Collection: Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi

Burial Customs of Southern Ohio

The origin and age of the earthworks of southern Ohio and the adjoining sections of Kentucky and West Virginia have remained unsolved questions. The works are remarkable for three reasons, namely, their size, number and forms. By their size and number it is quite evident they were erected by a sedentary people, a numerous people who occupied the country for a long period, and by their forms it is shown these same people possessed certain recognized customs and beliefs which caused them to erect the great circles and squares, octagons and other figures, so accurately and skillfully constructed. And so the questions arise, By whom were the vast works raised? and, For what reason was the rich and fertile land abandoned? The first of the many groups of earthworks to be described was that at Marietta, on the Ohio at the mouth of the Muskingum. These were surveyed by Capt. Jonathan Heart, and his map, together with descriptive text, appeared in Vol. I, No. 9, of The Columbian Magazine, published in Philadelphia in May, 1 787. Other accounts were soon printed, to be followed in 1848 by the great work by E. G. Squier and E. 11. Davis, this. being the most interesting and most valuable volume ever published on American antiquities. During latter years many of the sites described at that time have disappeared through the cultivation of...

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Biloxi and Pascagoula Burial Customs

The “Siouan Tribes of the East,” whose burial customs so far as known are detailed on the preceding pages, were carefully studied some years ago, at which time all available notes were gathered and presented in a single volume. A few years before the preparation of this most interesting bulletin a discovery of the greatest importance was made by another member of the bureau staff, Mr. Gatschet, who, while engaged in Louisiana in 1886, discovered a small band of Biloxi, some of whom spoke their old language, which Gatschet soon found was Siouan. The Biloxi therefore belonged to the great Siouan family, and the neighboring Pascagoula were probably of the same stock. These were among the first of the native tribes encountered by the French in 1699, and, fortunately, a sketch of their burial customs has been preserved. The account was written by a French officer about the year 1730, and, as quoted by Swanton, reads: ” The Paskagoulas and the Billoxis never inter their chief when he is dead, but they have his body dried in the fire and smoke so that they make of it a veritable skeleton. After having reduced it to this condition they carry it to the temple (for they have one as well as the Natchez) and put it in the place occupied by its predecessor, which they take from the place which...

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Santee Burial Customs

Siouan tribes extended southward into the central portions of the present State of South Carolina, and the Santee were undoubtedly members of this linguistic family. One of their villages probably stood on the shore of Scott Lake, in the valley of the Santee about 10 miles southwest of Summerton, Clarendon County. Here, near the shore of the lake, is a conical mound of earth, and scattered over the surrounding area are many fragments of pottery and other traces of an Indian settlement, but the surface has been modified by the waters of the Santee during periods of flood, and consequently the greater part of the surface as it was at the time of Indian occupancy has been washed away or covered by alluvium. This site is, in a direct line, a little more than 60 miles northwest of Charleston, and the village may have been one visited by Lawson during the first days of January. 1701. The mound may have been the one referred to by Lawson, who, after mentioning his meeting with the Santee, continued: “Near to these Cabins are several Tombs made after the fashion of the Indians; the largest and chiefest of theta was the Sepulchre of the late Indian King of the Santees, a Man of (Treat Power, not only amongst his own subjects, but dreaded by the Neighboring Nations for his great Valour and...

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Timucuan Burial Customs

Long before the Seminole reached central Florida the peninsula had been the home of other native tribes who have. left many mounds and other works to indicate the positions of their villages. The northern half of the peninsula, from the Ocilla River on the north to the vicinity of Tampa Bay on the south, and thence across to about Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast, was, when first visited by the Spaniards, the home of tribes belonging to the Timucuan family, of whom very little is known. They were encountered near the site of the present city of St. Augustine by Ponce de Leon in 1513, on the west coast by Narvaez in 1525, and in the same region by De Soto 11 years later. The southern half of the peninsula, especially along the Gulf coast, was also occupied by many villages, but even less is known of the inhabitants, nor is it definitely known to what linguistic family they belonged, although they may have been Muskhogean. Much of interest regarding the burial customs of the ancient people who occupied this region at the time of the coming of Europeans has been learned as a result of the careful examination of many mounds, both on the east and west coast. Moore has examined many mounds on the west coast between Tampa Bay and the mouth of the Ocilla, and...

