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The Coosa River’s past just got a whole lot more complicated!

The Coosa River’s past just got a whole lot more complicated!


Do those houses above look vaguely familiar . . . maybe from the PBS special on the Lewis and Clark Expedition?  Wait a minute, though . . . the Lewis and Clark Expedition went up the Missouri River . . . not the Coosa River!   Those couldn’t be Arikara or Mandan pit houses in the heartland of the Creek Indians, could they?  

Oh yes they were.  In fact, they were discovered by highly respected archaeologists at a village site on the Upper Coosa River in a 20+ year long, late 20th century dig that was heavily publicized in the media and has, even today, a fairly long article in Wikipedia.  Even the Wikipedia article states that the roughly square buildings in this village were recessed into the ground and that this soil was used to construct earth berms around the walls. Most of the houses also had tunnel-like covered entrances, similar to those on Arikara & Mandan houses.  It also states that four stout interior wood columns supported the roofs of these supersized houses.  They were large enough to hold several families.


No one, including the archaeologists involved, realized the implications of what was written in the archaeological report. These are NOT typical houses of the ancestors of the Creek Indians. All that the public was told was that this village was a satellite of the great town of Kusa, 74 miles up stream, and the Hernando de Soto Expedition probably came through here.The villagers on the Upper Coosa may have made pottery like that at the town of Kusa, but their architecture and village plans were very different. 

A book written by a Tennessee scholar in 1950 presented compelling evidence that the Mandan-Arikara-Hidatsu People originated near Chattanooga, Tennessee then gradually migrated downstream on the Tennessee River and upstream the Missouri River over the centuries.  Were the occupants of the Upper Coosa River merely Mandans, who elected not to leave the region?  POOF will in a later article look at that evidence and discuss how it relates to the known archaeological record of the Upper Coosa River.

The languages are Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsu most closely related to those of the Caddo and Pawnee.  There is evidence that the Caddo originated in the Southeast and that they are mentioned in the Mandan Migration Legend.  POOF will also discuss that possibility in a subsequent article.

This situation is actually a bit more complicated than the possibility of a cultural connection between northeastern Alabama and North Dakota.  After Chaco Canyon was abandoned,  its former residents built large earth-berm pit houses, which were very similar to those constructed by the Mandans, Arikara and Hidatsu along the Missouri River in North Dakota.   Thus, the enigmatic architecture on the Upper Coosa River may have been built by refugees from the Great Drought in the Southwest.  Only genetic testing can answer that question.

These houses would not have had earthen roofs like those west of the Mississippi, but rather would have had thatched roofs with clay plastered on the ceiling against split river cane lathing.  As an architect, who has designed several “earth sheltered” residential and commercial structures, I am quite a bit more knowledgeable about the technical problems involved with earth shelters than Southeastern archaeologists.  I keep on telling them to stop labeling all round buildings as “earth lodges.”   Both the Spanish and William Bartram described in detail such structures. Both sources said that the buildings had earth berms against the walls, but thatched roofs.

There are no native grasses growing along the Coosa River, which could have produced sod similar to the prairie grasses of the Western Plains.  The Upper Coosa River Basin averages around 52-55 inches of rainfall a year.  The humidity and heat in its climate quickly causes non-treated wood, exposed to rain, to rot.   Thus, a sod roof would be impossible at this location and an earth roof would cause the timber structure to fail within a very short period . . . as little as 1-2 years in some tree species.

How these unique structures “slipped under the radar”

Water color rendering of the King Village Site

The King Site (Archaeological Site No. 9FL5 in western Floyd County, GA) is one of the very few archaeological sites in Georgia or Alabama that has been so heavily publicized that an artist was hired to produce a rendering of the village.  The water color was beautifully executed, but does not show the actual architecture that the archeologists unearthed.  Apparently,  the artist was told that this was a “Mississippian Period Village.  He or she looked at an earlier rendering of a scene at Cahokia Mounds and reproduced them at the King Site.  The artist didn’t exactly follow the archaeologist’s site plan of the site either.   We will discuss the village plan in a later article.

The archaeologists found the footprint of a three feet diameter wooden structure at the center of the village, not three narrow timber poles as shown on the rendering at the right.  This wooden structure is a “trademark” of Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsu villages.  It should have sent up red flags, but didn’t.  POOF will discuss this structure and the other features of the village, which were different than ancestral Creek villages, when the computer model of the site is completed.  The computer model was created directly from the archaeologists’ site plan, combined with ERSI imagery, to provide an absolutely accurate description of the community, when it was occupied.

The public only saw the artists rendering in newspaper articles or television news clips.   The public was then told that this was a satellite of a famous ancestral Creek Indian town and so no one apparently was aware of that their houses and public buildings were very unusual for the Southeast.  It is a story that we have seen repeated many times in the Southeast, but the presence of Western style indigenous architecture on the Coosa River cannot be explained within the current orthodoxy about the Southeastern Indians.

Origin of the Creek Square

The Oklahoma Muscogee Creek name for the “Creek Square” is Chuko Rakko, which means “House Big.”   Probably many Creeks have wondered through the years why an open air arrangement of for sets of covered bleachers would be called a “Big House.”  

At the heart of this village was a large, square (not rectangular as show above) communal building.  It was approximately 50 feet in diameter.  It contained four timber columns to support the massive roof as in the houses in the village, but also contained earthen benches.  Thus, this communal building was indeed a “Big House.”   One can easily imagining how a “Big House” on the Upper Coosa River in the early 1500s could have evolved into a “Big House” without a roof on the Lower Coosa River in the mid-1700s. 

Here is the clinch, however.  Nowhere else, have I been able to find an antecedent for the Creek Square in the ancestral, Pre-European architecture of the Creek’s ancestors.  These ancestors did build many chokopa’s or round communal buildings, but nowhere else has anything resembling a compact, Creek Square been identified.  The Kusas, Highland Apalache and Koasati’s build large oval plazas.  The Uchee built round plazas.  The Itsate and Tamatli Creeks build massive rectangular plazas like those in Mexico.  The Okate (Oconee) and Tamatli Creeks built asymmetrical plazas like those in Maya cities.   The Creek Square seems now to have been a tradition that the 18th century Creek Indians adopted from a non-Muskogean ethnic group, who joined their confederacy.

On the left is a computer model of the large communal building on the Coosa River. The entrance faced the southwest or Winter Solstice Sunset.  The Mandans, Arikara and Hidatsu built almost identical communal structures.  However, at least in the 1800s, their entrances were at the middle of the south side of the building. 

On the right is a model of the center of the Creek principal town of Tuckabatchee in 1776, near the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in Eastern Alabama.  This model is based on the drawings of William Bartram, who is shown, standing in the Creek Square.


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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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