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

Cherokee Burial Customs

Far to the southward, occupying the beautiful hills and valleys of eastern Tennessee and the adjoining parts of Georgia and Carolina, lived that great detached Iroquoian tribe, the Cherokee. Here they lived when the country was traversed by the Spaniards in 1540, and here they continued for three centuries. But although so frequently mentioned by early writers, and so often visited by traders, very little can be learned regarding their burial customs. Nevertheless it is evident they often placed the body on the exposed surface, on some high, prominent point, and then covered it with many stones gathered from the surface. Such stone mounds are quite numerous, not only on the hills once occupied by the Cherokee, but far northward. Many of the western towns of the Cherokee, often termed the Overhill Towns, were in the vicinity of Blount County, Tennessee. Many stone mounds were there on the hilltops. and these may justly be attributed to the Cherokee, but all may not have covered the remains of the dead. ” Leaving Chilhowee Valley and crossing the Alleghany range toward North Carolina, in a southeast course, having Little Tennessee River on my right, and occasionally in sight from the cliffs, my attention was called along the road, to stone heaps. After an examination of the objects and a talk with Indians and the oldest inhabitants, I came to the conclusion...

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Stone Lined Graves

Stone graves-that is, small excavations which were lined or partly lined with natural slabs of stone-have been encountered in great numbers in various parts of the Mississippi Valley. They are discovered scattered and separate; in other instances vast numbers are grouped together, thus forming extensive cemeteries. While the great majority were formed by lining properly prepared excavations, others were created by erecting one upon another, forming several tiers, and covering all with earth, so forming a mound. In and about the city of Nashville, on the banks of the Cumberland, in Davidson County, Tennessee, such burials have been revealed in such great numbers that it is within reason to suppose the region was once occupied by a sedentary people who remained for several generations, and must have had an extensive village near by. It will be recalled that the Shawnee occupied the valley in the early years of the eighteenth century, and that a French trader was there in 1714. A mound standing near Nashville was examined in the summer of 1821, and writing of it Haywood said: This is the mound upon which Monsieur Charleville, a French trader, had his store in the year 1714, when the Shawanese were driven from the Cumberland by the Cherokees and Chickasaws. It stands on the west side of the river, and on the north side of French Lick Creek, and about...

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Stone Lined Graves – Tennessee

A mound in which were many intrusive stone graves, and therefore resembling the one examined on Swallow Bluff Island, stood on a high hill about 2 miles from Franklin, Williamson County, Tennessee. It was about 20 feet in height and 400 feet in circumference. The mound was examined and “about four feet from the top, we came to a layer of graves extending across the entire mound. The graves were constructed in the same manner as those found in the cemeteries, that is, of two wide parallel slabs, about two and one-half feet long for sides, and with the bottom, head, and foot stones of the same material, making when put together, a box or sarcophagus. Each of these coffins had bones in it, some of women and children together, and others of men.” Two classes of mounds containing stone-lined graves have now been described. The first had been made up of several tiers of such graves, reared one upon another, and the whole covered with a mass of earth; the second class included mounds in which such graves had later been prepared-intrusive burials in ancient mounds. Another class, though far less numerous than either of the others, each contained a single large grave. A most interesting example of this type was discovered and described by Moore. It stood on a high ridge, overlooking the valley of Green River,...

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Stone Lined Graves – Jo Daviess County, Illinois

A very remarkable example of rectangular stone inclosure was discovered in a mound on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, in the town of Dunleith Jo Daviess County, Illinois. This is the extreme northwest corner of the State, and the mound was one of a large group. Its height was about 10 feet, with a diameter of 65 feet. To quote the description of the interior: ” The first six feet from the top consisted of hard gray earth. This covered a vault built in part of stone and in part of round logs. When fully uncovered this was found to be a rectangular crypt, inside measurement showing it to be thirteen feet long and seven feet wide. The four straight, surrounding walls were built of small unhewn stones to the height of three feet and a foot or more in thickness. Three feet from each end was a cross wall or partition of like character, thus leaving a central chamber seven feet square, and a narrow cell at each end about two feet wide and seven feet long, This had been entirely covered with a single laver of round logs, varying in diameter from six to twelve inches, laid close together side by side across the width of the vault, the ends resting upon and extending to uneven lengths beyond the side walls.” In the central space were 11...

