The Yuchi Indians are a North American Indian tribe belonging to the Southeastern Indian cultural group. Ethnohistorians indicate that during the historic period there were three principal bands of Yuchi: one on the Tennessee River, one in west Florida, and one on the Savannah River. The last of these relocated to the Chattahoochee River around 1715 and became part of the Creek Confederacy. The combined populations of all three groups probably never exceeded 3,000-5,000 persons. Unfortunately, frequent changes in location and confusion over the names applied to the tribe limits information regarding their inhabitancy of Tennessee.
The most outstanding hallmark of the Yuchis is their language, Uchean, which is distinct from all other Native American languages. While a linguistic isolate, Uchean does bear some structural resemblances to the Muskhogean and Siouan linguistic families and has occasionally been misclassified as Algonquian. Because Uchean was a difficult language to speak, most early historical sources refer to the Yuchis using a variety of non-Uchean names, including Hogologue, Tahogale, Chiska, Westo, Rickohockan, and Tamahaita.
The Yuchis referred to themselves as Tsoyahá, meaning “children of the sun.” The term Yuchi probably derives from a reply yú tcí, meaning “at a distance / sitting down,” to a standard southeastern Indian salutation: “Where do you come from?”
In general, the social customs and lifeways of the Yuchi are similar to other southeastern Indians. They relied on intensive hoe agriculture of corn, beans, and squash, and hunting of white-tailed deer, bear, and elk. Before 1715 the Yuchis lived in permanent towns which were considered either red (war) or white (peace). Each town typically contained a square ground, a hot house, and a ball field, as well as one-room domestic structures. The square ground was the focus of male daily life, and it surrounded the sacred fire. The Busk, or Green Corn Ceremony, was the ceremonial focus of the year. The tribe was divided into several matrilineal clans, with important clans including the Alligator, Bear, Panther, Deer, and Wind. Marriage between a man and woman of the same clan was considered incestuous. After 1715 in Tennessee, and after the 1790s on the Chattahoochee River, social disruptions caused by colonial pressures forced a shift in the settlement system and resulted in the Yuchis abandoning their towns and villages and living in dispersed homesteads in a pattern similar to early American frontier settlers.
Yuchi art is classified as Eastern geometric style and is expressed in woven textiles as simple diamonds, Vs, and Ws. The diamond motif is thought to represent a rattlesnake. Some experts speculate that certain late prehistoric gorget motifs, especially the Cox Mound style of Tennessee, are expressions of the Yuchi myth of the Winds.
The earliest mention of Yuchis in Tennessee is found in the Spanish de Soto expedition narratives (1539-43), where they are referred to as the Chisca and located in the highlands north of the Tennessee River. The Chisca are mentioned again by the Spaniard Juan Pardo’s expedition (1566-67), where they are described as warlike mountain chiefs. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Yuchis split into two groups, with one body remaining in the north and the other radiating across the southern lowlands. Interestingly, the Yuchis have an oral tradition which explains the division of the tribe, in which one group, “Trackmaster’s children,” remained in the original homeland, while the children of “A bear only” moved toward the southern sun.
In 1673 one band of Yuchis reportedly lived in a stockaded or fortified town somewhere along the headwaters of the Tennessee River, possibly on the French Broad River near the confluence with the Holston River. Two English Virginian traders, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, visited this group, which they referred to as the Tomahittans, on an overland trading mission supported by Abraham Wood. Needham returned to Petersburg, Virginia, with some Tomahittans to formalize trade relations with Wood, while Arthur remained in the town and accompanied some warriors on a retaliatory raid against Spanish settlements in Florida around 1674.
In 1700 a Frenchman, Father Gravier, encountered a canoe of Taogrias (Yuchis) on the Mississippi River who had been trading with the Arkansea (Quapaw). In 1701 five Canadians apparently visited the Taogria Yuchi town, which was located on an island in the lower Tennessee River, near Muscle Shoals. This town had a population of about 200 men.
These Yuchis likely moved up the Tennessee River in the first decade of the eighteenth century, and by 1712 the South Carolina board of Indian trade affairs noted the presence of “Uche or Round Town people” among the Cherokees. Their town was known as Chestua and was probably located near the mouth of the Hiwassee River. The Cherokees referred to this Yuchi town as Tsistu’yi, or “Rabbit place.” A band of Cherokees from the middle towns, led by the warriors Flint and Caesar, destroyed this settlement in the spring of 1714, possibly in retaliation for the murder of a Cherokee. The few Yuchis who survived the raid were made captives. In a hearing during May 1714, two South Carolina traders, Eleazar Wiggan and Alexander Long, were convicted of inciting the raid. After 1715 there is virtually no mention of the Yuchis in Tennessee.
Historian J. G. M. Ramsey noted the destruction of Chestua and placed the settlement at Uchee Old Fields, formerly in Rhea County. This location, near the present post office of Euchee in Meigs County, is no longer considered accurate. After 1714 some remnant Tennessee Yuchis apparently lived scattered among the Cherokees near Cleveland in Bradley County. These Yuchis continued to speak Uchean, but some also spoke Cherokee and Creek. In 1730 the population of Yuchis remaining along the Tennessee River reportedly numbered 150 men, but they had no settlement of their own.
After forcible removal of Native Americans in 1838, most Yuchis established themselves as a distinct group within the Creek Nation of Oklahoma. Anthropologists suggest, however, that a few Yuchis remained in East Tennessee as late as 1918.
Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (1976); Günter Wagner, Yuchi Tales (1931).