In the late 20th century anthropologists established the names and chronological spans of Southeastern Native American cultural periods. They were based on the study of the Woodland peoples of New England and the Midwest. The more Muskogean cultural history is understood, the less applicable these terms become. The Southeast was clearly a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups and varying cultural sophistication. The Muskogeans are not aboriginal to the Southeast so their early history is that of another region – probably Mexico. Major cultural changes seemed to have occurred on several occasions due to the immigration of peoples from outside the Southeastern United States.
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The migration traditions of the branches of the Creek Confederacy, vocabulary from Mesoamerican languages and contemporary DNA testing strongly suggest a multi-ethnic origin for the Creek Indians. Proto-Muskogee apparently originated in the West Central Highlands of Mexico that include the states of Jalisco, Michoacan and Colima. There is much similarity in the art and architecture of the Creek Indians and the native peoples of the State of Colima.
The ancestors of the Creeks were unique in eastern North American in their large scale husbandry of a plump, diminutive breed of Xoloitzcuintle (Colima hairless dog) for meat. The Xoloitzcuintle was domesticated in Colima at least as early as 1500 BC. This would suggest that the ancestors left Mexico some time after 1500 BC. The Zoque (Olmec) Civilization thrived from about 1200 BC to 600 BC.
The original Muskogeans arrived in the Southeast without knowledge of archery. The earliest record of archery in Mexico dates from around 500 BC, but there is no evidence of archery in the northern deserts until about 1000 years later. The ancestors of the Muskogeans probably left Mexico before knowledge of the bow and arrow had reached western and northern Mexico.
Creek tradition also states that while wandering through northern Mexico, they learned agriculture and ceramics from more advanced societies. The early mound-builders of the lower Mississippi Valley, such as at Poverty Point apparently did not cultivate many plants, nor did they make pottery until near their end. The original core group of the Muskogeans probably did not create Poverty Point, but they may have absorbed its builders into their population.
The time span of the Poverty Point Culture is almost exactly that of the Zoque Civilization in southern Mexico, 1500 BC – 600 BC. This is circumstantial evidence that perhaps the eastward migration of the Muskogeans began during a time of turmoil when the Zoque Civilization was declining. The abandonment of Poverty Point and its sister villages may have been a result of the arrival of the Muskogeans in the Lower Mississippi Basin.
Early Woodland: 600 BC – 100 BC
In Creek tradition, the Muskogeans broke up into small bands in the dense, humid forests of the Lower Mississippi Basin. During this period individual bands began slowly migrating eastward toward the home of the sun. Villages became more common and many were permanent year-round settlements. Regional networks of villages often responded in unison to external threats and celebrated festivals together. Hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering were still the primary means of acquiring food, but agriculture was becoming increasingly important.
Hunters and fisherman would go out from the village on long expeditions, but did not bring the entire village with them. The improved efficiency for obtaining food allowed for free time to create esthetic objects or build communal structures. Most buildings became more substantial and permanent.
Sedentary or Middle Woodland: 100 BC – 600 AD
Populations shifted to permanent village locations on major rivers in Georgia and northern Florida. These communities were known as the Swift Creek Culture, Cultivation of domesticated plants was an increasingly important source of food, but communities could not exist without hunting, trapping or fishing. Religious shrines grew into regional ceremonial centers, attracted large populations for seasonal festivals and trade fairs. It is likely that religious leaders exerted some regional authority in regard to coordinating public works and settling of disagreements between individual villages. Burial mounds were built throughout the Southeast. Circular and oval shaped ceremonial villages surrounded by stone buttressed palisades were constructed in the Appalachian Highlands and at Brown’s Mount in central Georgia. These sites seemed to have both ceremonial and military functions. They may indicate a frontier between two rival ethnic groups, as many cultural traits changed south of the mountains.
The period seems to have been a time of general peace, which enabled trading expeditions and religious pilgrims to travel long distances (up to 2,000 miles – 3,200 Km) one way to obtain precious commodities or participate in special ceremonies.) Pottery, copper work, crystals, mica sheets, sea shells, stone artifacts, statuary and possibly fabrics from many parts of North America can often be found at ceremonial centers in the major ceremonial centers scattered around the Southeast.
Transitional or Late Woodland: 600 AD – 1000 AD
All of the regional ceremonial centers in Georgia plus major villages on rivers below the Fall Line were abandoned between 600 AD and 750 AD. This chronology exactly corresponds to evens at Teotihuacan, Mexico. The Hopewell Culture disappeared. Southeastern Native Traditions remember this as a time of chaos caused by clan vendettas and foreign invasion. Many villages dispersed into remote hamlets, perhaps composed of individual clans and extended families. Simultaneously, the bow & arrow plus several crops originally domesticated in Mesoamerica were introduced.
