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The First Americans
in the Southeast

Falling sea levels during parts of the ice age
periodically open narrow land bridges
between otherwise unconnected land masses.

Today, only 51 miles of relatively shallow ocean separate the Seward Peninsula from Chukotsky Poloustrow Peninsula in Asia. During the last ten thousand years, the land bridge known as Beringea has been submerged & resurfaced between three and six times. While above sea level, parts of Beringea would at times be covered in deciduous or coniferous forest, grassland, or tundra. At other times, it would be totally glaciated.

Until about five million years ago, during the late Miocene, Beringia had a mild climate and was part of an unbroken deciduous/mixed forest which stretched across Asia and most of North America. Much like today's mesophytic regions in Kentucky and Tennessee, these forests were dominated by walnut, hickory, beech, oak, elm, maple, and hazel. North American & Asian forests still feature much of the same genera, same or sister species of plants and insects. The deciduous forests disappeared after early glaciations. Coniferous forests were gone soon thereafter. During the end of the Wisconsonian (100,000 BP- 10,000 BP) Glaciation, the climate was cooler and drier than it is now, but Beringea was ice free.  Xeric shrubs, grasses, and tundra plants supported vast herds of browsing ungulates, along with packs of carnivores following them; many species of mammals travelled from Siberia to North America, while a lesser number migrated from North America to Siberia.  Once natives of Turtle Island, camels, horses, tapirs and cheetahs, migrated to Asia prior to their extinction over here. Heading in this direction were the mastodon, mammoths, sabertooth cats, deer, caribou, brown bears, wolves, sheep, and wolverines. These are a few of the species that crossed at about the same time humans did. Most likely, travel occurred during the winter as melt water and runoff from the ice sheets would have been extensive. Those Siberians who stayed in North America have since diverged from their ancestors into Bison, Bighorn Sheep, Rocky Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Coyote, Kit fox, and Bobcats, as well as modern humans.

The Late Pleistocene
About 13,000  years ago

Continent-sized glaciers lowered sea levels by over 300 feet. Beringea was a thousand miles wide.  Two-leggeds who had spears and could make fire were trailing the Mastodon, Mammoth, Bison and Muskox; small bands of nomadic hunters, extremely dependent on the beasts for their life-sustaining flesh, bones and hide. These animals not only provided meat, but skins for shelter and clothing. As for the hunters, the choice to pursue such a rugged existence seems to indicate that there was probably some stiff competition for tropical real estate. Recent evidence seems to indicate that they may even have travelled in boats. Very likely, the same glaciers which made the land bridge appear also impeded movement across Turtle Island until the ice began melting around 12,000 BC. These stalwart gangs were likely the ancestors of the original people who came to the Southeast, and there is evidence of their presence in the rockhouses of the Cumberland Plateau early on.

On the other hand, the Cherokee have stories that indicate they may come from an island which once hosted great cities off the eastern coast of South America. As a result of spiritual betrayal by the medicine men, this land, like Atlantis, is now underwater. Way down below the ocean, where I wanna be, she may be...  Hey, don't just discount this tale. There is truth to be gleaned concerning the nature of the fission leading to the downfall of a great civilization; the same thing happened on a community I once lived in. The Keetoowah were the people who were directed to take their fire and leave before the island went under. They migrated north and settled in the southeastern US. Weird as it sounds, there are some interesting connections here, most of which I won't go into, but here are a few; both the Cherokee and certain tribes of the Orinoco and Amazon River Basins use a unique method  to rim baskets consisting of loops made of oak tied with hickory strips. Also, there is a weaving style know as the chain and diagonal pattern, as well as the double weave, which are employed by both Cherokees and some tribes in Brazil. And one more artifact: the blowgun, common in the jungles of South America, extremely rare on Turtle Island, is widely employed by the Iroquois, Cherokee, and some of their Muskogean-speaking neighbors in the southeast.  The world is always bigger and smaller than we think.

12,000 BC - 7500 BC

Spruce-pine parklands and near--tundra conditions dominated the mountains and plateau. The climate was cooler and wetter than at present, with temperatures from 5 to 11 degrees lower on average, and more abundant rain spread fairly evenly throughout the year. Sea level was down over 100 feet from where it is today. Small camps of seasonally-mobile families hunted Deer, Elk, Bear, and possibly Caribou. No evidence exists for hunting of extinct animals like the Mastodon or Ground Sloth. Gathering of plant foods was probably important. As the Laurentide Glaciation ended and the ice retreated, the arctic-like evergreen boreal forest began developing into the eastern deciduous forest, with its diversity of flowers, and fruits, teeming with wild game, fowl, providing edible nuts, berries, tubers, roots and numerous herbs. Yum.

