Native American History of Houston County, Georgia
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Houston County is located in central Georgia and is part of the Macon, GA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA.) It is named after American Revolutionary leader, John Houstoun (1744 –1796). The spelling of the county’s name was changed to its current form after his death. However, it is pronounced House-ton, not like the Texas city of the same name. Its county seat is Perry.
John Houstoun was born in St. George’s parish near present-day Waynesboro. His father was a baronet (minor nobility) from Scotland and a successful planter. Houstoun was appointed to the Governor’s Council by Royal Governor James Wright, but soon became an active proponent for Georgia’s autonomy from Great Britain. He was elected to both the 1775 and 1776 Continental Congresses, but did not attend the one in 1776 that adopted the Declaration of Independence.
When the first president of the Georgia Committee of Safety, Archibald Bulloch, was poisoned by a British agent, Houstoun took over leadership of the patriot government in Savannah. He also was in command of the Georgia militia, until his personal conflicts with regular Continental Army officers contributed significantly to the failure of an attack on St. Augustine in British East Florida. He was elected Governor of Georgia in 1778, but had to flee Savannah in December of 1779, when it was captured by the British.
After the Revolution, Houstoun served another one year term as governor. In 1790 he became the first elected Mayor of Savannah. In 1791 was appointed a justice of the Superior Court of Georgia. In 1792 he was appointed president of the Chatham Academy, Georgia’s oldest high school, and served in that capacity until his death in 1796.
Geology and hydrology
Houston County is located in the Sand Hills and Atlantic Coastal Plain geological regions. The northwestern part of the county and composes about 10% of its land area. The remainder of the county is in the Atlantic Coastal Plain.
The Sand Hills are located immediately south of the Fall Line. They are the remnants of barrier islands and sand dunes from the Miocene Era or about 20 million years ago. Because rain water drains rapidly through the sandy soil, this region is especially vulnerable to droughts. Only certain types of pines thrived in these regions. To early European settlers they were known as “pine barrens” or “deserts.” They were not desirable locations for permanent Native American towns because the soil was unfertile and the game was less plentiful. The Sand Hills did make good locations for winter encampments because the sandy soil quickly drained away winter rains and tended to absorb solar heat quicker than woodsy loam.
The Atlantic Coastal Plain is characterized by underlying rock strata that are relatively young sedimentary rock from the Late Cretaceous Period, when the shore of the Atlantic Ocean ran through present day Houston County. Here the terrain is much more moderate than in the Piedmont, varying from gently rolling hills to flat bottomlands.
Houston County’s largest stream is the Ocmulgee River, which flows eastern side of the county. Major streams include Echeconnee, Sandy Run, Mossy, Big Indian and Big Creeks.
The Ocmulgee River joins the Oconee River in southern Georgia to become the Altamaha River, which eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean. Part of the Ocmulgee’s route along the edge of Houston County is characterized by shoals. It is only navigable for canoes, kayaks and small row boats.
Ocmulgee is the Anglicization of the Georgia Muskogee-Creek tribal name, Oka-mole-ke, which means “Swirling Water People.” Georgia Muskogee was a mixture of the dominant Creek language, Itsate (Hitchiti) with the dialect of Muskogee spoken along the Tallapoosa River in Alabama.
Echeconnee is the Anglicization of the Itsate-Creek word, eco-kvnhe, meaning Deer Mound. The Muskogean “v” sound is pronounced like “aw” in paw, but was often interpreted by European speakers as an “o” sound.
Native American occupation
In the past, Houston County Native American populations were apparently concentrated along the Ocmulgee River Flood Plain, plus the larger creeks that flow into this river. There is evidence that the complex system of meandering streams, permanent swamps and seasonal wetlands in the Ocmulgee Floodplain were the locations of some the earliest experiments in agriculture in the United States.
The region around Houston County was occupied by ancestors of the Creek Indians, when first visited by English traders in the late 1600s. However, linguistic evidence provided by the chronicles of the Hernando de Soto Expedition, when it passed through the region in spring of 1540, suggests that the members of the original Creek Confederacy included provinces from several ethnic groups, not just Muskogee-Creeks.
Throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, the Creek Indians were by far the largest tribe north of Mexico. However during the 1800s, they were repeatedly subdivided, assimilated, killed in battle or intentionally starved to death in concentration camps. Although they take a much lower profile than Cherokee descendants, there probably still many more people in the United States carrying at least some Muskogean DNA than any other tribe. However, the federally recognized Muscogee – Creek Nation of Oklahoma is only the fourth largest federally recognized tribe, behind the Navajo, Oklahoma Cherokees and Oklahoma Choctaws.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Houston 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 Ocmulgee 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. The ethnic identity of the Clovis Culture hunters is not known. They were long presumed to be American Indians, but recent research by anthropologists have 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.
Houston 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. The landscape that European settlers encountered in the Coastal Plain was not natural. It had been altered for thousands of years by Native Americans to create optimum environments for the natural production of food sources. The inhabitants regularly burned the undergrowth to create meadows for grazing animals.
During the late Archaic Period, several trade routes developed in this region that interconnected the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Appalachian Mountains and Great Lakes. During this time, Native Americans began traveling long distances to trade and socialize.
The earliest known pottery in the Western Hemisphere has been discovered by archaeologists in the middle Savannah River Valley and in middle Ocmulgee Basin. The makers of this pottery were probably hunters and gatherers, who spent significant portions of the year along the major rivers of eastern Georgia. It is known as Stallings Island pottery after Stallings Island near Augusta, GA. Archaeologists believe that the Stallings Island people first began experimenting with ceramics around 2,500 BC. This is slightly earlier that the first pottery produced in Mexico; in the Pacific Coast State of Guerrero. Most of Mexico would not have ceramics for at least another 800-1000 years.
