Native American History of Russell County, Alabama

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In 1832 the Treaty of Cusseta transferred the lands of the Creek Confederacy to the United States.  This territory included what is now Russell County. Although most Alabamans today probably assume that the Creek Indians are an ancient, indigenous ethnic group, that once occupied all or most of their state, the Creek Tribe, in fact, is a political entity that is not much older than Alabama itself. The ethnic label “Creek” does not even appear on official British maps until around 1745. Until after the American Revolution, maps described locations of specifically named ethnic groups within the geographical regions denote as “Creek.”  The word “Muscogee” – which nowadays is considered synonymous with “Creek” – does not appear on any maps until late in the 18th Century.

Russell County figures very prominently in the pre-European and Federal periods of the Muskogee-Creek history.  Although the archaeological profession is aware of at least some of the Native American town and village sites in Russell County, these archaeological zones have not received public protection, nor are they generally known to those in Russell County charges with the management of the county’s development.

The State of Alabama is obviously proud of its Native American history as evidenced by past investments at Moundville, AL.   The State of Alabama was also supportive of the efforts to reconstruct Fort Mitchell in Russell County.  Fort Mitchell functioned as a prison for captive Creeks destined for deportation to Oklahoma. Both Fort Mitchell and earthworks briefly occupied by Spanish invaders have been designated National Historic Landmarks, while the county’s Native American town sites are ignored.

Russell County contains the last capital of the Creek Nation, Koweta.  Koweta was also one of the first towns with pyramidal mounds on the Chattahoochee River (c. 900 AD.)   The largest mound at Koweta is being rapidly destroyed by a change in the stream bed of the Chattahoochee River. Currently, it is not a public historic site, nor has it received protection from land use regulatory agencies.

Alabama’s failure to protect Muskogee historical sites contrasts sharply with actions of neighboring states. Contemporary Ocmulgee Mounds in Macon, GA is a national monument and proposed to become a national park.  New Echota National Landmark in northwestern Georgia was only occupied by the Cherokees around five years, but has received extensive restoration by the State of Georgia as a tourist attraction.  The Cherokees are not indigenous to Georgia.

Location and Geography

Russell County is located in east central Alabama, immediately west of Columbus-Muscogee County, GA.  To the north of Russell County are Lee County and the Auburn-Opelika Metropolitan Area. To the west are Bullock and Macon Counties, AL. To the south is Barbour County, AL and to the southeast is Stewart County, GA

The entire county is in Alabama’s Gulf Coastal Plain. This region is underlain by relatively young sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.  The county drains eastward into the Chattahoochee River.   The terrain is characterized by low rolling clay hills and sandy loam along river or creek bottomlands. The principal streams feeding into the Chattahoochee are Bluff, Uchee, Little Uchee, Ihagee, Broken Arrow, Cochgalechee, Hatchechubbee, Cowikee, Maringo, Ihagee and Weolustee Creeks.

Native American Cultural Periods

Earliest Inhabitants

Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Russell 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 Chattahoochee 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 Chattahoochee 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 Russell County.  The habitation sites were concentrated along the Chattahoochee 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 Chattahoochee River Basin.  Large mounds of freshwater mussel shells developed along the Chattahoochee at locations where villagers camped for generation after generation. More sedentary lifestyles made possible the development of pottery and carving of soapstone bowls.  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 the Fall Line of the Chattahoochee River. Along with the nearby Etowah River Valley, the Chattahoochee River Valley was a location 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 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 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 Alabama 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 Russell 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 Chattahoochee 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 Russell County were associated first with the Copena Culture and later, the Swift Creek Culture. The Copena Culture received its name from the abundance of copper, lead crystal and quartz crystal artifacts found in burials.  Swift Creek villages were concentrated along the Fall Line of the Ocmulgee, Oconee and Chattahoochee Rivers. Swift Creek Culture villages are clearly identified by sophisticated pottery, stamped with ornate designs.  In Russell County, the Middle Woodland village sites are typically located at the edge of the flood plain of Chattahoochee River and major creeks.

Along the Lower Chattahoochee, the Swift Creek 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 Russell County were possibly influenced by the Weeden Island culture by attending ceremonies on the massive Mandeville and Kolomoki Mound site near the Chattahoochee River in present day southeastern Georgia. However, they tended to produce artifacts reflecting many ceramic traditions. Pottery shards from several distinct styles in the Gulf Coast and Piedmont regions have been found in the vicinity of Russell County.