The return of angiosperms to the area meant greater biodiversity. The shedding of leaves in the autumn allowed the forest floor to receive good sun early in the season, allowing various plant growth forms to coexist within a given habitat.  A well developed understory of herbs, ferns, grapes, Hazelnut thickets, and smaller trees like Dogwoods, Redbuds, Old man's Beard, Persimmon and a wealth of wildflowers. This is typical of what you will also find today.

7500 BC - 1000 BC

Hunters roamed the plateau with their spears lashed to sharpened rocks in search of game, making use of hundreds of the rockshelters found in the area as convenient camps and homes. Impressions left in prepared clay hearths reveal the presence of woven textiles and basketry.

Around 4500 BC, the climate became much warmer and drier. The once forested Great Plains began to take on their present character. Changing climate led to the extinction of Mammoths, Mastodons, early horses, caribou, camels, a large-nosed peccary, straight-horned bison and buffalo. As the predominant vegetation changed from coniferous to deciduous forest, abundant acorns, hickory, chestnut and beech mast attracted wildlife.  Nomadic bands began to rely on a variety of mast-dependent smaller game, such as black bear, rabbit, turkey, grouse, geese and duck, although the most popular animal to hunt in this area for the last ten thousand years has been and continues to be the White-tailed deer.

This period also reveals a greater number of tools such as manos, mortars and pestles, bone fish hooks which indicate an increasing utilization of plant food resources and a larger group size. Other artifacts include atlatl weights and a stone tubular pipe. Nets, mats, canoes, items of wood or other perishable materials were also probably common. Trash piles contain large quantities of gastropod shells that helped preserve bones, artifacts and human burials. Although snails were an important food source, deer was the staple with a wide variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians filling out the pantry.

In 4000 BC, human burials were generally folded into a fetal position and placed in small, oval shallow pits. Graves contain shell beads and other items manufactured from marine shell, copper artifacts and utilitarian objects such as projectile points, atlatl weights and bone tools. Dog burials are also found. Naturally, most sites from this period are found in areas that are sheltered, with a dependable water source. The Cumberland Plateau was probably infrequently used by small groups during this era in spite of this being a time of increased population in the surrounding regions.

By the late archaic, (4000-1000 BC), there is evidence of longer and more intensive site occupation although the people are most likely organized in larger nomadic bands. There is evidence of the presence of house patterns and an overall increase in the number and complexity of base camps.  Such settlements were a series of camps occupied for longer periods of time, perhaps seasonally, and resource exploitation was more intensive. The plateau area in general was probably occupied year round. Economic and cultural adaptations became more localized and territorial size is reduced from this period on. Seasonally hunting, fishing, and gathering plants in response to available resources, groups become increasingly reliant on shellfish and fish. There is a further increase in the use of plant species and in the amount of woodworking and land clearing tools. There is also more cooperative labor as groups were required to clear fields, construct fish weirs and dams, execute fish and game drives, gather shellfish, or cultivate seed crops. Cultigens consisted of non-native  plants such as bottle gourd (Legenaria sicerari), squash (Curcurbita pepo), and corn (Zea mays) as well as native plants such as chenopodium (Chenopodium sp.), marsh elder and sunflower (Helianthus annus), sumpweed (Iva annua), maygrass (Phalaris sp.), and knotweed (Polygonum sp.)  Storage technology (lined pits, stone and ceramic vessels) appears.

The caching of foodstuffs suggests that sites were occupied for a lengthy period of time or that repeat visits were planned. These folks built simple curved wind breaks, or constructed tensioned wall-roofs or frameworks tied to a support pole. Warm weather structures were open and used for sleeping. Food processing and other activities took place outside. A cold weather shelter exhibited a closed pattern of posts. Deep pits for storage and a hearth for warmth were typical. The presence of sandstone and steatite bowls as well as copper, marine shell and other non-local materials at these sites suggests long distance trade networks. Also found at this level are the famous two hole stone gorgets, and limestone tempered pottery with fabric - marked and stamped surfaces. Vast shell mounds contain hundreds of human burials, sometimes found in association with dog burials. Grave goods include bone needles, awls, disc gorgets, reel gorgets, projectile points and bone flakers, chisels and drifts.

