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The Old Beloved Path (Part 1): The Earliest Inhabitants of the Chattahoochee River Valley

SOURCE: The Old Beloved Path: Daily Life Among the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley, William W. Winn, 1992. Cover art by Joe Belt. Illustrations by Cheryl Mann Hardin with plant drawings by Faith Birkhead. Sponsored by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission and The Columbus Museum in cooperation with the Chattahoochee Indian Heritage Association.


The world of the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley no longer exists. It has been obliterated by the plow, the ax, the saw, the bulldozer and road machine, the technology that allows mankind to construct massive dams of concrete and steel, and by an industrial economy that requires people to live in cities, a process we have come to call, urbanization. Where there were once vast forests of towering oaks and hickories and poplars that reddened and yellowed the Valley hills in the autumn and provided deep, cool shade in the summer, there are now monotonous carpets of loblolly and slash pines – or raw red hillsides barren of any trees at all. Where game trails and Indian foot paths – often one and the same – ran beside the Chattahoochee and followed burbling creeks winding through majestic wilderness, there are now four-lane expressways and hardtops on which glassy-eyed local commuters and Florida-bound tourists compete for road space with massive 18-wheelers, logging trucks, road graders, and lumbering farm machinery. And yet…

It is almost impossible to grow up in the Chattahoochee River Valley and not encounter some evidence of the Native American people who lived here for at least 12,000 years. The very name Chattahoochee, a Musckogee Indian word that has been variously interpreted as meaning River of Flowering or Painted Rocks, Red River, and River of the Choctaws, evokes memories of a vanished people. So do the names of dozens of other streams and creeks in the Valley, among them Upatoi, Uchee, Weracoba, Hannahatchee, Hatchechubbee, Chewalla, Kolomoki, Oswichee – to name a few. And of the towns and crossroads, many bearing the same names as the creeks, including Cusseta, Uchee, Eufaula, Ossahatchi, Wetumpka, Cataula, Oswichee, Hatchechubbee, Wylaune, Upatoi… Moreover, there is scarcely a hunter or fisherman, or a boy or a girl, who has roamed the woods and fields in the Valley and not come across an arrowhead glinting in the grass or a fragment of pottery mingled with the earth. In this first part of the series, we will introduce you to the earliest inhabitants of the Chattahoochee River Valley - Paleo and Archaic Indians - as well as share two myths that were handed down as a part of their culture.

A Yuchi Tale - How The Earth Was Made In the beginning the waters covered everything. It was said “Who will make the land appear?” Lock-chew, the Crawfish, said “I will make the land appear.” So, he went down to the bottom of the water and began to stir up the mud with his tail and hands. He then brought up the mud to a certain place and piled it up. The owners of the land at the bottom of the water said: “Who is disturbing our land?” They kept watch and discovered the Crawfish. Then they came near him, but he suddenly stirred the mud with his tail so they could not see him. Lock-chew continued his work. He carried mud and piled it up until at last he held up his hands in the air, and so the land appeared above the water. The land was soft. It was said: “Who will spread out the land and make it dry and hard?” Some said: “Ah-yok, the Hawk, should spread out the soft land and make it dry.” Others said, “Yah-tee, the Buzzard, has larger wings; he can spread out the land and make it dry and hard.” Yah-tee undertook to spread out and dry the earth. He flew above the earth and spread out his long wings over it. He sailed over the earth; he spread it out. After a long while he grew tired of holding out his wings. He began to flap them, and thus he caused the hills and valleys because the dirt was still soft. “Who will make the light?” it was said. It was very dark. Yohah, the Star, said, “I will make the light.” It was so agreed. The Star shone forth. It was light only near him. “Who will make more light?” it was said. Shar-pah, the Moon, said, “I will make more light.” T-cho, the Sun, said, “You are my children, I am your mother, I will make the light. I will shine for you.” She went to the east. Suddenly, light spread over all the earth. As she passed over the earth a drop of blood fell from her to the ground, and from this blook and earth sprang the first people, the children of the Sun, the Yuchi. The people wished to find their medicine. A great monster serpent destroyed the people. They cut his head from his body. The next day the body and head were together. They again slew the monster. His head again grew to his body. Then they cut off his head and placed it on top of a tree, so that the body could not reach it. The next morning the tree was dead, and the head was united to the body. They again severed it and put it upon another tree. In the morning the tree was dead, and the head and body were reunited. The people continued to try all the trees in the forest. At last, they place the head over the Tar, the cedar tree, and in the morning the head was dead. The cedar was alive, but covered with blood, which had trickled down from the head. Thus, the Great Medicine was found. Fire was made by boring with a stick into a hard weed. The people selected a second family. Each member of this family had engraved on his door a picture of the sun. In the beginning all the animals could talk, and but one language was used. All were at peace. The deer lived in a cave, watched over by a keeper and the people were hungry. He selected a deer and killed it. But finally, the deer were set free and roved over the entire earth. All the animals were set free from man, and names were given to them, so that they could be known.