Around 600 AD, many villages south of the Fall Line in the Chattahoochee 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 Chattahoochee 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, 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 Lower Chattahoochee River around 800 AD.  The earliest mounds of this new cultural tradition 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 Chattahoochee.  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 Chattahoochee 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 Alabama.

The earliest town with a mound near Russell County was the Abercrombie Mound (Site 1RU61) in Russell County.  It was initially constructed around 900 AD in a town that was the political capital of the “Averett Phase” as named by archaeologists.  This indigenous culture thrived until around 1400 AD.

There was a period of about 200 years when there were no large towns in the vicinity of Russell County.  The Abercrombie Mound was re-occupied around 1600 AD by immediate ancestors of the Creek Indians. This was probably one of the locations of large towns named Koweta.  Native peoples living around the Fall Line refused allow the Spanish to establish missions and forts in their province.  As punishment, their towns were burned in 1645 by an invading Spanish army from Florida.  The Abercrombie Mound town site was never reoccupied.

Prior to the late 1700s, what is now the State of Alabama was a patchwork quilt of indigenous ethnic groups, speaking several languages and many dialects.  During the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s  indigenous survivors of a series of invasions, wars, plagues, slave  raids and forced relocation,  repeatedly formed alliances and settled new villages.   Over time they evolved mixed cultural traditions and adopted hybrid languages so that they could communicate with each other.  This process of internal cultural assimilation among the Creeks continued until the majority of traditional Creek towns were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma.

European Colonial Period

The archives from the earliest European expeditions and colonization efforts in Alabama describe a very different ethnic landscape that observed by the waves of settlers in entered Alabama 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.  Russell County, AL would have been on the far western 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 Alabama was somewhere between 10% and 2% of its level in 1492.   Most of the ancestral Alabama (tribe) population was apparently wiped out by 1600 AD.   Thus, the descendants of the people, who once built the great towns at Moundville, Alabama, 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 Chattahoochee River to punish the Apalachicola Creeks for not accepting Roman Catholic missionaries. The army burned all towns that refused to submit to Spanish authority.  The Spanish constructed an earthen fortification for a garrison to protect the Franciscan missionaries.   Apparently, at this time, the Muskogee Creeks were not based in the Russell County – Columbus, GA area. However, this is not known for certain.  The Spanish also apparently decided that the Creek Indians were not prone to being submissive and that attempted military repression just made the situation worse.  They went home.

In 1714 Fort Toulouse was constructed at the conjunction of the Coosa & Tallapoosa Rivers, near modern day Wetumka.   The fort was originally built to protect the Alabama Tribe from Cherokee slave raids.  However, it quickly attracted numerous ethnic groups considered ancestral to the Creeks. When looking at the old French maps of the environs of Fort Toulouse, one can see names of towns visited by the Spanish when they were exploring the mountains of North Carolina & Tennessee.

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 Fall Line area of 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.

The English were largely ignorant of what is now Alabama until after the American Revolution.  English colonial maps contained very little detailed information about the landscape west of the Chattahoochee River or north/west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  However, after the founding of Charlestowne (SC) in 1674, the English developed a brisk trade with the ancestors of the Creeks living in South Carolina, Georgia and eastern Alabama.  The Creeks quickly began using iron pots instead of pottery.

By the eve of the American Revolution, traders based in Augusta, GA were ranging throughout most of Alabama, but the Alabama Creeks still tended to be more traditional in lifestyle, than their brethren in Georgia. Of course, back then both Alabama and Georgia were in the Colony of Georgia.  English traders often married Creek women in order to gain the trust of Creek leaders.  Their mixed heritage children generally became leaders because they were able to understand the ways of the Creeks and the ways of the Europeans.

French explorers, soldiers and traders began canoeing up the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in the 1690s.  Unlike the English, they produced accurate maps of the region.  They also stayed on good terms with most of the Indian towns throughout their stay in Alabama.  After Mobile was founded by the French in 1702, the French influence in Alabama increased

The British won the French & Indian War in the north. The French province of Louisiana, east of the Mississippi became British territory.  The New Orleans area, plus Louisiana, west of the Mississippi went to Spanish ownership. Therefore, the marines at Fort Toulouse were forced to either return to France or become Spanish subjects in Spanish Louisiana.   Many of their Native allies went with them to Spanish Louisiana.   Creek and Yuchi towns from eastern Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee established new locations in what is now Russell County.

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 Alabama north to the 31st parallel.  Until 1802, the remainder of Alabama was part of the State of Georgia. When ceding its claim to Alabama, Georgia was promised that the Federal government would remove all Indians from the state’s new boundaries.

