The Chickasaw . . . In the beginning
Perhaps 3,000 years ago, their ancestors were merely Choctaws with wanderlust. Although it is obvious that that their ancestors kept their linguistic ties with the Choctaw Motherland, their adaptations to new climates and terrains, plus absorption of ideas from other peoples, changed their culture. When they mixed with other peoples, they often became an entirely new ethnic group.
The Irreverent Observations of Bubba Mythbuster
Season 1 – Episode 8
Oakville Mounds, located a few miles southwest of Decatur, Alabama, is this state’s second largest mound complex. The archaeological zone contains at least 20 mounds. The centerpieces of the park are a large platform mound and a burial mound, both associated with the Woodland Period Copena Culture, which in that region probably lasted from around 100 AD to 500 AD. The Copena Culture was ancestral to the Chickasaw People and located in the Chickasaw Heartland. The land on which Oakville Mounds sit was ceded to the United States government in 1818 by the Chickasaw Nation.
Click images and maps to enlarge them.
Au contraire . . . On the driveway, leading up to the Oakville Mounds Museum, one sees signs in the Cherokee Syllabary that individually list each one of the modern Cherokee clans . . . in the tradition of the old Burma Shave signs along Southern highways. The museum’s brochure states: “The Oakville Indian Mounds Education Center was inspired by the Cherokee Capitol at the village of Chota.”
Actually, the architects didn’t do their homework. The Choctaws built hexagonal and octagonal council houses, not the Cherokees. In the entrance lobby of the museum is a 12 feet high statue of the famous Cherokee, Sequoyah. Sequoyah never came anywhere near Oakville Mounds. The region was occupied by white men, when he moved from Turkeytown to Arkansas.
I specifically drove all the way to Decatur, Alabama to learn more about the Chickasaws. There was practically nothing written recently about their early history. When I saw the tacky Burma Shave signs along the driveway and then it started raining again, I wanted to turn around and go home. The word, Chickasaw, is mentioned once in the park’s eight page website. The park’s brochure says that the mounds were built by the “Woodland” Indians.
I asked the museum attendant why they made this Woodland Period archaeological zone into a Cherokee museum. She answered, “Our Echota Cherokee Tribe played a major role in the creation of the museum and we wanted to honor our Cherokee ancestors, who have lived here for thousands of years. You know, the Cherokees once lived in most of Alabama.” She showed me a map that labeled Echota Cherokee clans occupying the northern three-fourths of Alabama.
I responded that most of the real Cherokees in Alabama either left in 1817 for Arkansas or were marched on the Trail of Tears in 1838 .
“The dark-haired people in this area of Alabama until about 30 years ago always called themselves Black Dutch. My ex-wife’s family was one of them. They remembered their family founder as a Dutch Jew, who was driven out the North Carolina Mountains by the Cherokees. His name was Abraham Hite.”
The lady shook her head in disbelief. “I know the Hites! Hite is an old Cherokee family name. You don’t know what you are talking about.”
I explained, “Black Dutch is the English translation of the Dutch word, Svart Duets. That is what the native Dutch called the thousands of Spanish Jewish refugees, who came to their country. In the 1600s, many of them migrated to the Appalachians to start a New Jerusalem.”
She then puckered her lips to show her irritation and mumbled, “We’re not Jewish!” She then looked at me as if I was crazy and turned her head 180 degrees.
The memory of the Chickasaws has been erased once again. Oh, and by the way . . . Hite IS a Dutch Jewish name. Well, obviously the fascinating Jewish history of the Southern Appalachians has also been erased.
Leaving the Garden of Eden
Louisiana archaeologists currently believe that the massive, earthen platform villages in the northeastern part of their state were abandoned around 1100 BC in response to changed environmental conditions. It has been postulated that repeated, catastrophic floods were the cause. It may have been a series of major earthquakes in the New Madrid Zone or something entirely different, like an invasion by another, more advanced people or raiders from Gulf Coast of Mexico.
Whatever the cause, this is the most likely period when the ancestors of the Chickasaws began moving eastward and northward out of their former “Garden of Eden” environment. It is interesting that newcomers with Muskogean physiques arrived in the Upper Ohio River Valley within a century after the abandonment of Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana. They evolved into the Adena Culture.
