Chapter 7: Ancient Mounds and Fortifications in Alabama

Albert James Pickett: HISTORY OF ALABAMA.
(Kindly contributed by William C. Bell)



In the Southern and Northwestern States mounds of various dimensions and descriptions are yet to be seen, and continue to elicit no little speculation in regard to the race of people who formed them, and the objects which they had in view.

* See Chapter 2

Mounds are most commonly heaps of earth, but in some instances they are made of fragments of rock. In Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, they are of teo classes. We will first treat of the large mounds, some of which are round, some elliptical, and others square. Many of them are flat on top, while others present conical forms. They ascend to the height of from forty to ninety feet, and some are eighteen hundred feet in circumference at the base. Especial contrivances appear to have been resorted to, to ascend these singular and imposing elevations, by means of steps cut in the sides, inclining at an easy angle, and reaching from the ground below to their tops.* During the invasion of De Soto, they were used as elevated platforms, sustaining the houses of the Chief, his family and attendants, while the common people lived around the base. The writers upon the expedition describe the manner in which the natives brought the earth to the spot and formed these elevations. Garcelaaso de la Vega states that the recetion of a mound was the first object in building a new town, which was generally located upon some low alluvial ground. When completed, the Chief's houses, from ten to twenty in muber, were placed upon its top, and a public square laid out at the base, around which were the houses of the prominent Indians, while the humbler wigwams of the common people stood around the other side of the mound.

Such, then, three hundred and ten years ago, was found to be the use of these mounds. By the writrs of De Soto, they are repeatedly mentioned as being almost daily seen in all the territory through which that remarkable adventurer passed. Yet, many very learned and wise antiquaries have contended, in avrious works which they have published, that these mounds must have been constrcuted at a very ancient period, by a race far advanced in civilization -- that the aborigines who were first discovered by Europeans were incapable of erecting such works on account of their ignornace of the arts and their want of sufficient population. Our readers have seen what a numerous population De Soto and other discoverers found here, and that they possessed much ingenuity in the building of boats, fortifications, temples, houses, etc. Of all people upon earth the American Indians had much time to engage in such works, for they were never accustomed to regard their time of the least importance. Indeed, the American citizen of the present day, who has lived upon the Indian frontiers, knows that they often assembled together in great numbers and performed public works of all kinds. But much later authority than that offered by the writers of De Soto will be presented. It will be recollected that when the French drove the Natchez tribe from the spot now occupied by the city of that name, that the latter established themselves upon the Lower Washita, where they "erected mounds and embankments for defence, which covered an area of four hundred acres." These mounds are still to be seen there, and some of them are very large. These Indians were driven from Natzhez in 1730. Two years afterwards the French defeated them unto the Washita, where they were protected by their embankments and mounds, which they had only been a little over two years in constructing. Let it be borne in mind that this was about one hundred and ninety-one years after the invasion of De Soto; and the facts are attested by numerous Frenchmen and other authors, some of whom were eyewitnesses.*

* See Chapter 2

Charlwevoix and Tonti both mention that they found Indians a little south of Lake Michigan, who well understood the construction of mounds and fortifications. Even during the admimistrations of Jefferson, Lewis and Clarke, who had been depatched upon an overland route to Oregon, discovered the Sioux and other Western Indians ereceing earthen enbankments around their camps and towns. Were it deemed necessary, other authorities could be adduced to inculcate the belief that our country was once inhabited by an almost civilzed race, We heartily concur in the opinion expressed by McCulloh, in his "Researches," that the "mounds were sites for the dwellings of the Chiefs, for council halls and for temples, which fancy and conceit have constructed into various shapes and variously situated, one to the other." The author has reference, of course, to the larger mounds. *

* Researches, Philosophical and Antiquarian, concerning the aboriginal history of America, by J. H. McCulloh, Jr., M.D. Baltimore, 1829; pp. 516.

1776: Bartram found, in East Florida, many peculiar mounds. He saw groups of square mounds surrounded walls of earth, and pyramidal mounds of great height. "From the river St. John, southwardly to the point of the peninsula of Florida, are to be seen high pyramidal mounds, with spacious and extensive avenues leading from them out of the town to an artificial lake or pond of water." In another place he says: "At about fifty yards distance from the landing place stands a magnificent Indian mount. But what greatly contributed to the beauty of the scene, was a noble Indian highway, which led from the great mount, in a straight line three-quarters of a mile, through a forest of live-oaks, to the verge of an oblong artificial lake, which was on the edge of an extensive level savannah. This grand highway was about fifty yards wide, sunk a little below the common level, and the earth thrown on each side, making a bank of about two feet high." On the east side of the Ockmulgee, and a little below the city of Macon, in Georgia, are some large and interesting mounds. In the town of Florence, Lauderdale county, Alabama, is a very large and peculiar mound. Near Carthage, in the same State, there are many mounds of various sizes, some of which are large. Dr. Charles A. Woodruff--a native of Savannah, but now a resident of Alabama--a man of letters and research, who has travelled over Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama, engaged in geological researches--has called our attention to a very remarkable group of mounds on the lands of Judge Messier, twenty-one miles in a southeastern direction from Fort Gaines. A reference to the sketch which he has furnished us, and his description of it, which follows, will make the reader acquainted with these remarkable artifcial elevations.