Two large and powerful provinces arose in Southern Florida. The one in southwest Florida had many Mesoamerican traits, and also grew Mesoamerican type crops. The advanced culture in southeast Florida seemed to have cultural traits more similar to the South Atlantic Coast. Sophisticated cultural symbols and architectural styles, derived from the Maya civilization developed in this region by 700 AD. They would eventually spread to other areas of the Southeast and becoming an almost homogenous cultural system known inappropriately as the Mississippian Culture.
Early Hierarchal or Mississippian: 900 AD – 1150 AD
It is quite likely that advanced cultures settled the Altamaha River Basin around 750 AD, but a massive 28 mound site on the Lower Ocmulgee River was destroyed by a timber company in the 1990s. Dozens of town sites with mounds along the Altamaha River have never been studied by archaeologists. The presence of pure Maya and Totonac words among the Creeks of Georgia and the Carolina’s suggests that there was an influx of illiterate Maya refugees and/or traders between around 800 AD and 1000 AD.
Beginning around 900 AD, all of the cultural traits previously only seen in Southern Florida began appearing on the Macon Plateau the Ocmulgee River, at Roods Creek on the Lower Chattahoochee River, and on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River in the Nacoochee Valley, GA (Kenimer Mound.) By about 925 AD a settlement with similar cultural traits to Ocmulgee had been founded on Hiwassee Island, at the juncture of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers in Southeastern Tennessee. Etalwa and Achese (the Lamar Village) were settled in the 990’s AD by a people, whose pottery was different than Ocmulgee’s.
In these towns, outsiders settled in the midst of villages practicing the old Sedentary Culture ways. The newcomers set themselves up as elites, and started construction of building complexes oriented to the azimuth of the sun. Eligibility for leadership in new towns was based on descent from the original elite. Such Mesoamerican crops as corn and beans were farmed on a massive scale in the river bottoms. The ceramic and metallurgical arts flourished as new artistic styles evolved. Most of the communities of the Creek homeland still retained Swift Creek cultural traits during this period. Those closest to the new centers showed artistic increasing influences from the centers, but still had many traits continued from past times.
Mature Hierarchal or Middle Mississippian: 1150 AD – 1375 AD
The great town of Etalwa dominated most of the Southwestern Piedmont and Southern Highlands during this period. A cluster of towns with mounds on the Oconee River dominated what is now northeast Georgia. There were several towns with mounds along the lower Chattahoochee River. Very similar cultural traits and artistic themes could found throughout the Southeast and even in the upper Mississippi Valley. Platform, domiciliary and burial mounds were being built throughout the region. The principal temple mounds faced the point where the sun set on the Winter Solstice. Unlike the Woodland Period, and to a lesser extent, the Sedentary Period, most mounds had structures on them. There was widespread evidence of extreme social stratification in the size of house and the opulence of some graves buried within major mounds.
Late Hierarchal or Late Mississippian: 1375 AD – 1566 AD
Etawla was completely abandoned around 1375 AD, leaving the latest massive expansion of its main temple mound unfinished. Almost simultaneously, the Kusa people began construction of a new capital on the Coosawattee River next to the Cohutta Mountains escarpment.
The Muskogeans that were to become the Creek Indians kept virtually all of the cultural symbols of Etalwa, but tended to have much smaller mounds. They shared similar artistic traditions a refined style of pottery that has been labeled “the Lamar Culture.” Major temple mounds now faced the west. The shift from orientation to the Winter Solstice to the Summer Solstice probably reflects a change in New Year’s Day to June 21.
The plazas were more open to the general population and often were used for ball games and (probably) markets. The military and/or political skills of Kusa enabled the town to become dominate over very large provinces that was probably on the verge of becoming a nation, when the first European explorers arrived with their germs. By the early 1500s, Kusa had become dominant over the largest and most powerful polity that ever existed north of Mexico. After visiting Kusa in the summer of 1541, Hernando de Soto planned to make it the capital of a new Spanish province on the scale of Mexico.
Early European Colonial Period: 1600 AD – 1725 AD
Population decline began occurring immediately after the first Spanish exploration of the South Atlantic coast in 1521. Most of the major towns in the Southern Highlands were abandoned simultaneously around 1585 AD, which happens to coincide with a horrific plague in the Mexican Highlands that killed about 85% of its population. The disease had symptoms like Bubonic Plague or Ebola Fever. Victims often died within hours of showing symptoms. By 1600 AD, most mound centers had been abandoned, with the exception of Achese on the Ocmulgee River near what is now Macon, GA
Throughout the 1600s several of the Muskogean provinces created the Creek Confederacy took form. Its first capital was apparently Achese. The proto-Creeks generally were hostile to the Spanish, but friendly with the French and English explorers.
During the first 20 years of the 18th century there were major territorial shifts and new political alliances forming in the lower Southeast. The Yamassee Alliance, a confederacy of Muskogean provinces on the South Atlantic Coast. almost exterminated the Colony of South Carolina, but after an alliance of Muskogean, Siouan, Yuchi and Rickohocken towns in NW South Carolina assassinated all the chiefs of the Creek Confederacy in their sleep at Tugaloo, the rebellion collapsed. The South Carolina “Chorakees” became allied with several other bands of Rickohockens and mixed ethnic groups to form the Cherokee Alliance. The British “gave” western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee to the Cherokee Alliance. By 1725 the Cherokees had conquered the territory that was assigned them.