Paleo Period 10,000 – 8,000 BC Archeologists believe that the first inhabitants of North America, whom we call “Indians” because Christopher Columbus mistakenly thought he had discovered the East Indies, came from somewhere northwest. Although there is still some disagreement as to precisely where these people originated, most authorities believe that the ancestors of American Indians were Mongoloids from Northwestern Asia who came to America by way of a land bridge across the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age some 20,000 years ago. The first inhabitants of the Valley rim, who lived in what archeologists call the Paleo Period, endured an extremely rigorous and primitive existence. They lived toward the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, when ice covered much of the Northern United States and the climate in the Chattahoochee River Valley was much colder and wetter than it is today. The river itself was swollen by melted ice and by spring runoff from the snow in the mountains to the north. The Valley floor was probably uninhabitable for humans and most animals for much of this time, and, as a consequence, the hunters usually stuck to the high ridges along the river.

Traveling in small bands or families, they were constantly on the move in search of the large animals – mastodons, mammoths, ground sloths, and giant bison – that provided meat and fat for food, skins from which to make clothing, and bones from which to fashion tools. Almost every facet of the daily life of Paleo Indians was organized around hunting. The first people of the Valley hunted their giant quarry in the forests along the Chattahoochee, returning at night to open-air campsites on the ridges. Lacking even the bow and arrow, which the Valley Indians did not have until AD 800 – 900, they pursued game with heavy spears, ganging up on the larger animals and trying to isolate the youngest or the oldest animals, which were easier prey. Although today we tend to look back upon the Paleo Indians as an extremely primitive people, they were able hunters and they were not without skills and technology, especially in their ability to work wood and stone. Even the manufacture of a point and spear required specialized knowledge that could only have been acquired over a long period of time.

Roving bands of Paleo Indians were neither large nor numerous, and they seldom stayed in one spot for an extended length of time. As a result, they left few signs of their presence. However, Clovis points, the signature of the Paleo Indians, have been found on the surface of several places in the Chattahoochee River Valley. Because we have so few artifacts from the earliest inhabitants of the Valley, our knowledge of their daily life is extremely limited. However, anthropologists who specialize in the study of early American cultures believe the bands must have had some basis of social organization. It is thought that, initially at least, all the members of a given band were related by blood, that is, were members of an extended family or clan.

Most likely, each band would have had a leader, especially in the hunt. Some division of labor and some form of organized care of the young, the aged, and the ill would have been necessary. The women cared for the young, made clothing from animal skins, gathered firewood, foraged for wild plant foods, cooked the food over open fires, and looked after what few domestic comforts the band possessed. The men hunted, spent time making and repairing weapons, and protected the band from its enemies. The role of the older band members was extremely important. It was they who passed on the group’s essential life knowledge to the young. Elders also preserved the band’s oral traditions and its history, including tales or myths of its origin, its migratory experiences, and the stories used to instruct the young.

Although it would perhaps be too much to say that these early people of the Valley had an elaborate religion, it is likely that they believed almost every object – trees, rocks, wild animals, snakes, plants – was possessed with an animating spirit, which could be friendly or unfriendly according to the situation. Beyond these few observations, we can say little about the earliest inhabitants of the Valley. They must have been a tough and courageous people, or they would not have survived the harsh environment that was their home. But survive they did, for several thousand years. Like people everywhere, they must have loved their mates and doted on their children, known pain and loss, experienced moments of exaltation and spiritual insight, and marveled at the heavens and the mysteries of the universe. All this, however, is speculation. Stones can tell us only so much.

A Creek Tale - How Shall Day and Night Be Divided The animals held a meeting, and No-koos-see, the Bear, presided. The question was: how shall day and night be divided? Some desired the day to last all the time; others wanted it always to be night. After much talk, Chew-thlock-chew, the Ground Squirrel, said: “I see that Woot-Kew, the Racoon, has rings on his tail divided equally, first a dark color and then a light color. I think day and night should be divided like the rings on the racoon’s tail.” The animals were surprised at the wisdom of Chew-thlok-chew. They adopted his plan and divided day and night like the rings on the racoon’s tail, one succeeding the other in regular order. No-koos-see was so envious of Chew-thlock-chew that he scratched him and thus caused the stripes on the back of all his descendants, the ground squirrels.

