National Geographic : 1946 Jan
Indians of the Southeastern United States BY MATTHEW W. STIRLING Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution BEGINNING with the first voyage of Ponce de Le6n to Florida in 1513, his torical and descriptive material on the Indians of the Southeast is continuous and more abundant for the 16th century than for any other portion of the United States.* Colorful accounts of the early Spanish, French, and English explorers reveal rich de tails of the customs and manner of life of the native inhabitants. By comparing the accounts of successive explorers, we can trace tribal movements, population trends, and changes in custom un der the rule of the Spanish, the French, and the English. The Indian removal ordered by the United States in the first half of the 19th century brought an end to the real aboriginal life of the area. Gold drew most of the Spanish adventurers, but among them were some slavers, who found it easy to decoy the trusting natives on their ships and then sail off with them. Thus the Indians themselves were converted to gold. The American Indian made a poor slave. He languished quickly and often died in cap tivity, but the trade was not stopped until after the West Indies were nearly depleted of their native inhabitants. It seems certain that some of these slavers visited the Florida coast soon after Columbus reached the West Indies and well before the first recorded visit, which was that of Ponce de Le6n. Maps of the Florida peninsula were pub lished in Europe before this date, and more convincing evidence is the way in which the Florida Indians received all Spanish ships that made early voyages to the peninsula. Without preliminary palaver, the natives fell upon them so fiercely that no permanent land ings could be made for many years. Such conduct would have been unlikely on the part of Indians at their first meeting with whites. Calusa Were Fierce Fighters The Indians encountered by Ponce de Le6n and Hernandez de C6rdoba in these early voyages were the Calusa, who occupied the southern part of the Florida peninsula and therefore were the first Southeastern Indians to meet the Europeans. Of powerful physique, the warlike Calusa were the fiercest fighters in the New World. They drove back all European attempts to enter their country until their numbers were greatly reduced by the introduction of Euro- pean epidemic diseases. Before the end of the 18th century they had virtually ceased to exist as a tribe. The few remaining indi viduals were absorbed among the Seminole when the latter arrived. In the Southeast, history merges into pre history as interpreted by archeological re search; a clear understanding of the area requires consideration of history and pre history as a continuous unit. The area designated as the Southeast ex tends south from Chesapeake Bay and a line across to the Ohio River and westward to the Mississippi River. Louisiana and parts of eastern Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma also are included. Most important and most typical linguistic stock of the Southeast was the Muskhogean. It spread over most of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In the north it extended across western Tennessee and the western corner of Kentucky. In the south it included eastern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle. The two great stocks of Florida-Timucuan, comprising the northern half of the Florida peninsula, and the Calusan, spoken in the southern half-were related to Muskhogean. The Creek Confederacy Typical Muskhogean-speaking peoples were the tribes comprising the great Creek con federacy, which occupied the territory now constituting Georgia and Alabama; the Choc taw who lived in central and southern Missis sippi (Plate VIII); the Chickasaw of north ern Mississippi; and the Hitchiti of western Georgia. The later Seminole, who were pri marily an offshoot of the Creeks and Hitchiti, were also a Muskhogean people (page 54). The Caddoan stock was found in northeast ern Texas, southern Oklahoma, southwestern Arkansas, and western Louisiana. When they first became known to Europeans they consisted of about 25 tribes, comprising three or more confederated unions besides sev eral smaller independent units. While their culture in some respects belongs to that of the * This is the fifth in a series of authoritative articles by Dr. Stirling on the American Indian, illustrated with W. Langdon Kihn's paintings, which are the result of careful study and extensive research. See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "America's First Settlers, the Indians," November, 1937; "Indian Tribes of Pueblo Land," November, 1940; "Indians of Our Western Plains," July, 1944; and "Indians of Our North Pacific Coast," January, 1945.