Long before pioneer settler John Whitley hoisted a large buck’s head on a post across from Henry Irby’s tavern, this land had been used by Native Americans.
I choose those words carefully. The concepts of nations or boundaries were unfamiliar to the original people of north America. Buckhead being Native American land before Europeans arrived is a purely European-centric point of view.
It was no man’s land.
A few native towns and villages dotted the landscape, which served as the bases of different matriarchal clans. The clan was more important than the people, at least before colonization.
The people of Standing Peachtree, at the confluence of the Chattahoochee River and Peachtree Creek, were Creek, or Muskogee, as were the people who lived in a village on the banks of Nancy Creek in today’s Chastain Park.
Creek villages could be found along the coastal areas and south Georgia all the way to northern Alabama.
The Creek came from the west, out of a hole that opened in the earth, according to their oral tradition. The earth tried to eat them again, so they trekked east to a mountain with “fire on its peak.” There they met three other groups of Muskogee-speaking people. Together they developed the rituals that define their people.
The journey continued until they reached the Chattahoochee, when they ran into a group of natives with “flat heads.” They killed all of those people except two. According to lore, the Creek killed a lot of people on their journey.
They chased the last two of the flat-headed people south, where they ran into the Apalachicola tribe. They became friendly with the Apalachicola, and most of the Creek turned to peace.
With the appearance of Hernando de Soto in the late 1530s and early 1540s and of James Oglethorpe in 1733, the loosely affiliated Creek towns and villages formed a confederation in the interest of self-preservation. Oglethorpe’s great friend, Chief Tomochichi, was the head of the Creek village of Yamacraw.
The national council was made up of the heads of the most prominent villages, who borrowing from Europeans, called themselves kings and princes. The Creeks were divided into two groups, the Lower Creeks, who were mostly in Georgia, and the Upper Creeks, who were in present-day Alabama.
A Lower Creek chief named William McIntosh — a Euro-centric name if ever there was one — negotiated a treaty in 1821 with the United States at his tavern in Indian Springs.
He sold most of the Creek lands east of the Chattahoochee, 4 million acres in all, to the state for $400,000, plus $40,000 under the table for himself.
The area included Standing Peachtree and all of what is today Buckhead.
The Creek felt the land was worthless. It was not densely populated, and the deer had been hunted to near-extinction. Regardless, the treaty angered the national council. As a result, leaders made it punishable by death to sell Creek land to the United States without its consent.
McIntosh tested the council’s will in 1825, when the second treaty of Indian Springs ceded the remaining Creek territory in Georgia to the United States.
True to its word, the national council sent 150 warriors, who lived on the now-sold land, to his plantation on the Chattahoochee. They set his home on fire. McIntosh eventually stumbled out to his porch, where he was met with a hail of bullets.
While it was McIntosh’s greed and betrayal of his people that gave us Buckhead, he acted under pressure from the governor of Georgia at the time, George Troup. Troup intimated to McIntosh the United States would protect him, as McIntosh knew he signed the second Treaty of Indian Springs with his own life.
While the concept of the ownership of land was relatively new, the remaining Creek fought politically to prevent settlers from encroaching on their territory. Sadly, they were ill-equipped. By 1836, most emigrated west of the Mississippi River at the insistence of the federal government.
Their villages and towns and the bones of their ancestors were left to the ever-encroaching settlers.