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Native American History of Autauga County, Alabama

Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Alabama,Native American | No Comments

Autauga County is located in central Alabama. Its county seat is Prattville. The county was named after the Tawasee Indian town of Atagi, whose location is its southeastern corner. Autauga County is part of the Montgomery, Alabama Metropolitan Statistical Area. The county was created in 1818 from lands forcibly ceded by the Creek Confederacy in 1814 at the Treaty of Fort Jackson.

Autauga is surrounded by five counties. Chilton County forms its northern border. Elmore County is located to the east. Autauga is bordered on the southeast by Montgomery County and the south by Lowndes County. Dallas County forms its western boundary.

There are many Native American archaeological sites in Autauga County, especially along the Alabama River. Early settlers reported seeing many mounds along the Alabama River. Today, many of these mounds are no longer visible because of 20th century development. In addition to the large Native town of Atagi, during the early 1800s there were towns Halbama and Atoba. Halbama was possibly the origin of the name of the Alabama River.

Geology and Hydrology

Autauga County is located in the northern end of Gulf Coastal Plain, but contains three distinct geophysical regions. It elevation above sea level varies from around 100 feet on the Alabama River to 1000 feet in the northern tip. The northern end of the county contains highly eroded, hilly landscapes. The broad Alabama River Flood Plain is nearly level and contains sandy loam. The famous Alabama Black Belt prairie lands can be found in the western part of the county

The Gulf Coastal Plain is underlain by relatively young sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. The terrain is characterized by low rolling clay hills and sandy loam along river or creek bottomlands. Along the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers the terrain is severely eroded and composed of many ravines. Steep escarpments and hills define the flood plains of these rivers.

Autauga County is drained by the Alabama River. Big Mulberry Creek forms its western boundary. Other major streams include Little Mulberry, Buck, Beaver, Ivy, Swift, Bear and Autauga Creeks.

Alabama is the Anglicization of the name of a major Native American group in the State of Alabama. Some linguists think that is an archaic Muskogean word for people who cleared and cultivated thickets.

Native American Occupation

It is not known for certain which ethnic group built the many towns with mounds in Autauga County. One possibility is that a branch of the Choctaws lived there, since a swamp in the western part of the county had a Choctaw name, Conchapita. Alternatively, they may have been related to the Alabama Indians who occupied the region in the late 1600s and most of the 18th century. Most of the Alabama’s left with the French in 1763 after France lost the Seven Years War with Great Britain. Members of the Creek Confederacy then moved into the region and absorbed the remaining Alabamas.

The Toasi lived in the western part of the county and the Creeks in the remainder of the county. The Toasi were known to Anglo-Americans as the Tawasee or Tawasa. Apparently, before the French left, they were allied with the Alabama, but then joined the Creek Confederacy afterward.

The Toasi were probably Taino Arawaks, who were living on the Lower Ocmulgee River in Georgia in the spring of 1540 when visited by the de Soto Expedition. Toa was also an important Taino province in Puerto Rico that was located around present day Arecibo, PR. A glossary of 18th century Toasi words survives. The language at that time was a mixture of Arawak and Muskogee words. Apparently, the Toasi went west in 1814 when their land was given away by the Muskogee Creeks.

The Hernando de Soto Expedition traveled southward along the Coosa River and Alabama River in September of 1540. The abandonment of the Jere Shine in Montgomery County, AL soon thereafter suggest that the Spanish had a catastrophic impact on the indigenous inhabitants.

When French explorers reached the region in the 1690s, Autauga County was occupied by the Alabama Indians. However, there is linguistic evidence that the Alabama’s formerly lived farther north. There are some Alabama town and place names in western North Carolina. One of the towns, Chalohuma (Red Fox) was visited by the de Soto and Pardo expeditions in the mid-1500s. Also, the majority of town names along the Coosa River, visited by de Soto were Alabama names.

After the French built Fort Toulouse in 1817, several Creek towns moved down stream or westward to be near the fort’s trading post. The Creek towns were originally from western North Carolina, northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. The Toasi continued to live in the Autauga area near former Alabama towns until 1814.

