A quick disclaimer on this entry. While it’s truly fun to speculate about big picture populations and people movements of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, it also needs to be done with qualifiers. We shouldn’t allow pseudo-science to creep into the archaeological record of East Tennessee and anybody that tells you they know exactly where the Chisca were located is not being honest or practicing junk science. The truth of the matter is that archaeologists have to pour over thousands of documents, seriate hundreds of thousands of pottery sherds off multiple sites in the region before they can even begin to talk “who”, “when”, and “where”. Anybody can pick out one or two specific traits that are expressed in certain artifacts and claim links between the two. A real scientific approach considers the entire data set of two populations which includes a few of the following: architectural layouts (Squared houses, circular houses etc) settlement patterning, material culture (thousands of pottery sherds, tools, motifs, jewelry, flora, fauna, etc), mortuary practices, storage pits, historical documents, linguistics, and on and on and on…Think about the endeavor that is, it costs lots of money, takes years of analyzing and research as well as controlled excavations at several different sites. Drawing up your own arbitrary borders and lines based on burial goods or other small traits is a dangerous practice not rooted in reality, nor does it take into account the overwhelming complexities of 16th and 17th centuries. Before coming to ETSU I was an admittedly habitual offender of this practice but entering the field of archaeology really opens your eyes to how complex it is when tying to tie together multiple regional populations and how they would have identified themselves… If you really want to read more about the subject you should read the following:
David G. Moore, Robin A. Beck, Jr., and Christopher B. Rodning, “Joara and Fort San Juan: culture contact at the edge of the world”, Antiquity, Vol.78, No.229, Mar. 2004, accessed 26 Jun 2008
David Moore, Robin Beck and Christopher Rodning, “In Search of Fort San Juan: Sixteenth Century Spanish and Native Interaction in the North Carolina Piedmont”, Warren Wilson College Archaeology Home Page, 2004, accessed 26 Jun 2008,
Any of the books by Charles Hudson, such as “Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun“…and a host of other works.
The Chiscas have been a mysterious grouping of peoples for a long time. What we do know of the Chiscas comes from the Spanish Entradas. Juan Pardo built the first Spanish outpost in 1567-68, near present day Morgantown N.C. This fort was built at the ancient Indian town of Joara.
While at the fort, one of Pardo’s commanders, Hernando Moyano, made military forays into the surrounding areas and this is where the story of the Chiscas takes off. This is from the vaults of North Carolina History Project:
“The snowy winter of 1566-1567 temporarily stopped Juan Pardo’s exploration of modern-day Piedmont and western North Carolina, so he and his Spanish force built Fort San Juan near the Indian town Joara (near present-day Morganton). When the weather permitted, Pardo continued his expedition. But he garrisoned the fort with between twenty to thirty men under the direction of Sergeant Hernando Moyano, whose interest in locating minerals and gold more than likely prompted the only attack against Indians during the Pardo Expeditions.
During the spring of 1567, Moyano and fifteen Spaniards and an unknown number of Indians attacked the Chiscas. Recent archeological scholarship locates the Chisca town near Saltville, Virginia. The rival tribe is unknown but scholars contend that the Joara chief and his warriors allied themselves with the Spaniards. Whoever they were, the Indians scalped fallen Chisca warriors. Juan de Ribas, a participant in the foray, claimed thirty years later that the rival chief paid Moyano in gold.
A chief from the mountains soon threatened to attack the Spaniards, so Moyano launched a preemptive strike. With his men and an unknown number of Indian allies, Moyano traveled four days and found and burned Guapare, the town of the mountain cacique on the Watauga River. No indisputable source exists regarding the number of Indian fatalities, but one Spaniard estimated 1,500.
After the attack, Moyano explored what is now East Tennessee and eventually built a fort near Chiaha (near Dandridge, Tennessee). The sergeant and his detachment stayed there until October, when Pardo found them unharmed. Moyano and his men abandoned the fort, joined Pardo’s second expedition, and began a treacherous voyage eastward, across the mountains.”
Warren Wilson College, Archeology Department, http://www.warren-wilson.edu/~arch/ (accessed July 10, 2007) and “Moyano’s Foray” http://www.warren-wilson.edu/~arch/berryhistory (accessed July 10, 2007); Charles Hudson, The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568 (Tuscaloosa, 1990, reprint 2005).
By Troy L. Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project
Naturally as a SWVA native studying Cherokee Archaeology along the Nolichucky and Watauga this is of a great interest to me. Most of the information I am providing would not be considered scientific information because we’ve yet to gather large databases of information on our areas and past archaeological research is scarce at best. But we have made great strides in gathering data sets that will be used in the near future to begin to discuss topics such as this in a meaningful scientific way.
It makes some sense to me that the Chiscas could have been located in Southwest Virginia, particularly in the upper Holston regions. This past summer I made some general surface collections from a few sites in and around Mendota, Virginia (Upper Holston River). The pottery here is distinctly different then what I observe on the Nolichucky and Watauga of slightly later time spans. The paste of the pottery, the tempering agents, and the general forms of the pottery are very strange and unique, so much so that I have a hard time comparing these sherds to much of anything I’ve seen in East Tennesse and broadly speaking SWVA. Much of the pottery is shell tempered but has a totally different plasticity then what you would commonly find in East Tennessee. Some of the tempering is rock tempered but not the sand/grit matrix that was commonly used in East Tennessee. Some of the stamping is so odd that I’ve never seen it anywhere, such as this sherd below:
While these assemblages are not from Saltville (purported location of Chiscas) they are downstream from this area by a 15 or so miles. In Lee County, Dr. Maureen Meyers (Ole Miss) has conducted much work on pottery types of extreme Western Southwest Virginia, especially in areas that predate the protohistoric time period. Exotic trade items are known to have been extracted from burial contexts in many sites in across SWVA. This was widely documented by C.G. Holland of the Smithsonian Institute as early as 1970. One of the many postulated theories is that salt and native copper was the export resource of certain locations of Southwest Virginia and indeed their is ample evidence of historical accounts of salt springs and licks that dot the region.
