Creek Tribes Were Decimated by Disease but Thrived Through Skin Trade
The Native American Creek (Muscogee) tribes of the Southeast were actually an allied nation that came into existence in relatively recent history so they would be united in peace.
The Creek included many of the native people of parts of Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and lived in large towns, writes the site Warpaths 2 Peace Pipes . Many Creek tribes built huge earthen mounds that still stand today.
A Short Creek Indians History
Their population decreased precipitously after contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia online , the history of the Creek Indian nation is the main history of that colony until around 1760. The encyclopedia says:
“The history of early Georgia is largely the history of the Creek Indians. For most of Georgia's colonial period, Creeks outnumbered both European colonists and enslaved Africans and occupied more land than these newcomers. Not until the 1760s did the Creeks become a minority population in Georgia. They ceded the balance of their lands to the new state in the 1800s.”
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The Creeks as an allied nation of many different tribes and town centers did not exist when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Sea in 1492. At that time, they lived in what are known as mound-building societies. Their mounds can still be seen at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon and Etowah Mounds at Cartersville, both in Georgia.
Artist’s conception of the Etowah site (9 BR 1), a Mississippian culture archaeological site located on the banks of the Etowah River in Bartow County, Georgia. Built and occupied in three phases, from 1000–1550 AD. (Herb Roe/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
The Creek people, also known as the Muscogee, and other anthropologists and archaeologists say that about 1400 AD, some large chiefdoms in the region collapsed for some reason. They then remade themselves into smaller groups in Georgia’s valleys. Two such river valleys are the Ocmulgee and the Chattahoochee.
Contact with Spanish people in the 1500s was devastating for the Creek tribal populations. European diseases, including smallpox, that had not been circulating in the New World previously, contributed to the deaths of as much as 90 percent or more of their people.
A painting by George Catlin of Great King, also known as Ben Perryman, a chief of the Creek people ( Public Domain )
In the late 1600s the Indians of the Southeast began to repopulate and recover, the encyclopedia says.
The survivors built a political alliance that united people from the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers in Alabama to the Ocmuglee River to the east in Georgia. The Creek languages included Muskogee, Hitchiti and Alabama.
Trading with Europeans
They allied in part to be at peace with each other. English newcomers around the year 1715 started calling these tribes Creeks, which was shorthand for “Indians living on Ochese Creek,” the New Georgia encyclopedia says. After contact with Europeans, the Creek traded in deerskins and Indians for slavery that they captured in Florida. That slave trade collapsed about 1715 because of a lack of supply and demand, the encyclopedia states. Deerskins became their main trading commodity from then on.
In the 1730s the deerskin trade was very important to the Creek economy. Tens of thousands of skins were being shipped out Charleston, South Carolina, every year to English factories, where workers made the skins into pants, book covers, and gloves.
‘James Oglethorpe presenting the Yamacraw Indians to the Georgia Trustees’ , an event on July 3, 1734, one year after Oglethorpe landed to start the new colony. ( Public Domain )
By the 1750s, Savannah, Georgia, became another port for shipping as many as 60,000 deerskins a year. The New Georgia Encyclopedia states: “In Creek towns the profits from the trade included cloth, kettles, guns, and rum. These items became integral parts of the culture, easing the labor tasks of Creeks. However, they also created conflict by enriching some, but not all, Indians.”
This trade between natives and Europeans, and contact with slaves, encouraged closer cultural links. Some settlers lived in Creek towns to make closer trading ties. Some Europeans and fugitive slaves married Indians and lived among the Muscogee tribes. The hundreds of fugitive slaves living with Creek encouraged them to oppose slavery.
Eventually, the deer population crashed, and that trade ended. European settlers in Georgia began to look at Creeks not as trading partners, but as a roadblock to the establishment of the plantations and slavery.
The Creek nation was able to largely stay out of the American Revolution. But war visited them soon after. The colonists in Georgia pressured the Creeks to cede lands east of the Ocmulgee River in three treaties: that of New York in 1790, Fort Wilkinson in 1802, and Washington in 1805.
Around this time the U.S. government began a program to transform Creeks into farmers and ranchers. Some Creeks resisted, but others voluntarily joined up. Civil war broke out among the Muscogee in 1813 over this program.
Portrait of Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1818) on his plantation along the Flint River in central Georgia. ( Public Domain ) Here he is instructing Muscogee Creek in European technology.
State militias and U.S. soldiers entered the war, and in March 1814, a definitive battle happened at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. A future U.S. president, General Andrew Jackson, led troops that killed 800 creeks. This was the Red Stick War. A treaty in August that year required the Creeks to give up 22 million acres (8,903,084 hectares) of land, much of it in South Georgia.
The Creeks were dispossessed of the rest of their land in the fraudulent Treaty of Indian Springs. The U.S. government didn’t recognize the treaty, but the Georgians would not relent. In the 1826 Treaty of Washington, the Creeks ceded all their remaining lands in the state of Georgia.
The Creeks signed a treaty in 1832 that would send them to the Indian Territory, which is known now as Oklahoma. Land speculators took advantage of the Creeks’ hard straits and bought Creek lands and fomented a war between the natives and whites to remove the Indians from the Southeast for good.
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The Creek Nation Supreme Court building in Ocmulgee, Oklahoma. (Screenshot from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation website)
The Creek Nation was one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast that were forced to go to Oklahoma. Many people of these tribes lived in towns, had stores and newspapers, and lived much as their neighbors of European ancestry.
In 1836, there was a brief war between the Creeks and the U.S. military. At the end of the war, U.S. troops and the militias of Georgia and Alabama forced some 20,000 remaining Creeks, some in chains, to Indian Territory.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation website says their political system was the most advanced north of Mexico during the time of contact with the Europeans. Today, the Muscogee Indians are a sovereign nation in Ocmulgee, Oklahoma, with a population of 83,570 people.
The annual Ocmulgee Indian Celebration brings together craftsmen, dancers, storytellers, and living history demonstrators to celebrate and share their heritage with thousands of visitors. ( NPS Photo )
Top image: Creek beadwork. Beads and wampum were important in ritual and as currency among Native American groups. Wampum is made of sea shells. Source: Rdlogan05/ CC BY SA 4.0
By Mark Miller