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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

The Old Beloved Path (Part 2): Pottery, Tribal Life, Trade, and Burial Mounds during the Wilderness

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.


It was not until after 3,000 BC that the people of the Valley discovered how to make pottery by fire-tempering clay. Although it cannot be said with certainty, Valley Indians probably learned to make pottery from people living on the Georgia coast, either directly or through the process of cultural diffusion or trade. The oldest pottery found in North America is from the Stallings Island culture on the Savannah River near the Georgia coast. It dates from around 2,500 BC. However, the shattered remnants of early clay vessels, called potsherds by archaeologists, can be found throughout the southeast, including the Chattahoochee River Valley. To make pottery, a little water and plant fiber were added to a lump of clay, which was worked by hand into a consistent mass. Initially, in the production of fiber-tempered pottery, the Indians seem to have simply formed this mass into a bowl or cup. In time, however, they learned to add other strengthening agents – sand, grit, crushed mussel shells, even the crushed remains of old pots – and to roll the mixture out between their palms into narrow strips. These strips were coiled on top of each other, usually on a basal disc of the same mixture, until the desired size and shape was attained. A rock or piece of wood was then used to smooth the sides of the vessel, which was set aside to dry in the sun. Sometimes, at this stage, the Indians would incise or stamp a decorative design on the vessel. When it had dried and hardened in the sun, it was placed in a hot fire and baked for several hours. The finished pot was durable and would not rack or split when exposed to direct heat.

As simple as this process may seem today, pottery-making, ordinarily done by women, represented a tremendous step forward in domestic comfort and nutrition. The Valley Indians were now able to fry and boil food easily, prepare nutritious soups and stews, and more easily transport water and store food reserves for future use. Daily life, especially household chores, became much easier after the technique of making ceramic pottery became widely known. Woodland Period 1,000 BC – AD 700 Archeologists usually cite the discovery of pottery-making as the indicator of yet another line between time periods, this one separating the Archaic Period from the Woodland Period. The Woodland, one of the classic time divisions used in North American archaeology, lasts until about 700 AD. It includes a local variation in our area known as the Gulf Formational Period. However, all such titles are little more than convenient labels, and the dates that go with them are, at best, approximate. They are less important for our purposes than the changes taking place in the daily life of the people of the Valley. The development of the bow and arrow also took place at this time. The bow and arrow was a great advance over the spear, both for hunting and in war. It had a tremendous impact on people’s lives. They were now able to kill game, particularly deer, much more easily and in much greater numbers than ever before.

A Creek Tale – The Language of the Animals Formerly, men and animals talked to one another, and later they lost the ability to do so, but the great medicine men had the gift. One Time an old woman was much frightened at the sight of a yearling bull coming toward her bellowing, and she tried to escape. The bull reassured her, however, in language she could understand, saying, “Don’t be afraid of me. I am just enjoying myself singing.” He added that she must not tell of her experience, or she would die. After that the old woman knew the language of the animals and listened to them as they talked together. She was blind in one eye, and once when she was shelling corn, she heard the chickens say to one another, “Get around on her blind side and steal some of the corn.” She was so much tickled at this that she laughed out loud. Just then her husband, who was a very jealous man, came in and believed she must be thinking of some other man, so he said, “Why do you get so happy all by yourself?” She then related her adventure with the bull and told him what the chickens had just been saying, but the moment she finished her story she fell over dead.

Perhaps the most significant development during this time was the gradual increase in wilderness knowledge, particularly regarding knowledge of local plants and animals, that enriched the diet of the people of the Valley and enabled them to live a more settled life. Often overlooked in the wealth of archeological remains from this period, mastery of the local environment greatly improved the standard of living. It meant that people could stay in one place for longer periods. Although they still moved a great deal, during the Woodland Period their favorite campsites became year-round residences – villages. During this same period, bands became larger through marriage and childbirth. People probably lived longer due to better nutrition and a less strenuous life. More children reached maturity, at which time they took mates from other bands and produced more offspring. In this fashion, over the course of many years, bands grew from a few dozen to several hundred persons, finally reaching the stage where they might more properly be called tribes.

Tribes gathered for seasonal celebrations and ceremonies, to exchange domestic goods, to arrange marriages, and perhaps to mourn the death of powerful leaders. They spoke the same language and had the same general cultural and spiritual beliefs. Each tribe developed its own oral history of tribal history, origin tales, myths, and folk stories. They had their favorite campsites on the river and its tributaries and in the rolling hills of the uplands where the best hunting lands were located. The women of a given tribe began to return year after year to the same stands of oaks, hickories, walnuts, beeches, and chestnuts that produced the most nuts and acorns. As the population of the Valley tribes increased, they became more and more dependent on the game and the wild nuts and fruits from these favorite hunting and food-gathering areas. In this manner, tribes became more territorial as the centuries passed and less inclined to tolerate intrusions onto their traditional lands by other bands or tribes. The people also became more fixed in their seasonal occupations: Fall was the time to gather hardwood mast – acorns, hickory nuts, chestnuts, and walnuts. In the winter, the men hunted and trapped, although as stated, game was taken whenever and wherever possible. Spring was the time when the largest and choicest seed of wild food plants were planted. In summer, the people went to the falls where Columbus and Phenix City now stand and caught fish for their villages. Thus, the great seasonal round, largely determined by the climate and physical features of the Valley and the southeast, was firmly established. It would vary but little for hundreds of years – until the first Europeans began to arrive in the Valley in the early 17th century.

