The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 10 – The Southeastern Woodlands

A coastal Safety Harbor village at the time of Spanish contact.

The Calusa people of Florida were among the earliest people to have contact with Europeans with the 1513 landing of Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon. While initial encounters between whites and Native Americans tend to be initially friendly, this wasn’t one of those times since the Calusa knew about what went on in the Caribbean from native refugees and kept driving the Spanish out each time eventually resulting in de Leon’s death in 1521, which didn’t end their hostility to whites though which lasted for a couple more centuries. And it didn’t help they were being subjected to European diseases and slaving raids. Today the Calusa tribe has been considered extinct since the 18th century.

Finally, we come to the Southeastern Woodlands, a region situated from the Mississippi River to the East Coast and from the Ohio River to the Gulf Coast. In this region, contact with the Europeans began in the early 16th century with Juan Ponce de Leon landing in what is now Florida in his hopeless quest to seek the Fountain of Youth. He never found it but he ended up discovering a land that would become a haven for Cuban refugees, rich retirees, major theme parks, astronauts, and outright nutbags. But it’s said that news of Columbus’s 1492 arrival and the effects of such event on the offshore native people such as massive death, mistreatment, and enslavement before Ponce de Leon’s arrival. At any rate, by 1519, these Indian Floridians knew enough to fear the non-native intruders. Yet despite efforts to protect themselves, many of these Indians suffered violence and death from non-native depredation and disease. As European presence became more regular and permanent after the mid-to late 16th century, the Southeastern Woodlands Native Americans were drawn into increased trade with the Spanish and later the British and French who arrived in the 17th century. At the same time the Indians continued to die from disease and were increasingly forced to deal with problems like factionalism, fraud, land grabbing, and alcohol. Aspects of traditional culture like clan and political structure began to break down as overall conflict increased. Though there was a thriving regional deerskin trade by the mid-18th century, many Indians started raising cattle as the deer disappeared. Indians also participated in the regional slave trade where they were buyers, sellers, as well as victims (some even accepted African Americans into their ranks like the Seminoles). Yet, despite that the larger, so-called civilized tribes had adopted a very similar lifestyle to their non-native neighbors such as slave based agriculture, literacy, Anglo-style government and laws, and to some extent Christianity, native land loss accelerated to the point they were almost completely dispossessed in the late 1830s. This was the famous Trail of Tears in which tens of thousands of Southeastern Native Americans were evicted from their homelands and relocated to reservations in Oklahoma with significant numbers dying in transit or shortly after their arrival. Yet, there was a number of Seminole Indians who resisted removal by hiding out in the Everglades. Today most “southeast” Indians live in Oklahoma while traditional culture is preserved in varying ways and to different degrees.

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Like their Northeastern Woodlands counterparts, the Southeastern Woodlands was also dominated by the mound building cultures consisting of the Adena, the Hopewell, and the Mississippian. This is painting depicting a Mississippian mound village in Louisiana.

Location: East of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio that spans to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

First Peoples: First inhabited at around 11,000 years ago either by people from the north or west. But they were mostly hunter-gatherers who lived in family bands. Most groups adopted large scale agriculture by 900. Adena (800 B.C.E.-200) and Hopewell peoples (300 B.C.E.-700) resided in the area in permanent villages with mound burials, earthworks, copper ornaments, extensive agriculture, and stamped pottery. Most tribes at this time lived in matrilineal clans in opposing red and white divisions to counter centralized power. Tribes were often loose aggregations of these clans. And such membership often established one’s role or position in rituals and society. Mississippian societies were highly centralized and hierarchically ranked as well as led by powerful if not absolute chiefs. Members of elite classes received tribute in goods and services from common people. Their cities were palisaded urban centers with ceremonial centers and populations of up to tens of thousands of people. They also built large mounds up to 300 acres as well as had fields that were several square miles in area.

Environment: Often humid with river valleys, forests, mountains, grasslands, saltmarshes, lagoons, and swamps. High precipitation. Experiences hot summers and mild winters.

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Like their Northeastern Woodlands neighbors, most of the Southeastern Woodlands tribes practiced some form of agriculture. While corn was the main crop, they also grew squash, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, fruit, potatoes, and tomatoes.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter, gatherer, fisher, as well as agricultural subsistence. Grew corn, beans, squash, potatoes, sunflowers, yams, tomatoes, fruit, and pumpkins. Gathered nuts, acorns, persimmons, wild rice, fruit, and mushrooms. Hunted deer, raccoons, opossums, beaver, eagles, otters, squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, bear, buffalo, elk, and wild hogs. Also fished.

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The standard Southeastern Indian dwelling was the wattle and daub house. It consisted of pole frames covered with branches and vines and plastered by a layer of clay. Kind of looks like something you’d see from the Smurfs.

