Days Gone By - stories from the past

The word Alabama, Jewish origin? Have you heard this story?

This story was written in 1858 by Gen. Thompson Simpson Woodward of the Alabama militia.  He was in Alabama from very early days.

Thomas Simpson Woodward - Brig. Gen. of the Alabama Militia - died in 1861
Thomas Simpson Woodward – Brig. Gen. of the Alabama Militia – died in 1861


Dec. 24, 1857

J. J. HOOPER, Esq.:

I wrote a letter to my old friend, E. Hanrick, of Montgomery, last May, (1857) in which I spoke of giving you some few sketches of Indians and their history. Why I alluded to these things, I had a short time before seen an extract in your paper taken, I think, from a Mobile paper, making some inquiry about the true meaning or the signification of Alabama. And from the article, I supposed the writer to think that the word Alabama was of the Jewish origin, by giving the name of Esau’s wife, who spelt her name Al-i-ba-ma, (if she could spell.) Now whether she borrowed her name from Jedediah Morse, or he the name from her, it matters not, as both spell it alike.

The word Alabama, and many other words among the Indians, as well as customs, have been seized upon by some to establish a fact that never existed: that is, to prove that the North American Indians descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Now it would be as easy to prove that such tribes never existed, and much easier to prove that they dwindled away among those Eastern nations that frequently held them in bondage, than to prove that anything found in the native Indian is characteristic of the Jew. I have traveled among a great many tribes, and circumcision is unknown to them; and besides, an Indian in his native state is proverbial for his honesty, and from the records handed to us as authentic, the great Author of all nature was put to much trouble to keep the Jews and the property of their neighbors in their proper places.

New Historical Series on Colonial America

I will return to my letter. I see it published in an October number of your paper, and shortly after its appearance, I received a letter from a Mr. J. D. Driesbach of Baldwin Co., Ala, requesting me to give him what information I could of the persons whose names were mentioned in my letters to Mr. Hanrick and any thing I knew of Indians and their history that I thought would be interesting; also, informing me that he had seen in the possession of Joseph Stiggins, the son of Geo. Stiggins, a manuscript of George Stiggins, which had been loaned to Col. Pickett when he wrote the History of Alabama: and whether interesting or not, I scribbled off some twenty or thirty pages and sent to him, and among other things I gave him what I understood to be the origin of Alabama, as we have it from the Indians.

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Col. Albert J. Pickett, Alabama Historian

Col. Albert J. Pickett - Alabama Historian
Col. Albert J. Pickett – Alabama Historian

I find in Col. Pickett’s answer to Mr. Hobbs, that he agrees with me how Alabama took its name. I am satisfied that Col. Pickett is correct. I also stated to Mr. Driesbach that I had heard Col. Hawkins say in his time, that he had made every inquiry in his power to ascertain if Alabama had any other meaning than the mere name of an Indian town, but never could, unless the name — as it was possible — might be the Indian corruption of the Spanish words for good water, though he doubted that.

Col. Pickett is correct, as to the Alabama Town being just below Montgomery, for I was at it when they lived there, and it was called Esanchatty, from the red bluffs on which a portion of Montgomery is built. The Tarwassaw Town was a little lower down the river than the Colonel has it, though it is a matter of no importance. The  Autauga, or what the Indians called Autauga or Dumplin Town, was at the place where Washington is in Autauga county. The Alabamas, and those little towns connected with them, extended down the river as far as Beach creek, that mouths just above Selma, and up the river to where Coosawda is — on the Autauga side. To spell it the way the Indians pronounced it, and the way Col. Hawkins spelt, is Coowarsartda. The Alabamas differed from the Musqua or Muscogees, as do the Choctaws from the Chickasaws; but were what the Indians call the “same fire-side” people. There was much of their dialect that differed from that of the common Creek or Musqua, as the Western Indians used to call them, and no doubt once they were a different tribe.

Simpson visited Indians in 1816

About the close of the American Revolution, a large portion of the Alabamas and Coowarsartdas returned to Texas on the Trinity, being under the control of a Chief called Red Shoes, or Stillapitachatta. I visited these Indians in 1816, in company with Mr. Angus Gilchrist and Mr. Edward McLauchlin, Mr. McLauchlin was the best Indian interpreter I ever knew, except Hamly, who was raised by Forbes and Panthom, in Florida. Red Shoes was then living, and lived for year after.

