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The Native American tribes of the Southeast region lived in the warm, temperate part of eastern North America where, year after year, there is sufficient rain for reliable agriculture. This includes not only the states east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon Line (the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland once used to distinguish between the South and the North), but also west of the Mississippi in Louisiana and considerable portions of Arkansas and Texas. These areas are included in the Southeast region of tribes because the Caddoan and other native peoples who lived in them maintained a lifestyle similar to Native people east of the Mississippi, and quite different from the tribes of the Great Plains to the west.

Within the Southeast region there were generally two types of Native economies. The interior peoples emphasized raising vegetables—corn, beans, and squash—supplemented by hunting and fishing. On the coast, where fish, shellfish, and marine mammals were plentiful, the tribes relied less on farming and more on gathering. Shellfish were a staple, and all around the coast, especially on the Gulf side of the continent, there are enormous mounds of shells discarded by hundreds of generations of coastal Native people.

In the interior there also exists the remains of great mounds—earthen structures built as ceremonial and political centers. The oral traditions of the Southeastern tribes say that the mound-builders were their ancestors, and in fact the 1540–42 chronicles of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (c. 1496–1542) contain descriptions of the mounds and the temples built on top of them when they were in regular use. As late as 1740 the Natchez Indians, who lived near the present city of Natchez, Mississippi, were still using their mounds and temples.

Coastal Southeastern tribes encounter Europeans

The coastal Native Americans are not as well known as the interior tribes because they were quickly attacked, dispersed, and sometimes enslaved by the invading Europeans, beginning with de Soto. Along with the violence they met, they rapidly became victims of deadly European diseases to which they had not natural resistance. When de Soto entered Florida searching for gold, he brought with him chains and manacles for enslaving Natives to serve as porters who were forced to carry the Spaniards’ gear, and as concubines (women who were forced to serve as sexual partners and to take care of domestic tasks for de Soto’s men). As they marched through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, de Soto’s soldiers killed thousands of Native American people. But the Natives fought back. In a well-coordinated night attack in 1541 the Chickasaw and their allies burned Spanish dwellings, destroying much of their equipment and running off their horses. After wandering through Arkansas and Texas, de Soto died on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542, leaving his men to flee down the river toward the Gulf of Mexico, pursued by thousands of angry Native Americans in canoes.

Farther north British colonists also tried to enslave Native Americans, not as porters and concubines, but to work on their plantations. This attempt was unsuccessful, since the Native workers could easily escape to join their own or other tribes in the interior. So in the eighteenth century the remaining Native American slaves were sold or traded to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands and were replaced by African slaves, who were more easily identified as slaves because of their skin color.

Around the mouth of the Mississippi River the initial European presence was French. French traders acquired furs and other goods that were sent down the Mississippi and back to France. The French also established plantations on both sides of the Mississippi upriver toward the present city of Memphis, Tennessee. In the meantime, the Spanish had mobilized many of the Florida Indians into a line of missions from St. Augustine, Florida, west across the peninsula toward the present city of Tallahassee. The tribes south of this line, especially the Timucua and Calusa, were so devastated by warfare and disease that the survivors joined other tribes or migrated to Cuba or other Caribbean islands. The three European powers—Great Britain, France, and Spain—then contested for control of the Southeast region from the middle 1600s until the United States took over the area in the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the meantime, the coastal tribes were being caught up in the European struggle for control of “Greater Florida,” which included everything south of Virginia and west to Alabama.

Interior Southeast tribes

While the Europeans fought for control of the coastal areas, the interior tribes were reorganizing to face them. The northernmost interior tribe was the Cherokee, related historically to the Iroquois of New York state, who at some point had migrated to the Appalachian Mountains. Living in the interior valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Cherokee and their mountains got in the way of the expansion of British colonies toward the south in the eighteenth century, so the coastal region was settled first.

The “fall line” of the major rivers is an important concept for understanding the history of this period. Coastal boats and some ocean-going vessels could only travel up the coastal rivers until they reached a waterfall or rapids. The locations of these falls in the various streams, connected together by a fall line on a map, essentially defined the areas where Europeans could live successfully, with a dock to receive supplies and to ship out their agricultural produce. Upstream from the fall line trade goods and produce had to be carried in packs or on horseback, so this area was left to the Native Americans. In the early colonial period, then, the Cherokee occupied the area above the fall line in what are now the states of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Social and political organization

The interior tribes shared a kind of social and political structure that was useful for integrating their societies and creating alliances with other tribes. The essential building block of the tribes was the matrilineal clan (a group of extended family members that trace their descent through the mother’s line). All tribal members received their clan identity from their mother, and tribal law declared that one’s mother and father had to be from different clans. Alliances among towns, and also among the different nations of the interior, were often based on intermarriage.

