American Indians: Southeast

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American Indians: Southeast

American Indian societies in the southeastern quadrant of North America experienced dramatic change in the period from 1754 to 1829, as they had in the years before. At the beginning of the era, they were still attempting to adjust to the consequences wrought by the European exploration and settlement of the region. The most significant factor in the transformation of the Native American Southeast had been the decimation of the population by diseases brought to the New World by Europeans. Demographers generally agree that the Native American population declined by at least 90 percent after 1500. This depopulation wreaked havoc on the social and political structure of the Southeast. Dozens of tribes and polities, including the great Mississippian chiefdoms dominating the Southeast before 1500, had fallen into ruin and disappeared. In most cases, only remnants survived to integrate into sustainable societies. By the middle of the eighteenth century, only a few prominent tribes—the Cherokees, the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Creeks, and the Catawbas—and a few smaller groups had emerged from the process of decimation and amalgamation. Even the largest, the Cherokees, probably numbered no more than twenty thousand individuals at the middle of the eighteenth century.

traditional culture

Although the spiritual beliefs and customary practices of these societies varied in detail, they all shared some fundamental characteristics. They located their villages along waterways, practiced riverine agriculture, and supplemented their diet by hunting, fishing, and gathering. They divided their communities into clans and moieties, determined kinship relations through the matrilineal system, and organized their towns in a matrilocal fashion. Gender roles were divided to provide the sense of balance required by the southeastern cosmology and social ethic. Women were responsible for the vegetable diet and performed most of the agricultural work; men provided meat and therefore spent much of their energy in hunting. Women also fulfilled domestic responsibilities, while men engaged in war and games.

Southeastern communities were autonomous: each town or village was responsible for its own political affairs and held its own social and spiritual events. Town councils were divided into civil (white) and military (red) spheres. Civil decisions were reached by consensus after a period of discussion in which all adults had a right to speak. Older members of the community held influence, as did men and women who had distinguished themselves with their military exploits, administrative ability, or wisdom. A red council, which was composed of the warriors of the community, took control of the town when the civil council of the whole determined to go to war. The chiefs, military and civil, did not possess coercive authority over their people; they essentially led their people where the latter wanted to go. Over time, loose confederations of peoples and towns had developed for purposes of security and trade; these ties continued to solidify into national institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

cultural change

New economic relations with settlers of European ancestry had already transformed southeastern Indian subsistence and social patterns. Although the native peoples were already quite experienced in dealing with the multicultural world of disparate tribes, the English, Scots-Irish, French, and Spanish colonists who intruded into their territories brought with them new languages, cultural practices, and material goods. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Indians of the Southeast had adopted many of the items offered by colonial merchants, including firearms and gunpowder, metal tools and implements, cotton, wool, and glass. Southeastern men hunted deer, bear, and other mammals and offered up the skins to pay off the debts they had accrued from the purchase of trade goods.

The trade goods made much of day-to-day life easier and more productive. At the same time, however, by the middle of the eighteenth century all of the southeastern societies had fallen into a state of dependency upon the European suppliers. Native Americans came to rely on the new technology over the old ways of doing things, and at times the colonies were able to force the tribes to accede to their wishes by threatening to withhold trade goods. Colonial settlers continued to intrude westward into tribal territories; and when Indian consumers accumulated large debts to merchants, colonial authorities sometimes forced their councils to surrender land to retire the balances. Overhunting, which resulted from the need to pay trade debts and purchase more goods (including alcohol, which became a social problem in many communities), depleted the deer population and deranged the ritual relationship that traditionally existed between hunter and prey.

the imperial wars

Despite these challenges, the southeastern tribes demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive, adjust, and adapt as Britain, France, Spain, and later the United States vied for control of North America. The geopolitical rivalries enabled the southeastern Indians to play the imperial powers, and the colonies, off against one another for their own political and economic interests. The Choctaws and Creeks, for example, played the French, Spanish, and English against one another to obtain gifts and better trade goods at cheaper prices. In the 1780s the Creeks, under Alexander McGillivray's leadership, forced the United States and Spain to compete for their trade, friendship, and military support. At the same time, southeastern communities were often divided by sympathies to different European powers. During the French and Indian War (1754–1760), both British and French authorities tried to recruit southeastern warriors to their side, which exacerbated existing factional strife. Some contingents of Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees fought with the French; other warriors among them allied with or offered aid to the British. In 1758 hostilities broke out between the Cherokees and English settlers in western Virginia. On three occasions in 1760–1761 British armies, supported by colonial militia and Chickasaw and Catawba warriors, invaded the Cherokee Nation and burned its towns and crops. Perhaps as many as 50 percent of the Cherokees perished from war, disease, and starvation during the conflict; in its terms of peace, the British required the Cherokees to surrender a large portion of its eastern territory.

