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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 has discovered innumerable burials contained in them. Various forms are represented, with a large proportion closely flexed, and in other instances only skulls without any other bones in contact. But of all the works examined in this region the most interesting stood near Tarpon Springs, near the Gulf shore, in the far northwestern corner of Hillsboro County. This is the county in which Tampa is located. The mound was thoroughly explored and ” the remains of more than six hundred skeletons ” were encountered. “These, with notable exception-probably those of chiefs and head men-had been dismembered previously to interment, but were distributed in distinct groups that I regarded as communal or totemic and phratral, and of exceeding interest; for they seemed to indicate that the burial mound had been regarded by its builders as a tribal settlement, a sort of ‘Little City of their Dead,’ and that if so, it might be looked on as still, in a measure, representing the distribution and relation of the clans and phratries in an actual village or tribal settlement of these people when living. Moreover, in the minor disposition of the skeletons that had not been scattered, but had been buried in parks, or else entire and extended, in sherd-lined graves or wooden cists within and around each of these groups, it seemed possible to still trace somewhat of the relative ranks of individuals in these groups, and not a few of the social customs and religious beliefs of the ancient builders. This possibility was still further borne out by the fact that with the skeletal remains were associated, in different ways, many superb examples of pottery and sacrificial potsherds, and numerous stone, shell and bone utensils, weapons, and ornaments.” This interesting and plausible conclusion reached by Cushing regarding the placing of the dead belonging to the different totemic groups in distinct graves, or rather in distinct parts of the great burial mound, tends to recall Adair’s description of the ” bone-houses ” of the Choctaw. He said ” each house contained the bones of one tribe, separately.” This must have referred to the clans and phratries, and if such a distinction was made when the bodies were first placed in the ” bone-houses,” it is more than probable the same rule was followed when they were finally removed from them, then carried, and with certain ceremony placed on the surface and covered with earth. This may be the explanation of many groups of bundled burials encountered in mounds in the South, and again this would tend to prove some connection between the builders of the mound in question and the Muskhogean tribe, the Choctaw. The mound just mentioned, although larger than the majority, may be considered typical of the region. The mounds on the east coast, or more correctly in the eastern portion of the peninsula, were somewhat different from those to the westward, and probably the burial customs were likewise different. Drawings made by the French artist Jacobo Le Moyne, who visited the east coast in the year 1564, were reproduced by De Bry in the second part of his famous collection of voyages, printed in 1591. One of the engravings, representing a burial ceremony in one of the Timucuan villages, is reproduced in plate 13, b. The description of the plate as given in the old work reads: ” When a chief in that province dies, he is buried with great solemnities, his drinking-cup is placed on the grave, and many arrows are planted in the earth about the mound itself. His subjects mourn for him three whole days and nights, without taking any food. All the other chiefs, his friends, mourn in like manner; and both men and women, in testimony of their love for him, cut off more than half their hair. Besides this, for six months afterwards certain chosen women three times every day, at dawn, noon, and twilight, mourn for the deceased king with a great howling. And all his household stuff is put into his house, which is set on fire, and the whole burned up together. In like manner, when their priests die, they are buried in their own houses; which are then set on fire, and burned up with their furniture.” (Le Moyne, (1).) It will be noticed that in the drawing the house, evidently that of the deceased, is shown wrapped in flames, thus conforming with the description. The custom of destroying the houses in which death had occurred was also followed by the Natchez, the Taensa, and probably others. The Creeks are known to have abandoned their habitations after the death of one of the occupants, and may under some conditions have burned the structure; in other instances they continued to occupy the house after having interred the remains beneath the floor. The village drawn by the French artist in 1564 probably stood in the present Duval County, Florida, a region in which many very interesting burial mounds have c been discovered and examined. Many of the mounds appear to have been erected over an area previously excavated, a detail lacking in the old drawing, which, however, should not be accepted as being very accurate. But the scene: depicted may be the very beginning of the erection of such a structure. This may show the nucleus of such a work, prepared soon after the death of a great man whose tomb was later to be reared. But in regard to this most interesting question nothing can now be stated with any degree of certainty. Moore has given a very graphic description of the construction of a mound examined by him which stood in Duval County, Florida, not far from the banks of the St. Johns. Its diameters were 63 feet and 58 feet, and its height, then greatly reduced by cultivation, was only 2 feet 2 inches. He wrote: ” It was evident that the mound had been constructed in the following manner. First, a fire was built on the surface, possibly to destroy the underbrush. Next, a pit of the area of the intended mound was dug to a depth of about 3 feet. In a central portion of this pit was made a deposit of human remains with certain artifacts. Then the pit was filled with the sand previously thrown out, through which was plentifully mingled charcoal from the surface fire. During the process of filling, various relics but no human remains, were deposited, and covered by the sand. When the pit was filled to the general level, a great fire was made over its entire area as was evidenced by a well marked stratum of sand discolored by fire and containing particles of charcoal, extending entirely through the mound at the level of the surrounding territory. Upon this the mound proper was constructed and various bunched burials and art relics introduced. ” In all human remains were encountered eleven tunes, once at the base of the pit, the remainder in the body of the mound. The burials were of the bunched variety, but small portions remaining.” Objects of shell, stone, pottery, and copper were recovered from the mound, which was entirely destroyed. Traces of great fires are characterstic of many mounds along the St. Johns, but whether they were supposed to have served some practical purpose, or were ceremonial, can not be told.