Very little study has been done by archaeologists on the movement of populations in the Southeast. For far too long the profession was paralyzed by the presumption that all tribes had been in the same place in 1776 as they had been for eons before. Therefore, most of what we can say about the proto-Chickasaw has to be in the realm of speculation based on tidbits of hard facts. However, there is absolutely no doubt that the people, who built the 200+ mounds in the Tennessee River Basin of North Alabama were the ancestors of the Chickasaws and perhaps, a few by some branches of the Creeks.
For reasons not fully understood, the fact that the heartland of the Chickasaw was in North Alabama is generally ignored. However, there is profound archaeological and cartographic evidence that the ancestors of the Chickasaw once lived as far east as the Savannah River Basin. There were Chickasaw villages in both Northeast and Northwest Georgia until shortly after the Treaty of Hopewell in 1786.
The Chickasaw town of Chickamauga was in the northwestern tip of Georgia. During the American Revolution, it took in so many Cherokee refugees that the Chickamaugas became known as a hostile Cherokee faction.
It is very probable that the Chickasaws were the original Muskogeans in Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. When they blended with other, non-Muskogean peoples, they sometimes became ethnic groups that later composed the Creek Confederacy. At other locations, they maintained their Chickasaw identities. As an example, the linguistic research of the People of One Fire over the past seven years has shown that Itsate Creek was a mixing of a dialect of Chickasaw with first, the Panoan languages of Peru and then Itza Maya language spoken back around 1000 years ago.
Part of the confusion is the use of pottery styles by Southeastern archaeologists to create ethnic labels. Entirely different ethnic groups may have made the same style pottery. Conversely, archaeologists have tended to provide unique English labels to styles of pottery in their own states or even sections of states that are essentially the product of the same cultural tradition as those with another name in another state. The variations may just reflect the local availability of the raw materials used in ceramics.
This is especially true of Deptford Style pottery, which began spreading out from present day Savannah, GA around 800 AD. The Deptford pottery tradition extended over a vastly larger area than shown on a map in Wikipedia. In northern Georgia it was called “Cartersville.” In northern and central Alabama, it was called ”McLeod,” but used a different tempering mineral.
The original Deptford People were probably a very different ethnic group than the Muskogeans migrating out of the Mississippian Basin. Overtime they mixed with several bands of Muskogeans to become one of the modern Muskogean tribes, including the Chickasaws.
The Copena Culture
The Copena Culture was one of the earliest expressions of Muskogean mound builders. It lasted from about 200 BC to 550 AD in some Alabama and Tennessee locations, but farther east evolved into the Swift Creek Culture. The Oakville Mounds archaeological zone was one of the more spectacular mound complexes associated with the Copena Culture, but certainly not the only one. The authors of online articles about the Copena Culture won’t tell you this, but the boundaries of the Copena Culture pretty much correspond to the territorial boundaries of the Chickasaws up until the late 1700s.
The Copena People built both platform mounds like what would be seen elsewhere in the Southeast several centuries later. They also built burial mounds. They were very fond of using copper and lead crystals in ornaments. Their anthropological name was coined by combining the first three letters of copper with galena, which is the common name for lead sulfide crystals.
It has become fashionable among archaeologists in recent years to lump the Copena Culture with the Hopewell Culture and label most Middle Woodland cultures in the central Southeast and Mississippi Basin part of the “Hopewell Cultural Sphere.” However, they have backed off a bit in recent years and no longer claim that all of the peoples in the trading network were the same ethnic group.
Since then, the word, “Copena” is now a politically incorrect, if not a taboo subject. Some anonymous Thought Monitor completely removed the long article in Wikipedia about the Copena Culture of North Alabama. All that remains is a brief paragraph under the heading Hopewell, which tells the reader next to nothing.
The site planning, architecture and burial practices of the Copena People could not have been more different than those in southeastern Ohio. The Copena people did not build geometric earthworks as ceremonial centers, but pyramidal mounds that apparently were towns. However, it is the Copena burial traditions that are intriguing.
