Westo Indians

The Westo Indians, who lived along the Savannah River near Agusta from about 1660 to 1680, were one of the most important Native American groups in the southeastern United States. They obtained firearms from the English in Virginia before most other Indians in the Southeast did, which gave them a tremendous military advantage over bow-and-arrow Indians. The Westos used this advantage to enslave natives throughout Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. They then traded their captives as field slaves to colonists in Virginia and South Carolina for items of European manufacture, including guns, ammunition, steel hatchets, blankets, and glass beads. Since firearms and ammunition were the key to Westo dominance, the group fought hard to establish a reliable source for these goods while at the same time denying such access to other native groups.

Also known as the Rickahocans or Chichimecos, the Westos originally came to the Southeast after having been driven out of the Northeast by the powerful Iroquois. The Westos were one of many groups the Iroquois drove off or destroyed in their effort to monopolize the Northeast gun trade, and it is clear that the actions of the Westos in the southeastern United States were an imitation of Iroquois tactics. Because of their vulnerable position in the beginning, the Carolina colony befriended the fearsome Westos and used them as a barrier against the threat of Spanish aggression from the south. Once the Carolina colony had grown strong enough to protect itself, the Westos were seen as an impediment to the expansion of trade out of Charleston. In order to remove them, a group of Carolinians known as the Goose Creek Men secretly armed the Savannah Indians, who destroyed the Westos in the Westo War of 1680 and opened the way for a great expansion of the deerskin and slave trade.

The Westo were a native American tribe encountered in the Southeast by Europeans in the 17th century. They probably spoke an Iroquoian language. The Spanish called these people Chichimeco (not to be confused with Chichimeca in Mexico), and, Virginia colonists may have called the same people Richahecrian. Their first appearance in the historical record is as a powerful tribe in colonial Virginia, who had migrated from the mountains into the region around present-day Richmond. Their population provided a force of 700–900 warriors.

Early academic analysis of the origin of the Westo posited that the so-called Rechahecrian/Rickohakan of Virginia were perhaps Cherokee or Yuchi, and that the Westo were a band of Yuchi. Anthropologist Marvin T. Smith (1987:131-132) was the first to suggest that the Westo were a group of Erie, who had lived south of Lake Erie until forced to migrate further south to Virginia during the 17th-century Beaver Wars. Smith theorizes that as the colonial settlements expanded in Virginia, the Westo migrated south to the Savannah River shortly before the founding of South Carolina in 1670. Subsequent work by John Worth (1995:17) and Eric Bowne (2006) strongly supports Smith’s hypothesis.


Virginia established a trading relationship with the Westo, exchanging firearms for Indian slaves. When the Westo migrated to the Savannah River, they quickly became known for their military power and their slave raids on other tribes. Before their destruction, the Westo wreaked havoc on the Spanish missionary provinces of Guale and Mocama. That the Westo had ties with Virginia did not mean they would be friendly toward the South Carolinians. In 1673 the Westo attacked coastal Indians, such as the Cusabo, as well as the Carolina colony. The colony depended on the Esaw tribe for defense until December of 1674, when some Westo visited Dr. Henry Woodward and made peace. The peace became an alliance after the Westo escorted Woodward to their towns on the Savannah River, giving many presents and encouraging friendship.

From 1675 to 1680, trade between the Westo and South Carolina thrived. The Westo provided Carolina with slaves, captured from various Native American groups, including the Spanish-allied tribes in Guale and Mocama. These were the "Settlement Indians", supposedly under the protection of Carolina. The Westo likely captured slaves from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and the various smaller tribes who would later align as the Creek Confederacy.

Since the Westo were traditionally enemies with nearly every other tribe in the region, their alliance with Carolina effectively blocked the colony from establishing any other tribal relationship. A group of Shawnee Indians migrated to the Savannah River region and met with the Westo while Henry Woodward was among them. These Shawnee became known as the "Savannah Indians". Woodward apparently witnessed the first meeting of the Shawnee and Westo. Using sign language, the Shawnee (Savannah) warned the Westo of an impending attack from other tribes. They earned the goodwill of the Westo, who began to prepare for the attack.

The Savannah later approached Woodward and established an independent relationship with the colonists, which would doom the Westo. The Carolinians realized the value of trading beyond the Westo. When war broke out between Carolina and the Westo in 1679, the Savannah/Shawnee assisted the Carolinians. After they destroyed the Westo in 1680, the Savannah moved into their lands and took over their role as the chief Indian trading partner with the Carolina colony. The fate of most of the surviving Westo was probably enslavement and shipment to work on sugar plantations in the West Indies. (Information on slave raids, Dr. Woodward, Savannah/Shawnee, and the defeat of the Westo mainly from Gallay 2002).

Some surviving Westo may have continued to live near the colony of South Carolina. A map published anonymously in 1715 shows Indian villages during the period from about 1691 to 1715, when the early Creek towns had relocated from the Chattahoochee River to the Ocmulgee River and Oconee River. The map shows a town labeled "Westas" (all the towns labels are pluralized) on the Ocmulgee River above the Towaliga River confluence. It is one of a cluster of towns near the important "Lower Creek" town of Coweta. The 1715 map shows town locations as of sometime between 1691 and 1715, when the Lower Creek moved their towns back to the Chattahoochee River. Westo town is not shown on later maps. As with several other groups of Indian refugees who found haven with the Lower Creeks, the apparent fate of the surviving Westo was absorption into the emerging Creek confederacy (Worth 2000).