A Brief Overview of the Creek Indians

The designation “Creek” is a European concept which emerged during the eighteenth century to designate the Indian people who were living along the creeks and rivers in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. While these people have a cultural continuity which reaches back to the mound building cultures of this area, the concept of a Creek “Nation” or “Confederacy” is something which did not emerge until after the European invasion. In reality, the Creek were several autonomous groups.

Archaeologist Cameron Wesson, in his chapter in Between Contacts and Colonies: Archaeological Perspectives on the Protohistoric Southeast, reports that during the time period of the first European contact, the Creek

“were a confederacy that encompassed several distinct ethnic groups, including elements of the Alabama, Apalachee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Hitchiti, Koasati, Natchez, Shawnee, Tunic, Yamasee, and Yuchi.”

According to historian Colin Calloway, in his book The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities:

“The Creek confederacy was a voluntary association of towns or, in Muskogee, italwa, bound together by custom and mutual interest and not by centralized coercion.”

Creek towns did not have physical boundaries in the manner of European towns: the towns were a group of people who were associated with a particular political or ceremonial center. The concept of town when applied to the Creek was perhaps closer to the European concept of tribe. Each town was autonomous and had its own ceremonial fire.

In addition, the Creek villages were characterized by two distinct and mutually unintelligible languages: Muskogee and Hitchiti. In addition, there were Creek towns in which the dominant language was Shawnee, Koasati, Alabama, or Yuchi.

The Yuchi joined the Creek confederacy in the early eighteenth century. In his biography The World’s Richest Indian: The Scandal Over Jackson Barnett’s Oil Fortune, historian Tanis Thorne reports:

“Within the Creek confederacy, the Yuchi maintained their distinct language, customs of patrilineal descent, and other cultural traditions in their own politically autonomous communities.”

The Creek confederacy is generally divided into two large geopolitical divisions: the Lower Creek towns along the Flint and Chatahoochee rivers and the Upper Creek towns along the Coosa and Tallapoosa branches of the Alabama River.

The “foreign” tribes which were incorporated into the Creek Confederacy included: Okchai, Osochee, Pakana, Tomahitan, Tukabahchee, and Wetumpka.

Migrations

The Creek (Musgokee) oral tradition speaks of their origin as being far to the west.  According to the oral tradition, there was a long migration which brought them across the Mississippi River and into the areas which are today known as Georgia and Alabama. While settled here, they also ranged into Tennessee, South Carolina, and Florida. After the American government forced removal on them, they re-established themselves outside of the Southeast in what is now Oklahoma.

Archaeologist Charles Jones, writing in his 1873 book Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes. reports:

“When questioned as to their origin, the Muscogees responded that the prevailing tradition among them was, that their progenitors had issued out of a cave near the Alabama River.”

Maine Indians and Early European Explorers and Fishermen

While the Indian nations in what is now Maine may have had some limited contact with Europeans as early as 1480, regular contact began in the sixteenth century and intensified during the first half of the seventeenth century. During this time, the Indians began to incorporate aspects of European culture, such as trade goods, into their own lifestyles. These early contacts were with four broad categories of Europeans: fishermen, explorers, missionaries, and colonists.

Fishermen

By 1519, European fishing boats were trading with the Micmac in Maine and the Maritime Provinces. By 1524, ships were crossing over from Europe in increasing numbers, first to fish offshore for the great schools of cod, and eventually to trade with natives for furs.

During the early part of the seventeenth century, English ships scouted the coast from Maine to Cape Cod, trading with Indians and gathering sassafras roots which were prized in Europe as a treatment for syphilis. In 1602, off the coast of Maine, the crew of an English ship saw people in a European boat – described as a Biscay shallop – sailing toward them. They assumed that the eight men in it must be Europeans. However, all were Indians. The Indians, using a piece of chalk, drew a map of the Maine coast for the newly arrived English sailors.

Sailing shallops could be fairly large: up to 12 tons and forty feet in length. Many had more than one mast. Regarding the adaptation of this craft by Indian people, the Jesuit missionaries noted that the Souriquois handled them “as skillfully as our most courageous and active sailors in France.” Some writers feel that the Indians had acquired the shallops from the Basque fishermen who had a history of fishing in the area.

There are a number of other reports of Indians using the European shallops. In 1606, for example, the Souriquois under the leadership of Membertou raided other Indian villages using sailing shallops. The following year, the English on their way to establish their colony on the Kennebec River encountered two sailing shallops being used by Souriquois under the leadership of Membertou. The Souriquois offered skins for trade and the English noted that the Indians seemed to be using a lot of French words.

