Early American Indians

Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park


Hello everyone. My name is Chris Young, and I'm one of the Park Rangers here at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, coming to you from the tip of Lookout Mountain here in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, part of Point Park, which is located within Lookout Mountain Battlefield, part of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. But we're not here today to talk about the Civil War. What we're here today to talk about is early American History, and especially the history of this area up through Spanish contact in the 1500's. So what we're going to focus mainly on is the last group of American Indians prior to contact. Now that's not to say that the Paleo-Indian Period, or the Archaic Period, or the Woodland Period, the three major periods that come prior to the one that we're going to talk about, are not important. Mainly during those first two periods the Paleo-Indian Period, now, here's something for you, "paleo" means old. And so you may have heard of the Paleolithic Era, or Paleolithic Period, so "paleo" is old, "lithic" is rock. So that's the Stone Age, the "Old Rock Age" -The Stone Age. So when we use that to describe people like the Paleo Indians, we're talking about the old Indians, the oldest Indians that inhabited this area up to 12,000 years ago. And so we're looking at that Paleo Indian Period, the Archaic Period, when we have a lot of hunting and gathering that's going on. People are nomadic. They go from place to place. They're not very sedentary, and have have shelters that they occupy almost year round. It's the next period, the Woodland Period, that we're going to see more of that occur, where you're going to have more villages that'll pop up that are more stationary. You're going to have a lot more horticulture, or agriculture. We'll talk a little bit about that during our next period as well. But after the Woodland Period, we're really going to focus on the Mississippians, and they are the ones who were in power, who we're going to focus on prior to the historic period when we have written records here in the United States, or what would become the United States. And those are going to be written records that are written by the Spanish conquistadors who come through this area in the 1540's and 1560's, primarily. But even though we're up here on top of Lookout Mountain, all of these periods that we talked, about about 12,000 years of human habitation, can all be compressed in this park at a place called Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District. So there's almost 800 acres of land out here on Moccasin Bend just below us, at the tip of Lookout Mountain, that encompass all of those periods that we talked about- the Paleo Indians, the Archaic Indians, the Woodlands, and the Mississippians. So that's what we're going to think about and we wanted that to be a backdrop for us as we're conducting this program is to think about all of the people over time who have inhabited that piece of land out across the Tennessee River from us. So let's talk about the Mississippians from about 800 common era, that's 800 CE, to the mid-1500s, the Mississippians are in power. Their lives look vastly different from those Paleo Indians, or Old Indians, because now they are using this to hunt with. Now, it's not strung right now, but this is a replica of a bow. So we talk about bows and arrows with American Indians. Mississippians are using bows and arrows for not only hunting, but for war and defensive purposes too. But this is how their killing game, and how they're they're hunting out there, and how they'll defend themselves against the Spaniards once they get here in in 1540. They are still hunting and gathering but at this point, they are are using the tribute system a lot. Now let's talk about that, that's like a tax system. So the Mississippians have created these large cities, these large areas. Maybe you've been to Cahokia Mounds before, or maybe in Alabama you've been down to Moundville, or if you live in Georgia maybe you have been down to the Etowah Mounds near Cartersville, Georgia. These have huge physical mound complexes that would have had structures on top, that would have been used for religious ceremonies, they would have been where the elites in those villages, where the chief, or the cacique, lived. It would have been where the religious leaders would have lived and the chief's family would have lived on either the larger mounds or even smaller mounds. Typically in the center there's going to be a plaza where a lot of social events will occur, including games. You would play games such as as stickball which is the precursor of lacrosse, and you would have social gatherings there. People living in these villages, if they weren't in the elite status and they were kind of in the commoner status, they would be living in houses that were made from wattle and daub. And those are are houses made from interwoven sticks that have mud, or daub, or clay that is used for for walling those structures in, and I'll show you a few pictures of those structures. Here's a a photograph of a reconstructed one, as well as a cutaway from the inside from our friends down in Ocmulgee, down close to Macon, Georgia. So you can see what those houses may have looked like. So we have these plazas, we have these large mound complexes, we have a social structure now that even Europeans, when they got here in the 1500's, that they may have recognized. It's a structure that they could have been familiar with, with having someone in in a higher status and then you have commoners underneath. They typically paid tribute, so it was almost like a tax. So now you were farming, you are hunting, and you are paying a tribute if you are an outlying village to the main chief. These things are called Chiefdoms. So you had one main place that had the chief living in it, one main mound structure, and then dotting the countryside for sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles, you would have smaller villages that would then pay tribute to that main chief, or cacique. And he would protect them, use warriors to protect those villages, and so that's the kind of the mentality of the structure within the Mississippian Era. The other thing I want to talk about is why villages are placed where they are. Most villages during the Mississippian period are placed along river banks such as the Tennessee River behind me, or creeks, because that's their main mode of transportation. You're using canoes. You're using waterways for trade, to trade items from village to village or from chiefdom to chiefdom even, and the the easiest way to do that is by river or water traffic, or water travel. Some of the other things that they are trading or that they're growing now, so we have sedentary villages, we have these huge complexes that are being built, some of them actually have palisades around them so they're fortified within walls, primarily wooden walls. But they are growing plants now. They have a keen sense of agriculture. They are people who are growing hundreds of acres of plants, of vegetables to sustain themselves in addition to the hunting and the gathering that they're still doing. And the primary vegetation or vegetables that they're growing to eat are corn, beans, and squash. They're called the three sisters, and I want us to watch this quick video about the three sisters to understand why the Mississippians and those who came after said that they were married, and that they were extremely close to one another, because they all rely on each other to grow and to be successful. So let's watch this video about the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. In North America, the first cultivated plants included corn, squash, and beans. Native Americans called these plants "the three sisters" because they grew so well together. The corn grew tall. The beans vined up the corn and supplied essential nitrogen to the soil. The squash was a ground cover that kept down weeds, and shaded the soil so it stayed moist. Many modern gardeners still plant the three sisters this way.