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Stone Lined Graves in Mississippi

It is a region possessing much natural beauty, ideally suited to a large native population, such as it undoubtedly sustained during the days before the coming of the French. Many similar groups of graves are scattered along the bluffs bordering the Mississippi and are less numerous inland. The salt springs of Jefferson County, Missouri, a little more than halfway between the mouth of the Saline on the south and the Missouri on the north, served to attract the Indians, as did the springs near the former stream, already mentioned. About a mile inland from the small village of Kimmswick, up the valley of Rock Creek, were discovered several small cemeteries in the vicinity of springs. One occupied a small level area just above the principal spring, and when examined proved of the greatest interest. A plan of this curious group is given in figure 4, and as it included many uncommon features it may be of interest to describe the burials in detail. Pottery on the sides and bottoms of the graves refers to the use of fragments of large earthenware vessels in the place of stones. I. Stone at head, pottery bottom. Contained two skulls and many bones. Length 4 feet 2 inches. II. Stones at ends, pottery sides and bottom. Traces of bones. Length 3 feet, width 1 foot, depth 11 inches. III. Stone sides and ends,...

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Iroquois Belief in a Future State After Death

The Iroquois belief in a future state after death was thus related by Morgan : ” The religious system of the Iroquois taught that it was a journey from earth to heaven of many days’ duration. Originally, it was supposed to be a year, and the period of mourning for the departed was fixed at that term. At its expiration, it was customary for the relatives of the deceased to hold a feast; the soul of the departed having reached heaven, and a state of felicity, there was no longer any cause for mourning. The spirit of grief was exchanged for that of rejoicing. In modern times the mourning period has been reduced to ten days, and the journey of the spirit is now believed to be performed in three. The spirit of the deceased was supposed to hover around the body for a season, before it took its final departure; and not until after the expiration of a year according to the ancient belief, and ten days according to the present, did it become permanently at rest in heaven. A beautiful custom prevailed in ancient times, of capturing a bird, and freeing it over the grave on the evening of the burial, to bear away the spirit to its heavenly rest. Their notions of the state of the soul when disembodied, are vague and diversified; but they all...

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Ossuaries as a Form of Burial Custom

Many ossuaries have been encountered in the western counties of the State of New York, which, however, may be attributed to the influence of the Huron. These great pits often contain vast quantities of skeletal remains, together with numbers of objects of native origin which had been deposited as offerings to the dead, and material obtained from the early traders is sometimes found associated with the later burials. The ossuaries appear to have been rectangular in form, to have occupied rather prominent positions, and to have been carefully prepared. Such a communal burial place was discovered in May, 1909, about 1 mile southwest of Gasport, Niagara County, but unfortunately no detailed record of its contents was preserved. A part of the excavation is shown in plate 10, b. Graham’s Magazine A note in Graham’s Magazine, January, 1853, page 102, may refer to the discovery of an ossuary, similar to those already described, but if so it was not recognized as such. The note stated that ” Workmen on the line of the New York, Corning, and Buffalo Rail Road, on the east side of the Genesee River, and about fifteen rods from the water’s edge, while cutting through a sand-bank, have exhumed many human skeletons, piled one above another, with every sign of a hasty military burial. . . . These discoveries strengthen a belief long entertained, that in...