The Native American tribes of the interior tended to locate their villages along streams and rivers, needing access to water for drinking and bathing as well as for transportation in dugout canoes where possible. The villages were arranged around a ceremonial center. The center was usually an outdoor square surrounded by four arbors, with a large, enclosed roundhouse on one side that served for tribal meetings and sometimes as a refuge during cold weather. Log houses with small gardens were located near the center. Around the village were large cultivated fields, some of which belonged to families while others, called “town fields,” were cultivated for the benefit of the whole village. Periodically the entire village moved when local soil and other resources had been depleted.

The interior tribes had elaborate military organizations. Typically war leaders were assigned ferocious military titles, which were carried as personal names. For example, a principal chief of the Cherokee in the late twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries is Wilma Mankiller (1945–), who bears a personal name derived from a military title. As a Southeastern warrior gained more experience and performed brave deeds, he was awarded higher and more prestigious titles, and given the responsibility of leading war expeditions.

Adopting new members into tribes

Wars inevitably created refugees, and while all Southeastern tribes occasionally adopted such people, this became a matter of national policy with the Creek Indians. Under the rules of the Creek Confederacy, families, villages, and even whole tribes could be adopted and take up residence with the Creek. The remnants of the Calusa, Timucua, Yamasee, and later the Natchez were taken in as individuals and families. Larger groups of Alabama, Coushatta, and Hitchiti were given the status of clans or towns, depending on size, while multiple villages of the Yuchi and Shawnee were taken in so that they became “nations within nations,” but subject to the laws of the Confederacy.

Similarly, people of European and African ancestry acquired citizenship in the Native American nations of the Southeast. In early colonial times European indentured servants broke the bonds of servitude by “running away to join the Indians.” Later, African American slaves escaped to form “Freedman” communities among the villages of Southeastern Native Americans.

One special circumstance among the Creek was the birth of the Seminole nation. Originally constituting the southernmost villages of Creek in southern Alabama and Georgia, the Seminole experienced a large increase in population when they took in refugees from the Creek Wars of the early-nineteenth century. Migrating farther into the Florida peninsula when the Spanish withdrew, they became a separate nation and are the ancestors of the present-day Seminole of Oklahoma and Florida.

Languages in the Southeast region

The Creek and Seminole both speak languages that are quite different from the Cherokee language, which is part of the Iroquoian family of languages. The Creek and Seminole, along with the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Alabama, and several other Southeastern tribes, speak languages from the most prominent language family of the Southeast, the Muskogean family. Besides the Muskogean family and the Iroquoian, other language families represented in the Southeast region include Caddoan, Algonquian, and Siouan, as well as four languages that are not related to a language family. Some scholars believe that the Southeast region probably represents the ancient homeland of the Siouan peoples, who migrated north and west in prehistoric times, finally spilling out onto the Plains as Lakota and Dakota people.

The Choctaw and Chickasaw were originally one people, and the languages are still only dialectically different. Sometime in the late prehistoric period, according to oral tradition, the Chickasaw withdrew from their brethren in central and southern Mississippi and Alabama, and established themselves as traders in the area south of present-day Memphis, Tennessee. From that location, they traded up and down the Mississippi River, dominating other groups not only by their economic power, but also their military power. As a disciplined, well-organized military force, the Chickasaw not only defeated de Soto in 1541, but also repulsed an Iroquois invasion and a French invasion in later years. Their automobile license plates still proclaim them to be the “Unconquered Chickasaws.”

Trade and other relations

As soon as European trade goods became available in the seventeenth centur, the Chickasaw allied with the British, establishing a busy trade route toward the east, just north of Creek territory in Alabama and Georgia. The Choctaw, on the other hand, established trade relations with the French in New Orleans and allied with them in wars against the Chickasaw, the Creek, and other tribes of the vicinity.

The Choctaw, who were much more numerous than the Chickasaw, were never able to unite themselves as strongly as the other Southeastern tribes, largely because of geographical problems. The watersheds of the Pearl and Tombigbee Rivers contain numerous swamps, which divided the Choctaw towns from one another and made it difficult for them to act collectively in war or politics.

West of the Mississippi the Quapaw, or Arkansaw Indians, are often included as part of the Southeast Region, as are the Caddo of the west and the various tribes of Louisiana, notably including the Houma and Chitimacha. The Quapaw are a small tribe whose cultural relationships are with the Osage and Kansa to the northwest. The Caddo and their ancestors built mounds in earlier times and relied on agriculture, just like other Southeastern peoples, but later they lived in earthen lodges, kept horses, and hunted buffalo, although still maintaining their corn fields. Their cultural relationships were with the Wichita and Arikara to the north.