Housing: This region had several different types of homes depending on location, tribe, and availability of natural resources. The classic dwelling was made from pole frames covered with branches and vines as well as plastered by a layer of clay. This is known as a wattle and daub house. Summer houses were usually rectangular with gabled, thatched roofs like the chickee. Circular winter “town” houses could be plastered inside and out with animal skins, bamboo, bark, woven mats, and palm leaves may also be used in outer construction. Some of these homes could even have two stories. There were even house like storage structures in addition to these homes. Large towns would have huge town houses with up to several hundred seats used for conducting rituals or business. Sweat houses were also common. Then you have the Caddo people who lived in the “beehive” thatched grass houses.

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Due to humid weather during the warmer months, Southeastern Woodlands Native Americans usually didn’t wear months. Both sexes also had a lot of body paint and tattoos.

Clothing: Most wore very little in the warmer months. Clothing was mainly made from tanned deerskin though inner bark was used to make hairnets and some textiles. Bear and buffalo robes were worn in the winter as well as ornate feather mantles or cloaks. Men wore breechcloths, shirts, leggings, shawls, or cloaks. Women usually wore short skirts, as well as tunics or mantles. Moccasins were mainly worn for travel. Ornamentation was made from shells, copper, pearls, and beads. Tattooing was widespread and body paint was used for special occasions. A lot of male warriors shaved their heads.

Transportation: Had bark and wooden canoes, preferably made from cypress. Though pine, poplar, and other wood canoes also existed.

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Southeastern Woodland warfare often took a great deal of ritual preparation and during such conflicts, warriors would often leave distinguishing signs to show who committed the violent deeds. Scalping was considered high war honors. Most war were usually over clan revenge.

Society: Primarily sedentary and semi-nomadic, though nomadic at the coast. Estimated to have as many as 150,000 people before European contact. Had vast trading networks, though most exchanges took place along kin networks and related families. Villages and towns were often at river valleys whenever possible which can consist of a social and ceremonial center as well as houses strung out for miles. Many tribes had some degree of social stratification and chiefs married women from allied and subject tribes to strengthen ties. Clan vengeance was a primary motivation for war. But warfare often took a great deal of ritual preparation and warriors often left a distinguishing sign to show who committed the violent deeds. Prisoners were usually tortured and sold into slavery. Scalping was common and constituted war honors. War chiefs often led war parties. Later societies could consist of large confederacies.

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Southeastern Woodland Indians were well known to practice exogamous marriage and matrilineal descent. Incest taboos were strictly enforced while inter-clan marriage was banned.

Family Structure: Practiced exogamous marriage and matrilineal descent. Observed strict incest taboos as well as marriage within a clan. Yet, polygamy was practiced among chiefs and wealthier men who could afford it. Men hunted, fished, fought, built houses, and sometimes farmed while women tended to housework, reared children, cooked, and made clothes.

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From 1817-1842, the Florida Seminoles and their escaped slave allies put up a major resistance against the US Army which led the US to acquire Florida and Andrew Jackson serve as its first governor for a time. However, no Seminole resistance was better known than that of Osceola’s in the 1830s who led devastating guerrilla tactics against US troops even when vastly outnumbered before his 1837 capture and death. A few hundred Seminoles managed to stay hiding in the Everglades where their descendants reside to this day.

Practices: Wood carving, animism, shamanism, pottery, basketry, Green Corn festival, moundbuilding, Southern Ceremonial Complex, tobacco, music, dance, gambling, stickball, chunkey, metalwork, weaving, lacrosse, controlled burning, pictographs, and beadwork.

Tools and Weapons: Bows and arrows, spears, axes, adzes, clubs, fish hooks and line, nets, blow guns and darts, rope, spear throwers, grinding stones, stone pestles, flint hoes, and weirs.

Notable Tribes: Cherokee, Natchez, Choctaw, Caddo, Biloxi, Creek, Apalachee, Arawak, Seminole, Atakapa, Bayougoula, Chacato, Calusa, Chickasaw, Croatan, Timucua, Coharie, Mayaca, Mobila, Mocoso, Yazoo, Uzita, Waccamaw, Mayami, Mikasuki, Sewee, Sissipaw, Tequesta, Santee, Roanoke, Pacara, Pensacola, Quinipissa, Tocobaga, Yamassee, Winyaw, Jaega, Koasati, Machapunga, Mataumbe, Eno, Chisca, Chowanoc, Cusabo, Chitimacha, Cape Fear, Chakchiuma, Catawba, Calusa, Ais, Powhatan, Quapaw, Tonkawa, Karankawa, Cofitachiqui, Mosopelea, and Avoyel.

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