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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

The Old Beloved Path (Part 4): The Wilderness School - Animal Kingdom

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.


As important as plants were in the diet of the Woodland people of the Valley, game animals were the basic source of food. The most important game animal was the white-tailed deer, which from very ancient times supplied the bulk of the meat and animal fat consumed by the people. Other animals crucial to the Indians’ survival in the Chattahoochee River Valley included the gray squirrel and the fox squirrel, cottontail rabbit, swamp rabbit, and wild turkey. Passenger pigeons and waterfowl were eaten when available, and black bears were widely hunted. Bears were hunted as much for their pelts and fat as for their meat – bear oil was the favorite cooking oil among the Indians of the Valley. Fish were also an important source of protein, particularly catfish, American or Alabama shad, largemouth bass, sunfish, and sturgeon – once common in the Chattahoochee prior to the construction of the dams.

The Indians were also fond of turtles, particularly the snapping turtle, pond turtle, box turtle, and the gopher tortoise, and almost every form of shellfish – from salty Gulf oysters to freshwater mussels. They probably also captured and ate the American alligator whenever possible. To this list, we should add many small mammals – opossum, raccoon, bobcat, muskrat, chipmunk, and even striped skunk. Some authorities report a resistance among historic Indian warriors toward eating opossum for fear that consumption of such a creature would make them slow and dull-witted, but opossum bones are regularly found at early Indian sites in the Valley. Bobcats and mountain lions or cougars, called panthers or “painters” by early White settlers in the Valley, were also hunted by the Indians.

Given the importance of game meat to the Indians, it is not surprising that so much emphasis of their culture was placed on training males to hunt. In historic times, young Indian boys were taught to make and handle weapons almost as soon as they could walk. It must have been the same in Woodland and Mississippian times. Boys received specific and detailed training from their elders. Particular emphasis was placed on self-discipline, general woodlore, the manufacture and maintenance of weapons, and mastering animal habits, anatomy, and habitat. Young boys were systematically taught to “think” like the quarry they sought. Many male Indians were able to ape the behavior of, say, the white-tailed deer or the black bear, even to the point of being able to replicate the creature’s vocalizations, body movements, and other mannerisms. The point of the training was to turn boys into mighty hunters, a serious business among people whose survival depended upon the ability of their men to locate and kill game. Of course, such training was ideally suited to producing warriors as well as hunters, and in fact the two appear to have been inseparably intertwined in the minds of the men since time immemorial. In later times, Indian ball play, a particularly rough form of lacrosse, was also used to train and condition boys and young men. We are not certain when ball play began among the early people of the Valley, but there are indications that Woodland Indians had some form of this sport.

One of the first lessons an Indian boy had was in the proper way to construct and start a fire. This seemingly simple task was actually quite complicated – as any outdoorsman or Boy Scout who has mastered event the rudiments of the art can attest. In addition to having to learn how to start a fire through friction, Indian boys had to sort out and master the characteristics of dozens of different kinds of wood and other flammable materials, such as dried and split river cane and birch bark. This task was difficult enough in itself, but among the early people of the Valley, fire was associated with the sun and therefore with spiritual matters, which gave to fire-building a ritual solemnity we sometimes have difficulty appreciating. And, of course, in the winter, wood fires were necessary for survival. Knowing how to start a fire in a driving January rain could mean the difference between life and death or, at the very least, between relative comfort and extreme discomfort. For all these reasons, fire-making was a serious business to the Indians of the Valley. Absolute mastery of the art was required. Firewood was selected according to several uses, that is, according to whether the fire was to be for warmth, illumination, cooking, to hollow out a log canoe, to keep mosquitos or other insects away, to attract fish, to smoke meat, for ceremonial purposes, or for some other use. Wood suitable for one type of fire might not be suitable for another. For example, most pine ignites quickly and produces brief but intense heat. Once fully ignited, pine will continue to burn even in the rain. These characteristics make pine an ideal wood for starting fires and for supplying quick warmth. However, pine is not suitable for cooking because it imparts an unpleasant flavor, tars meats and vessels, and quickly reduces to ash. On the other hand, hardwoods, such as hickory or oak, are more difficult to ignite than pine, but burn for a long time, producing long-lasting hot coals that impart a savory flavor. They are excellent for cooking and for smoking meat and fish.

The secret to Indian fire-building was in knowing the characteristics of the different woods and having the patience to begin with very small bits of kindling and gradually add more and larger sticks to the flame. Indians spent their time gathering kindling and large stacks of finger wood – sometimes called squaw wood – which they added to the fire in strict gradation. Whenever possible, they avoided ground wood and selected their squaw wood from the lower branches of standing dead trees. With a hot bed of hardwood coals, almost any wood, no matter how green, could be burned. To avoid having to get up repeatedly during the night, Valley Indians cut long night logs – which they placed across the coals and could nudge into the fire. If they wanted instant illumination, they could throw a handful of holly leaves into the flames. To drive away mosquitos, wax myrtle leaves were thrown on the fire. Indians would allow their fires to die out or bank them with ash or sand. It was considered a serious offense to pour water on a fire. Fire and water were two entirely separate and distinct primary elements and were never to be mixed. This is a reminder that, to Valley Indians, fire was directly associated with the sun and, as such, had a spiritual significance it does not have for us today.