Two tribes that moved around in this period were the Shawnee, sometimes considered as part of the Northeast Region, and the Alabama. Originally located on the Savannah River, the Shawnee for a time occupied the area of Kentucky. Then, some of the Shawnee towns joined the Creek Confederacy. Later the Shawnee preceded the other Southeastern nations westward, ultimately coming to occupy reservations in Oklahoma and Kansas. The Alabama and the Coushatta, in early historic times, occupied the area near the mouth of the Alabama River, where they were strongly allied with the French. After the French withdrawal the Alabama and Coushatta towns migrated singly toward the west, coming to rest in Louisiana and Texas, although several towns joined the Creek Confederacy.

Traders and mixed bloods

As soon as there were Europeans in North America, there were traders. Most were British traders who traveled among the Native American nations, bartering guns, knives, and kettles for furs, deerskins, and other products of the forest. Some of these men married the daughters of chiefs. Their offspring became members of a newly created mixed-blood aristocracy, which is still important in the culture and politics of the Southeastern Native American nations. Familiar with the ways of the white man, and most often bilingual in English and a native language, the mixed-bloods came to dominate trade. They soon established farms and ranches in their tribal areas and hired their tribesmen as workers, or they purchased African slaves from the colonies. The status of black people within the nation was always a source of political dispute.

Although one might expect that mixed bloods in the various nations would be sympathetic toward European interests, this was not always the case. Some of the most militant Native American leaders had white ancestry, including John Ross of the Cherokee and Alexander McGillivray of the Creek. Such leaders were instrumental in navigating their Native American nations through the treaty period, when the interior tribes gradually gave up land in exchange for peace and the benefits of trade.

Land crises

A crisis point was reached in the Southeast region just after 1800, when the Native American nations were crowded onto small parcels of land and surrounded by a steadily increasing number of land-hungry white people. By that time each of the interior nations had matched its own army and defenses against those of the United States and been forced to withdraw farther into the interior. The Cherokee had been defeated in 1794 and the Creek in 1814. The Chickasaw were firm U.S. allies, while the Choctaw were in political disarray with their French sponsors withdrawn from North America after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

By this time the Native populations had been devastated, but there were still enough Native American warriors available to cause some worry on the part of the U.S. government. By 1800 the Cherokee numbered about twenty-five thousand persons, the Creek about the same, the Choctaw twenty thousand, and the Chickasaw about three thousand.

The Indian Removal Act and Indian Territory

Even including wars and disease, perhaps the most traumatic injury inflicted on the Southeastern Native Americans was the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1828. Although negated by a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Act was nonetheless implemented by President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) on behalf of the land-hungry frontier people who elected him to office. The federal government demanded that eastern and midwestern tribal groups be moved to an area west of the Mississippi River. The administration set aside an area in what is now Oklahoma that was established for Native American settlement and came to be known as Indian Territory.

Although all Native American people removed to Indian Territory suffered death and disease along the “Trail of Tears” in the period 1831 to 1848, some groups suffered more than others. The least affected tribe was probably the Chickasaw, who were by that time a highly integrated and sophisticated group with important allies in the federal government. Anticipating the certainty of removal, they explored Indian Territory, the eastern half of what is now Oklahoma, and selected an area at the western edge of the Territory where they could establish themselves as traders with the Plains Indians while farming and ranching along the creeks and rivers near what is now Tishomingo, Oklahoma. After a period of thoughtful negotiations with the federal government, they made an orderly migration in 1837.

The Choctaw were a much larger group and politically divided among themselves about whether to resist removal or not, and if they did emigrate, which lands they wanted to occupy in Indian Territory. The mixed-blood elite wanted to occupy lowlands along the Red River where they could take their slaves and start plantations. Ordinary Choctaw wanted to occupy the rolling hills farther north where they could establish small family farms. For the entire decade of the 1830s each Choctaw town was embroiled in controversy and, although Choctaw migration began in 1831, it did not end until 1847. Many Choctaw avoided removal by retreating to the hills and valleys of Mississippi.

The Creek essentially formed two factions, the mixed-blood elite on the one hand and the ordinary Creek and their Freedman allies on the other hand. The elite proceeded to move in wagons with their slaves and supporters to organize plantations near the Arkansas River, while the other or “traditional” faction built family farms and ceremonial grounds farther south and west.

