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Chota and Tanasi in the earliest documents

The Southeastern twin town settlement pattern among the Overhill Cherokee

The “twin town” settlement layout of Chota and Tanasi poses an immediate challenge to the taken-for-granted notion of communities as spatially distinct social entities.1 The first documented European visitor to the communities, George Chicken in July of 1725, displayed his acute ethnographic eye in noting the presence of both, but was forced to resort to circumlocution in describing it: “Here are two town Housses in this Town by reason they are the people of Two towns settled together.”2

The path between the Valley Towns and the Overhill Towns on George Hunter’s 1730 map. Note that only Tanasi alone, and not Chota, is labeled.


While Chota is well-documented during the mid-18th century, its presence can only be inferred in the earliest documents. I do wonder if the gap in terminology which Chicken was able to struggle through indicates a conceptual gap that left others coming up short. That is to say, the men behind the other documents may have been unable to perceive the presence of Chota because it did not fit their notion of how social communities and physical settlements should map 1:1.

1721 – Tanasi alone is indicated on the 1721 Barnwell map.3 This is also the case for the Varnod census, on which Tanasi is enumerated as settlement no. 47. In light of later records, however, the population of 543 does suggest that members of two communities may have been grouped within this row. Of the 53 enumerated settlements, only six are listed as having populations greater than 300 (at 340, 357, 435, 460, 543, and 622).4

1725 – As noted above, George Chicken does make note of the presence of two communities at the location of Chota/Tanasi. Curiously, however, he never mentions Chota during the course of his embassy to the Overhill Towns.

1727 – George Chicken’s successor John Herbert made a trip to the Tanasi two and a half years after his predecessor but did not note the presence of Chota in the journal he kept recording his travel and activities.5

1730 – Alexander Cuming was quite the self-aggrandizer and I personally approach the account of his journey to Tanasi with a great deal of caution. While I don’t know quite what to make of the particulars, it is quite clear that he did indeed make his way to Tanasi, which his account lists as one of the Mother Towns of the Cherokees. And like Herbert’s, the account of his journey does not document the presence of a second community.6

1730 – The surveyor George Hunter accompanied Cuming to Tanasi and kept a detailed journal which he used to produce a map.7 Unsurprisingly, his map does not show Chota amongst the Cherokee settlements.8

Notes

1. On the twin town concept, see William S. Willis, Jr., “Fusion and separation: archaeology and ethnohistory in Southeastern North America,” in Theory and practice: essays presented to Gene Weltfish, ed. Stanley Diamond, Studies in Anthropology 7 (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1980), 98. Patricia K. Galloway uses the term “duplex towns”; see Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 310.

2. See “Colonel Chicken’s journal to the Cherokees, 1725,” in Travels in the American colonies, ed. under the auspices of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, by Newton D. Mereness (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), 112.

3. John Barnwell and Paul Hammerton, [Southeastern North America] [manuscript map], [ca. 1:1,150,000.] (Collection of Paul Mellon, Yale University Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., 1721.)

4. Francis Varnod, “A true and exact account of the number and names of all the towns belonging to the Cherrikee Nation, and the number of men, women and children inhabiting the same taken anno 1721” [manuscript census]. (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, London, April 1723.)

5. Journal of Colonel John Herbert, Commissioner Indian Affairs for the Province of South Carolina, October 17, 1727, to March 19, 1727/8, ed. Alexander Samuel Salley, Jr. (Columbia: Printed for the Historical Commission of South Carolina by the State Co., 1936), 15.

6. “Account of the Cherrokee Indians, and of Sir Alexander Cuming’s journey amongst them,” The Historical Register 16 (1731): 1, 3, 10–11.

7. “Account of the Cherrokee Indians,” 13.

8. This represents the Charecke Nation by Col. Herberts Map & my own observations with the path to Charles Town, its course & (distance measured by my watch) the names of ye branches, rivers & creeks, as given them by ye traders along that nation. Certified by me, George Hunter, May 21, 1730 [manuscript map], [Ca. 1:1,500,000.] Faden collection 6, Geography & Map Reading Room (Madison, LMB01), Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Reproduced in George Hunter’s map of the Cherokee Country and the path thereto in 1730. Edited by Alexander Samuel Salley, Jr. Bulletins of the Historical Commission of South Carolina 4. Columbia, S.C.: Printed for the Commission by the State Co., 1917.)

Authorship information

Matthew Timothy Bradley

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2 Comments

  1. Just wondering: was a ‘twin town’ pattern more common in the southeast than elsewhere in the US?

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    • As far as I understand, yes.

      There were other social institutions in the Eastern Woodlands that paired settlements. For example, among the Muscogee Confederacy (i.e., the Creek) there was a sometimes a hierarchical pairing of settlements in which the junior settlements were referred to as as the “daughter” of a mother fire, with members of the daughter towns often participating in their own ceremonies as well as those at the mother dance ground.

      The professor who led the archaeology field school I took has written about what he calls “satellite communities” among the Haudenosaunee (i.e., Iroquois). The settlement size and regional population density variables are quite different in comparison with the Southeast, but one type of the satellite communities he describes seems not altogether unlike the Creek mother/daughter pairings.

      What makes the twin town pattern distinct—again, as far as I understand—is that it was a complementary rather than hierarchical pairing. What I believe was going on with the Chota/Tanasi pairing is that Chota was a White town and Tanasi was a Red town.* I’m such an irregular blogger, but I sort of conceive of this post as the first of two posts presenting evidence for why I believe that to be true.


      * Peace/War might be an oversimplification of the White/Red distinction, but it’s in the right direction.

      Liked by 1 person

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