Archaic Period 8,000 – 1,000 BC By around 8,000 BC, the ice that had covered much of the earth during the Pleistocene Epoch had retreated, and a gradual warming trend was noticeable in the Valley. As the ice melted, the climate changed. By 6,000 BC, the air was becoming much less humid, the waters calmer, and the Valley drier. The mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, and giant bison disappeared to be replaced by the white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoon, rabbit, squirrel, gray fox, chipmunk, skunk, porcupine, bobwhite, wild turkey, turtle, and a host of other animals that inhabit the Valley today. Plant life also changed. These changes were gradual and took place over hundreds, even thousands of years. At some point between 4,000 – 3,000 BC, the climate stabilized and came to resemble that which we know today. As this occurred, the floor of the Valley became more inhabitable, the waters receded from the terraces along the river, and the river and its rich food resources became more available to man. Archeologists call the people who inhabited the Valley during this time, the Archaic Indians.

As the fauna and flora of the Valley changed, the Indians of the Archaic Period had to adapt and learn new hunting and food gathering techniques. The old heavy spears with their large Clovis points were not suitable for hunting deer and wild turkey. Lighter spears tipped with smaller, side-notched points proved more effective and easier to handle. In time, people of the Valley became extremely skilled at throwing these lighter weapons. Around 5,000 BC, they developed a spear-throwing device, called an atlatl. In addition to hunting, the Archaic Indians practiced extensive, systematic gathering of wild plant foods – nuts, berries, roots, and fruits – to supplement their meat diet. Thus, it was that the Indians of the Archaic Period, who lived a more settled life than their Paleo ancestors, really began the painstakingly slow accumulation of knowledge of the local environment which made a better daily possible for succeeding generations of Valley inhabitants. This was essential to survival.

Thus began the education of the early Valley people in what we might call the Wilderness School, a necessary process of learning specifically oriented toward master of the local environment. Its curriculum consisted of the geography, climatology, botany, and zoology of the Chattahoochee River Valley, plus practical and vital information on such topics as how to hunt, clean and prepare game, build a fire, treat snakebites or wounds, cure animal hides, fashion weapons, and find their way in the deep woods. Gradually, over a period of many hundreds of years, as the people of the Valley began to master their environment, they congregated in larger groups and stayed in one place for longer stretches of time. However, their daily life was still extremely harsh by today’s standards. Having no pottery and thus few vessels to prepare food, the women sometimes cooked in skin-lined pits filled with water. Rocks, heated in fires, were dropped into the water to quickly bring it to a boil. The hot rock technique may also have been used to cook food in crude bowls carved out of wood or sandstone. Fortunate women possessed heat-resistant “soapstone” bowls made from steatite rock.

Around 4,000 BC, the Valley climate began to stabilize, and new tools were being developed. The Indians then developed grooved stone axes and adzes, heavy tools that may have been used to fell trees to clear openings in the forest or perhaps hollow out trees to make dugout canoes. They also began to use grinding and nutting stones to crack and pound nuts. Numbers of nutting stones, some dating back to the Archaic, have been found in the Valley. As important as nuts and acorns were in the diet of the Archaic people, the essential element was the white-tailed deer. It was a valuable source of food, clothing, tools, and more. About half of a deer could be eaten, the rest was used in home manufacture. Its antlers and bones were fashioned into needles, fishhooks, spear points, awls and drills, flakers, pins, saws, scrapers, hammers, and ornaments. The animal’s hide could be made into moccasins, containers, and clothing. Deer, and indeed, all game animals were taken year-round. It was only thousands of years later, after contact with White people and the establishment of European deer hide trade, that Indians of the Valley began their massive fall and winter hunts. In a subsistence economy, no one could afford to pass up meat when it was available.

As the people’s diet improved, they began to live longer. The population of the Valley increased. Semi-permanent settlements were established at favorite locales, especially for spring and summer encampments. Hunting areas also became more restricted as bands staked out their territories. Skin huts were replaced by more comfortable dwellings made from saplings driven into the ground and sided with interlaced sticks or mats of tree bark. The women wove baskets from split river cane or leathery strips of hickory or oak bark. They had also probably learned to make clothing from pounded tree bark or plant fibers. Their homes were floored with woven mats of split cane or vegetable fiber. Although no Archaic burials have been found in the Valley proper – they have been discovered nearby in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. One of the oldest known burials in our region is in Jackson County, Alabama – dating from around 6,500 – 6,200 BC.

Next Week: We will continue with highlighting the next period of inhabitants of the Valley, along with making pottery, burial mound traditions and the Wilderness School. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!

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