Woodland Period (1000 BC – 900 AD)
The Etowah, Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys were locations of some of the earliest permanent villages in North America. It is likely that permanent settlements in the upper Ocmulgee Basin followed soon afterward –possibly at the same time. 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 along the Ocmulgee River. 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. Most had ovoid or circular footprints.
Archaeological evidence in the Chattahoochee and Flint River Valleys suggests that the first Muskogean farmers entered northeast Georgia around 400 BC, after migrating from west-central Mexico. However, the region was probably was already occupied by ancestors of the Yuchi and Southern 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. Modern “Creek” Indians may represent a genetic mix of several indigenous ethnic groups.
Around 100 AD, the ancestors of the Creek Indians evolved to building permanent towns with horseshoe shaped plazas for playing ball games, near the Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers. This was known as the Swift Creek Culture. Swift Creek Style pottery is considered some of the most beautiful every made in North America. The Swift Creek People were also known for their finely crafted copper tools, weapons and ornaments. They built both ellipsoid shaped accretional mounds and some large pyramidal mounds for temples.
Amateur historians, Native Americans and artifact collectors have reported finding village sites, containing low mounds and extensive deposits of Swift Creek and Macon Plateau style pottery shards on several islands within riverine swamps along the Ocmulgee River. These sites have not been studied thoroughly by archaeologists. It is quite plausible that such villages existed, but without professional analysis, they cannot be described as definite Native American settlement locations.
Muskogean town dwellers (900 AD – 1784 AD)
Muskogeans carried with them advanced cultural traditions from Mexico and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The early 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 Chattahoochee and below the Fall Line along the Ocmulgee River. Smaller villages located near creeks.
One of the earliest “advanced” indigenous towns in the United States was founded around 900 AD along the Ocmulgee River. Satellite villages of this major town eventually developed in Houston County. Its founders were newcomers, who carried with them many Mesoamerican cultural traits. They may have been either Itza Mayas or the hybrid descendants of both Mayas and indigenous peoples. The language that most of the Creek Indians’ ancestors spoke in Georgia was Itsate (Hitchiti in English.) The Itza Maya’s also called themselves, Itsate. There are many Maya and Totonac words in the various dialects spoken by the Creek Indians that came from Mexico.
After the founding of the town on the Macon Plateau in Georgia, many provinces in the Southeast 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. Villages and towns located in Houston County would have been highly influenced by the cultural influence of regional centers such as the Ocmulgee mound complex in Macon, GA. They were only one to five hours walk away from the acropolis at Ocmulgee National Monument.
The Bullard Landing Mound Complex in northwestern Twiggs County apparently was occupied intermittently for thousands of years. It contains 24 visible mounds. However, archaeologists with the Lamar Institute studied the site in 1994 and found that most of the artifacts were made by inhabitants associated with the Lamar Culture. The Lamar Culture thrived from about 1300 AD to 1600 AD. It was directly ancestral to the modern-day Creek Indians, but probably included several ethnic groups. It is probable that the town at the Bullard Landing site was a regional center with satellite villages in present day Houston County.
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 Georgia in 1540, waves of European diseases began to decimate the Native American population. Hernando de Soto’s expedition. probably passed through or near the Bulllard Landing village site in March of 1540. Thus, the indigenous people of Houston County would have been exposed to deadly pathogens immediately. Anthropologists currently believe that the indigenous population of Georgia dropped about 95% between 1500 and 1700 AD.
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 probably developed during the late 1600s. In Creek tradition the first capital of this alliance was at Achese (Ichesi~Ochesee) in what is now the Ocmulgee National Monument. Indian Springs, about 37 miles to the north in Butts County, continued to be a popular meeting place for leaders of the Creek Confederacy.
The member towns represented several ethnic groups, but the Muskogees and Itsati’s (Hitchitis) 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 Georgia Creeks. By 1800, a composite Muskogee language had became the spoken tongue of Creek citizens.
Dispersed farmsteads: 1780 AD – 1825 AD
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.
Almost immediately after the United States formed a permanent government, the Creeks were pressured to cede more and more land to the State of Georgia. By 1805 all land east of the Ocmulgee River had been ceded except of six square miles around the Ocmulgee Old Fields. Ocmulgee National Monument is now located in part of this reserve. At this point, all of what is now Houston was opened to settlement by Europeans.
In 1821, leaders of the Creek Confederacy ceded a tract of land on the western side of the Ocmulgee to the State of Georgia. Part of the tract was soon designated to be Houstoun County . . . later Houston County. Some Creeks living in the region elected to become state citizens. These were primarily mixed-blood Creeks who owned plantations or businesses in towns. Other remaining Creeks were the wives of Caucasian men. They were not required to depart.
Creek descendants today
Relationships between the Muskogee Creeks and their Anglo-European neighbors along the upper Ocmulgee River in the late 1700s were generally good. There was much intermarriage. However, there had been some violence along the Upper Oconee River during the late 1780s and early 1790s, between other branches of the Creeks and encroaching settlers. These problems ended with the 1802 and 1805 land cessions.
Creeks who were married to Caucasian or African spouses often remained in the Upper Ocmulgee Basin after it was ceded to Georgia. Some of their mixed heritage children remained in the region, while others moved to live among the Creeks. Also, some Creeks married African-American slaves then bought their freedom. Mixed heritage families from northeastern Georgia also obtained tracts in ceded Creek territories via lottaries. The families in Houston County, who proudly remember their Creek ancestry, are descended from the mixed heritage marriages with their European and African neighbors.