I inquired much into his history and that of his people. He gave the same account of their being driven from their old homes in the West and their settlement in Alabama and a part of Georgia, as has been given me by the Creeks. And if Indian tradition and what I have heard from Col. Hawkins — who, I think, was the most sensible man I ever was acquainted with, and whose opportunities were as good if not much better than any one else of his day possessed, to collect correct information in relation to the early settlements of the Creeks and their confederates in Alabama and Georgia — are to be relied on, Col. Pickett must have been wrongly informed as to the fights with the Muscogees and Alabamas upon the sources of Red river, as well as to the Muscogees settling in Ohio, the Alabamas settling on the Yazoo, and the destruction of their fort by DeSoto, and the Alabamas being the first to settle in what is now known as the Creek country.

It has always been a contested point, with the Indians, whether Tuckabatchee, or old Cusetaw opposite Fort Mitchell on the Chattahoochee river, was settled first; but it is generally conceded that Cusetaw was settled first. These two towns have, in almost every instance, furnished the head Chiefs of the nation: Tuckabatchee furnishing the upper town Chief — Cusetaw the lower town Chief. This fact is well known to all who have been well acquainted with the Creeks.

Besides, John Ferdinand Soto, who by most persons has been called Hernando De Soto, after landing his forces in Florida, passed through a portion of Georgia, and across the entire State of Alabama, before he could have reached the Yazoo in Mississippi. And in addition to this, one of the severest battles Soto had with the Indians, was fought with the Creeks at what is now known as Cuwally. It is either in Montgomery or Tallapoosa county; I do not now know how the county lines run. Cuwally is a name given it by the whites, not knowing how to give it the Indian pronunciation. To spell it as the Indians pronounced it, it would be Thleawalla, which signifies rolling bullet. Thlea, is an arrow or bullet; walla, is to roll. The Indians say it was there that a spent ball was seen rolling on the ground, and from that the place took its name.

Copper Plates owned by Tuckabatchees

Besides, the Tuckabatchees have now in their possession a number of plates of copper in various shapes, which the Spaniards used as a kind of shield, to protect themselves from the arrows of the Indians. These plates were taken from the Spaniards at that fight. And from what Col. Pickett says of the fights upon the sources of Red River it would appear that the Indians were some years on their route going East. I have not seen nor heard any traditionary (sic) account of any thing of the sort in my intercourse with the various tribes that I have been among, and the sources of Red River must have been very imperfectly known in that day, by any of the Europeans that had visited this country, and are still very imperfectly known by many of our own people to this day; for Red river does not, as believed by many, head in the Rocky Mountains, but is a mere leak or drain from the prairies, except those little streams that head in the Ozark hills of Arkansas.

Besides, it is not such a country as Indians would likely stop long in, particularly traveling on foot, as they were obliged to do; for the Southwestern Indians knew nothing of horses until they were introduced into the country by the Spaniards. And building forts with logs, by a people who knew nothing of the uses of the axe, nor had any, would, I think, be a tough undertaking. All that I have seen and heard satisfies me at least, that the Creeks, Alabamas and the other little bands connected with them, originally inhabited the skirts of timbered country between the Rio Grande or Del Norte and the Mississippi river, near the Gulf coast, which the names of the creeks, rivers, and many other things, will show. The Choctaws, Chickasaws, Nitches, Nacogdoches and Natchitoches Indians inhabited pretty much the same country.

Cortez found a civilized race

It is true that Cortez found a much more civilized and much more timid race to contend with, than any of the tribes that I have mentioned. And that the Creeks, Alabamas and others that I have named, ever were or considered themselves subjects of the great Mexican Empire, I am very much inclined to doubt, from what I know of them. Even the present civilized and christianized (sic) rulers of Mexico, who are almost to a man of the old race, never exercise any control over the Indians within her borders, and this has been the case ever since she got from under the Spanish yoke.