1847: "No. 1. The large sacrificial mound, seventy feet in height and six hundred feet in circumference. This mound is covered with large forest trees, from four to five hundred years old. A shaft has been sunk in the center to the depth of sixty feet, and at its lower portion a bed of human bones, five feet in thickness, and in a perfectly decomposed state, was passed.

"No. 2, 2. Like the former, have hearthstones on the summit, with charred wood around them, which would show that they, too, were used for sacrifices. They are thirty feet high.

"No. 3. A wall of earth enclosing these mounds.

"No. 4, 4, 4, 4. Mounds outside of the enclosure, twenty feet high, and probably used as watch towers.

"No. 5. Entrance to the enclosure.

"In the rear of these mounds is a creek, No. 6, and from the large mound there has been constructed an arched passage, three hundred yards in length, leading to the creek, and probably intended to procure water for religious purposes. "

The smaller mounds, to be found in almost every field upon the rivers Tennessee, Coosa, Tallapoosa, Alabama, Cahaba, Warrior and Tombigbee, will next be considered.

Many of these elevations are cultivated in cotton and corn, the plough ascending and descending from year to year, with more ease as they gradually wear away. They are usually from five to ten feet high, from fifteen to sixty feet in circumference at the base, and of conical forms, resembling haystacks. Where they have been excavated they have, invariably, been found to contain human bones, various stone ornaments, weapons, pieces of pottery, and sometimes ornaments of copper and silver, but of a rude manufacture, clearly indicating Indian origin. Layers of ashes and charcoal are also found in these mounds.

1539, 1540, 1541: It will be recollected that the Spaniards, during the invasion of De Soto, discovered temples in all the chief towns, in which the dead were deposited in baskets and wooden boxes. At a late day this custom was found to exist only among the Choctaws, Natchez, and a few other tribes. The Muscogees and Alabamas, who came into the country after it had been overrun by De Soto, had, as we have seen, simple modes of burial, and hence knew nothing about the construction of these mounds. The bone-houses of the Choctaws were miniature temples of the Indians of 1540. 1735 , 1777, 1759, 1782: We have seen in what manner the Choctaws placed their dead upon scaffolds, and afterwards picked off all the flesh and fragments from the bones, and deposited the latter in bone-houses. It is positively asserted by Bartram that every few years, when these houses became full of homes, the latter were carried out upon a plain, buried in a common grave, and a mound raised over them. * According to Charlevoix, another conscientious author, the Six Nations and the Wyandots every eight or ten years disinterred their dead, who had been deposited where they had died, and carried all the bones to a certain place, where they dug a pit, thirty feet in diamter and ten in depth, which was paved at the bottom with stones. In this the various skeletons, with the property which the deceased possessed, were thrrown. Over the heap a mound was raised, by throwing in the earth they had dug out, together with rubbish of every kind. Much later authority will be adduced. Lewis and Clarke, whom, as we have said, Jefferson sent to explore Oregon, saw a mound twelve feet in diameter at the base, and six feet high, which had just been erected over the body of a Maha Chief. It appears to have always been the custom to erect a mound over a Chief or person of distinction, and no other bodies were interred with him. Indeed, no practice has been more universal than that of erecting a mound or tumulus over the dead, not only in America, but over the world. Adair asserts that it was the practice of the Cherokees to collect the skeletons of those who had died far from home, and erect stones over them stone mounds, and every person who passed by was required to add a stone to the heap. ** This, then, accounts for heaps of stones to be found in the northern part of Georgia and Northeastern Alabama, resembling mounds in form. In North Alabama and Tennessee, skeletons have been found in caves. In mountainous countries this may have been one of the modes of disposing of the dead, or, which is more probable, persons died there suddenly, and their bones were not afterwards gathered together, buried in a common grave, and a mound erected over them, as was the general custom of the times.

* Bartram's Travels, p. 516. See also Bossu's Travels, vol. 1, p. 299.
** "Adair's American. Indians."

