Although the Tensaw Delta appears as one piece on a map, the northern (upper) and southern (lower) regions are very different. The upper is more bottomland than swamp to me. The banks are higher, and the trees are taller. The people there refer to the area as “the River” instead of “the Delta.” They consider themselves river people and specialize in freshwater fishing. They do not have the leach of saltwater creatures that can be found in water closer to Mobile Bay. Additionally, the numerous boat launches, protected waters and higher ground make it more accessible and suitable for building permanent structures. As a result, there are far more camps in the upper Delta. Perhaps this explains why the Pensacola Indians chose it to build their ceremonial center, now known as the Bottle Creek Mounds. Finding these mounds was the most fascinating and haunting of all my Delta excursions.
Most similar archaeological sites were discovered and looted long before they were appreciated for their cultural significance. Due to its remote location, Bottle Creek wasn’t even mapped until the late 1800s. Its 18 mounds that served as platforms for houses and temples make it the largest Mississippian (1200 – 1450 A.D.) site on the north-central Gulf Coast. The largest of these mounds stands nearly 50 feet high.
The first time I went in search of the place, I took my father-in-law and my 6-year-old son with me. I hadn’t spent much time in that part of the Delta, so I came prepared with a map and word-of-mouth advice from several locals. Accordingly, we launched in the late afternoon at Upper Bryant’s Landing, just north of Stockton. From there, we ran down the Tensaw and motored miles through a creek so narrow and shallow that I considered turning back several times. Eventually, we emerged in Bottle Creek not far from the mounds.
Finding Bottle Creek took us much longer than I’d planned. And even when we arrived, it took us a while to locate the sandy foot trail leading up the creek bank and back into the palmetto bottom. There were no signs, no people, no trash: just a small creek with still, black water in the absolute middle of nowhere. The place was very quiet except for the thrum of cicadas and the occasional fish popping at a surface bug.
The sun was already cooling below the treetops, and I was feeling anxious. It was obvious that we’d have to make the return journey after nightfall, a trip I wasn’t looking forward to. Even more worrisome was the idea of being deep in the swamp without a flashlight, especially as I played host to my son and father-in-law.
We tied my skiff to a tree branch and set out under a shroud of tall cypress trees and hackberry. We hurried up the footpath, rasping through the palmetto, hopping mud holes and small creeks. At that point, I really just wanted to check the place off my list and get out of there as fast as I could. I certainly didn’t expect what I was about to find.
After a while, we began to see the mounds standing eerily out of the gloam. My anxiety melted away, and I slowed my pace, at once humbled and reverent. I immediately understood what the pioneers felt when stumbling across an Indian burial ground. I’m sure the pending darkness added to my mood, but even so, the place was downright spooky and unnerving.
The footpath snaked through the ruins until it finally led us to the largest mound, rising and disappearing into the trees. We climbed it and stood at the top, our heads literally in swamp canopy. I would have liked to have spent more time there, but my son complained that the mosquitoes were biting, and I was reminded of our predicament. I put him on my shoulders, and we all started back as night fell around us, happy for the glow of the white sandy trail. MB
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released last September, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
Editor’s Note: Access to Bottle Creek Mounds is limited, but every fall, Blakeley State Park offers guided tours. blakeley.com
text by Watt Key • illustration by Kelan Mercer