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Seminole Burial Customs

The Seminole, the immigrants from the Creek towns who settled in Florida during the eighteenth century, were little influenced by the whites until very recent years. Living as they did in the midst of the great swamps of the southern part of the peninsula, with no roads penetrating the tangle of semitropical vegetation, and with even the location of their settlements unknown to the occupants of other parts of Florida, they were never visited, and seldom seen except when they chose to make journeys to the traders near the coast. Consequently the burial customs of the people, as witnessed 40 years ago, were probably little different from those practiced during the past generations. The account written at that time referred particularly to the death and burial of a child: ” The preparation for burial began as soon as death had taken place. The body was clad in a new shirt, a new handkerchief being tied about the neck and another around the head. A spot of red paint was placed on the right cheek and one of black upon the left. The body was laid face upwards. In the left hand, together with a bit of burnt wood, a small bow about twelve inches in length was placed, the hand lying naturally over the middle of the body. Across the bow, held by the right hand, was laid an...

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Creek Burial Customs

The Creeks had burial customs resembling those of the Chickasaw, and, in some instances, deposited the remains of their dead beneath the floors of their habitations. To quote from Bartram: ” The Muscogulges bury their deceased in the earth. They dig a four-square deep pit under the cabin or couch which the deceased lay on, in his house, lining the grave with Cypress bark, where they place the corpse in a sitting posture, as if it were alive; depositing with him his gun, tomahawk, pipe, and such other matters as he had the greatest value for in his life time.” And when Romans referred to the same people, he said: ” The dead are buried in a sitting posture, and they are furnished with a musket, powder and ball, a hatchet, pipe, some tobacco, a club, a bow and arrows, a looking glass, some vermillion and other trinkets, in order to come well provided in the land of spirits.” Another traveler a few years later, in 1791, left a brief account of the customs of the Creeks, and said in part: “Upon the Decease of an Adult of either Sex, the Friends and Relations of the Decedent religiously collect whatever he or she held most dear in Life, and inter them close by and sometimes in their Owner’s Grave. This pious Tribute to their Dead includes Horses, Cows, Hogs,...

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Chickasaw Burial Customs

The Chickasaw lived in the hilly country north of the Choctaw, and although of the same stock they were ever enemies. Many of their customs differed and instead of the elaborate burial ceremonies of the Choctaw, “They bury their dead almost the moment the breath is out of the body, in the very spot under the couch on which the deceased died, and the nearest relations woeful lamentations; the women are very vociferous in it, but the men do it in silence, taking great care not to be seen any more than heard at this business; the mourning continues about a year, which they know by counting the moons, they are every morning and evening, and at first throughout the day at different times, employed in the exercise of this last duty.” More details of the ceremony were recorded by Adair, who was well acquainted with the manners and customs of the Chickasaw, having traded among them for many years. According to his narrative: “When any of their. people die at home, they wash and anoint the corpse, and soon bring it out of doors,after a short eulogium, and space of mourning, they carry him three times around the house in which he is to be interred, stopping half a minute each time.” The excavation was described as being clean inside, and after the body had been deposited within...

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Illinois Burial Customs

The term Illinois Indians as used by some early writers was intended to include the various Algonquian tribes, encountered in the “Illinois country,” in addition to those usually recognized as forming the Illinois confederacy. Thus, in the following quotation from Joutel will be found a reference to the Chahouanous – i. e., Shawnee – as being of the Islinois, and in the same note Accancea referred to the Quapaw, a Siouan tribe living on the right bank of the Mississippi, not far north of the mouth of the Arkansas. Describing the burial customs of the Illinois, as witnessed by him during the latter years of the seventeenth century, Joutel wrote: ” They pay a Respect to their Dead, as appears by their special Care of burying them, and even of putting into lofty Coffins the Bodies of such as are considerable among them, as their Chiefs and others, which is also practised among the Accancea’s, but they differ in this Particular, that the Accancea’s weep and make their Complaints for some Days, where as the Chahoaanous, and other People of the Islinois Nation do just the Contrary; for when any of them die, they wrap them up in Skins, and then put them into Coffins made of the Barks of Trees, then sing and dance about them for twenty four Hours. Those Dancers take Care to tie Calabashes, or...