The Treaty of Paris (1763) that ended the war required France to surrender its territory east of the Mississippi River. Although King George III attempted to pin the colonies east of the Appalachians with the Proclamation of 1763, it was impossible to keep white squatters and speculators out of Indian country. Settler intrusions continued to exasperate the southeastern tribes until they were forced to relocate beyond the Mississippi in the 1830s; neither the British nor the U.S. governments could stem the tide of westward settlement. When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, representatives from Britain and the rebelling colonies tried to form alliances with the tribes of the Southeast. The Cherokees and groups of Chickasaws, Creeks, and Choctaws fought on the side of the British during the war; the Catawbas, surrounded by colonists in the Carolinas, fought with the Americans. The Cherokees suffered another devastating defeat in 1776 when militia from the southern colonies invaded their territory. The southeastern tribes paid for their British sympathies. The southern states seized tracts of land from the Cherokees and Creeks during the war as the penalty for supporting the British.

After the war the United States moved to make peace with the southeastern tribes. During the period of 1785 to 1786, American negotiators signed separate treaties with the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws at Hopewell, South Carolina. Each agreement established specific borders between the tribe and the United States and provided the Indian council with jurisdiction over Americans venturing into its territory. These recognitions of tribal rights of title and sovereignty were balanced, or perhaps contradicted, by provisions which stated that the tribe was under the protection of the United States and was prohibited from conducting independent trade or diplomatic relations. Creeks under Alexander McGillivray, and the Chickamaugas, a dissident group of Cherokees led by the warriors Dragging Canoe and Bloody Fellow, refused to accept the Hope-well peace settlements and joined in raids to force American settlers out of the Tennessee and Cumberland Valleys. Along with forming an alliance with Spain, McGillivray also attempted to construct a confederation of southeastern tribes that would challenge the United States's designs on the region. McGillivray's rapprochement with the United States in 1790 (and his death in 1793), the refusal of the Chickasaws to support the movement, and the Spanish withdrawal from the area under the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795) thwarted the dreams of a southeastern Indian alliance. The Chickamaugas and settlers continued to fight bitterly until 1794, when the Indians submitted to a treaty with the United States.


During the presidential administration of George Washington, the United States began adopting legislation and using treaties, such as the Treaty of New York (1790) with the Creeks, to implement a "civilization" program for the Native American population. The federal government wanted Indians to adopt Anglo-American cultural habits, become farmers on their own individual plots, and assimilate into American society. This would free up Indian hunting grounds, according to the plan, and enable the United States to acquire and then transfer them to Americans. The federal government provided the Indians with farm implements, looms, and spinning wheels, appointed federal agents to instruct each tribe, and established model farms to demonstrate how to live as American yeomen. The tribes were also encouraged toward acculturation by a small class of political leaders and economic entrepreneurs who were the descendants of Indian women and English, Scots-Irish, or French traders. These men held clan and tribal membership through their mothers, spoke English and their Indian language, and moved adroitly in the white and Native American worlds. Some of them established farms and plantations growing cotton and other staple crops, acquired African American slaves, and integrated themselves into the American market economy. The more successful of this acculturated class—such as John Ross (1790–1868), a Cherokee; Levi Colbert (1759–1834), a Chickasaw; and Greenwood LeFlore (d. 1865), a Choctaw—diversified into tavern and ferry operations, built fine homes with expensive furnishings, sent their children to school in New England, and secured high office in tribal government.