Explorers:

Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian working for the French, explored the North America coast from the Carolinas northward to Maine in 1524.  In Maine, Verrazano found that the Indians were not particularly friendly. They appeared to have already had some contact of an unpleasant sort Europeans, perhaps Europeans who were fishing off the coast. While Verrazano did not speak any Indian languages, he concluded:

“We think they have neither religion nor laws.”

According to Barbara Mann, in her essay in Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom:

“What Verrazano, and all European observers after him, meant by lack of ‘any law’ in Native America was the absence of any controlling church-state hierarchy.”

The following year, a Spanish expedition led by the Portuguese pilot Estévan Gomes landed near the River of Deer in Maine and took 58 Indians captive.

In 1580, the English adventurer John Walker landed in Penobscot Bay. He took about 300 moose hides from an unattended building. In their chapter in American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega,  Bruce Bourque and Ruth Whitehead report:

“It may be inferred that such a large concentration in a single structure meant that the hides were intended not for the local population but for export, ultimately to Europeans; but Walker provided no further clue as to their intended destination.”

In 1602, the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold landed at “Savage Rock” (Cape Elizabeth) where he encountered some Micmac. Geographer G. Malcolm Lewis, in his chapter in North American Exploration. Volume 1: A New World Disclosed, reports:

“From aspects of their dress and a few of the words they spoke, they appeared to have had some previous contact with Europeans.”

The European explorers found that the Indians were wearing large copper breastplates and European costumes including shoes, waistcoats, breeches, and hose. The following year, English explorers under the leadership of Martin Pring encountered a group of Indians near present-day Saco. They reported that some of the Indians had brass breastplates which were a foot long and about half a foot wide.

In 1604, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Penobscot River. Near the site of present-day Bangor, he made contact with the Wabanaki under the leadership of Bashabes. From Bashabes the French learned a great deal about the interior of Maine. Bashabes, wanting French partnership in the fur trade, provided Champlain with guides. While the French were looking for the fabled Indian city of Norumbega, they found that the city was a myth. The French did, however, gain a great deal of information about the interior between Kennebec Basin and the St. Lawrence. Getting around the language barrier, the Indians drew maps on sand and bark for the French.

The French next explored Saco Bay where they saw and recorded on their chart an Indian corn-growing settlement. On the Saco River they were met by Indians who painted their faces black and red. The Indians were a farming people who raised corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, grapes, and tobacco. Champlain’s Etchemin guides called the people at this village Archmouchiquois and they called the village Chouacoit. The area surrounding the village contained many small hamlets.

In 1609, Henry Hudson met with Indians in Penobscot Bay. The Indians told him that they traded with the French. A few days later, two French shallops filled with Indians sailed into the harbor bringing many beaver skins and other furs for trade. Hudson was not equipped for trade, so he simply resorted to force to obtain the furs. His men captured one of the shallops and took the Indian furs.

In 1614, John Smith, the former commander at Jamestown, led two ships in search of gold and whales along the coast of Maine. They did some trading with the natives and engaged in a few skirmishes. Like other European explorers, they captured some Indians to sell into slavery.

Disease

One of the unintended consequences of contact between Europeans and Indians was epidemic disease which often decimated the Indian populations. In 1610, an epidemic struck the Souriquois at La Have taking at least 60 lives.

The first of three epidemics struck the Indians of New England in 1616. It is estimated that 75% of the population died between 1616 and 1619.  The epidemics swept from Cape Cod to the Kennebec River in Maine. The epidemics started after an English party wintered at the mouth of the Saco River. While it is not known what the actual diseases were, various historians have suggested bubonic plague, smallpox, and hepatitis A as possibilities.

A new disease which produced bloody vomiting broke out among the Abenaki in 1646. This outbreak may have contributed to Jean-Baptiste’s missionary success.

Southeastern Indian Hunting

While the Indian nations of the American Southeast were an agricultural people, they used hunting to supplement their diet. Just as these nations held their agricultural lands in common, so too were hunting territories held in common. While agricultural lands were assigned to clans or family lineages, there was no assignment of use rights for hunting lands.

In general, the most important animal in the Southeast was the deer whose flesh was used as food; its skin was used for clothing; its horns were made into arrow points; its hooves were made into rattles; its sinews used for sewing and binding; and its bones were fashioned into a variety of articles. A typical Creek family, for example, needed about 25-30 deerskins per year. The white-tailed deer provided 50 to 90 percent of the protein eaten.