Corn, the most popular crop in the western hemisphere, is a food staple around the world. Corn is a grain that's part of the grass family. Some backyard gardeners grow corn, but it takes a lot of space. You need at least four rows of corn plants to make it work. Corn depends on the wind to carry pollen from the tassels, the top of the corn stalk, to other corn plants. That's how the flowers are pollinated or fertilized, and the ear of corn starts to grow. Many gardeners grow beans, particularly pole beans, or bush beans. Beans are a good source of fiber, Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Like other legumes, they add nitrogen to the soil. And picking beans is fun for everyone. Squash is also an important source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Gardeners love its big, pretty leaves and yellow flowers. From acorn, to butternut, to yellow squash, to zucchini, this sweet-tasting, healthy fruit is a garden favorite. Yes, squash is a fruit. The part we eat covers the seed, or holds the seed, so it's a fruit even though it's commonly considered a vegetable. Well welcome back everyone. Hopefully we learned a little bit about those three sisters and the importance of those vegetables that are being grown here by the Mississippians. Life is okay really up until 1540. Now there's some waxing and waning about populations up until even the Spaniards get here. But it's really going to be by the time Hernando de Soto sets foot here, in the southeast, in 1540, that things are really going to begin changing for that Mississippian culture. De Soto lands near present-day Tallahassee, Florida, where he's going to set up camp. Now, Hernando de Soto is an interesting character because 20 years before, he had been with a Spaniard by the name of Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro had an expedition in Peru and you may have learned about the Inca, and all of the gold that the Inca had. And so Pizarro will kidnap Atahualpa, who is the Inca chief, and ransom him off for gold. And so the Inca will bring gold in. They will supposedly fill an entire room of gold. They still execute Atahualpa, and Pizarro is gaining these great riches of wealth. De Soto, 20 years later, sees that here in the southeast United States. In Florida, as those expeditions begin moving inland, de Soto is going to ask where the shiny stuff is. Where is the gold? That's what he's looking for. The conquistadors, when they get here, primarily are saying that they're here to spread God, to get glory, and to maybe find some gold. They're really here to reverse that. They're here for gold. They're looking for glory. And then if God gets put in the mix and they can spread a little bit of of their religious beliefs, they'll do that. But primarily, they're looking for that gold, because de Soto wants to really mimic what he saw with Pizarro in 1520. So as these expeditions begin moving from Florida into the Carolinas, they begin interacting with the Mississippians. And at first, the American Indian populations are not as skeptical to the Spaniards as they will be. But as de Soto moves into different villages and he begins staying for some cases weeks at a time, he begins taking the food stores, all of those tributes that would have been rendered up or paid to those chiefs were starting to dwindle because de Soto was using that to feed his soldiers, his men, on the expedition. And so as they begin moving through the Carolinas over into what would be the Smoky Mountains today, and into the chiefdom that we're standing in right now. So you can see behind me, this is the great valley that's behind me. You can see Walden's Ridge is to the left out here, and then you'll see the valley as we pan from the left to the right, the valley is out there just beyond, from here basically going up toward Knoxville, Tennessee, which is in the direction right behind me and to the right. That's this huge, lush valley that de Soto, as his expedition is making its way into what's called the Coosa Chiefdom. Coosa was the chief, and the chiefdom itself was known as Coosa. It spread from not far from outside present-day Knoxville, Tennessee, all the way down to where we are now, and beyond into northeast Alabama. It's huge. De Soto's men that are with him, those who keep journals, are saying that it's hundreds and hundreds of acres of cultivated land. There are hundreds and even thousands of acres of river cane that we don't see today in their native habitats. And so, it looks like a farm out there. We think of it being completely forested, and that this is very much a wilderness. It's very much farmland. It's very agricultural minded. So as de Soto is coming through and he encounters these different chiefs, these different villages, he will need people to carry his baggage with him as he begins moving further inland. And he'll start kidnapping and taking people from villages to be burden-bearers. And as this continues, and as he kidnaps and takes people with him, the word will spread ahead of Hernando de Soto. And you'll see those Mississippians, like when he gets into Alabama, Chief Tuscaloosa, that will try to fight back. And de Soto will fight a major battle at a place called Mobila in South Alabama. The Spaniards have an advantage over the Mississippians. And one of the major advantages that they have: horses. American Indians here, the Mississippians, had never seen a horse before. So when you put someone on horseback and they are much taller than you, it can be very intimidating for those men who are trying to fight them with these bows and arrows and clubs. They also will have armor. So here's an example of a morion, a Spanish morion, and so this is armor. It has this kind of crest on top so that if you were hit, the blow would glance off. And so you have Spaniards that have this armor. And one of the things that de Soto really pushed himself as being to is basically god-like. And so imagine yourself never seeing horses before, and now you're seeing these strange people getting off boats, moving through Florida, the Carolinas, in modern day United States and you see this shiny metal where it's glinting, using the sun to glint and gleam off of. You can see where you could propose that you are something greater than you actually are, being human, that you could be godlike. And so Hernando de Soto's men are using this to their advantage. They've brought large dogs with them. They use Mastiffs. And so these huge dogs they'll use as as attack dogs to their advantage. They also have this thing called a matchlock. And a matchlock or an arquebus, is this.