1000 BC - 1000 AD

By 1000 BC, a more sedentary people plant small gardens of squash and goosefoot. Virgin forests and good soil conditions encouraged their efforts. Vegetative remains reveal that they also ate hickory nuts, walnuts, butternut, acorns and hazelnuts as well as squash, chenopodium and maygrass.The atlatl and flint-tipped spear remained the primary weapons for the hunt. The bow and arrow had not yet appeared. These bands were still relatively small, consisting primarily of members of the same family, perhaps fifty or so in a large group. Rockshelters in the Big South Fork area were used intensively.

Depending on the time of year, they would forage for plant foods such as acorns, chestnuts, persimmon, blackberries, huckleberries and hickory nuts, work the rivers for fish and shellfish, or hunt small game to insure a food supply. As usual, deer was the entreé followed in some camps by box turtles and toads. Lunch anyone? Small numbers of elk, beaver, otter, raccoon, black bear, woodchuck, squirrels, porcupines, and possums were also included. In some piles, raccoon runs a close second to white-tailed deer. I'll bet raccoon caps were famous around here a long time before Davy Crockett.

Although some modern Indians will not eat the bird because of its cowardly nature, Turkey was also used as a food source during this period, as were other common fowl; some were undoubtedly taken for their feathers. A variety of turtles and snakes, aquatic snails and freshwater mussels were also found, although they were basically a side dish and did not form a major component of their diet. By the year 1 AD, the upland forests are only frequented for hunting excursions during the winter and rockhouses are used sporadically. There is regular contact, trade and movement between groups living on the Cumberland Plateau and the Tennessee Valley.

By 1000 AD, the number of sites further increases with many being occupied year round or nearly so, gardens become bigger and feature more variety, and tobacco was widely cultivated and smoked at important gatherings.  The wondrous maize had been introduced and was grown with beans, squash and sunflowers. Year round occupation of river terraces becomes possible using intensified horticulture to create food surpluses.

Soapstone and sandstone bowls, first produced during the Late Archaic, continue to be used during the early part of the Early Woodland, but the primary indicator of Early Woodland culture is the introduction of earthenware pottery for cooking and storage. Ceramics were first developed while stone vessels were still in use, but at some point they completely replaced stone. The earliest pottery was manufactured along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Georgia and South Carolina in the lower Savannah and Chattahoochee River drainages 2500-2000 BC. With a few exceptions, their use and production spread from south to north and from east to west, very likely arriving on the Cumberland Plateau a few hundred years before Christ. Larger family groups started to come together to live in these burgeoning settlements and become tribes.

The major shift to agriculture led the Indians to leave the plateau region for the more fertile river bottoms of larger streams such as the Tennessee and Cumberland. In these riverine settings, they lived in bigger dwellings, towns and villages soon developed, and before you know it, these folks had complex societies highly dependent on agriculture. By the late woodland period the hunters favored the bow and arrow and people expressed their cosmology through the construction of great burial mounds and earthen temples.  While living in the highlands of Guatemala, I had the privilege of visiting such a mound which is still used by the local Indians to connect with their deities. And there as here, after the introduction of maize, populations burgeoned. Only occasionally did hunting parties venture into the remote areas of the Plateau.

900-1350 AD

Shell-tempered pottery, an abundance of great platform mounds, settlements arranged in a hierarchical manner, serious maize farmers, and a political system that has generally been described as a chiefdom. Both the later Woodland and Mississippian peoples often built stockades or palisades around their villages. Nothing is simply good in samsara; any rumors of a golden age anywere once upon a time is inevitably a hopeful exaggeration. Along with the ease and conveniences of village life there was also the constant threat of ambush and attack between tribes. Warfare combined with the mysterious demon of European diseases brought an end to this last phase which is termed Mississippian Culture.

As for the 'dark and bloody ground' which was to become Kentucky, the Iroquois had driven all the Indian tribes out around 1700 and gave up their claim by 1768  in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. By the time the first longhunters began to explore the area in the late 1700's there was only very sparse native settlement in the region. The whole Cumberland basin was an Indian no-man's land, teeming with wild game. It was hunted by Cherokee from the east and south, Chickasaws from western Tennessee, Creeks from Alabama and Mississippi as well as the powerful Iroquois themselves. An Algonquian tribe akin to the Delaware know as the Shawnee were living north of the Ohio at a very early date, but in the late 1600's the Five Nations Iroquois were forcing them out of their ancient homeland and scattering bands into the south and southeast. By 1660, The Cherokee allowed one group to settle in South Carolina and serve as a buffer between themselves and the Catawba. Other Shawnee were permitted to locate in the Cumberland Basin of Tennessee for a similar purpose against the Chickasaw.

