Ride around Columbus, Georgia, and through eastern Alabama along the flood plains of the Chattahoochee River, and the exotic names of places and things left over from a bygone culture — Muscogee, Eufala, Cusseta, Opelika — are the only hint to what this land used to be.
Aside from a few historical markers and a solemn memorial on the grounds of the Fort Mitchell historic site, there’s hardly any acknowledgement that fewer than 200 years ago this area was the heart of the Creek Indian confederacy. The Creek lands once stretched from the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina to the western border of Alabama and down to northern Florida.
As the Southeast was settled by whites, the nation bunched around the Chattahoochee and Tallapoosa rivers in western Georgia and eastern Alabama. By 1836, the entire Creek empire was almost devoid of Creeks; the ones who weren’t killed were herded off, often in chains, to Oklahoma.
Today, it’s as if the Creeks have been erased from our collective memory to the point that when we think of Indian tribes in Georgia, we mostly think of the Cherokee. Take, for example, the Etowah Indian Mounds, which were constructed by ancestors of the Creeks. The gift shop there has numerous historical books for sale. Only one, however, is about the Creeks; the rest are about the Cherokee, who have no connection to the mounds.
A new book — William “Billy” Winn’s The Triumph of the Ecunnau-Nuxulgee (Mercer University Press) — puts a renewed focus on the Creek nation. Winn explores the political forces that led to the Creeks’ own Trail of Tears, which was every bit as devastating as the better-known story of the later Cherokee removal from Georgia.
The translation of the title reflects the tenor of the book: “The Triumph of Those Greedily Grasping After Lands.” Easily the most comprehensive book ever written on Creek removal, Winn creates a sobering portrait of the white settlers and government officials who never signed a treaty they felt obligated to follow and, ultimately, robbed the Creeks of their land and their way of life.
Winn covered the Civil Rights Movement for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was the editorial page editor at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. He is also the author of The Old Beloved Path (The University of Alabama Press), a book that incisively details what we know about the daily lives of the Creeks.
Winn spent more than 12 years working on Triumph. The removal of the Creeks from Georgia featured dramatic political showdowns that almost ignited the American Civil War some 40 years before it actually happened. As it was, the forces that led to the Civil War — slavery and state rights — began to take shape during debate about the fate of the Creeks.
ArtsATL spoke to Winn earlier this month following an afternoon tour of the few remaining historical Creek remnants in and around Columbus.
ArtsATL: Why are the Creeks such a forgotten people?
William Winn: It’s no accident. The members of the Columbus Land Company and the other land speculators in this area that took the Creek land put a clamp on everything that happened and what they did. The Columbus Land Company did represent society in Columbus, and up and down the Chattahoochee valley, at the time. So polite people in polite conversation did not talk about the Creek removal. It made them visibly upset to talk about it.
The newspapers here also put a clamp on it. The editor of the Columbus Enquirer at the time decided he was not going to print any more about the Creek War or land speculation or anything that had to do with the Creeks.
There was a generation of people who knew the story and didn’t tell it because of shame. Now, I just think it’s brute ignorance. There are families who own farms on land that’s some of the richest soil in the Chattahoochee valley. It’s land that was once owned by the Creek Indians and was the most famous part of their nation. And I get asked, “Billy, did Indians ever live on our land?” I’ve actually been asked that question by someone who owned what was once the Creek town of Coweta. They didn’t know what Coweta was, or that it had been on their land.
There is still, to this day, not a single complete record of the Creek Indian removal — the most intense personal story involving this area — that exists anywhere in this community. Not at Columbus State University. Not in the public library and not in anyone’s private collection, as far as I know. If a school child wanted to learn about what happened with the Creek Indians, and wanted the full and complete story, where would they go to find it? Where would they look? The most significant part of our history is missing.
ArtsATL: The area around Columbus was a center of the Creek nation. What kind of response is the book receiving locally?
Winn: Even now, if you bring the Creek Indians up in polite society in Columbus, you’ll be frowned on. I’ve been threatened. Seven or eight of the town’s leading citizens had me to a “get right” dinner in which they all sat around and told me how wonderful their ancestors were. There was the biggest Chevrolet dealer, the biggest lawyer, the biggest brickyard guy, including my best friend growing up. They told me, point blank, that I’d better not mention their ancestors in the book.
ArtsATL: Why is the story of the Creek Indians important?
Winn: Because if, as Dr. King said, we don’t stand up for the least of us, for the poor and the disadvantaged and those who are unable to protect themselves, then they are doomed to even worse carnage in the future. There are those of us who believe it is our moral duty to defend people who cannot defend themselves, if we don’t do it then nobody else is going to do it.
I identify the book with civil rights. In fact, I realized after I’d written it, in addition to being about Indian removal and the details of the land speculation, it’s a book about how we got to be white supremacists. And how the “state rights” argument developed under the necessity of defending slavery and defending Indian removal. They’re directly connected. I was actually writing about what’s going on in society now, but I was not conscious of it until I read the book after I’d finished it.
ArtsATL: My impression from the book is that the entire tone of the United States policy on Native Americans began here in Georgia and Alabama with the Creeks.
Winn: Everything that happened to the Plains Indians and the Indians out West happened here first. I came across papers on the debate of the [Indian Removal Act] of 1830. It was probably the single most riveting moral debate in the history of the United States. They had a clear decision to make, and the United States Congress made the decision.