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Natchez Burial Customs

When referring to the burial customs of the Natchez, that most interesting of the many tribes of the lower Mississippi Valley, the early writers by whom the tribe was visited seldom alluded to the rites which attended the final disposition of the remains of the less important members of the nation, but devoted themselves to describing the varied and sanguinary ceremonies enacted at the time of the death and burial of a Sun. Swanton has already brought together the various accounts and descriptions of these most unusual acts, and consequently they need not be repeated at the present time. Nevertheless the first two will be quoted to serve as means of comparing the remarkable ceremonies followed by members of this tribe with the manners and customs of their neighbors. Of the two accounts given below, Swanton said ” The first was given to Gravier by the French youth whom Iberville left in 1700 to learn the Natchez language, and the second details the obsequies of a grand chieftainess of which the author Penicaut claims to have been a witness in 1704.” The Frenchman whom M. d’Iberville left there to learn the language told me that on the death of the last chief they put to death two women, three men, and three children. They strangled them with a bowstring, and this cruel ceremony was performed with great pomp, these...

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Five Nations Burial Customs

Writing of the Iroquois or Five Nations, during the early years of the eighteenth century, at a time when they dominated the greater part of the present State of New York, it was said: “Their funeral Rites seem to be formed upon a Notion of some Kind of Existence after Death. They make a large round Hole, in which the Body can be placed upright, or upon its Haunches, which after the Body is placed in it, is covered with Timber, to support the Earth which they lay over, and thereby keep the Body free from being pressed; they then raise the Earth in a round Hill over it. They always dress the Corps in all its Finery, and put Wampum and other Things into the Grave with it; and the Relations suffer not Grass or any Weed to grow on the Grave, and frequently visit it with Lamentations.” The circular mound of earth over the grave was likewise mentioned a century earlier, having been seen at the Oneida village which stood east of the present Munnsville, Madison County, New York. “Before we reached the castle we saw three graves, just like our graves in length and height,; usually their graves are round. These graves were surrounded with palisades that they had split from trees, and they were closed up so nicely that it was a wonder to see....

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Menominee Burial Customs

The Menomini (Menominee Tribe), whose home when first encountered by Europeans during the early years of the seventeenth century was west of Lake Michigan, evidently possessed many customs quite similar to those of the Ojibway. Their dead were usually deposited in excavated graves, but they also had some form of scaffold burial. “The Menomini formerly disposed of their dead by inclosing the bodies in long pieces of birchbark or in slats of wood, and burying them in a shallow hole. When not in the neighborhood of birch or other trees, from which broad pieces of bark could be obtained, some of the men would search for the nearest dugout, from which they would cut a piece long enough to contain the body. In some instances sections of hollow trees were used as coffins. In order to afford protection against wild beasts, there were placed over the grave three logs-two directly on the ground and the third on the others. They were prevented from rolling away by stakes driven into the earth. ” More modern customs now prevail with the greater body of the tribe, and those who have been Christianized adopt the following course: A wooden coffin is made and the body laid out in the ordinary manner. The burial takes place usually the day on which death occurs. The graves are about 4 feet deep. Over the mound...