The Copena partially mummified their deceased loved ones by plastering their bodies with clay. As a result archaeologists can fill the cavity left by the body with plaster and see what the person looked like when alive. In the damp, warm climate of the Middle Tennessee River Valley, there is seldom much remaining inside the clay shell.
If the clay coated mummy concept sounds familiar, it apparently did not ring a bell with the archaeologists who first described Copena burials. However, there is again a connection with Peru on this one. The oldest mummies in the world were created by the Chinchorro Culture on the coast of Peru and Chile. The oldest mummy was radiocarbon dated at 7020 BC. The extreme dryness, heat and salinity of the Chichorro mummies have preserved the desiccated remains for thousands of years.
It is obvious that there still much we don’t know about the peopling of Southeastern North America.
Archaeological Site 9Fu12: Latitude – 84°34’29″W ~ Longitude – 33°44’30″N
The year is 1968. It would be another seven years before there would be a state-recognized Creek tribe in Georgia. It would be another 11 years before the Muscogee-Creek Nation would be organized. Atlanta was booming and had just passed the million person mark in population. The state’s economic leaders were elated when Texas developer Trammel Crowe announced plans to build Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park on the west side of the Chattahoochee in southwest Metro Atlanta and a warehouse park on the east side. No one looked at the old maps.
After construction of the amusement park was well underway, rumors began flying about large numbers of human bones and “Indian” artifacts being found by grading equipment operators. If the year was 2015, the building inspectors would have immediately issued a Stop Work order and called the coroner’s office. Six Flags Over Georgia was being built on one of the oldest Creek towns. It was named Chattahoochee on the old maps and contained several mounds. However, it was 1967 and so the Texans and the Georgia politicos worked out a compromise.
The Great Southwest Corporation would pay archaeologists to excavate a small Historic Period Creek town named Sandtown across the river, and the Georgia officials would remain silent about the big Indian town at the amusement park. The Director of the University of Georgia’s Anthropology Department, Arthur Kelly, was hired to direct the work at Sandtown, while Georgia State University archaeology students would do the work. Since there was nothing visible on the surface, it was assumed that the archaeological survey would be completed long before grading machines began work on the warehouse park. Everyone was in for a surprise.
Dr. Kelly noticed an unnatural bump about 1/8th mile to the south. Great Southwest’s surveyors had labeled it a Civil War fortification. Nearby were Confederate breastworks from the Battle of Utoy Creek, so that was plausible. Kelly began poking around the small hill and found very old Indian artifacts . . . at least a thousand years older than those at Sandtown. With their public relations back to the wall, Great Southwest Corporation authorized funding to explore this new village site. However, Kelly was limited in land area and time. He only could peel off the top soil of the area immediately near the man-made hill and see what was there. Excavation would eventually get to the first inner ring of houses, but radiocarbon dating was used.
For much of its occupation, 9FU14 produced Deptford Style pottery, but the site plan of the village was like the proto-Choctaw ceremonial sites that were discussed within the POOF article, “In the Beginning, there were the Choctaw.” There were concentric rings of houses with a platform mound on the southwest corner.
Toward the end of its occupation, some Swift Creek pottery was found. However, the layout of the village was never like Swift Creek villages.
Kelly’s team had discovered, what was then, the oldest known permanent village in North America. The original houses had been built around 200 BC and the village had remained occupied until around 450 AD. The alluvial soil was peeled off the hill to reveal a truncated, pyramidal mound with a ramp. He never had a chance to excavate the platform mound or the burial mounds along Utoy Creek.
Other archaeologists were jealous of the newspaper publicity that the excavation received and manically opposed Kelly’s interpretation of the village being supported by agriculture or being as old as the radiocarbon dating said. They insisted that the village dated from around 1200 AD or later, since it had a platform mound. As a result, the project received very little publicity within his profession.
Forty-six years later, Dr. Kelly’s interpretations seem quite plausible. The village at Poverty Point, LA was begun over 1400 years before 9Fu14. From the perspective of the research done by the People of One Fire since 2006, something else can be discerned from his hurried work. This seems to be the spot where Muskogean peoples first blended with Deptford Peoples from the coast. Out of the hybrid culture came the Copena Culture, and ultimately, the Chickasaw People.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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