Earliest Inhabitants

Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Autauga County for at least 12,000 years, perhaps much longer. Clovis and Folsom points, associated with Late Ice age big game hunters have been found in the Alabama, Coosa and Chattahoochee River Valleys. During the Ice Age, herds of giant mammals roamed the river bottom lands. The mastodons, saber tooth tigers, giant sloths and other massive mammals died out about 8,000 years ago.

The ethnic identity of the Clovis Culture hunters is not known. They were long presumed to be American Indians, but recent research by anthropologists has revealed many similarities with the big game hunters of Western Europe. An ice cap on the North Atlantic Ocean may have permitted early humans to move back and forth between continents by paddling, while gaining sustenance from hunting sea mammals and fishing.

Archaic Period (8,000 BC – 1000 BC)

After the climate warmed, animals and plants typical of today soon predominated in this region. Humans adapted to the changes and gradually became more sophisticated. They adopted seasonal migratory patterns that maximized access to food resources. Archaic hunters probably moved to locations along major rivers during the winter, where they could eat fish and fresh water mussels, if game was not plentiful. During the remainder of the year, smaller streams would have been desirable camp sites.

Autauga County was an ideal location for bands of hunters and gatherers. The county’s network of creeks and wetlands provided a diverse ecological environment for game animals and edible plants. Native Americans learned to set massive brush fires in the late autumn which cleared the landscape of shrubs and created natural pastures for deer, bison and elk.

Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)

The Alabama, Coosa, Tallapoosa, Etowah and Chattahoochee River Valleys were locations of some of the earliest permanent villages in North America. A sedentary lifestyle was made possible by abundant natural food sources such as game, freshwater mussels and chestnuts and the cultivation of gardens. Agriculture came very early to the Alabama River Basin. Initially, the cultivated plants were of indigenous origin and included a native squash, native sweet potato, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, amaranth, sumpweed, and chenopodium.

The first village farmers of the region are now known as the Deptford Culture. The culture lasted from around 2,500 BC to 100 BC. The oldest known pottery in the western hemisphere was discovered near Augusta, GA on Stallings Island. It was probably made by people associated with the Deptford Culture. Deptford Culture artifacts can be along the South Atlantic Coast, most of Georgia, southern & eastern Alabama, plus the upper Gulf Coast of Florida.

The early villages were relatively small and dispersed. There was probably much socialization among these villages because of the need to find spouses that were not closely related. Houses were round and built out of saplings, river cane and thatch.

The Woodland Period peoples of the region built numerous small mounds. Apparently, most mounds were primarily for burials, but may have also supported simple structures that were used for rituals or meetings. They were constructed accretionally. This means that the mounds grew in size over the generations by piling soil and detritus from the village over recent burials.

Archaeological evidence in the Coosa and Etowah River Valleys suggests that the first Muskogean farmers entered northwest Alabama around 400 BC, after migrating from west-central Mexico. However, the region was probably was already occupied by ancestors of the Yuchi and Eastern Siouans with languages similar to the Catawba. There may have been other ethnic groups whose identities have been concealed by time. Agricultural technology, cultural traditions and DNA probably blended between these peoples. The modern Creek tribe may represent a genetic mix of several indigenous ethnic groups.

During the Middle Woodland Period (c. 200 BC – c. 600 AD) an advanced Native American people, known as the Copena Culture occupied northern & central Alabama, south-central Tennessee and the northwestern edge of Georgia. They apparently had trade relations with the Hopewell Culture in the Ohio Valley, but also practiced distinct traditions. The name comes from the merger of the Latin words for copper and a type of lead ore. The Copena People were masterful artisans in copperplate and collected galena (lead) crystals. They cremated their dead and buried the ashes in conical ceramic urns.

At least some branches of the Copena Culture built platform mounds and lived in permanent agricultural villages. This is in strong contrast to people of the Core Hopewell Culture, who lived in transient villages and always built their mounds in unoccupied ceremonial complexes. A Copena village with a pyramidal platform mound (Site # 9 FU 14) was excavated on the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta in the late 1960s. It was found to have been occupied between 200 BC and 450 AD.

