- Will the Real Tomochichi Please Come Forward?
In a corner of Wright Square in Savannah stands a large granite boulder with a copper plaque commemorating Tomochichi, leader of the Yamacraw Indians and a key figure in the founding of Georgia. Scholars and tourists often overlook this monument and this man, but they should not. Tomochichi welcomed James Oglethorpe and his first band of settlers upon their arrival and gave them permission to establish Savannah. Throughout those inaugural years Tomochichi facilitated negotiations between neighboring Lower Creek chieftains and British newcomers and worked to maintain peace in a highly contested location. He even traveled to London to meet with prominent English diplomats so that he could acquire the best trade terms for his people. His friendship with Oglethorpe and his interest in the Georgia outpost made him an influential and invaluable ally. Despite his important role in Georgia history, time and misinterpretation have obscured many aspects of his life. This essay first reexamines the literature about Tomochichi to demonstrate how scholars in all centuries have misconstrued his activities and then reconstructs the latter part of his biography in light of new research and scholarship about the political situation in the Southeast and improved ethnohistorical methods of analysis.
Only two book-length biographies exist about Tomochichi, and they spend more time celebrating the legend than assessing the life. The older of the two, Charles C. Jones, Jr.'s Historical Sketch of Tomo-Chi-Chi, Mico of the Yamacraws, puts the chief on a pedestal that only reaches a certain height. Jones believes that if Tomochichi had not assisted the early Georgia settlers, their entire enterprise would have been doomed. He provides a detailed study of the man from his first contact with Oglethorpe [End Page 141] in February 1733 to his death and funeral in October 1739 and includes large excerpts from contemporary literature. He mentions Tomochichi's background briefly and speculates about his legacy for Georgia history, and he discusses several of the prominent people Tomochichi met, such as John Wesley and George Whitefield. Jones's text, though dated, presents the most complete overview of Tomochichi's life and times.1
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Several flaws mar this classic biography, however, the first of which is incorrect facts. The most obvious place where this error occurs is in the chapter about Tomochichi's interest in the Christian religion and his discussion of his personal faith. Jones gives credit to the Yamacraw leader for several conversations on this issue, mostly with the missionary John Wesley, but in actuality these conferences included Native persons other than Tomochichi, leaving his true opinions on religion unknown.2 Jones pushes his interpretation too far in his desire to show his main character's innate virtue in order to make his hero more appealing to his readers. His conclusion to this chapter also goes out of its way to point out that this influential Indian never worshiped idols and always believed in one supreme God and in an eternal reward for those who acted with goodness [End Page 142] throughout their lives. Since he believes that Tomochichi embodied this goodness, Jones infers that
in all the recorded acts and incidents . . . which illustrate the life of Tomo-chi-chi, there runs a vein of manhood, of honor, of friendship, of generosity, of integrity, of courage, of fidelity, of love for his fellow-man, and of interest in whatever was elevating and of good report, which was quite remarkable in one of his advanced age, confirmed habits, station, and opportunities. We search in vain for a single instance of duplicity, a doubtful word, a breach of faith, a criminal indulgence, a manifestation of hypocrisy.3
Jones sprinkles these overly sentimental comments throughout his text, but they ring especially untrue here because he exaggerates Tomochichi's honesty in an effort to make him look less heathen and therefore more acceptable to white audiences.
This excessively celebratory tone represents another problem...