The Chickasaws and Cherokees maintained the fiercest presence in these woods as both considered the area their own and were accustomed to attacking Shawnee intruders. One curious exception for almost forty years was Eskippakithiki, a Shawnee village on the site which became Blue Licks, named for the nearby salt licks along Lulbegrud Creek. It was also known as Little Pict Town to traders and may have been known to the Cherokee as Kentakee (a place of well-watered plains, good farming and meadow lands), from which comes the name of the river which provided access to the town. Probably the only Indian town in Kentucky in historic times, it  was occupied from about 1718 until about 1754. A French census of 1736 counted 200 Shawnee in what was very likely Eskippathiki. The abandonment of the locale was part of a general movement of Indian settlements out of Kentucky because of the ongoing disputes between various tribes over control of the area.  Since the days of the mound-builders, there had been virtually no human settlements between the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers.

By 1680, most of the tribes had gotten their first firearms, and the Cherokee had fortified their larger villages. Constant fighting with the Catawba erupted in the east followed by a growing friction with the Creek and Choctaw to the south. To the west there was a traditional hostility with the Chickasaw. To the north, the struggle between the French, Dutch, and English in the fur trade started the Beaver Wars and a period of conquest by the Iroquois League which spread across the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley.

1692 was the turning point in Shawnee - Cherokee relations.  The Shawnee band which had been allowed to settle in the Carolinas as a buffer between the Cherokee and the Catawba betrayed the trust and generosity of their hosts by raiding to capture slaves for trade with the English, destroying a major Cherokee village while its warriors were absent on a winter hunt. While both tribes still had common enemies (Iroquois, Catawba, and Chickasaw), this treachery completely destroyed any trust or friendship that had existed between the Cherokee and Shawnee. In 1715 the Cherokees allied with the Chickasaw (traditional enemies with similar feelings about the Shawnee) to inflict a major defeat on the Shawnee of the Cumberland Basin.

Another factor only recently considered to have contributed to this area being so sparsely populated, and in many cases avoided by Native Americans, was because it had been the scene of what came to be known as the "Great Dying." Sometime between 1500 and 1700 the Indian population of the area had died off. Power and influence among many tribes shifted from the priests to the warriors. People lost faith when the old medicine proved impotent against the new demons. Many anthropologists believe that the diseases the Spanish explorers had, preceded them and caused this event. When European settlement began, there were no permanent Indian tribes living in Kentakee, but the natural wealth of wasioto, the Shawnee word for the Cumberland Mountains, and the lands west and north to the Ohio, made them valuable and so were well utilized as a hunting ground. In the absence of human settlement, the game had grown to normal populations. Bands would hunt and avenge old blood debts in this virtually trackless wilderness. The principal highway was an ancient trail called Athawominee  which became know to the early longhunters as the Warrior's Path. Once white men started coming into Kentucky, not just to hunt and move along, but once they settled on the land in any numbers, the game would leave and the natural resources upon which the Indians depended for survival was seriously threatened.

The last native people to hunt and fish in these hollows were a small band of Cherokee who departed almost two hundred years ago. They were gathered under the leadership of a War Chief known as Tsulawi or Fox. Fox was allied with the Chickamauga Cherokee, Dragging Canoe's radical faction which was formed in 1778. The Chickamauga were intent on driving settlers from the territory. They conducted hit-and-run raids on American settlers throughout the Revolution. In one attack on a Kentucky militia, a captain in the US Army, was killed.  Fox took his heavy overcoat and wore it constantly. He was soon known to everyone as Captain Fox. In 1794,  after a final battle near Muscle Shoals, the Chickamauga realized it was impossible stop the Americans without help from Spain or Britain, and neither of these principalities were making any more arms available. Two thousand Cherokees had already migrated to Arkansas before the turn of the century, mostly traditionalists who wanted to hunt in peace and maintain the old culture. Unfortunately, they were moved onto land that was already claimed by the Osage who fought with their new neighbors for more than twenty years. As early as 1807 Chief Black Fox had put forth a suggestion to the Tribal Council favoring emigration and a decent price for the lands they were leaving behind, but the motion was turned down and Black Fox was disgraced and removed from the Council although he was later reinstated. By 1810, Fox was tired of fighting and decided it would be best to move his people west.