This is the match, it would be lit. And so you put it on the weapon here. You load it like you would any other muzzle loading gun. You put the the charge, the powder, the bullet here. You ram all of that down with a with a ramrod,

and you have a lit match, so you have to be extremely careful. When you open this up, there's black powder here, so when you pull this lever back, that match hits the pan with the powder in it, and discharges it. And so you can see the pan, when we open it up, if this match was lit and it comes down, it ignites the black powder and the bullet comes out. These weapons are extremely, extremely inaccurate. But you didn't have to have accuracy necessarily. You needed to make a "boom." You needed to make a loud noise because remember, these Mississippians had never seen this before. They'd never seen gunpowder. They had never experienced weapons like this before. So here are these people with these glittering pieces of armor on, some of them are riding horses, some of them have these weapons. By the way, this is a matchlock musket. This is where you get the term musketeer. So the Three Musketeers actually didn't carry rapiers around and sword fight. A true musketeer actually carried one of these, and so you were called a musketeer, or an arquebusier, if you carried a gun like this. And so it's not very accurate but that wasn't really the point. If you did hit something, good. If not, possibly and hopefully, the sound itself would intimidate your enemies so that they would flee before you. And that was the case at Mobila down in south Alabama. What I want us to do is watch a quick video about de Soto though, and get a little bit more information about what de Soto had done previous, and what de Soto came in contact with here in the United States as he traveled throughout the southeast. So let's watch that quick video.

From the Andes in South America to the Appalachians in North America, Hernando de Soto explored, conquered, plundered, and enslaved. One of the most formidable Spanish conquistadors, de Soto helped conquer modern-day Panama, Nicaragua, and Peru for Spain. In pursuit of more treasure, he explored the southeastern United States, and was the first European to see the Mississippi River.