It was a simple decision: Will you, or will you not, stand by the treaties made by the United States with the Indians. Not just the Creeks, but the Cherokees and Choctaws and all the Indians east of the Mississippi. And, hell, the United States decided not to. It was a moral failure.
ArtsATL: How did you get interested in the Creeks?
Winn: My great-great-grandfather was surgeon general to the Creeks in 1832 during a smallpox epidemic. His house was a romantic place in my childhood, so I got interested because he was interested. My aunt Elba and my grandmother talked about the Indians all the time. When I was a little boy, I used to say, “Where are they? What Indians?” By the way, that’s a comeback the local guys will give to me if I give a speech to the Rotary Club about Indians. They’ll wait until I’m finished and then stand up and ask, “What Indians?”
ArtsATL: And think that’s being…
I wrote about the Civil Rights Movement for the Atlanta Journal. When I came [to the Enquirer], I wanted to write about black people, thinking I had a moral obligation to do that. Believe me, that moved nobody. I got to thinking what could I write about that maybe wouldn’t be as direct an attack on the kind of attitude I abhorred, and I came up with the Indians. Why not write about the Indians and show directly, without embellishment, what happened to them? How they lived on a daily basis, and how we ran them off their land. We literally defrauded them of their land, and in many cases we killed them to run them off.
If the book teaches anything, it is that Indian removal and slavery were linked. Both of them helped develop and expand the notion of state rights. Any of us who have lived through the Civil Rights Movement know what that led to — our governors and our legislators defending segregation in the schools, in public parks, in public conveniences, in bathrooms and water fountains — and using the state rights arguments to defend any kind of segregration. And, I might add, to defend the worst sort of segregation in every aspect of American life. How on earth can you not see a direct connection between what has happened before and what has happened in our own lifetime?
ArtsATL: It just happened again with gay marriage.
Winn: Amen. Right now, we have some people showing their rear ends over the debate on the flag. We have people climbing flag poles and putting the flag back up. I’m sorry. I wish there wasn’t this contention in society, I wish that people didn’t go to extremes, but we were wrong in the past. We were wrong about slavery. We were wrong about integration and education. We were wrong about a lot of things. And we were wrong about Indian removal.
ArtsATL: I recently had a conversation about your book with a friend, and he said: “Sure, we did the Indians wrong, but what should we have done? What was the alternative?” I didn’t have an answer. So I’ll ask you: What should we have done differently?
Winn: We should have developed them on their own homelands. They were already in an advanced state of civilization, much better than we were when we came here as frontiersmen. We should have done everything we could to help them economically and in terms of education — it was their land, it was not our land; they were here first — and try to raise our own spiritual point of view to the level that we could accept them as equals before God. That was all the Declaration of Independence meant, that we were all equal as men.
And maybe it would’ve changed something in us. I’ve always made that argument. We may have been a better people as a result of learning to tolerate others who were not like us. Maybe we wouldn’t have had to go through all this racial stuff. It’s at least a possibility.
Indians are, to most of us, invisible people. We know who some of the principal people were in the Creeks. But we don’t know the faces, we don’t know the sounds of their voices, we don’t know what they did, we don’t know whether they were friend or enemy.
The Creeks are sort of Ralph Ellison’s forgotten men. They haven’t been here to remind us of our own shortcomings and our own successes, our own weaknesses and our own strengths. You need an adversarial force to help you develop yourself. If you can just bully everybody, make everybody do what you want them to do because you’ve got the guns and the gunpowder, then you’re never going to change and things really aren’t going to get better.
ArtsATL: One perception I’ve gotten is that the culture of the indigenous people was so radically different than the European culture, that they had no frame of reference on how to deal with whites.
Winn: Well, they tolerated our religion; we didn’t tolerate theirs. They tolerated our folk beliefs, our mores, to a great degree; we didn’t tolerate theirs. They tolerated our medicine, which was in the dark ages back then; we didn’t tolerate theirs. They tolerated our educational system; we certainly didn’t tolerate theirs. So on which side does the intolerance, the imbalance, occur?
They were often looked upon as absolute animals. As we’ve looked back at the Plains Indians and investigated their culture — and some of the elegance of their religious beliefs and how they tried to apply human, natural laws to their relationships to other people, including us — we’ve seen how much we had to benefit from their friendship and how much we took advantage of their friendship.
Not all Indians are that way: there were some bad white folks, and there were some bad Indians. But the basic good in these people was at least equal to ours. And I would suggest there’s reason to look into it to see if maybe they weren’t ahead of us, not behind us.
ArtsATL: Does it strike you as ironic that we looked at the Creeks as savages?
Winn: It certainly struck them as ironic; that’s how they defined us.
They were living human beings and while they don’t have a written history, we know they had dimension and weight because we saw how the white people reacted to them. We know you had to be pretty clever to outsmart them. They knew, basically, when you were ripping them off. And they identified, accurately, those people who did defraud them of their lands. They identified who was stealing their land and in each case during a federal investigation, it turned out the Indian was telling the truth, not the white person.
So we know they tended to be honest. We know they tended to be straightforward. The only time they talked a lot was when they were trying to negotiate to preserve their land, and they couldn’t get the white negotiators to listen to them, much less do what they asked. George Washington said, and so did Lafayette, that every time they ran an argument into the ground between a white person and an Indian, the Indian turned out to be right.
So there’s a least a hint that these people weren’t all “savages.” That the “savages” were sometimes on the other side.