Muskogean town dwellers (900 AD – 1600 AD)

Muskogeans carried with them advanced cultural traditions from Mexico and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The Autauga County Muskogeans eventually formed provinces that were governed by large towns. Prior to arrival of Europeans, there were no Indian “tribes.” The large towns were usually located in the bottomlands on major rivers such as the Coosa.

Throughout the Southeast, many provinces began to share common artistic symbols and agricultural lifestyles. Societies became more organized politically with elite families, non-agricultural specialists and local leaders. This era is known as the Southern Ceremonial Cult Period, Mississippian Period or Hierarchal Period. The “Mississippian” label came from a conference at Harvard University in 1947 which adopted the inaccurate belief that all advanced Native American culture originated north of the Mason-Dixon Line along the Mississippi River.

There were many Mississippian Period towns and villages on the Coosa River. Most seem to date from the period between 1300 AD and 1600 AD. None of the known town site contain mounds of large size, but they did contain platform mounds. The Kusa People did build mounds in their more important towns, but they were not the scale of mound built at Moundville, Alabama or Etowah in Georgia.

European exploration period (1540 AD – 1717 AD)

There is evidence that European diseases began affecting coastal populations as early as 1500 AD Native American traders carried the microbes northward from Cuba and then into the lowlands near the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast. Shortly after the Hernando de Soto Expedition passed through the Florida Panhandle and Georgia in 1540, waves of European diseases began to decimate the Native American population. De Soto’s Expedition traveled southward down the Coosa River Basin, west of present day Autauga County, in early September of 1540. Thus, the indigenous people of Autauga County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens immediately. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Alabama dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700.

The Kingdom of Spain claimed all of what is now Alabama after the De Soto Expedition, but never was able to establish a permanent colony there. French explorers went up the Alabama-Coosa River system in the 1690s all the way to its source on Coosa Bald Mountain in Georgia. The King of France afterward claimed all of the lands west of the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

France constructed Fort Toulouse at the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in Alabama, but never established any colonies farther upstream. France lacked the people to settle such remote colonies. The vast majority of Frenchmen wanting to leave France and colonize the Americas were French Huguenots, who were forbidden to do so. They therefore relocated to England or Protestant parts of Switzerland and Germany then migrated to the English colonies in the Americas.

Agricultural advancements: Almost immediately after Spanish missions were established on the coast of Georgia in the late 1500s, the ancestors of the Creeks were growing European fruits and vegetables in addition to their traditional crops. A Spanish expedition in 1600 observed peaches, pears and melons being grown in a village on the Ocmulgee River. By the 1700s, Creeks were also raising European livestock. Chickens and hogs were the first European animals acquired to supplement their turkey flocks and Mexican meat dogs. By the late 1700s, most Georgia Creek men owned horses and had become skilled herders of cattle, horses and hogs.

Creek Confederacy: The Creek Confederacy of “People of One Fire” was a political alliance formed by the remnants of many advanced indigenous provinces in the Lower Southeast. This alliance probable developed during the late 1600s. The member towns represented several ethnic groups, but the Muskogees and Itsate’s (Hitchiti’s) dominated the alliance. Muskogee was selected as the parliamentary language of the alliance. When British settlers first settled the coast of Georgia, Itsati was spoken by most Creeks in Georgia and northeastern Alabama. By 1800, a composite Muskogee Creek language had became the spoken tongue of Creek citizens. There are very few Upper Creek speakers today.

Dispersed farmsteads: 1780 AD – 1814 AD

Alabama history books are fraught with the names of famous “Creek chiefs“. Their correct title is Mekko, derived from the Maya word meaning the same thing, ma-ko-. The perception of the importance of these individuals was by and large created by the ethnocentricity of the British. In fact, Creek leaders governed by consensus. They could do nothing without the approval of elected representative bodies. The signature of a leader on a treaty, meant nothing if it was not authorized by the Creek legislature.