Hunters would range as far as 300 miles from their towns while hunting for deer. While these extended hunts were conducted by men, they were accompanied by women and by some children. These hunts were usually conducted in the winter – beginning in November or December and ending in February or March.

During the rutting season – September through November – deer would be hunted using a technique in which a deer-head decoy was used to attract bucks into range. There were, however, two drawbacks to this technique: (1) rutting bucks are very aggressive and sometimes would attack the hunters, and (2) the decoys were so realistic that hunters were sometimes accidentally shot by other hunters.

Communal hunts, which could involve as many as 300 hunters, would use a fire surround to force the deer into a small area where they could be easily shot. In using this technique, an area up to five miles in circumference would be set on fire.

Before the coming of the Europeans, the primary big game hunting weapon was the bow and arrow, which was very accurate up to 40 yards. Some hunters could hit targets at 100 yards. The bows resembled the English longbow and were five to six feet in length. The arrows were tipped with bone points or with garfish scales. To provide greater accuracy, the arrows were fletched (feathered), often using turkey feathers. Hunters usually protected their wrists with bowguards made from leather or bark.

Another important game animal was the black bear. The bear provided both food and skins. In addition, Indians extracted an oil from the fat of the bear which was used in both cooking and curing. Bears were usually hunted in the winter while they were hibernating. The hunters would set fire to the bear’s den—usually a hollowed out tree—and then shoot it as it emerged to escape the fire.

The Seminole prized both bear meat and the oil extracted from the fat. Whenever a bear was seen, a hunting party would be organized and the animal would be tracked to its hiding place and killed.

While the bison was not as important to the Southeastern Indians as it was to the Plains Indians, it was still an important animal. Prior to the coming of the Europeans, there were moderately large bison herds in Tennessee.

The meat from deer and bison was dried over a fire. Meat dried in this fashion could be kept for several months without spoiling. Often a smoky fire, fueled by green hickory wood, was used. This gave the meat a smoked flavor.

Other important game animals included beaver, otter, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, squirrel, and rabbit. Small game and birds were often hunted with a blowgun. A hollowed piece of cane, 7 to 9 feet in length, would be used to make the blowgun. The darts were made of hardwood and would be 10 to 22 inches in length. The blowguns were accurate up to about 60 feet. No poison was used on the darts and larger animals were usually shot in the eye.

Turkeys provided an important source of both food and feathers. Both the Timucua and the Apalachee used circular fire drives in taking turkeys.

Another important and abundant bird was the passenger pigeon (now extinct) which was hunted at night during the winter. The hunters would use torches to blind the passenger pigeons which were roosting in the trees. The birds would then be knocked down with long poles.

The Indian people along the Mississippi flyway and the coastal plain also took advantage of the immense number of waterfowl. Waterfowl were usually hunted from the middle of October until the middle of April.

Along the coastal plain, the Indian people also used turtles, terrapins, alligators, crawfish, crabs, clams, mussels, and oysters for food. Among the Yamasee, turtles were considered a prize food, not only for its flesh and eggs, but also for the fact that its seasonal appearance was unfailing. Among the Timucua, alligators were hunted by thrusting a long pole (about ten feet long) down their throats. The reptile would then be flipped over on its back and arrows shot into its soft belly.

The Seminole would “fire-hunt” alligators: they would use a burning torch which would dazzle the animal. The bewildered alligator would then be speared by a hunter in a canoe. Alligator hides were placed on scaffolds to dry.

Some Florida groups, such as the Tekesta and the Seminole, also hunted manatee, a large herbivorous aquatic mammal. In the winter, the Tekesta would hunt manatee from canoes. Hunters would harpoon the manatee as they rose to the surface for air.

Among the Creek, hunting included a number of rituals which enabled the hunters to show respect for the animals. According to historian Joel Martin, in his book Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World:

“Native hunters did not kill game animals, consume the meat, or take the skin without carefully considering their actions.”

Prior to the hunt, the hunters would ask for the support of the spirits of the hunt and they would sing songs to draw the animals closer.

Hunters often burned the undergrowth in small patches of forest. Regularly burning the vegetation resulted in a managed environment that supported a fairly large number of deer. According to historian Daniel Usner, in his book Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783:

“These controlled fires both enhanced the nutritional quality of the plants that deer browsed on and eased the passage for the animals through the woods.”

This artificially stimulated the number of deer in the area.

In South Florida, historian James Covington, in his book The Seminoles of Florida, reports:

“Every spring the Seminoles set the dry grass and trees on fire so that new growth would attract the deer and turkeys.”