Born around 1496 in Spain, Hernando de Soto knew at a young age that he wanted to explore the Americas. His keen horsemanship earned him a spot on board a 1514 Spanish expedition to the New World. Once there, de Soto quickly earned a reputation for being clever, ruthless, and fierce. In Panama and Nicaragua, he captured chiefs of indigenous tribes and held them for ransom. He sold natives into slavery and became so rich, he formed his own cavalry and fleet of ships to explore for gold. In 1532, de Soto offered to assist another conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, on Pizarro's expedition to explore Peru and conquer the Inca empire, then the largest civilization in the New World. It spanned 2,500 miles and included more than 10 million people. De Soto gave Pizarro ships and horsemen. In return Pizarro made de Soto his chief lieutenant, and promised him a large share of the spoils. Leading an advance guard of cavalry in Peru, de Soto met with the powerful Inca emperor atawalpa. Failing to convince atawalpa to surrender, the Spaniards attacked. Although outnumbered, they had horses and guns, giving them military superiority. They defeated the Incas, killing thousands, and took the emperor hostage. While Pizarro held atawalpa for ransom, de Soto marched on Cusco, the Inca capital. Having discovered the great national road leading to Cusco, de Soto led his advance guard there, captured the city, and plundered it for gold and silver.

He returned to Spain a wealthy man, but after two years, he yearned to explore more of the New World, particularly Florida and the Gulf Coast, in hopes of finding another wealthy empire to conquer.

In 1538, he set sail with 10 ships, 350 horses, and 700 soldiers. For three years, de Soto explored Florida, the southeastern Appalachian region, and present-day Alabama, futilely searching for gold. Indigenous warriors frequently battled de Soto and his soldiers, but the Spaniards used attack dogs and armored men on horseback to prevail. Those who weren't killed outright were enslaved. Most of the natives died from punishment or diseases transmitted from Europe like smallpox and measles. Still searching for gold, de Soto marched farther west into present-day Mississippi. In 1541, he came upon the Mississippi River. De Soto was the first European to see the great river, and crossed it into the states now known as Louisiana and Arkansas. He stayed long enough to claim those areas west of the Mississippi for Spain, but then turned back. In May, 1542, de Soto died from a fever on the western banks of the Mississippi. Hernando de Soto conquered more civilizations throughout the Americas than any other single conquistador. The treasures he plundered made Spain the richest and most dominant European empire of the age. His exploration of the southeastern United States laid the foundation for Spanish colonization of Florida, but many southeast indigenous tribes went extinct after contact with the Europeans. A few members of de Soto's expedition kept journals which became the first and only records of the southeast's original inhabitants.

Welcome back everyone. Hopefully you learned a little bit about Hernando de Soto. De Soto himself is going to die west of the Mississippi River and be sunk in the Mississippi. So he's not going to make it out of the southeast alive. He's going to die of disease and that is going to be ironic because de Soto's men, and the pigs that he brought with him, he's going to be really the first person to introduce pigs into the southeast United States, the diseases that come with them are going to ransack the native populations. And so the irony is that de Soto doesn't make it out of the southeast, not killed in battle, not killed by American Indians hands or the Mississippians, but he's going to die of disease just like his men are going to bring to the southeast and begin to wipe out huge swaths of populations of people here in the southeast United States. Twenty years after Hernando de Soto, another conquistador by the name of Tristan de Luna comes through this very area. And de Luna, and his men during this expedition, will say that this was basically a shell of the Coosa Chieftain that 20 years prior, members of the de Soto expedition saw. And so in that 20-year span, from 1540 to 1560, we really see what the diseases, what the issues with the conquistadors taking surplus food, those seed grains, did to the populations. They had to retreat and they had to move down those watersheds into north, northeast, and central Alabama and northwest Georgia. And that's going to open up a huge swath after those Spanish conquistadors in the 1500's, for an amount of time, almost 100 years or so, that there's no occupation. And then the Cherokee will come in and likely fill that void that was left by those Mississippians who are the ancestors of the Creeks, or the Muskogee. And then, the Cherokee have their own story and if you want to hear that story, we have another video for you about the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears. Hopefully you've learned a little bit more about the southeast prior to contact and the Spanish conquistadors that made that contact with the Mississippians here in the 1500's. We hope to see you all again soon.


This virtual program focuses on the Early American Indian inhabitants of the Chattanooga area, primarily focusing on the Mississippians and the Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s.


27 minutes, 52 seconds



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