Native North Americans of the Southeast

views updated

Native North Americans of the Southeast

The Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands settled in the region that extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Mississippi River in the west and from Canada in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south more than two thousand years ago. The early groups were known as the Mound Builders because they erected huge earthen mounds as burial grounds.

The earliest mound-building cultures, including the Adena society (400 bce–1 ce) and the Hopewell society (1 ce–700 ce), were spread throughout the northeast and southeast. (See Native North Americans of the Northeast and Native North Americans of the Southeast ). They developed increasingly complex farming cultures that supported their settled life in villages. They had complex societies, engaged in long-distance trading, and built giant mounds in their villages. After about 700

ce, the Woodlands Indians settled in what is the present-day southeastern United States, from the Ohio River Valley southward through the Mississippi Delta, where they developed a farming and trading economy and a culture known today as the Mississippian culture. They were the ancestors of contemporary southeastern tribes, including the Cherokee, Catawba, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Natchez, and Seminole.

Mississippian culture

The Mississippian people built their farming communities along the banks of rivers, where irrigation (watering) occurred naturally through seasonal flooding. They grew corn, beans, and squash. Traders used the rivers to transport their goods in canoes.

Many of the Mississippian groups formed elaborate social and political systems. The villages developed into chiefdoms, societies in which a person's rank and prestige are assigned by how closely he or she is related to the chief. The Mississippian peoples were made up of loosely organized groups of villages. Villages within a tribe had similar languages and customs, and they were located near each other. Tribal councils regulated war and peace.

The Mississippians believed that all things had spirits and that success in life depended on treating these spirits with respect and honor. Achieving balance and harmony among human beings, nature, and the spirit world was central to their religion. Mississippian religious systems stressed fertility (the ability to reproduce abundantly, as in having children or generating new growth in plant life) and world renewal. They had many annual ceremonies, including the Green Corn Ceremony, a celebration held several weeks before it was time to harvest their corn fields, which welcomed in a new year.

Mississippians built hundreds and perhaps even thousands of awe-inspiring conical and flat-top burial mounds. The houses of a village were often grouped formally around the plazas (public squares) and the mounds. The village was enclosed by palisades—fences made out of stakes for protection against enemies. Gradually, some of these villages grew into large cities.

One of the most spectacular Mississippian centers was the city of Cahokia, which was located just east of present-day St. Louis, Missouri . Cahokia was about five square miles wide. It contained about one hundred elaborate mounds situated around central plazas. Some were monumental. Monks Mound, for example, was sixteen acres wide. An estimated thirty thousand to seventy-five thousand people lived in and around Cahokia during the period from 1050 to 1150 ce. After that time, the city gradually began to lose its population. Mississippian cities like Cahokia served as important commercial centers in the large trade network of Native Americans before the Europeans arrived.

The first Spanish explorers

In 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (c. 1500—1542) and his army of six hundred men explored some of the vast Mississippi territory in what is now Florida , Georgia , Alabama , North Carolina , South Carolina , Tennessee , Mississippi , Louisiana , Arkansas , and Texas . They reported on the elaborate Mississippian cities they found. But de Soto's men brought with them epidemic diseases from Europe to which the native peoples of America had no immunity (resistance). Twenty years later, when explorers returned to the area, the tribes the Spaniards had encountered earlier were gone; untold numbers had died from the diseases. Many Mississippian villages and towns were completely wiped out, and it is assumed that survivors joined other Native American groups.

Other tribes were hit hard by the epidemics, but their villages and towns survived the European settlement of the Southeast beginning in the seventeenth century. The largest tribe was the Cherokee. The Cherokee had a population of about twenty-two thousand in 1650; by 1715, a smallpox epidemic had reduced the population by half. Other tribes of the Southeast were the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. Along with the Seminoles, a group that did not exist until the late eighteenth century, these southeastern tribes later became known as the Five Civilized Tribes in the 1800s because they excelled at such European customs as farming and establishing schools.

Living with the newcomers

By the early nineteenth century, many southeastern Native Americans were strongly influenced by European institutions and abandoned their former modes of life to adopt European patterns of political organization and agriculture. Like other southerners, southeastern Native Americans adopted the plantation system and some even owned African slaves. Between 1809 and 1821, Sequoya (c. 1760–1843), a Cherokee, invented a system of syllabic writing for the native language. Many Cherokee people quickly learned to read and write in the Cherokee syllabary. From 1828 to 1835, the Cherokee weekly newspaper, written in both English and Cherokee, was published and widely read.

Between 1819 and 1829, the Cherokee developed an independent nation with its own constitution. As the Cherokee flourished, the white settlers grew resentful. The state of

Georgia pressed the Cherokee to sell their land, which the Cherokee resisted. With the discovery of gold in Cherokee country in 1829 Georgia increased the pressure on the Cherokee, but this matter went to court and Georgia lost to the Cherokee. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–1837) signed the Indian Removal Act. It provided funds for removal of eastern Native Americans to Indian Territory , a vast area west of the Mississippi River that is today the state of Oklahoma . Indian Territory consisted of lands the federal government thought were uninhabitable for white settlers. The government proposed that it could be an independent state for Native Americans, where they could govern themselves.


The removal of the southeastern Native Americans from their lands began gradually, with some groups moving voluntarily. For those southeastern Native Americans who remained in their homes, forced removal took place from 1835 to 1842. The Trail of Tears , the forced migration of more than fifteen thousand Cherokee, occured between 1837 and 1838. Around two thousand men, women, and children died on the six-month, thousand-mile journey to unfamiliar country. Almost all southeastern Native Americans were removed to Indian Territory, although some fled to the Florida Everglades, forming a confederation of Native Americans that became known as the Seminoles. (See Seminole Wars ). Several hundred Cherokee hid out in the mountains to escape removal to Indian Territory, and in 1842 they were granted permission to remain on lands in western North Carolina.

In Indian Territory, the southeastern tribes established independent states, employing the constitutional model of the United States. They planted fields and founded schools. They adapted customs of daily life, religions, and cultural traditions to the new setting. But the United States was not finished with removing Native Americans from their lands and in the years after the American Civil War (1861–65) many tribes from all over the country were forced to live together, and conflicts arose. During the 1880s, the federal government significantly reduced the area of Indian Territory, and in the 1890s, the government opened large areas of Indian Territory to be sold to non-Native Americans. Although most Native Americans felt the government had promised that Indian Territory would be a free Native American state, in 1907 it became the state of Oklahoma.

About this article

Native North Americans of the Southeast

Updated About content Print Article