Long before Europeans first trod these shores, Native Americans were here. In the beginning, they were simple hunter-gatherers, subsisting on what they could take from the land and water. But over time, they developed greater skills and organization, and when Spanish explorers penetrated the area in the 16th century, they encountered a sophisticated and flourishing native culture.
This so-called Mississippian Period lasted between 1100 and 1540 and was distinguished by large-scale mound building, towns grouped into chiefdoms, far-flung trade routes, elaborate religious rituals, athletic games, warfare, decorative pottery and wide-scale cultivation of maize, beans and squash.
One of the largest Mississippian chiefdoms along the Gulf rim was in the Mobile River Delta, at a locale known today as the Bottle Creek Site. It is difficult for a modern visitor there, dwarfed by giant trees and surrounded by spreading head-high palmetto fronds, to imagine what this extraordinary place was like so many hundreds of years ago. But thanks to the efforts of archaeologists and scholars, as well as accounts by early Europeans, it is possible to peel back the years and come to some understanding.
The 18 earthen mounds at the site, the tallest of which is 45 feet, were denuded of trees and surrounded an open plaza. They were built up a basketful of earth at a time, carried over from nearby borrow-pits. Their construction required a highly regimented and stratified society; much of the work was probably done by slaves who had been captured in war. The mounds themselves were solely the precinct of the nobles and priests, where they could shelter in huts crafted of timber, mud and river cane. Besides enjoying a better view than their people, the leaders also got better food. In excavating the top of the largest mound, archaeologists discovered evidence of superior cuts of meat, plenteous corn and bigger oysters than those found below. The number of serving vessels recovered indicates that the ruling nobles were well attended to by servants.
Overall, the native people were thoroughly adapted to their world. Area rivers and streams were their highways, and in order to travel swiftly and efficiently, they hollowed out cypress logs for canoes. These vessels could be simple one- or two-man conveyances, or grand war canoes capable of carrying 30 men and supplies. In order to provide food, hunting parties regularly came and went, and everyone fished. The rich Delta bottomlands were extensively farmed.
What did the Native Americans in this area look like? According to the archaeology, as well as later descriptions by the Spanish and the French, they were “well made both men and women, ” with coppery skin and long black hair. In a custom strange to the Europeans, some had flattened foreheads, the result of being strapped to cradle boards in infancy. This was thought to be highly attractive in their culture. The most important tribesmen wore necklaces and earrings. Elaborate tattoos were common, sometimes in great whorls. Copper and pearl adornments were also popular, but these Indians did not possess any gold, as the Spaniards would soon discover to their keen disappointment. Clothing varied by season and social class. During the warm months, both men and women went mostly naked, with only loincloths or, in the case of the women, Spanish moss to cover themselves. In colder weather, deer or other animal skins and feather capes provided effective comfort. The chiefs and nobles were adorned with headdresses.
There can be little doubt that the plaza at Bottle Creek saw extensive ceremonial use for games and dances related to the chiefdom’s agricultural calendar. Among the most important of these would have been a green corn ceremony, or busk, to greet the ripening crop in high summer. In celebration, there would have been fasting, dancing and games, like chunkey. This sport was played in an open, smooth area, like the plaza, in front of numerous onlookers, some perhaps even betting on the outcome. The action consisted of warriors throwing spears at a rolling disk-shaped stone in an attempt to come the closest. Team sports, such as ball, a distant cousin of lacrosse, were also popular and frequently violent. One 19th-century account describes a player killed outright on the field, three badly hurt who died later, and more than a dozen who took better than a month to recover. Chiefdoms likely competed against one another, with the losers being deeply shamed.
These Indians worshipped the sun, and fire was also spiritually important to them. In the early 1700s, a Frenchman reported that the Natchez Indians kept a perpetual fire burning in their temple. “They say this fire represents the sun, ” he wrote, “which they worship.” It is probable that Bottle Creek harbored such a flame as well, maintained atop one of the mounds and closely tended. The people also paid attention to celestial events, knew how to read the weather — vitally important in hurricane country — and told stories to explain their origins and various aspects of the natural world. They were curious about strangers if nonthreatening, and that is probably how they initially reacted when oddly dressed white men in an unusual watercraft appeared in the large bay at their doorstep.
John S. Sledge is writing a book about the Mobile River.
text by John S. Sledge