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Liberty County is in a region of Florida with a rich Native American heritage. Due to the sandy soil and periodic floods on the Apalachicola River, most mounds built by its original inhabitants have disappeared. However, several known village sites remain intact. Most are near the banks of the Apalachicola River and therefore, partially protected from development by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The inhabitants of Liberty County when the region was first entered by Europeans were the Apalachicola. They were Muskogeans, and early members of the Creek Confederacy, but originally spoke an entirely different language than Muskogee. In English, Apalachicola means “torch bearing people.” It is derived from the Itsati word for torch or lamp – apala – and Gulf Coast dialect word for people – kola.
Location and Geography
Liberty County is located in the southeast corner of Florida, immediately west of the Apalachicola River. To the east, it adjoins Wakulla and Leon Counties. To the south, it adjoins Franklin and Gulf Counties. On the west is Pike County, AL. It also adjoins Gadsden County on the northeast and Jackson County on the northwest.
The entire county is in Florida’s Gulf Coastal Plain. This region is underlain by relatively young sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. The county drains eastward into the Apalachicola River. The terrain is characterized by low rolling clay hills and sandy loam along river or creek bottomlands.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Liberty 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 Apalachicola River Valley. 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.
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 late Archaic Period, a major trade route developed along the Apalachicola River that the Gulf of Mexico with the Appalachian Mountains. During this time, Native Americans began traveling long distances to trade and socialize.
During the Early Archaic Period, bands of indigenous peoples, who survived by hunting, fishing, gathering edible nuts, fruits & roots, plus harvesting fresh water mussels, established seasonal villages in Liberty County. The habitation sites were concentrated along the Apalachicola River and major streams. Villagers seasonally migrated between locations within fixed territorial boundaries to take advantage of maximum food availability from natural sources. For example, they might camp near stands of nut trees during the early autumn.
Beginning around 3,500 BC, Southeastern Native Americans began to intentionally cultivate wild plants near village sites. Over the centuries, selective cultivation resulted in domestic plants that were genetically different than their wild cousins. As the productivity of indigenous crops increased, the indigenous people were able to remain longer at village sites, and therefore had fewer habitation locations.
By the Late Archaic Period, c. 2000 BC, the knowledge of making pottery had spread from the Savannah River Basin to the Apalachicola River Basin. Large mounds of freshwater mussel shells developed along the Apalachicola at locations where villagers camped for generation after generation. More sedentary lifestyles made possible the development of pottery and grind stones. These items were impractical as long as people were migratory.
Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)
Beginning in the Woodland Period Native population began concentrating along mouth of the Apalachicola River. A sedentary lifestyle was made possible by abundant natural food sources such as game, freshwater mussels and Live Oak acorns and the cultivation of gardens. Agriculture came very early here. Initially, the cultivated plants were of indigenous origin and included a native squash, native sweet potato, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, amaranth, sumpweed, and chenopodium.
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, low 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. Whereas Native American farmers generally held all mounds to be sacred, 19th century Florida farmers often plowed through the smaller ones or even intentionally leveled large mounds. As a result, few Woodland Period mounds are visible on the surface of Liberty County, even though dozens or even hundreds once existed.
Muskogeans probably arrived in the Middle Chattahoochee River Valley around 400 BC. They soon developed permanent villages along the Apalachicola River and cultivated indigenous crops in large gardens. Pyramidal platform mounds have been found at archaeological sites farther north on the Chattahoochee River that date from c. 200 BC through around 600 AD.
Native American villages in the region around Liberty County were associated with the Santa Rosa Culture and later, the Weeden Creek Culture. The Santa Rosa Culture received its name from a site in Santa Rosa County. In Liberty County, the Middle Woodland village sites are typically located at the edge of the flood plain of Apalachicola River and major creeks. The Yon Mound Site near Bristol was originally inhabited between around 0 – 350 AD. A large town with mounds was established there around 1200 AD that remained occupied till about 1550 AD.
The Santa Rosa Culture evolved into the Weeden Island Culture. The Weeden Island Culture is distinguished by the construction of large ceremonial centers and the creation of sophisticated, sometimes exotic, ceramics. Inhabitants of Liberty County tended to produce artifacts reflecting many ceramic traditions. Pottery shards from several distinct styles in the Gulf Coast s have been found in the vicinity of Liberty County.
Around 600 AD, many villages south of the Fall Line in the Apalachicola Basin were suddenly abandoned. This is strong evidence that destructive invaders arrived from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic. The invaders were possibly Mesoamerican or Caribbean slave raiders, but to date there is definitive evidence to verify this speculation.