This kind of factionalism between “traditionals” and “mixed-bloods” was even more emphatic and much more complicated among the Cherokee, who were split among regional as well as class, clan, and marriage alliances. Treaties between the Cherokee and the U.S. government had promised the Cherokee a permanent homeland and self-government on that part of their ancestral territory that was located in Georgia. When faced with the prospect of losing their rights and lands, the Cherokee Nation sued in federal court. Having important friends in the federal government and among the Christian clergy, they fully expected to win their case before the Supreme Court and stay in the East. So when President Jackson sent federal troops to remove the Cherokee by force, they were not ready to go. Many were dragged from their houses by soldiers and set on the road to walk 600 miles (966 kilometers) to Indian Territory. Thousands of Cherokee and other Native American people, especially the very young and very old—died along the way.

The special targets of Indian Removal were those Native people occupying desirable farmland or areas with mineral resources. After they had been removed the government became less thorough in searching for Native Americans in rough, mountainous terrain. Several thousand Cherokee hid in the Great Smoky Mountains, feeding themselves from small gardens. They gradually emerged from their hiding over the next several decades. In Mississippi the pattern was the same as the Choctaw became recognized by the federal government in 1918. In addition, other small groups of Native American people had avoided removal because they occupied state reservations, such as the Catawba in South Carolina, or because they were so dispersed into the general population, like the Lumbee of North Carolina.

The Seminole were a special case. Living in the wetlands of Florida at the time other groups were being removed from the Southeast, they occupied land that was not especially desired by whites and therefore might not have been subjected to any forced removal. But the Seminole continued to open their doors to escaped slaves. To all the people who benefited from the slave system, this was intolerable, and so the Seminole were invaded by a series of federal armies between 1830 and 1845. The Seminole turned the forces back and inflicted great casualties to the U.S. troops, finally forcing the federal government to pay off certain bands to remove themselves to Indian Territory, while the other bands were left in peace in Florida, like the Chickasaw, still unconquered.

Life and culture after removal

In Indian Territory the Southeastern nations were reorganized, although in different ways. For the Cherokee, the struggle was over a national government as the different factions contested for power. The elite struggled against the emerging traditional or “Keetowah faction” and they quarreled among themselves in other complex ways. The polarization of the Creek continued, with periodic outbreaks and protests of the traditional faction during the Green Peach War (1882–83) and the Crazy Snake Rebellion (1897–98). The traditional Choctaw, living in the eastern Oklahoma hills, essentially abandoned the federally sponsored tribal government and left it to the mixed-blood elite. The Chickasaw remained united, but increasingly married and mixed with the local white population. The Seminole tenaciously maintained the chief-and-band political system they had developed in Florida.

In Indian Territory the Southeastern Native Americans adopted plows instead of hoes for agriculture, and they raised increasing numbers of horses, cattle, and hogs. Their diet and economy improved, and their populations increased. Solicited by Christian missionaries, they experienced patterns of conversion that reflected their political structure. The Creek traditionalists became Baptists, while the elite became Methodists. The traditional Choctaw became convinced, tee-totaling (not drinking any alcohol) Methodists while the elite Choctaw joined a variety of Protestant denominations in the small towns. The Keetowah (traditional) Cherokee remained non-Christian and even took to burning Christian churches and punishing anyone who became baptized.

Southeast Native American nations today

After settling in Indian Territory or back in their eastern homes, the Southeast Native American nations faced more disruptions at the hands of inconsistent government policy with respect to Native peoples. The American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery) forced an adjustment of reservation boundaries, depending on whether a group had sided with the Confederacy or the Union. More traumatic was the government’s allotment policy. The 1887 General Allotment Act (also known as the Dawes Act) required that communally held tribal land was to be partitioned into lots owned by individuals. The Curtis Act of 1898 dismantled tribal governments in Oklahoma. On the brighter side, the Indian Reorganization Act (1934) and the corresponding Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1836 brought some civil rights and religious freedom to Native Americans, although the constitutional Bill of Rights was not extended to Native American citizens until 1968. In the last several decades tribal governments have been built up by federal funds, so that they supply social services to their citizens. And some tribes have benefited by sponsoring bingo halls and other gaming facilities.

Meanwhile, the eastern remnants of recognized Southeastern tribes have become more organized and have likewise attracted federal funds. In addition, new groups have emerged and sought formal acknowledgment from the federal government. The Bureau of Federal Acknowledgement of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a list of more than twenty groups located in the Southeast region that claim ancestry among the aboriginal tribes of the area, and who seek official recognition of their status. And so, after a long period of hardship and oppression, the immediate prospects of the descendants of the aboriginal tribes of the Southeast region seemed very bright in the mid-2000s. Not only were there more Native American people than there have been since the seventeenth century, but also more tribes.

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George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute

Laurie Edwards

John H. Moore, Ph.D., Anthropology Department University of Florida, Gainesville

Laurie Edwards

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