After learning how to identify useful plants and trees and to build a fire correctly, an Indian boy had to master many other basics of woodcraft essential to the hunt. One of the most important of these was learning to move through the wilderness, often for several hundred miles, without getting lost. This seems a mysterious process, and much nonsense has been written about it, until we realize that to the Indians the process was not so much a matter of not getting lost as staying found. In short, the wilderness through which they moved was not a wilderness to them. They were guided by rivers and tributary water courses, game trails, and geographical features – ridges, mountains, valley, large rocks, distinctive trees. They also knew the position of fixed stars and were constantly aware of their orientation in regard to the four cardinal directions. Within the Chattahoochee River Valley itself, the river and its tributaries were roadways over which the Indians could move with ease and confidence. It was possible for the Woodland people to travel hundreds of miles away from their villages on the Chattahoochee without getting lost. As the centuries passed, trade routes and pathways to favorite hunting ground became well established and a considerable body of geographical knowledge was accumulated. As a final point, it should be recognized that, to an Indian, getting lost in the woods was an entirely different experience than it is for us today. Unless he were injured or sick, a lost Indian hunter was in no particular danger. The forest around him was thick with wild plants that would help sustain life. He had his weapons. He could start a fire and build an impromptu shelter. Spending a few nights or even weeks in such a home held no terrors for him. Even in times of drought, an Indian knew he could obtain clean, pure drinking water by tapping certain trees – maples, hickories, or sycamores. In short, there was no reason for the Indian hunter to feel the panic that grips many contemporary outdoorsmen when they get turned around in the woods.

With these elemental woodland skills in hand, the Indian boy was ready to attempt to master the hunt – a demanding pursuit that often required him to be abroad in all kinds of inclement weather, often far from home, with the survival of his family and his village at stake. The proper weapons to do the job were essential, and every Indian boy spent many hours learning to make and repair his own weapons. The bow and arrow had been discovered around 10,000 BC in Europe, but it did not appear in America and the Chattahoochee River Valley until some time after AD 700. No one can say for sure how it was discovered, but it would not have been possible without the Woodland peoples’ intimate knowledge of the characteristics of various types of wood. Centuries of experience with wooden-handled or wood-shafted weapons of all sorts lay behind the development of the bow and arrow. Making a bow was one of the most difficult wilderness skills to learn. In the Chattahoochee Valley and adjacent areas, the favorite wood for bows was the black locust, cut green, allowed to cure, and then carefully shaped. Arrows were made from river cane or dogwood. The notched end of the shaft was fletched with hawk, eagle, or wild turkey feathers. Sometimes their tips were merely sharpened and then hardened with fire, but most often they were tipped with bits of flint, deer antler, bone, garfish teeth, or any hard material that would take a point. Bow strings were made of twisted deer hide, occasionally of bear gut or squirrel hide. When he was finally strong enough, the young Indian male might be allowed to accompany his mother to recover meat killed by his father or uncle or perhaps allowed to go along in some menial capacity on part of the actual hunt. One of the proudest days of his life would be when he was asked by the men to accompany them on a hunt as an equal. For a strong and able boy, this might come as soon as his 12th or 13th birthday.

For Valley Indians in historic times, the winter hunt usually began in October, although preparations for it were started much sooner, and ended in March. The women were busy for weeks in advance preparing food and clothing for the men to take along. They would cover 25 to 30 miles a day at a steady trot. The primary quarry was the white-tailed deer, which the Indians killed for meat and skins. Authorities differ on whether buffalo were present in the Valley in the past. Bear could be found close to home. Turkeys were hunted when they were fat from the fall mast. Beaver, otter, raccoon, and rabbit were also likely to have been trapped and shot. Passenger pigeons were killed for their oil and meat. Moving into Spring, the people of Cusseta and Coweta would come to fish at the falls where Columbus and Phenix City are now located. The falls on the west side of the river belonged to the people of Coweta, those on the east, to Cusseta. Sometimes the Indians would use dip or scoop nets attached to the ends of long poles, positioning themselves on the rocks above the runs on either side of the river. Often, they shot the fish with long arrows or speared them with sharpened cane shafts whose tips had been hardened in fire. Other methods used by the Woodland Indians to catch fish included gill nets, fish weirs made of fiber or bark strips, rock traps, and poison. Sometimes they built fires in their canoes to attract fish at night. As Summer progressed and the waters receded, larger fish collected in the remaining pools of deep water. There they would be taken by net or poisoned by using either the buckeye or the devil’s shoestring. Southeastern Indians appear to have been fond of both fish and shellfish, and the early people of the Valley were no exception. In addition to freshwater clams and mussels, Valley Indians ate catfish, bream, bass, drum, sturgeon, and shad with great relish, often throwing fish fries and dances when a particularly good catch was made.

By all such methods did the Woodland people feed themselves for thousands of years, from long before the birth of Christ to the beginnings of the Mississippian Period. It is easy to forget that, in our fascination with their burial customs and religious ceremonies, the Woodland people – and those who followed them in the Valley – had to eat, clothe themselves, and take care of everyday needs. For the average person, survival was still a struggle. It is well to keep this in mind when we continue with the Mississippian era next – the last great flowering of American Indian civilization in our area before the coming of the White man.

Next Week: The last two History Spotlights of the year will finish The Old Beloved Path with the customs and daily life of the Indians of the Valley during the period of AD 700 - 1600. Then, we will take a break for the holidays! See you next week and thank you again for your continued love of our community's history.

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