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Seneca Ceremony, 1731

Throughout the greater part of the region once occupied by the Five Nations are- discovered their ancient cemeteries, often situated near the sites of their former villages. Some have been examined, and these usually reveal the human remains, now rapidly disappearing, lying in an extended position. Few accounts of the ceremonies which attended the death and burial of these people have been preserved, but one of the most interesting relates to the Seneca, as enacted during the month of June, 1731. True, the two persons who were buried at this Seneca village were not members of the tribe, but, nevertheless, the rites were those of the latter. The relation is preserved in the journal of a Frenchman who visited the Seneca at that time, accompanied by a small party of Algonquian Indians. During the visit one of the Algonquian women was killed by her husband and he in turn was executed by the Seneca. The double funeral which followed was described by the French traveler, who recorded many interesting details. Re first referred to a structure where the bodies were kept for several days after death and there prepared for burial, and when he arrived at this cabin it was already crowded with men and women, “all seated or rather squatting on their knees, with the exception of four women, who, with disheveled locks, were lying face downward, at...

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New England – An Ancient Cemetery

Similar deposits of the insoluble red oxide were associated with burials in an ancient cemetery discovered in 1913 in Warren, Bristol County, Rhode Island. This appears to have been a burying ground of the Wampanoag, within whose lands it was. When the site was destroyed some of the skeletons were exposed, together with a large number of objects of English, Dutch, and French origin, dating from the years between the first contact with the Europeans until the latter part of the seventeenth century. In some burials copper kettles were placed over the heads of the bodies. In such cases the copper salts acted as a preservative. One grave was of the greatest interest. It was that of a man well advanced in years, and associated with the remains were two ancient English swords, one or more gunlocks, a roll of military braid, and the traces of a feather headdress in a case. The suggestion has been made that these were the remains of the great Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, who met the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621, ever remained a friend of the colonists, and who died in 1662. One of his sons, Metacomet, became known as King Philip, famous in colonial history and leader in the war against the English settlements which terminated in the disastrous defeat of the Indians and the death of their leader, August 12, 1676....

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New England Native American Burial Customs

Three centuries and more have elapsed since the Jesuit, Père Pierre Biard, of Grenoble, prepared an account of the manners and customs of several native tribes of New France, which then included within its bounds the eastern portions of the present State of Maine, and the adjoining provinces. He wrote more particularly of the “three tribes which are on good terms of friendship with us-the Montaguets, the Souriquois, and the Eteminquois.” By these names the early French knew the three tribes now better known as the Montagnais, Micmac, and Malecite, all belonging to the great Algonquian family, and who occupied the region just mentioned. Although not always at peace with one another they undoubtedly had many customs in common, and these may have differed little from those of the neighboring tribes, all of which belonged to the same stock. And when recounting the ceremonies attending the death and burial of a member of one of these tribes he wrote: “The sick man having been appointed by the Autmoin to die … all the relations and neighbors assemble and, with the greatest possible solemnity, he delivers his funeral oration: he recites his heroic deeds, gives some directions to his family, recommends his friends: finally, says adieu. This is all there is of their wills. As to gifts, they make none at all; but, quite different from us, the survivors give...

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Manhattan Island and Southward

An early description of the burial customs of the native inhabitants of New Netherlands, probably based on some ceremonies witnessed on or near Manhattan Island, explains the manner and position in which the remains were deposited in the grave. “Whenever an Indian departs this life, all the residents of the place assemble at the funeral. To a distant stranger, who has not a friend or relative in the place, they pay the like respect. They are equally careful to commit the body to the earth, without neglecting any of the usual ceremonies, according to the standing of the deceased. In deadly diseases, they are faithful to sustain and take care of each other. Whenever a soul has departed, the nearest relatives extend the limbs and close the eyes of the dead; after the body has been watched and wept over several days and nights, they bring it to the grave, wherein they do not lay it down, but place it in a sitting posture upon a stone or a block of wood, as if the body were sitting upon a stool; then they place a pot, kettle, platter, spoon, with some provisions and money, near the body in the grave; this they say is necessary for the journey to the other world. Then they place as much wood around the body as will keep the earth from it. Above...