Coinciding with the disappearance of Swift Creek villages is the wide spread use of the bow and arrow. In the Apalachicola Valley, this next cultural phase is known as the Wakulla Culture. Pottery styles other than Wakulla gradually petered off, to the point at the end of the Late Woodland Period (1000 AD,) only Wakulla Style pottery has been indentified by archaeologists. Arrow points are easily distinguishable from atlatl (javelin) and spear points by their smaller size. It is not clear if the scarcity of Late Woodland settlement equates to a drop in total population. The efficiency of hunting with a bow may have made dispersed hamlets more desirable than concentrated villages.
Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (900 AD – 1645 AD)
Stark cultural changes began appearing on the Apalachicola River around 800 AD. The earliest mounds of this new cultural tradition in the Middle Chattahoochee River Basin have been radiocarbon dated around 900 AD, but the initial cultural influences came a little earlier. During the late 800s and 900s AD, most Mayas cities collapsed due to an extended drought, famines and chronic warfare. Given that many Mesoamerican words and some Maya DNA can be found among contemporary Creek Indians, it is quite likely that the cultural change was sparked by the settlement of Maya commoner refugees along the Apalachicola. However, this theory has not been fully accepted by the archaeology profession.
In 1947, prior to the professional study of many Southeastern Native American sites, a congress of archaeologists, meeting at Harvard University, decided that the first mounds were built in Ohio and the first advance, agricultural society occurred at Cahokia Mounds, Illinois. The advanced culture was labeled the Mississippian Culture, because Cahokia was near the Mississippi River. It is now know that large ceremonial mounds were being constructed in the Southeast as early as 3500 BC (Watson Brake, LA) and that “Mississippian cultural traits” first appeared in southern Florida, then spread to the Apalachicola and Ocmulgee River Basins at least as early as 900 AD . . . 150 years before they appeared in full bloom at Cahokia. Therefore, the term, “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” is a more accurate description of cultural history in eastern Florida.
Between 1000 AD and 1600 AD the region around present-day Liberty County was part of the Fort Walton Culture. The Fort Walton Culture towns were concentrated along the Gulf Coast, but had a cultural influence about 70 miles inland. The major cultural center of the region was a multiple mound site at Chattahoochee Landing in Gadsden County, FL.
Apparently, the Apalachicola People evolved from a blending of an indigenous people, as represented by the Wakulla Culture, with proto-Creek elite from large town sites upstream. Very few words of the Apalachicola language other than town names, survive today. It appears to have been a blending of Gulf Coast Choctaw and Itsati (Hitchiti) Creek words. Itsati contains many Mesoamerican words from the Totonacs and Itza Mayas of Mexico.
European Colonial Period
The archives from the earliest European expeditions and colonization efforts in Florida describe a very different ethnic landscape that observed by the waves of settlers in entered Florida in the early 1800s. Creek scholars can identify the ethnic identities of the aboriginal peoples by the indigenous words recorded by Europeans.
The geographic center of the original Creek Indian territory was at modern day Macon, GA. It was here, at the ancient town of Achese, that representative of many provinces came together in the late 1600s to form a political alliance to combat the horrific slave raids being sponsored by the Colony of Virginia; the constant incursions of Spaniards from the south or Algonquian–speaking invaders from the north. Liberty County, AL would have been on the far southern edge of this alliance.
There is archival and archaeological evidence that European diseases began to sweep through the Southeast as early as 1500 AD. A smallpox plague in the Yucatan spread across the Caribbean and then was carried to the Gulf Coast by Native American merchants. In the early 1540s, when the Hernando de Soto Expedition bullied its way through the Southeast, the Native provinces were still thriving in the interior. Most seem to have not been affected by the diseases that were ravaging communities on the Gulf Coast. However, de Soto’s army left a path of feral pigs and human pathogens wherever it went.
Various European diseases continued to periodically sweep through the Southeastern Indian settlements for the next 250 years. It has been estimated that by 1800, the Native American population of Florida was somewhere between 10% and 2% of its level in 1492. Most of the ancestral Florida (tribe) population was apparently wiped out by 1600 AD. Thus, the descendants of the people, who once built the great towns at Moundville, Florida, were reduced to being a minor ethnic group, which was often forced to merge with other peoples in order to withstand attacks from their enemies.