After the American Revolution, Creek families dispersed across the vast territory now controlled by the Creek Confederacy. They lived in log cabins on farmsteads that differed little in appearance from Anglo-American farmsteads. Local histories that recall Creek village names from the 1800s are actually records of rural communities, where the farmsteads were closer together, not palisaded towns as in the pre-European days. It was also common for more prosperous Creek families to maintain two homes. One was in a town or village that contained a chokofa or council house and ball field. The other was on a farmstead.

Red Stick War: 1813-1814

Almost all the Creeks in present day Autauga County were initially neutral in the War of 1812, but eventually were persuaded by agents from Great Britain and ambassadors from the Shawnees to become allies of Great Britain against the United States. This put them in direct conflict with the majority of Creeks, who at that time still lived in Georgia. In particular, the Hitchiti-speaking Creeks were inclined to continue their alliance with their neighbors, because in the distant past, they had been enemies of the Kusa’s (Upper Creeks.)

The branches of the Creek Confederacy in Georgia were already different than those in much of Alabama to start with. They spoke different languages and dialects, plus had been in direct contact with the British colonists since the 1670s. The Georgia Creeks had a long history of peaceful relations with all their European and African neighbors. They were also increasingly becoming Protestant Christians.

Perhaps over a thousand Shawnee moved down into what is now Alabama in the mid-and late 1700s. The Shawnees were animists and did not come from a long history of town living and large scale agriculture. The Creeks in Alabama had formerly been allies of the French, as had been the Shawnees before 1763. A few of the Creeks and Shawnees had become Roman Catholics, but most now practiced a religion that blended Shawnee animism, with Creek monotheistic traditions.

At the beginning of the War of 1812, British agents and Northern Shawnee leaders such as Tecumseh exacerbated the difference between the Creeks in Georgia and those in northern Alabama. Tecumseh’s mother was an Alabama Creek. A civil war broke out when many Alabama Creeks became allies of the British in defiance of the Creek National Council. The rebels called themselves Red Sticks and they attacked loyalist Creek farmsteads. Eventually, whites were also killed.

The United States declared war on the Red Sticks after whites were killed at Fort Mims massacre. Already a regular army Creek regiment had been raised from Creeks in northeast and southeast Georgia, plus South Carolina to fight British Rangers from Florida, who were attacking coastal plantations. Many more West Georgia Creeks volunteered for military duty to fight the Red Sticks. A Creek mikko, William McIntosh, was appointed a Brigadier General in the United States Army. Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw men who joined his regiment were promised that they could stay in their present homeland forever, if they fought the Red Sticks. This turned out to be a lie.

The first battle between Creek Red Stick soldiers and the United States occurred in Calhoun County, Alabama. Three miles southwest of Jacksonville, Alabama on Tallasseehatchee Creek was the Red Stick town of Tallasseehatchee. Here a brigade of cavalrymen under the command of Brig. General John Coffee defeated the Creeks, November 3, 1813. About 12 miles south of Jacksonville on the north side of Big Shoal Creek, American volunteers and militia built Fort Chinnaby.

The Red Stick War initially did not go well as the American Army moved farther south into the more densely populated part of the Creek Nation. Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee Volunteers would have probably been annihilated without their army being doubled with Friendly Creeks and Cherokees. On several occasions Creek or Yuchi officers saved Jackson’s life. In gratitude he hired four agronomists to determine what portions of the Creek Nation were best suited for growing cotton. They drew a map.

After the Red Sticks were defeated, Jackson called his Georgia Creek allies together and informed him that they must give up over 20 million acres of potential cotton land, as punishment “for allowing the Red Sticks to rebel.” Jackson also quietly sent word back to Georgia that encouraged home guard and vigilante groups to burn the farms of Jackson’s own Creek allies.

The vast tract of land ceded to the United States in 1814 included Autauga County. Very little settlement occurred in the region until 1817, when all of the Creek and Alabama families had been forced off their ancestral lands.


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