What I find particularly interesting is that Moyano is thought to have attacked at least one village on the Watauga or Nolichucky areas. At “Cane Notch”, an important site in the upper Nolichucky, we find large amounts of curvilinear stamped soapstone pottery which is a distinct pottery style that likely originates from influences in or around Joara (see Burke Phase pottery). The use of soapstone as a binding agent for the clay of the pottery cannot be easily replicated because outcrops of soapstone are primarily geographic areas near Joara, but other regional outcrops are known to exist.
Pictured Above: Soapstone Tempered Curvilinear Stamped Pottery
This is an important distinction because it implies an active relationship between groups of people. It could be implying anything from a trading network to intermarrying between groups, or even that certain parts of our region were considered apart of the northern fringes of the empire of Joara. What’s for certain is that an unusually high number of soapstone tempered sherds (comparatively speaking East Tn) are finding their way to the Upper Nolichucky and Watauga regions.
In 1986, Dr. Clif Boyd Jr conducted archaeological surveys of the Watauga Reservior in Carter and Johnson Counties (University of Tennessee, Dept of Anthropology No. 44). In this report he noted 65 soapstone tempered sherds on 11 sites and 117 soapstone sherds excavated on 4 sites (Boyd 60-61). He also noted that the total sherd count only counted up to 14% of the total sherds collected in the entire survey, making the regional relationship of soapstone tempered sherds tenious. The possibility exists that most of the protohistoric soapstone stamped pottery is located further downstream from the survey area, which is a pattern that’s well documented by which the protohistoric Indians of our region often display preference for the larger alluvial floodplains.
If the quantity of these vessel fragments implies an interaction then why would the peoples of Joara participated in a deadly raid against people that share some degree of relations? And if further research proves that important connections existed then what could have caused the splintering of this relationship? Or is it possible Moyano was confused of his location or historians have mistaken the location of the attack? Below is a rough map of some of the sites with “foreign” pottery types as it relates to the Pisgah Cultural groups…kind of a rough layout of the region in the mid to late 16th century.
SWVA data not incuded in the photo above
As of today these type questions are impossible to answer. First we must know the true extent of the relationship. This can be further defined by gaining large systematic collections of ceramics from our area which will give us a better understanding of the political landscape during certain time periods. We have to know what % of the sherds of a particular site are soapstone/grit/shell etc. If it turns out that only 5% of the total sherds of a given site are tempered with soapstone then that would likely imply less interaction while the inverse is also true. We have to excavate a site where soapstone tempered ceramics are present and compare everything from the architecture to dietary habits between Burke Phase sites in N.C. and what might resemble a Burke Phase contingent in East Tn.
We also believe the Cane Notch Site lays along an important divergence route that is the most direct route to the Wataugan settlements which in turn is also a good route to Joara. This is also important to consider because it’s one of many proposed routes that the Spanish were using from Desoto to Pardo. At times I think this route is somewhat understated because of the lack of research in this area and little historical documentation. This lack of documentation of the trails and networks of our area should be expected because it would appear our Cherokee settlements were likely some of the first to exit the region (late 1600s) compared to the finer resolution of the Middle/Lower/Overhill groups of later time spans. It’s also well documented that the Cherokee of the 16th century avoided large scale participation in the early hide trade with Europeans and thus less historical documentation is available today. These factors make archaeological research in the area more difficult because we can visibly see great towns and settlements of the Cherokee existed here but it’s likely an uphill battle when trying to demonstrate how these towns connected through trade routes that are today gone and little documented.
Even if we remove the Spanish from the equation, it’s a very logical indian network route. Once you exit the Watauga you can head Northwest and be in contact with groups in SWVA, obtaining copper and salt while exporting greenstone/mica or marine shell that you might have obtained as a middle man in the piedmont of North Carolina. You could also head due Southwest and enter Cane Notch which is a straight shot to Chiaha. Heading southwest you will not encounter any significant mountains and the Nolichucky is very traversable with giant open floodplains flanking both sides of the river. It would really surprise me if groups were able to head due west from Joara and try and enter the Nolichucky. This terrain is really rough with multiple 2000 ft rocky gorges and dangerous white water. I spent this past summer in much of this gorge area and I came away thinking how impossible it is to navigate and under no circumstances would I follow that route. It should always be noted that routes that don’t seem feasible by today’s standards do not mean that weren’t easily overcome by native American standards. From Watauga to Johnson City to Embreeville is a very smooth entry point with no sizeable gorges or ridges impending progress. Indeed the names of the creeks still imply the significance of these routes as Cherokee Creek flows from Johnson City into Cane Notch. If you factor in the incredible ceramic diversity of the Upper Nolichucky then you can begin to see a compelling case that our area was likely situated within important indian corridors, which *may* have also been ideal for the Spanish.
So in conclusion, It’s entirely difficult to pinpoint the Chisca at this current date and time. The idea that the Chisca were in Saltville is not a new idea within the field. Archaeologists for the past 30 years have thought it was a possibility but they haven’t had the data sets to say for sure. Recently some archaeologists are feeling more comfortable with postulating Saltville as a possible Chisca location, maybe even a high likelihood, but they simply don’t have the data necessary to say in certainity (which I believe is fair to say) that the Chisca were 100% in X location. The Chisca could have been in the Upper Watuaga, they could have been in Saltville, the Holston or a combination of the three locations…but I appreciate the fact that real science uses overwhelming evidence first and foremost to establish this as fact.