Late Colonial Period: 1725 AD – 1783 AD
The killing of the Creek leaders by the Cherokees at Tugaloo sparked a 40 year long war with the Creek towns. Initially, the Cherokees captured new territory from the Upper Creeks and Yuchi in Tennessee. Repeatedly, the Cherokees avoided disaster by being warned by the English of approaching Creek, Chickasaw, Shawnee or Choctaw armies. However, once the French began supplying the Upper Creeks and Chickasaws with munitions, the war ground down to an intermittently fought stalemate. While the Cherokees were “the most favored Indian nation” of the Colony of South Carolina, the Creek Confederacy enjoyed excellent relations with the new Colony of Georgia.
By the 1750s trade with Georgia had made the Kowita Creeks, politically powerful and well armed. In 1754 the Upper Creeks signed a peace treaty with the Overhills Cherokees, while the town of Koweta dispatched a large army to regain former Creek lands in North Carolina and northeast Georgia. The Georgia and Valley Cherokees were devastated by the Koweta Creek Army. Within a few months, the Cherokee Nation had lost about a third of its towns and core territory. Because both Koweta and the Cherokees were British allies, the British were able to stop the war before their Cherokee allies were completely wiped out. Note: If the famous “Battle of Blood Mountain” actually occurred, it was a Creek victory, not a Cherokee one, as stated in many Georgia historical references.
The Creek provinces were divided by the American Revolution. Former French allies tended to fight for the British. Former English allies such as the Koweta Creeks tried to stay neutral. Itsati (Hitchiti) speaking provinces in eastern Georgia and South Carolina tended to align themselves with the American Patriots.
There were two reasons for the Eastern Creeks risking an alliance with the Patriots. When the Cherokees swept down onto the Carolina & Georgia frontier in 1776, they did not discern between farmsteads belonging to Loyalists, Rebels or Creeks. They all looked alike. Creeks sought revenge for these attacks. Secondly, by the 1770s, many Creek families had intentionally intermarried with their European neighbors to encourage good relations. If their neighbors were Patriots, they followed suit.
Federal Period: 1783–1836
An American victory in 1783 changed the organization of the Creek Confederacy as it is known today. The term “Muskogee” does not appear on maps until the late 1790s. Creeks who had fought for the Patriots were heroes and often were given generous veterans grants. Muskogee Creeks lost all of their territory in eastern Georgia. Upper Creeks were treated with the same distrust as the Cherokees. After the Revolution the hostile treatment of the Upper Creeks pushed many of their towns into an alliance with the Chickamauga Cherokees. The Upper Creeks swept through central Tennessee and came very close to capturing Nashville. On the scene was a young Andy Jackson, who never lost his fear or hatred of the Upper Creeks because of this humiliation. Thirty years later, Jackson would get his revenge at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
Although the ancestors of Creek peoples once occupied much of the lower eastern-Southeast, the official U. S. government maps of their traditional territory closely corresponds to the boundaries of the Creek Nation in 1814, after about 14 million acres had been taken after the Revolution and 21 million acres had been stolen from them after the Redstick War. In contrast, these same Department of Interior maps show, the traditional boundaries of the Cherokee people corresponding to a map drawn in 1754, when the Colony of South Carolina offered the Cherokees all the lands of France’s Indian allies in the South, if the Cherokees would provide warriors to fight the French allies in New England.
From 1783 to 1814, however, the Creek Nation was by far the most powerful and most advanced Native American polity in North America. Creek soldiers fought with the fury (harjo) of Native Americans, but with the self-discipline and intelligence of the best European troops. The great fear of the young nation of the United States was that all the branches and factions of the Creek Indians would come together to drive the Anglo-Americans into the sea. It never happened, but the paranoia sparked the still popular phrase, “If the Good Lord is willing, and the Creeks don’t all rise.”
The period between 1814 and 1836 was a time catastrophically collapsing territory, morale, economic conditions and political influence for the Creek People. While General Andrew Jackson was still fighting the Red Stick Creek rebels, he hired four agronomists to prepare maps showing where the best cotton-growing lands were located within all Creek territories. Approximately, 18 million acres of the 21 million total were located in the territory of his “Friendly Creek” allies. Those lands were seized in the “Treaty” of Fort Jackson as punishment for the Friendly Creeks for “letting the Redstick Creeks rebel against the Creek Nation.” Nevertheless, all Creek heads of households, who remained loyal to the United States during the previous five years, were granted a reserve of one square mile, each. By 1825, most of the Friendly Creek lands in western Georgia and south central Alabama had been overrun by squatters and land speculators. The virtually landless Creeks were forced to go on their Trail of Tears between 1832 and 1836.