The zenith of power for the Creek Indian 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.

There was increasingly serious internal friction among the factions of the Creeks, while they superficially appeared powerful.  Large numbers of Shawnee immigrants had joined the Confederacy, who brought with them vestiges of their traditions. Many Upper Creeks fought with, or at least sympathized with the Chickamauga Cherokees, whose atrocities caused undying hatred among Tennesseans. Meanwhile, the Muskogee and Georgia Creeks were growing prosperous from selling produce and livestock to towns and plantations.  These Creeks were intentionally intermarrying with middle class white families to insure good relations with their neighbors.

The Red Stick War

After English and Spanish agents promised military supplies to the anti-United States faction, the Red Stick War erupted.  It was initially a civil war between Creek factions. It was called the Red Stick War because the rebels symbolized their desire for war by carrying river canes painted red to council meetings.

Most Creek families in what is now Russell County either stayed neutral sided with the pro-United States faction. Several even furnished soldiers to the United States Army.  The reason was that the majority of Creek families in that area were recently removed from Georgia and South Carolina, and essentially had life styles little different than white American farmers. Fort Mitchell was established in 1813 to protect the pro-American Creek faction in the Chattahoochee River Basin and western Georgia. It was only a file miles distance from Koweta, the capital of the Creek Confederacy.  Creek sovereign territory changed so starkly after the Red Stick War that contemporary historians often forget that both Fort Mitchell and Koweta were once in the center of the nation’s largest indigenous and most powerful indigenous nation.

While the fighting with the Red Stick Creeks was still going on, General Andrew Jackson hired four agronomists to determine what portions of the Creek Nation were best suited for growing cotton.  As a result, at the Treaty of Fort Jackson which ended the war, he demanded that the Creeks give up 23 million acres of territory that was especially suitable for plantation development. Most of this land was occupied by his “Friendly” Creek allies!  .

Pro-United States Creeks evicted from their farms in Georgia without compensation, poured into the Russell County Area. The traumas of the war, plus the flood of impoverished refugees, caused an economic collapse of Creek society. The Creek refugees were soon followed by white squatters.  The state government made no effort to enforce Creek ownership of land.

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 Chattahoochee, 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 Alabama citizens. By design of the Alabama planter elite, conditions continually deteriorate among the Creek families, who tried to stay.  Many were starving because vigilante groups destroyed their crops just before harvest.

The many citizens of Russell 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 took allotments in 1832, then became affluent, and stayed in the area.  Apparently, the attitude at that time was that if a Creek family owned a plantation, 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.  Some counties in the State of Georgia continued to illegally sponsor pogroms against its Creek citizens until just before the Civil War.

Georgia Militia or vigilante groups would typically deposit Georgia Creek families at the Alabama line, in or near Fort Mitchell, after a pogrom.  The homeless Creek families were often as not, left to their own devices as to how to pick up the pieces of their lives.  Some stayed in Alabama, while others moved to Oklahoma or to Creek communities in East Texas.

Translation of Creek geographical names in Russell County

(Translations were based on “A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee” by Jack B. Martin and Margaret Maudin)

English
Original Creek word
Branch of Creeks
Probable Meaning
MuscogeeMvskokiMuskogeeSwamp People or Medicine People
CowetaKowi-teItsatiMountain Lion People
CowikeeKowi-kiMuskogeeMountain Lion People
Chattahoochee RiverCata-hvciItsatiRed River
Uchee CreekYocceMuskogeeYuchi Tribe
Little Uchee CreekYocceMuskogeeYuchi Tribe
Broken ArrowRe KackvMuskogeeBroken Arrow tribal town
IthageeEtha-keMuskogeeTribal town’s name
HatcheechubeeHaci-copeMuskogeeCreek-big
CochgalecheeKakv-leciMuskogeeSmall pox (plague)
WeolusteeWeo-lvstiApalachicolaBlack Water tribal town

1. Itsati is the Creek word for Hitchiti.
2. A Muskogean “c” is pronounced like an English “ch” sound.
3. A Muskogean “v” is pronounced like an English “aw” sound.
4. An Itsati or Maya “s” inside a word is pronounced something like a “sh” sound.
5. English and Cherokee speakers generally converted Creek “p’s” to “b’s” and “k’s” to “g’s”

 



MLA Source Citation:

Thornton, Richard. People of One Fire. Web. Georgia. 2010-2013. Digital Rights Copyright 2010-2013 by AccessGenealogy.com. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/native-american-history-of-russell-county-alabama.htm - Last updated on Jan 27th, 2013


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