I can neither read French nor Spanish; but the few translations in English that I have seen taken from the travels of the early visitors, both of the French and Spanish, to this country, are very contradictory, and for that reason I have been inclined to credit the Indian tradition. And, even if a history taken from European travelers, somewhat in the shape of a novel, is to be relied on, some man, in his account of the conquest of Florida, admits that the Creeks, Muscogees or Coosas disputed the passage of Soto through the country — that is, Alabama and Georgia.

It has been a long time since I read it, and then but little; but if I am not mistaken, it spoke of a war, or battle, with a Chief called Tuscaloosa. The Creeks themselves said that there was once among them a giant Chief, Tustanugga Lusta, or Black Warrior, who fought with Spto, and that his home was on the river of that name.

I have seen no history of Louisiana except the Tax Collectors’ Book — and that I dislike to read — and cannot say at what time Bienville and his brother, Iberville, came to the country. But one thing is certain, the French knew something of Mobile and its immediate vicinity at an early day; but they knew very little of the interior of Alabama, until after the defeat of Gen. Braddock, near Pittsburg, which was in 1755.

The next year they come down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and drove the Nitches Indians from where the present city of Natchez, Miss., now is. The Nitches Indians immediately emigrated to join their old Western friends, the Creeks, and settle at the Talisee old fields, on Taliseehatchy or Talisee creek, now in Talladega county, Ala.; and the French very shortly after moved up the Alabama river, to the junction of Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, and built a little village near to old Fort Jackson.

I have seen Indians, as well as negroes, that traded with the French while there, though their stay was but a few years. James McQueen, a Scotchman — the first white man I ever heard of being among the Creeks — and a Polander, by the name of Monlar with the Nitches Indians and Creeks, broke up the French settlement at the fork of the rivers. And it was on the return of the French down the Alabama river, that they threw up an entrenchment at Durand’s or Durant’s Bend, and another at the mouth of Cahawba — and the Alabam Indians were said to be the most bitter enemies, except the Nitches, that the French had.

A Place in Apalachicola that was De Soto’s camp

We are to judge from Col. Pickett’s version of the matter, that there were neither Alabamas nor Muscogees in what is known to the whites as the Creek country, before Soto passed through. The Chattahoochee Indians, who were Muscogees, would show, as long as they lived there, many places where DeSoto or Soto had camped. There is a place on the Apalachicola that is yet known as one of Soto’s camps. The Indians call it Spanny Wakka — that is, “the Spaniards lay there.” The Indians could tell of the old Spanish fortification in Jones county, Ga., also the one on the Ocmulgee, above Fort Hawkins, and it is evident they must have been in the country before Soto passed through — and, besides, I was in Florida in 1818, and had with me many of the Creeks, who could point out places where the Spaniards, under Soto, had camped, and the marks of old roads and causeways were then visible. And with the single exception of Soto himself, all the early explorers of that country, who were mostly Spanish and some French, would only ascend the navigable rivers a small distance, in water crafts constructed for the purpose, and could have known but little of the indians in the interior.

And as to Red River, when Cortez conquered Mexico, it is a doubt with me if it was then a tributary of the Mississippi river, as the Atchafalaya evidently was once the channel of Red River, and made its way to the Gulf of Mexico through Berwick’s Bay; and, even in Soto’s time did it go into the Mississippi river, it could only have been navigated, with small crafts, as far up as Alexandria, for the river above the falls will show that it was once a raft, as far up as Long Prairie, in Arkansas, and that would have prevented early explorers from knowing much of the sources of the river or what Indians, if any, lived on it.

All these circumstances induce me to believe that Col. Pickett is mistaken, and the source from which he derived a part of his information is, or was, not very reliable; and, so far as Indian tradition is concerned, I think my chance to have obtained correct information in relation to Indian history equal, at least, to that of Col. Pickett’s The accounts that I have had from the Indians themselves, and from Col. Hawkins, whose opportunity must have been as good as any one of his time, or any one who has lived since, are, that Cortez’s object was gold, and that the people he first encountered in Mexico were somewhat civilized and very timid; and, after subduing them and taking possession of the City of Mexico — if it could be called a city — he then commenced extending his conquests or robberies up the Gulf coast, in the direction of what is now Tampico and Tamaulipas, and even as far as what is now Texas, where he encountered the Musquas or Muscogees, Alabamas, and others that I have mentioned; but finding them to be a much more hardy, warlike race than the Mexicans, and in order to hold on to what he had taken and subdued of the timid ones, he found it necessary to kill or drive these war-like tribes from the country, which with the great advantage of firearms, he succeeded in doing.