In 1645 the Governor of the Spanish province of La Florida dispatched an army up the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers to punish the Apalachicola Creeks for not accepting Roman Catholic missionaries. The army burned all towns that refused to submit to Spanish authority. Many Apalachicola towns near Spanish-controlled territory were abandoned. The occupants moved northward to the Etowah River Valley of present day northwestern Georgia.
In the late 1670s, traders from the new colony of Charlestown, made contact with the Apalachicola. The Englishmen set up a trading post on the Lower Chattahoochee River. Spain attempted to intimidate the Apalachicola in order to discourage trade with the British, but these acts pushed the Apalachicola into an alliance with the Muskogee Creeks upstream.
In 1702 an Apalachicola army decisively defeated the Spanish near the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. Approximately, ¾ of the Spaniards were killed. This battle marked the end of any Spanish influence over the Apalachicola.
In 1704 and 1705 combined Apalachicola, Muskogee and British armies completed destroyed the mission system and forts of northern Florida. By 1707 Spanish occupation of northern Florida was pretty much limited to the fortified towns of St. Augustine and Pensacola.
At the close of the Yamasee War (1715-1717) many towns that had been clustered around the Fall Line of the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia relocated to the Chattahoochee River. They were on both sides of the river, since no one told them that it would become the boundary between two states one day. Over time more Creek towns settled along this corridor. The Creeks gradually extended their territory southward along the Apalachicola River to the Gulf Coast.
The Apalachicola thrived in the NW Georgia Mountains until 1763, when France was defeated by Great Britain in the French and Indian War. Although there was little fighting in the Southeast, France was forced to give up all of the Province of Louisiana. The Apalachicola were French allies and apparently vacated most of their towns in NW Georgia; then returned to southeastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
After the American Revolution
In the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution, Spain re-acquired West Florida, which included the Florida Panhandle and all lands of present-day southern Florida north to the 31st parallel. What is now Liberty County returned to nominal Spanish sovereignty, but Spain was too weak to have any significant influence over the Creek Confederacy, other than by bribery. The Creek Confederacy even built a fleet of gunboats for a navy to patrol the Apalachicola-Apalachicola River and the coast.
The zenith of power for the Creek Confederacy was the period between 1783 and 1812. The Creeks controlled the largest territory of any Indian tribe in the United States. Unlike the Cherokees, they had not as a whole sided with the British. During these decades, Creek leaders successfully played the United States, the Spanish in West Florida and the English in East Florida against each other.
During the War of 1812, American armies invaded Spanish West Florida at will, in order to pursue bands of Red Stick Creeks. In 1818 negotiations were begun between Spain and the United States concerning the future of Florida. In 1821 Spain ceded what is now southern Alabama, plus Florida to the United States in return for the United States renouncing its claims on Texas.
The Treaty of Cusseta
By 1832, their situation had so weakened that Creek leaders agreed to sign a treaty to relinquish their remaining lands. Federal, state and Creek officials met at the Creek town of Kawshite, (Cusseta in English) on the Georgia side of the Apalachicola, to force the Creeks to renounce sovereignty over their territory. Any Creek families wishing to stay in Alabama (but not Georgia) were granted 320 acres fee simple of land of their choosing. Those that agreed to migrate to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) were to be provided travel costs and sufficient supplies to survive the first year in their new home. The Federal government also paid the Creek Confederacy $350,000 to support Creek orphans.
Most Creek families did not know the boundaries of their farms, nor their values. Almost immediately after the Treaty of Cusseta was signed, real estate speculators began buying Creek farms for pittances. The Creek unfortunately assumed that they could just move somewhere else, as in the past. An even worse situation was caused by squatters, who merely seized Creek farmsteads by force. As before, the Alabama state government did nothing to protect Creek families, who were now state citizens. After becoming homeless, many Creek families drifted southward into Florida to find land that nobody claimed.
The many citizens of Liberty County, who proudly remember their Creek ancestry, are descended from Creeks who somehow managed to avoid deportation. Creek women, who were married to Caucasian men were not required to travel to the Indian Territory. Creek families, who had at least one man, who fought for the United States in the War of 1812, Redstick War, Second or Third Creek Wars or Seminole Wars, were not forcibly deported. Some Creek families, who took allotments in 1832 and were members of predominantly white church congregations, were protected by their neighbors.
There were also some Creek families, who became affluent, and stayed in the area. Apparently, the attitude at that time was that if a Creek family owned a plantation or large farm, they were not really “Injuns.” Some Creek families were able to hide out in the swamps or with white relatives until the militia departed the area. According to the United States Census, approximately 1 ½ % of the county is Native American. However, a much higher percent of the population probably has some Native American ancestry.