 60 years. The 3 historic settlements addressed in this narrative were once population strongholds during the segregation era (1860 1960). The settlements of ‘Scott Town’, in Jackson County, ‘Woods” in Liberty County, and ‘Scott’s Ferry’, in Calhoun County,
despite being located in separate counties, all are fairly near to each other geographically, with Scott Ferry and Woods separated by the Apalachicola River.
As with all communities, times changed and by the end of the 1950’s, many families were already relocating to Blountstown, Marianna, and other areas, near and far. The history of The Cheraw Indians of North Florida can be divided into three distinct time periods;
1800 1860, the time of migration to Florida by Cheraw and Creek families through to the Civil War
1860 1960, the Civil War to the end of segregation (the Civil Rights era)
1960 present, the post segregation era and struggles for tribal government, infrastructure, and State and Federal acknowledgement.
Each time period in the story of The Cheraw Indians of North Florida has its own unique challenges and adaptations by the people to the pressures of the day. In the beginning the colonial frontier was a wild and rough place, and the situations in the Carolinas of the times led the first few families to migrate to Spanish Florida. Many were successful and the establishment of Indian hamlets at Scotts Town and Scotts Ferry led to a thriving and unique way of life for the people. This can be clearly seen in the census and tax records of the times that show that the pre conflict Scotts Ferry was one of the most thriving communities in the county. The documentary evidence for Scott Town shows a similar situation there, with the people of the Indian settlements listed as “Free Persons of Color” (as distinct from Free Negro) on the census and doing well. With the coming of the conflict between the north and south the situation would change, and a new social reality would unfold. In the years before the Civil war, ones status as a slave or descendent of a slave, or as a free person would be the main mechanism defining social status.
In the dark days after the War Between the States, skin color came to be a determining factor of one’s social standing, and a new era of unrestricted racism began. In this text I hope to shine a small amount of light on what has been the journey of a unique people so far, and a story of survival. There is still much research to be done. It is hopeful that the younger generations of The Cheraw Indians of North Florida will support the ongoing struggle to strengthen the community by participating in the life of the tribal community.
CHAPTER 1 “A Very Large Nation” The Colonial Period
Little is known about the Catawba Tribe prior to their first encounters with Europeans. They were known to the Cherokee as “Ani Suwa’li”, or “the Suwali people.” The Catawba Tribe was actually a loose confederation of tribes who all spoke a version of the Siouan language. Known by such general names as the Cheroenhaka, Esaw, Isaw, Sara, and Saraw, this confederacy of eastern Siouan peoples included the Kadapau, Sugaree, Coree, Coharie, Manahoac, Hassinunga, Shakori, Eno, Occaneechi, Saponi, and Tutelo. Encountering them in 1701, explorer John Lawson described them as
“the Esaw Indians, a very large Nation, containing many thousands of people.”
In the early 1600’s many important historic incidents occurred which would affect the Catawba descendents for generations. Already suffering from constant raids from the Iroquois and Tuscarora on their northern border, and the Cherokee to the west, the Catawba now faced a new threat, European colonists pushing inland from the east. Catawba Indians being taken captive by raiding parties of Iroquois and Cherokee were being sold as slaves to the colonists and this did nothing to better the situation. From 1616 to 1630, Opechancanough, successor of Powhatan, and chief over all the Algonquin speaking tidewater tribes, expressed his displeasure with the encroaching white men by waging a bloody war. Indian captives were taken in increasing numbers from the tidewater tribes during this time and forced into slavery. Those Indians not taken as slaves were forced to wander the Maryland, Virginia, and Carolina area. In 1657 the English forced most of the Powhatan remnants onto reservations in Virginia and the Siouan tribes were gathered in four main concentrations:
“The Monacan, along the James; the Saponi along the Rivana and James Rivers and Otter Creek; the Tutelo in the Roanoke Valley; and the Occaneechi on islands at the confluence of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers.”
Arguably the most influential event to occur in the 1600’s happened in 1660 when Virginia determined that “an Indian sold by another Indian or an Indian who speaks English and who desires baptism will now receive his or her freedom.” This allowed many Algonquin and Siouan war captives held in slavery in the colonies to regain their freedom, but it also provided incentive for their masters to downplay the Indian ancestry of those in servitude in order to retain them. These former slaves quickly rejoined their tribesmen bringing with them their acquired skills as carpenters, wheelwrights, and ferry operators. Most importantly, these newly freed Indians brought with them their new English names and Christian religion. Unfortunately they also retained the stigma of being former slaves, a condition which would cause their white neighbors to eye them with suspicion for generations.
In 1713, the confederated eastern Siouan Nations signed a Treaty of Peace with the Virginia Colonial government at Williamsburg. Among the different Nations represented were the Occaneechi, the Stuckanok, the Tottero, and the Saponi. At the invitation of Governor Spottswood of Virginia, these Indians settled a four square mile reservation encompassing the north and south side of the Meherrin River. On the north banks were the Nansemond and related Algonquin speaking bands, on the south were the Siouan speaking Tutelo, Saponi, Cheroenhaka, Eno, a small band of Catawba, and also an Iroquoian speaking band of Tuscarora who had avoided the war with the Carolina settlers just 2 years earlier. Spottswood endorsed the construction of Fort Christanna where the Indian children had mandatory training in academics and Christianity. After the closing of the Fort Christanna School a few of the students followed headmaster Charles Griffin and enrolled at the Brafferton Indian School at William and Mary.
Because of the continued hostilities between these Nations and the Iroquois to the north, the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia held a conference at Albany in September of 1722 to hammer out a peaceable agreement between the Tribes on their borders. Governor Spottswood undertook negotiations for the “Christanna Indians” whom were composed of “the Saponies, Ochineeches, Stenkenoaks, Meipontskys, and Toteroes.”
In addition to their traditional native enemies, it is obvious that the remnant tribes considered the encroaching white settlements as an almost equal threat. It also appears that, on the subject of trespassing whites, even the Algonquin and Siouan peoples could agree and cooperate. On October 24, 1723 the Virginia Government spoke out on behalf of the Meherrin and Nansemond Nations and warned the North Carolinians:
“Whereas, the Maherin and Nansemond Indians have this day complained that notwithstanding the repeated orders of this government for security to them the possession of their lands, whereon they have many years past been seated, between the Nottoway and Maherine Rivers, divers persons under pretense of grants from the Government of North Carolina surveyed the lands of the said Indians and begun to make settlements within their cleared grounds.”
This report is especially interesting as it implies that portions of the Nansemond had obviously moved west of their ancestral homes around Norfolk, Virginia, and were living with the Meherrin between the Nottoway and Meherrin Rivers. Peace with the tribes to the north allowed the remnant Eastern Sioux to live in peace and relative obscurity for several years. All was not completely serene, however, as a letter to the governor from one R. Everand, a settler living near the Meherrin Indians, refers to disturbances involving the Meherrins and Nottoways in 1727. Everand says that the Meherrins denied any attacks on the Nottoways, stating
It is evident that Virginia continued to trade with these Nations and found the trade relations lucrative enough to employ an interpreter to “the Saponi and Occaneechi Indians” as late as 1730. After 1730, a group of Saponi undertook one of many trips south to take up residence among the Catawba. Conditions must not have been to their liking, as they soon returned to the Virginia North Carolina border accompanied by “some Cheraws.” Upon arriving at their old lands between the Roanoke and Meherrin, they petitioned Lt. Governor Gooch for permission to resettle in Virginia, which was granted in 1733.