Tennessee's Indians in the Historical Era, Part 1 of 5

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - by Chuck Hamilton

The land now known as the State of Tennessee has been home to numerous American Indian peoples the past several thousand years.  In Southeast Tennessee and the rest of the tri-state area, the first that comes to mind is the Cherokee, while in West Tennessee and northern Mississippi it would probably be the Chickasaw.  In Middle Tennessee, the first to mind might be the Shawnee. 

While it’s true all these were present in the early historical era, none of the three were native to Tennessee nor was the land of the later state exclusive to just these three tribes of the historical era until as late as the mid-17th century.  At that point, the native population in the later state included the tribes or nations of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Chiaha, Koasati, Tuskegee, Kaskinampo, Tali, Natchez, and Yuchi.

At the time of first contact, the Southeast region was dominated by speakers of three language groups, not counting the abundant population in the territory of the current state of Florida: the Muskogean family, the Algonquin family, and the Siouan family. There were also language isolates such as the Yuchi, the Tuskegee, and the Natchez.  Speakers of Iroquoian family languages (Cherokee, Tuscarora, Nottoway, Meherrin) did not appear in the South until the first half of the 17th century. 


 Paleolithic era

In North America, this covered the period from 18,000-8000 BCE.

Archaic era

In North America, this covered the period from 8000-1000 BCE.

Woodland era

The Woodland era is divided into three periods:  Early Woodland (1000 BCE-1 CE), Middle Woodland (1-500 CE), and Late Woodland (500-1000).

Mound complexes during the Woodland period served strictly ceremonial purposes and were almost never inhabited.  They were central to groups of hamlets and villages.  Hunting, gathering, and small-scale horticulture fed inhabitants. 

The greatest site of the entire Woodland era is the Pinson Mounds site in Madison County of West Tennessee.  Dating from the Middle Woodland period (1-500 CE), the site was purely ceremonial, without permanent habitation.  There are seventeen mounds and an earthen enclosure.  Saul’s Mound, the central feature of the entire complex, appears to have been a platform mound more for ceremonial purposes than burial.  It is the second highest aboriginal mound or pyramid in North America. 

The Old Stone Fort in Manchester in Coffee County, is our state’s other archaeological park and dates from the same period, though of entirely different construction.  Located on the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Duck and Little Duck Rivers, its earthen and stone walls are four to six feet high, and there are no mounds.

Another site in the local area, now destroyed, was the Tunacunnhee Mounds in what is now Trenton in Dade County, Georgia.  Rare for this region, the mounds were composed entirely of stone.  There is another group of mounds in the same county, the Hooker Mounds.

The Late Woodland period (500-1000) in Hamilton County was the most important phase of the Woodland period not only because that was its most populous phase, but because it developed its own cultural complex which spread to other regions in the Southeast, called the Hamilton Phase of the greater Hopewell Culture.

A handful of sites in the eastern U.S. demonstrate the in situ transition between the Woodland period and Mississippian periods.  The land where Heritage Landing now lies was one such site before construction of the townhouses there now.  Its former inhabitants crossed the river and became the founders of the substantial Mississippian site at Citico.

Mississippi era

The Mississippi era (900-1600) is divided into three periods:  Early Mississippi (900-1200), Classic (or Middle) Mississippi (1200-1400), and Late Mississippi (1400-1600), the latter including first contact with the Spanish conquistadors of La Florida.

During the Mississippi era, the population grew exponentially largely due to advances in agriculture and introduction of maize.  Social structures became more complex and stratified.  Villages became towns which were palisaded. 

Burial mounds still existed but were less important, and were included inside towns.  The newer, larger platform mounds, or pyramids, replaced them in importance and dominated each of the towns.  Generally, there was one large platform mound per town, but some few had more than one, as was the case in the Chattanooga region at Hiwassee Island, Citico at the mouth of the same-named creek, and the north end of Long Island in Marion County, Tennessee.

In East Tennessee, the archaeological complex from the Early to early Classic Mississippi Period is called the Hiwassee Island Phase.

During the Classic Mississippi period, the towns of North Georgia, Southeast and East Tennessee, and Northeast Alabama were dominated by the paramount chiefdom at the Etowah Mounds site.  De Soto’s chroniclers called the abandoned town of Talimachusi, its inhabitants, the Itawa, being much reduced and relocated several miles downriver. 

The complex of buildings and ceremonial objects and other cultural features in East Tennessee and North Georgia during this Classic Mississippi period was called the Dallas Phase, after the Dallas (Yarnell) site at the later Harrison.  The Dallas Phase continued in some places well into the Late Mississippi period, including first contact.

The corresponding complex in Middle Tennessee in the Cumberland Basin during the Classic Mississippi period is called the Thurston Phase.  The Thurston Phase’s most prominent towns were the ones that stood at Mound Bottom site and Pack site in on the Harpeth River in Cheatham County.  The Thurston Phase vanished along with the rest of the Middle Mississippian Culture around 1450. 

The Middle Mississippian Culture of which the Thurston Phase is part extended over the Lower Ohio, Middle Mississippi, and Cumberland Valleys.  The center of this larger culture was at Cahokia, Illinois, home to the largest earthen mound, or pyramid, north of Mesoamerica, Monks Mound, which stands a hundred feet high and contains a greater volume than another other pyramid in the Western Hemisphere.

In West Tennessee, the cultural complex that included the people at the archaeological site of Chucalissa near Memphis during the Classic Mississippi period is called the Walls Phase.

The Southern Appalachian Mississippian Culture covered Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee.  It was dominated by the rivalry between the paramount chiefdom at Etowah and the one at Moundville in Alabama (home to twenty-nine platform mounds).  Other paramount chiefdoms in Southern Appalachian Mississippian Culture were that at Cofitachequi (aka Kasihta) and at Ocmulgee.

The Hiwassee Island Phase and the Dallas Phase, by the way, arose along the line where the Middle Mississippian met the Southern Appalachian Mississippian.

With the final collapse of Itawa, the town of Coosa rose up in its place.  Coosa was located at the Little Egypt site which the Cherokee had called Coosawattee, or Old Coosa Place, now under Carter’s Lake.  It was one of the two most prominent chiefdoms in the region when De Soto’s expedition invaded in 1540.  In later historical times, the inhabitants of Coosa relocated to North Alabama and merged with the Abihka town of the Creek Confederacy.

The Mouse Creek Phase, both successive to and contemporary with the Dallas Phase, was marked by burials around the family dwelling and the notable absence of platform mounds, as well as a generally more egalitarian culture than its Dallas Phase predecessor.  Mouse Creek is not the result of invasion and replacement but of in situ development adapting to circumstances, the same way the Woodland era developed in situ into the Mississippi era.  Mouse Creek sites are found in the Hiwassee Valley and in Hamilton County.


 Chuck Hamilton



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