Many southeastern Indians did not want to make the transformation required by the civilization program. Women did not want to abandon their place in the fields; men did not want to perform the agricultural work that traditionally had defined femininity. The civilization program created factions in communities between those who did and did not want to change, and the pressure to acculturate provoked nativist revolts among some of the tribes. In 1811 a number of Red Stick warriors from the Upper Creek towns responded to the call of Tecumseh and his brother, the prophet Tenskawatawa, for a pan-Indian rebellion against the United States. Civil war broke out between the Red Sticks, who wanted to eliminate the influence of Anglo-American culture, and other Creeks who sought a peaceful accommodation with the United States. In 1813 the rebellion drew in the United States when the Red Sticks massacred hundreds of Americans at Fort Mims, northeast of Mobile (in what became southwest Alabama). Andrew Jackson organized an army comprising militia forces and Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and accomodationist Creek warriors and marched into Creek territory. On 27 March 1814 Jackson's army annihilated the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend (in what was later eastern Alabama). After the battle, Jackson forced the Creeks to cede twenty-two million acres of their territory to the United States under the Treaty of Fort Jackson (August 1814). Many of the surviving Red Sticks fled into Florida and assimilated with the Seminoles, who were an amalgamation of the remnants of the Florida tribes that had been decimated by war and disease during the colonial era. In 1817 Jackson led another army into Spanish Florida to punish the Seminoles, who had been attacking American settlements on the Georgia border and providing refuge to runaway slaves. In 1819 the United States acquired Florida from Spain, and in 1823 it forced the defeated Seminoles to surrender their territory in northern Florida and move farther south into the interior of the peninsula.


The civilization program did not produce the land cessions and political assimilation that its proponents had anticipated. After the War of 1812 Jackson and many southern political leaders began urging the federal government to relocate the tribes across the Mississippi River and open up all of the Southeast to American settlement. As the pressure for removal increased, the southeastern tribes became more determined to preserve their sovereign powers and land base. In an effort to present a unified front to the United States, the tribes gradually moved legal and political authority from the clans and local councils to new tribal or national institutions. The Cherokees, for instance, created a national police force to protect private property rights, formally abolished the practice of clan blood revenge, and adopted and codified laws to deal with various economic and social issues. The Choctaws in 1826 and the Cherokees in 1827 adopted written constitutions. The Cherokee constitution emulated the American model to some extent in that it created a republican government comprised of three branches: a two-house legislature; a national judiciary; and an executive (the principal chief) elected by the people. The Cherokees also created national social and cultural institutions. In 1821 a Cherokee named Sequoyah created a syllabary that allowed his people to communicate in writing in their own language. The syllabary, which Cherokees could learn quickly, enabled the Cherokee Nation to print books and religious materials for its people. In 1828 the nation began publishing a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, that included text in both Cherokee and English; its editor, Elias Boudinot, became an important voice in informing the Cherokees on the removal developments affecting their nation. By 1835 a majority of Cherokee households had at least one individual who could read the Cherokee language.

In 1819 Georgia, which in 1802 had signed away its western territory in exchange for a promise from the United States that it would extinguish the Indian title in the state, began urging the federal government to fulfill its promise and remove the Creeks and Cherokees from its boundaries. Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi quickly joined Georgia's removal campaign to clear the Southeast of Native Americans. The Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Cherokees all surrendered territory to placate the southern states. They also took measures to inhibit private sale of their lands: the Creek and Cherokee national councils adopted laws forbidding the sale of tribal territory upon penalty of death. In 1825 the Creek national council executed William McIntosh, a prominent headman, for signing the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825), which called for the removal of the Creeks and the cession of most of their homeland.

After the Cherokees announced the ratification of their constitution and declared themselves a sovereign nation in July 1827, the Georgia legislature extended the jurisdiction of the state over their territory. Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi soon extended state jurisdiction over the Native Americans within their borders. After Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, he told the tribes to submit to state jurisdiction or remove. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which gave Jackson authority to negotiate the removal of the eastern tribes across the Mississippi. Despite determined resistance from the Cherokees (who attempted to forestall removal in the federal judicial system) and the Seminoles (who fought a long and bloody engagement with the United States Army), between 1832 and 1843 the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles were relocated to the Indian Territory that the federal government established west of Arkansas.

See alsoFrench and Indian War, Battles and Diplomacy; Horseshoe Bend, Battle of .


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Tim Alan Garrison

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American Indians: Southeast

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American Indians: Southeast