The mounds of this part of Florida often present some very interesting features. One of evidently quite recent origin was discovered about one-half mile north of Bayard Point, which is on the left bank of the St. Johns nearly opposite Picolata, in Clay County. Its height was about 4 feet 9 inches, diameter 45 feet. It was formed of unstratified whitish sand, with occasional pockets of charcoal. Associated with the several burials were objects of European origin. ” Somewhat south of the centre of the mound was a male skeleton at length, placed with the head northwest. At one side of the remains was a flint-lock gun, in reverse position with muzzle toward the feet. And nearby were traces of a bone handled awl, and probably a powder horn partly decorated with brass-headed nails, also a flint and steel, undoubtedly used in striking fire. Scattered in the mound, but not in direct contact with the human remains, were some fragments of pottery.” Moore also found where other mounds had served the later inhabitants as burial places, intrusive burials often having many objects of foreign origin in contact. Some of these may be attributed to the Seminole of the past 150 years. Midway across the peninsula, in the present Lake County, and within the Timucuan territory, have been encountered many mounds, shell deposits, and other signs of the occupancy of the country by a comparatively large native population. Some of the works were quite remarkable. One mound which stood about 200 yards from the right bank of Blue Creek was practically destroyed: “Its height was 5 feet 6 inches, its circumference 165 feet. About one foot beneath the surface of the mound, which was otherwise composed of white sand of the surrounding territory, ran a layer of pinkish sand, having a maximum thickness of eighteen inches. Chemical analysis showed the coloring matter to be pulverized hematite.” Burials were encountered only beneath the unbroken stratum of pink sand. ” They were mainly on or below the base and were all disconnected bones, crania greatly preponderating.” About 2 miles distant from the preceding was another mound of equal interest, and likewise presenting several curious features. Examining this, “thirty crania were met with, At times bundles of long bones were found without the skull, while in other portions of the mound fragments of isolated crania were encountered. At times great bunches of long bones were found with two or three crania in association, Most skeletons lay near or upon the base.” No extended, complete skeletons were encountered in this mound, but it is evident that here, as elsewhere, the later burials were made more after the customs of the whites. It is likewise of interest to know positively that mounds were reared after the coming of Europeans. Such a work was examined and described by Moore. It stood about 1 mile northwest of Fort Mason, just north of Lake Yale. When examined it was 50 feet in diameter but only 2 feet in height, having been reduced by cultivation. “Unlike other mounds demolished by us on the Oklawaha, the method of burial in this mound was in anatomical order, in various forms of flexion. In all fifteen skeletons were encountered.” Objects of iron, silver, and copper were associated with them, being of European origin; and in addition to these pieces of foreign work three skeletons had each one polished stone colt near by. Stone arrowheads were also found in the mound, the whole of which had been erected after contact with Europeans. The mound probably belongs to the transition period, before native implements and weapons had been entirely superseded by others of European make, but while they were still retained and used. And although this mound was not far from the site of a late village of the Seminole, it would seem that it belonged to a somewhat earlier period, as it is doubtful if these late comers would have had, and evidently used, implements of stone. (The preceding references to mounds in Lake County, are quoted from Moore.)

It is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the different burials now found in central Florida. Many are unquestionably quite ancient, dating from some generations before the coming of the Spaniards; others are comparatively recent. The older forms may be Timucuan or even of the people who may have traversed this section when going farther southward; possibly some very old Muskhogean tribe. But no human remains yet found in Florida, or elsewhere east of the Mississippi, can justly be attributed to a people more ancient than the native American tribes, as now known and recognized. Another interesting detail was noted by Moore in a mound on the bank of the St. Johns, in St. Johns County, about 3 miles north of Picolata. The mound was about 6 feet 6 inches in height and 64 feet in diameter. On the original surface, covering the center of the base of the mound, “was a flooring of split plank in the last stages of decay, about 13 feet square. Its thickness was 2 inches.” This was red cedar. Within the work were discovered 34 separate bundles of bones, but no entire skeletons. This discovery was made in 1894. For the sake of comparison, to show the similarity of customs in widely separated parts of the country, but by people in no way connected with one another, a reference may be made to a discovery made in a mound far north in Ohio. The mound referred to stood “upon the broad and beautiful terrace on which Chillicothe stands, about 1 mile to the north of that town,” in Ross County. It was about. 15 feet in height and 70 feet in diameter. The work was excavated, but nothing was encountered until the human skeleton, at the base of the mound, was reached. ” The course of preparation for the burial seemed to have been as follows The surface of the ground was first carefully leveled and packed, over an area perhaps ten or fifteen feet square. This area was then covered with sheets of bark, on which, in the center, the body of the dead was deposited, with a few articles of stone at its side, and a few small ornaments near the head. It was then covered over with another layer of bark, and the mound heaped above.” The latter burial also closely resembled those discovered in a mound on Creighton Island, McIntosh County, Georgia, although there the deposits of bark or wood were only of sufficient size to cover a single skeleton. But a great many burials within mounds may originally have been so protected by slabs of wood, or sheets of bark, all traces of which have long ago decayed and disappeared.

MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920. Web. 13 February 2016.
- Last updated on Aug 2nd, 2013

This page is part of a larger collection. Access the full collection at Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi.

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