The Southeast before 1600 a.d. Native American societies varied greatly across the continent. One of the most distinctive cultures developed in the precontact Southeast and is called Mississippian by anthropologists and historians. Mississippian societies arose around 1000 a.d. and lasted until about 1600. Several European expeditions, most notably the one led by Hernando de Soto in the 1540s, encountered Mississippian peoples. Although groups speaking several different languages produced Mississippian societies, they shared many cultural traits. The most spectacular features of these societies were the temple- and burial-mound centers they constructed. The largest such site is at Cahokia in what is now Collinsville, Illinois, just east of St. Louis, Missouri; the village area extended for six miles along the Illinois River, contained eighty-five temple and burial mounds, and sustained a population perhaps as high as seventy-five thousand persons. Being master farmers allowed the Mississippians to develop such large societies, although most chiefdoms were much smaller than Cahokia. All Mississippian sites utilized maize or corn as a primary staple and supplemented it with other plants and meats.
Chiefdoms. Mississippian societies are called chiefdoms because they were governed by small groups of elites or even by a single individual, called a paramount chief. Commoners and outlying satellite villages paid tributes of corn, deer meat, animal skins, and prestige items to the principal town. In some cases new towns joined a chiefdom by military conquest. The labor of commoners built the mounds and suggests that elites held the power to assemble large bodies of people to do their bidding. Leadership passed through hereditary lines in at least some of these chiefdoms, but high status was most likely based upon command of spiritual forces. The general population recognized the large amounts of power that leaders manipulated and honored them with positions of prestige. Matrilineal kinship characterized Mississippian culture, and female paramount chiefs greeted Spanish expeditions,
such as the “Lady of Cofitachequi” from the chiefdom of Cofitachequi in present-day South Carolina who welcomed Hernando de Soto in the 1540s.
Decline. Mississippian chiefdoms still existed in the mid 1500s when de Soto and others traveled through the Southeast, but just a century later the mound sites were abandoned. Because of this timing, scholars looked to the de Soto campaign as the cause of this phenomenon. It is probable that some of de Soto’s men, or maybe the horses and pigs that accompanied them, carried diseases to which the Indians had no immunity. Pandemics may have wiped the Mississippians from the map, replacing them with refugee groups of survivors who banded together for protection but lacked the numbers to maintain the mounds. Many Mississippian sites became vacant before European contact, however, which suggests that local reasons contributed to abandonment. Perhaps Mississippians overused their resources, depleting the soil for corn and cutting down trees necessary for their buildings and fires. Possibly climatic changes resulted in drought or a shorter growing season, thus reducing the food supply. Political conflict and war between chiefdoms could have weakened some to the point of being unsustainable. Likely, all of the above factors contributed to the abandonment of the mound sites. The Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Seminoles descended from the Mississippian peoples and held many traits in common with their ancestors.
Paul E. Hoffman, A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990);
Jon Muller, Mississippian Political Economy (New York: Plenum Press, 1997).