Ben Kirkland, natural resources director at Chehaw Park, displays a self-made “Chehaw-accurate” bow with river cane arrows, fitted with points of deer antler, flint and gar scale.
ALBANY, Ga. — Two hundred years ago, when Southwest Georgia was something less than settled — when working in your yard could be a dangerous occupation — there existed in the area three towns of “lower creek” Indians.
One of these sizable groups of friendly, agricultural people was located near what is now Leesburg and had come to be called Chehaw, which has since given the name for the area’s local park and zoo.
According to Ben Kirkland, resource manager, Chehaw Park, while the Chehaw and other native American tribes had long been decimated by the guns and diseases of the Europeans, they remain misunderstood by most in terms of their accomplishments in agriculture, trade and social advancement.
“Even before the Europeans got here (native Americans) had an economy where they were self-sufficient,” Kirkland said. “Conch shells from the gulf coast were being traded clear up to Ohio. Copper from Michigan was being traded down to Florida. Mica from North Carolina was showing up in Oklahoma. Canoes were paddled back and forth to Cuba.”
Most Indians were “huge farmers,” Kirkland said, raising corn, beans, squash and sunflowers for miles up and down the lower creekbeds. By the time of the Chehaw in Southwest Georgia the majority of native Americans were doing their best to assimilate into the culture of white settlers.
By all accounts, the Chehaw were friendly, even helpful people, but despite their good intentions, they faced barriers of social, cultural, religious and racial prejudice. Those prejudices may have been a part of a little known and unfortunate historical event called the Chehaw Affair.
Just off New York Road in Lee County is the reputed site of an immense live oak where the Chehaw are said to have held their tribal meetings. Visitors there may view the granite boulder placed in 1912 by the Daughters of the American Revolution to mark the location and event.
According to a 1965 account by author E. Merton Coulter for the Georgia Historical Society, the alleged 1818 massacre of a least seven of the peaceful Chehaw people caused a great emotional outburst in Georgia and led to heated correspondence between the governor and Andrew Jackson.
These were the days of Indian wars. It had only been since 1814 that Jackson, with the aid of the Cherokee and the Lower Creeks had defeated the hostile Upper Creeks at the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River in Alabama, forcing both hostile and friendly Indians to give up large areas of land in south Georgia and in Alabama. After the battle many of the Upper Creeks joined the Seminoles in Florida and began to harass settlers in the Georgia frontier.
Andrew Jackson, then at his home in Nashville, was ordered into South Georgia with Georgia and Tennessee militia and then to cross into Florida, which still belonged to Spain. Moving southward, Jackson’s force passed Fort Early on the Flint River and stopped briefly at the Chehaw village where, by the Coulter account, his half-starved troops were given provisions and joined by 40 of the Chehaw braves.
Unfortunately, during Jackson’s foray into Florida, South Georgia would be left unprotected against hostile Indian towns. Although Lower Creeks were generally considered friendly, according to Coulter, there were certain villages known to be engaging in “thieving and scalping raids.” The two most hostile were Hoppone and Felemman — from which, according to Kirkland, Philema Road is named.
While Georgia Gov. William Rabun sent a hurried dispatch to Jackson to return for the defense of area settlers, the general was too involved in Florida and never answered the letter. According to Coulter, on April 14, 1818, Rabun issued orders for the collection of militia to “punish the Indians,” which they did, except that through alleged ineptitude the wrong village was attacked.
Captain Obed Wright, who had been selected to command the force of about 270 men, made a decision to attack Chehaw rather than the two other villages named in Rubun’s orders because he believed there was evidence the hostile chief Hoppone had taken up residence there and was actually ruling the village.
According to Wright’s later remarks, the village was in flames within two hours from the start of the attack. He ultimately estimated “between 40 and 50” Chehaw killed, with no loss to his own force. While other reports varied to small degrees, later investigation concluded Wright’s estimate to be exaggerated with actual loss of life to have been about seven.
Jackson’s response to the massacre, remembering the assistance he’d received from the Chehaw people, was one of outrage, according to Coulter, and he immediately ordered the arrest of Wright and entered into fiery correspondence with Gov. Rabun. Wright proceeded to make himself scarce and was pursued at length in both a physical and legal sense. Ultimately he was thought to have escaped to Florida.
Congress and President James Monroe were eventually caught up in the legalities and moral debate of the Chehaw Affair. To help compensate for their loss, records show that people of the Chehaw village were awarded $10,000 by U.S. government to distribute among themselves. The Chehaw were ultimately forced to join other tribes of native Americans in Oklahoma and disappeared from
the South Georgia landscape.