Through intermarriage and extended clan relationships, the Woodland people maintained contact with each other over a wide area. Trade or barter was a natural byproduct of such social contact. Indeed, the unequal distribution of raw materials and the increase in population during the Woodland Period probably made some degree of trade necessary. Although the majority of trade was done with neighboring tribes and villages, we know from artifacts recovered from sites of Indian settlements in and around the Valley that, from the Woodland Period on, there was considerable trade between Valley Indians and people living in distant regions, including the Gulf Coast, in lower and upper Alabama, along the Flint River in Georgia, in the Appalachian region of what is now Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, and as far away as Ohio and the Mississippi Valley. Much of this trade was in exotic materials, often found in association with burials of high-status individuals, but some of it was in more ordinary items. Among the items Valley Indians obtained through trade from other inhabitants of the southeast were marine shells, salt, various plants from the Gulf Coast, quartz and other minerals from the Clarke County region of South Alabama, greenstone and steatite from the Alabama and Georgia Piedmont, and copper, mica and possibly crystals from the Appalachians. Trading trails spread throughout the Valley and beyond, reaching Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, and both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. These trails often followed some natural feature, such as a river, stream, or open ridge. Within the Valley itself, the most important and frequently used long trails would have been those that went up and down both banks of the Chattahoochee, linking villages and leading north to the mountains and south to Northwest Florida and the Gulf Coast. These river trails were used in historic times by both Indians and Europeans, and traces of them have been found today.

As their standard of living increased, the people of the Valley had more time to think of matters beyond the daily struggle for survival. Spiritual matters and the question of what lay beyond the grave began to receive more attention. The early inhabitants of the Valley had probably always had a rich spiritual life, but we have little way discovering what that spiritual life consisted of. We do know that sometime after 1,000 BC, Valley Indians came under the influence of a culture that placed special emphasis on burial of the dead. This new culture, which included elaborate funereal ceremonialism, may have come into North America from Mexico or Central America, and into the Southeast by way of the Midwest. Burial mounds are an Asiatic and Old World trait, and some experts think the American Indians, including those who lived in the Southeast and in the Chattahoochee River Valley, were influenced from those distant places. The most reasonable assumption is that they were influence by burial mound customs of the native of both Middle and South America. Most specialists agree that farming, the beginnings of which appear in this period, was an import from Middle America. And many experts think the technique of pottery-making came from the Columbian coast of South America. It may be that other cultural traits, including mound burials and the construction of earthworks and even effigy mounds such as those found at Poverty Point in the lower Mississippi Valley, were passed on to the American Indians at the same time and came to fruition during this period.

Burial mounds were man-made tumuli of earth heaped over the dead, who were often buried with elaborate ceremony. The nature of the burials indicates the existence of some sort of systematized spiritual life and perhaps even the presence of an elite, priestly class. The size and construction of the mounds, which often contains tons of earth and other debris, indicates that the Valley Indians of this period had an advance degree of social organization in their daily life. The mounds required thousands of hours to erect. They simply could not have been built without the cooperative efforts of numerous individuals. The largest and most numerous of these mounds in the United States are found in the Ohio Valley, where they are associated with the Adena and Hopewell cultures, particularly the latter, and along the Mississippi River. The Hopewell Culture, dating from 400 BC to AD 400, was one of the great prehistoric cultures in North America. They erected huge burial mounds and effigy earthworks. They also were sophisticated craftsmen and artist whose products are among the most beautiful and intriguing of all Indian art. There are burial mounds dating from the Woodland Period in the Tennessee Valley region of north Alabama and in the Chattahoochee River Valley. The Mandeville site, located near the Georgia bank of the Chattahoochee River near Fort Gaines is – or was – one of the best-known burial mound sites in the Southeast. Now covered by the waters of Lake Walter F. George, the Mandeville site is believed to have dated from shortly before the birth of Christ. The huge Kolomoki complex near Blakely is another burial mound site, although its largest mound may date to a later period. It is estimated that Mound A at Kolomoki would have required approximately 875,000 man-hours to complete. Certainly a sign that these early residents of the Valley could undertake and complete a civic project of some size.

A Creek Tale – Origin of Corn It is said that corn was obtained by one of the women of the Tamalgi clan. She had a number of neighbors and friends, and when they came to her house, she would dish some sofkee (a native dish made from corn) into an earthen bowl, and they would drink it. They found it delicious but did not know where she got the stuff of which to make it. Finally, they noticed that she washed her feet in water and rubbed them, whereupon what came from her feet was corn. She said to them, “You may not like to eat from me in this way, so build a corncrib, put me inside and fasten the door. Don’t disturb me, but keep me there for four days, and at the end of the fourth day you can let me out.” They did so, and while she was there, they heard a great rumbling like distant thunder, but they did not know what it meant. On the fourth day, they opened the door as directed and she came out. Then they found that the crib was well stocked with corn. There was corn for making bread, hard flint corn for making sofkee, and other kinds. She instructed them how to plant grains of corn from what she had produced. They did so, the corn grew and reproduced, and they have had corn ever since.

Next Week: We will continue highlighting the Woodland Period of the Valley through featuring 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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