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Later Huron, 1675

Having such a clear and vivid description of the early burial customs of the Huron, and the various ceremonies which were enacted by members of that tribe at the time of the death of one of their number, as recorded by Père Le Jeune, in 1636, it is of interest to compare them with the later customs of the same people, after they had become influenced by the teachings of the missionaries. The later account relates to the people of la Mission de Notre-Dame de Lorette, in the year 1675, at which time ” about 300 souls, both Huron and Iroquois,” were gathered about the Mission and heard the teachings of the Jesuits. And regarding the burial of their dead it was said “Their custom is as follows: as soom as any one dies, the captain utters a lugubrious cry through the village to give notice of it. The relatives of the deceased have no need to trouble themselves about anything, beyond weeping for their dead; because every family takes care that the body is shrouded, the grave dug, and the corpse borne to it and buried, and that everything else connected with the burial is done,-a service that they reciprocally render to one another on similar occasions. “When the hour for the funeral has come, the clergy usually go to the cabin to get the body of the...

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Huron Ceremony, 1636

In contemplating the origin of the preceding burial it is of interest to read the description of a similar burial, as witnessed and recorded by the Jesuit Pere Le Jeune, in the year 1636. But the father had much to say about the manners and customs of the people among whom he labored-the Huron-whose villages were in the vicinity of Lake Simcoe. He told of the manner in which the family and friends gathered about the sick person while making various necessary plans and preparations in anticipation of the end, and continued: “As soon as the sick man has drawn his last breath, they place him in the position in which he is to be in the grave; they do not stretch him at length as we do, but place him in a crouching posture, almost the same that a child has in its mother’s womb. Thus far, they restrain their tears. After having performed these duties the whole Cabin begins to respond with cries, groans, and wails. As soon as they cease, the Captain goes promptly through the Cabins, making known that such and such a one is dead. On the arrival of friends, they begin anew to weep and complain. Word of the death is also sent to the friends who live in the other Villages; and, as each family has some one who takes care of...

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Native American Cremation

More than a century before McKenney made his tour of the Lakes and stopped at Detroit, during the month of June, 1826, Charlevoix traversed much of the same on his way to the country of the Illinois, and thence down the Mississippi. At that time the Missisauga, a tribe closely related to the Chippewa, and of which they may be considered a subtribe or division, lived on the shores of Lake St. Clair and the vicinity, and here Charlevoix saw their scaffold burials. Referring to the several tribes with whom he had come in contact, he wrote: “When an Indian dies in the time of hunting, his body is exposed on a very high scaffold, where it remains till the departure of the company, who carry it with them to the village. There are some nations who have the same custom, with respect to all their dead; and I have seen it practised among the Missisaguez at the Narrows. The bodies of those who are killed in war are burnt, and the ashes carried back, in order to be deposited in the sepulchres of their ancestors. These sepulchres, among those nations who are best fixed in their settlements, are a sort of burial grounds near the village.” This was written in 1721. Another reference to the burning of bodies was prepared about the same year, and proves that others...

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Burials in Caves

The early settlers of eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and the adjoining region discovered many caves of varying sizes in the broken, mountainous country. In many instances human remains which had been deposited in the caverns, together with the garments and wrappings of tanned skins or woven fibers, were found in a remarkable state of preservation, having been thus preserved by the natural salts which abounded within the caves. Fortunately several very clear and graphic accounts of such discoveries were prepared. One most interesting example, then recently made in a cave in Barren County, Kentucky, was described in a letter written August 24, 1815: ” In exploring a calcareous chamber in the neighborhood of Glasgow, for saltpetre, several human bodies were found enwrapped carefully in skins and cloths. They were inhumed below the floor of the cave; inhumed, not lodged in catacombs. The outer envelope of the body is a deer skin, probably dried in the usual way, and perhaps softened before its application, by rubbing. The next covering is a deer skin, whose hair had been cut away by a sharp instrument. The next wrapper is of cloth, made of twine doubled and twisted. But the thread does not appear to have been formed by the wheel, nor the web by the loom. The innermost tegument is a mantle of cloth like the preceding; but furnished with large brown...

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