Colonists and Missionaries in Maine

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the French and English were turning from the exploration of what is now Maine to establishing colonies and converting the Indians to Christianity. The Europeans assumed that Christianity gave them superior rights to both land and resources. The idea that the Native peoples of Maine might any rights seldom occurred to the European.

Colonists

The first European attempt to establish a colony in Maine came in 1604 with the arrival of French colonists who attempted to settle on the Sainte Croix River. The settlement soon moved to the present-day Annapolis-Royal in Nova Scotia.

The English established a trading camp on the Kennebec River in 1605. The expedition was funded by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, captain of the Port of Plymouth. At the end of the trading season, the English kidnapped five Abenaki and took them to England to turn them into guides and interpreters. The Abenaki captives were not to be sold into slavery, but they were exhibited as curiosities. They were also studied by Gorges, who wished to learn more about the new land to the westward and its inhabitants. Among those taken by the English was Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, who later becomes an important figure in Massachusetts history.

In 1607, the Virginia Company established the colony of Sagadohoc on the Kennebec River. The party included 120 men and Skidwarres, one of the Abenaki who had been kidnapped in 1602. Skidwarres was supposed to serve as the trusted interpreter-liaison between the English and the Abenaki. However, as soon as he made contact with the Abenaki, he simply slipped into the crowd and returned to his people.

The purpose of the new colony was to find precious metals and spices, establish a fur trade with the Native Americans, and show that New World forests were a limitless resource for English shipbuilders. Concerned about the possibility of a French attack, the colonists built an earthenwork fort, which they called Fort St. George. The fort was fortified with eight cannons.

In one instance, five Abenaki, including Skidwarres and the leader Nahaneda, showed up at the fort. They joined the colonists for both food and church services. They had to endure public prayers both morning and evening. They told the English that King James was a good king and that his God was a good God, but that Tanto (their own deity) had commanded them to avoid contact with the English.

The English soon managed to anger their Abenaki neighbors so that trade between the two groups had to be suspended. There were a number of minor skirmishes in which 11 colonists were killed. According to historian Ian Steele, in his book Warpaths: Invasions of North America:

“The English bungled their opportunity to establish influence with the Abenaki.”

In 1608, the English abandoned their colony on the Kennebec River. The re-supply ships from England found that the colonists had successfully traded with the Indians for furs, gathered the herbal cure-all sarsaparilla, and built and launched a 50-foot ship. However, the colony’s leader upon discovering that he was the heir to an immense fortune decided to return to a lavish castle in England.

Missionaries

Part of the motivation for the European invasion of North America was to acquire converts to their religion. The Jesuits arrived in New France in 1611 and began to learn the native languages as a way of carrying their message to the people. Unlike other Europeans, the Jesuits did not want land or furs: they asked only to live in an Indian household that they might study the language. While the Jesuits were well-liked because of their quiet manners, the Indians felt that these men were poorly educated because they had not learned that God made all religions, and they came here to tell the people who already believed in a Creator that such a One exists.

In 1611, Jesuit missionaries attempted to establish a mission on Mt. Desert Island. However, an English ship arrived and captured the entire settlement. James Moore, in his book Indian and Jesuit: A Seventeenth-Century Encounter, writes:

“English paranoid attitudes toward Catholics, especially Jesuits, and their current fears generated by alleged plots to undermine the English government, placed the missionaries in special jeopardy.”

Two years later, the French priests built a mission for the Penobscot at Bar Harbor, Maine.

In 1635, the Capuchin Catholics established a small church at Pentagoet to proselytize among the Penobscot. The priests learned the local language.

In 1642, Charles Meiaskwat, a Montegnais lay preacher, visited the Abenaki at Norridgewock. The following year, an Abenaki from Norridgewock went to Quebec with Charles Meiaskwat so that he could be converted to Christianity. As a convert he was given the name Jean-Baptiste and he returned to his people to proselytize. Three years later, Jean-Baptiste returned to Quebec claiming that he had 40 potential converts at Norridgewock and asking that a black robe (Jesuit priest) be sent to instruct them.

In 1646, the French Jesuit Gabriel Druillettes began working with the Abenaki. He emphasized steady prayer and quiet nurturing of the sick which contrasted to the traditional religion which was quite animated. On one occasion he offered Mass with a fervent beseeching of God to relieve the hunger of his traveling party. Right after Mass, the Abenaki killed three moose. This impressed the Indians with his apparent ability to deliver results.

In a typical Jesuit approach to the Indians, Druillettes learned the Abenaki language. He impressed many Indians, and his visit established a link between the Abenakis and Quebec that would continue for many years.