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West of the Alleghenies Burial Customs

The burial customs of some western Algonquian tribes were, in many respects, quite similar to those of the New England Indians. It will be recalled that soon after the Mayflower touched at Cape Cod a party of the Pilgrims went ashore and during their explorations discovered several groups of graves, some of which “had like an Indian house made over them, but not matted.” They may when erected have been covered with mats. The similarity between this early reference and the description of certain Ojibway graves, two centuries and more later, is very interesting. Writing from “American Fur Company’s trading establishment, Fond du Lac, July 30, 1826,” McKenney told of an Ojibway grave then standing at that post, near the extreme southwestern corner of Lake Superior. “The Indians’ graves are first covered over with bark. Over the grave the same shelter is made, and of the same materials, as enter into the form and structure of a lodge. Poles are stuck into the ground, and bent over, and fastened at the top; and these are covered with bark Thus the grave is inclosed. An opening is left. like that in the door of a lodge. Before this door (I am describing a grave that is here) a post is planted, and the dead having been a warrior, is painted red. Near this post, a pole is stuck in the...

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Choctaw Burial Customs

Thus the greater part of the southern country was claimed and occupied by tribes belonging to the Muskhogean group, who were first encountered by the Spanish explorers of the early sixteenth century, and who continued to occupy the region until removed during the first half of the nineteenth century. For three centuries they are known to have remained within the same limited area. On the west were the Choctaw, whose villages extended over a large part of the present State of Mississippi and eastward into Alabama. And to this tribe should undoubtedly be attributed the many burial mounds now encountered within the bounds of their ancient territory, but the remains as now found embedded in a mass of sand and earth forming the mound represent only one, the last, phase of the ceremonies which attended the death and burial of the Choctaw. These as witnessed and described by Bartram were quite distinct. “As soon as a person is dead, they erect a scaffold eighteen or twenty feet high, in a grove adjacent to the town, where they lay the corpse lightly covered with a mantle; here it is suffered to remain, visited and protected by the friends and relations, until the flesh becomes putrid, so as easily to part from the bones; then undertakers, who made it their business, carefully strip the flesh from the bones, wash and cleanse...

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Powhatan Confederacy Burial Customs

It is to be regretted that more is not known concerning the burial customs of the Algonquian tribes of Virginia, those who constituted the Powhatan confederacy, people with whom the Jamestown Colonists came in contact during the spring of 1607. Several accounts are preserved, but unfortunately all are lacking in detail. Capt. Smith included burial customs under the general caption of their Religion, and in 1612 wrote: ” But their chiefe God they worship is the Divell. Him they call Oke and serve him more of feare than love.. They say they have conference with him, and fashion themselves as neare to his shape as they can imagine. In their Temples, they have his image evill favouredly carved, and then painted and adorned with chaines, copper, and beads; and covered with a skin, in such manner as the deformity may well suit with such a God. By him is commonly the sepulcher of their kings. Their bodies are first bowelled, then dryed upon hurdles till they bee verie dry, and so about the most of their jointer and necke they hang bracelets or chaines of copper, pearle, and such like, as they use to weare : their inwards they stuffe with copper beads and cover with a skin, hatchets, and such trash. Then lappe they them very carefully in white skins, and so rowle them in mats for their...

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Naticoke Burial Customs

The Nanticoke, who lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, were connected, linguistically, with the Delaware, and before the latter removed westward beyond the Alleghenies they were neighboring tribes. The Nanticoke were encountered by Capt. John Smith and his party of colonists from Jamestown in 1608, living on or near the river which continues to bear their tribal name. For many years they were enemies of the colonists, but remained in the region until about 1730, when the majority of the tribe began moving northward, stopping at the mouth of the Juniata, and elsewhere in the valley of the Susquehanna, at last arriving in southern New York on the eastern branch of the latter stream, where they rested under protection of the Iroquois, who then dominated that section. Tribal movements were often slow and deliberate, with stops of years on the way, and a generation elapsed between the starting of the Nanticoke from the Eastern Shore and their arrival among the Iroquois. Like many tribes, they removed the remains of the dead from their old home to their new settlements, This was witnessed by Heckewelder, who wrote “These Nanticokes had the singular custom of removing the bones of their deceased friends from the burial place to a place of deposit in the country they dwell in, In earlier times they were known to go from Wyoming and Chemenk, to...

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