Muscogees crossed the Mississippi river

The Muscogees and their confederates crossed the Mississippi river and called a halt at Baton Rouge, which is known to this day as Red Stick or Club. The Nitches, from the river which bears their name in Texas, crossed the Mississippi river and settled where the city of Natchez is now. The Choctaws settled the country on Yazoo, Pearl, Leaf, Chickasawha, and as far as the Tombecba rivers. The Chickasaws settled at Chickasaw Bluff or Memphis. The Creeks, after a short stay at Baton Rouge, moved and settled on the Alabama and its tributaries, the Black Warrior and the Chattahoochee, and Flint rivers, and, in time, went as far east as the Oconee river, but never went farther in that direction, and did not make any settlement on the Oconee until after the whites began to encroach on the Indians of that country from the East. The Indians that originally inhabited from the middle parts of the Carolinas (particularly South Carolina,) and Georgia to the seaboard, were known as Yamacraws or Yamasees, Oconees, Ogeeches, and Sowanokees or Peoples of the Glades. The Sowanokees are known as the Shawnees — the other Indians know them by no other name to this day but Sowanokee; and the Savannah river was known as Sowanokee Hatchee Thlocka, which signifies the Big River of the Glades, or what we call Savannah. And these Indians the Creek found to be their equals as warriors; but when the whites began to approach them from the east, and the Creeks already very close on the west, the Sowanokees or Shawnees fell back on the north and northwest. Tecumseh was of that stock.

The other little tribes, with the Uchees, they being the “same fireside” Indians with the Shawnees, all dwindled away among the Creeks and lost their language, except the Uchees — they still retain theirs.

One other circumstance that convinces me that the Creeks and Alabamas had become pretty much one people before they settled Alabama and Georgia, is that the tribes they incorporated into their nation after settling the Creek country never would come into the family arrangement, which arrangement I will try and explain to you. They were laid off in families — that is, Bears, Wolves, Panthers, Foxes and many others — also, what they termed the Wind Family, which was allowed more authority than any family in the nation. There was nothing in their laws to prevent blood cousins from marrying, but never to marry in the same family — thus, a man of the Bear family could marry a woman of the Fox family, or any other family he pleased and the children would be called Fox. In all cases, the children took the mother’s family name. Years ago, you could not find an Indian in the nation but could tell you his family. But whisky has destroyed many of their old customs as well as the Indians themselves.

There is too much of this to publish, even if it were worth publishing. Read it, show it to Col. Pickett, burn it and send me his History of Alabama.


T. S. W.

(Brig. Gen. Thomas Simpson Woodward)

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FIRST FAMILIES OF LAWRENCE COUNTY, ALABAMA VOLUME I Revised with direct links to many sources and burial sites! NOW IN PAPERBACK

Lawrence County was created by an act of the Territorial Legislature of February 4, 1818. Formed from territory acquired by the Cherokee and Chicasa cession of 1816.

The early settlers of the county came from Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Many of the early settlers of Lawrence County were veterans or children of veterans of the Revolutionary War.

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  1. […] with many others during this period) that Native Americans were descendants of one of the fabled Lost Tribes of Israel. In fact, many sources indicate that he initially attempted to speak with the Creeks in Hebrew, in […]

  2. Jimmy- great site/article

  3. And almost 200 years later we have DNA that traces its origins to the Palestinians. Along with many middle eastern artifacts found in burials that predate the settling of America by several hundred years. Indian oral histories should never be discounted.

  4. I have heard about the DNA of Choctaw and Palestine being related but don’t know much about DNA nor where I read it ..but must of been on fb that’s about all I ever read ..haha

  5. Native American name

    1. I understood the name Alabama to be Native American meaning, “Here we rest”.