The small mounds in Alabama, which have been excavated, contained different strata. Beginning to dig at the top, the operators first pass through a stratum of earth about two feet thick, then they come to a bed of human bones mixed with pieces of pottery, pipes, arrow-heads and various Indian ornaments. Muscle shells are often mixed with these. Continuing to dig downwards, the excavators pass through a stratum of earth, which is succeeded by strata of bones, charcoal, pottery, Indian ornaments and arrow-points. 1735, 1777, 1759, 1782: Now, from all we have read and heard of the Choctaws, we are satisfied that it was their cusom to take from the bone-houses the skeletons, with which they repaired in funeral procession to the suburbs of the town, where they placed them on the ground in one heap, together with the property of the dead, such as pots, bows, arrows, ornamments, curious shaped stones for dressing deer-skins, and a variety of other things. Over this heap they first threw charcoal and ahses, probably to preserve the bnes, and the next operation was to cover all the earth. This left a mound several feet high. In the course of eight or ten years, when the bone-house again became full of skeletons, the latter were carried in the same manner to the mound, placed upon top of it, and covered with ashes and earth. When the mound became high enough to excite a kind of veneration for it, by depositing upon it heaps of bones, from time to time, another was made not far from it, and then another as time rolled on. This accounts for the different strata of bones to be found in the same mound, and for the erection of several mounds, ofetn near each other.

1775, 1735, 1759, 1782: As for the ancient ditches at Cahaba, and in other portions of Alabama, in which are now growing the largest trees of the forest, indicating the works to have been of very remote date, we have been unable, in our investigations, to ascribe them to European origin, as they are generally supposed to be. De Soto erected no forts, in passing through this country, and had no occasion to do so, for his army was competent to subdue the natives without such means of defense. It is true he cut some temporary ditches upon the Warrior, near Erie, to repel the savages, who were charging him constantly from the other side of the river. These were soon abandoned, and his journalists mention no other works of the kind which he made.* The French and Spaniards, who afterwards occupied Alabama, erected no forts, except those at Mobile, upon the Tensaw River, at St. Stephens, at Jones Bluff upon the Tombigby, and four miles above the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa, upon the east bank of the former.

* "Had Hernando De Soto erected one-tenth of the works which have been ascribed to him, in the States bordering on the Gulf, in Tennessee, and even in Kentucky, he must have found ample demands on his time and exertions."--"Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley," by E. G. Squier, A. M., p. 112.

The English, at an early period, constructed a fort at Osfuskee upon the Tallapoosa. If any other forts or entrenchmnets were made by the Europeans who first established themselves upon our soil, we have not been so fortunate as to trace them. The conclusion, then, seems to us to be apparent, that these ancient entrenchments or fortifications were the works of the aborigines of the country. It will be recollected that De Soto, and the French authors who succeeded him, nearly twqo centuries afterwards, discovered towns which were well fortified with immense breastworks of timber, around which were cut large ditches. It was easy, within a short space of time, for a few hundred Indians to have cut an immense ditch, or to have thrown up a great mound. The same tools employed in the erection of the latter, certainly the work of the ancient Indians, could well have been used in the cutting of these entrenchments or ditches. Hence, we contend, that at the town of Cahaba, there once existed a large Indian establishment, which was fortified witrh palisades, and that the ditch, which has produced so much modern speculation among the good people of that place, was cut around these plaisades, or rather around the town, having the Alabama river open on one side. There is a ditch near the Talladega Springs, which formerly had trees growing n it, and which surrounds an elevation, embracing a few acres and taking in a beautiful spring which gushes out of the rocks at the side of a hill. * No doubt this, and all other works like it, now frequently seen over the territory at an early period, always dug wells within the fortifications which they made.

* Formerly the property of Henry G. Woodward.

In the month of October, 1850, we visited a remarkable place at the Falls of Little River, situated in the northeasterm corner of Cherokee county, Alabama, and very near the line of De Kalb county, in the same State. What is rather singualr Little Ribver has its source on the top of Lookout Mountain, and runs for many miles on the most elevated parts of it. In the winter and spring it is a straem of considerable size, affording a rapid and dangerous current of water; but when it was seen upon the present occasion, a very protracted drought had nearly dried it up. The river flows along the top of the mountain with very inconsiderable banks, until it raeaches a precipice of solid rock, in the form of a half circle, over which it falls seventy feet perpendicularly, into a basin. After being received in this rock basin, the river flows off without much interruption, and, in winding about, forms a peninsula about two or three hundred yards below the falls. The banks of the river bordering on this peninsula are the same unbroken rock walls which form the falls, and are equally high and bold. Across the neck of the peninsula are yet to be traced two ancient ditches, nearly parallel with each other, and about thirty feet apart in the middle of the curve which they form, though they commence within ten feet of each other upon the upper precipice, and when they have reached the lower precipice are found to run into each other. These ditches have been almost filled up by the effects of time. On their inner sides are rocks piled up and mixed with the dirt which was thrown up in making these entrenchments, indicating them to be of the simplest and rudest Indian origin. The author has seen many such entrenchments in his travels over Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, and hesitates not to say that they are the works of the aborigines of the country.

On one side of the peninsula, and about ten feet below the top of the rock precipice, are four or five small caves, large enough, if square, to form rooms twelve by fourteen feet,. They are separated from each other by strata of rock, two of which resemble pillars, roughly hewn out. Three of them comminicate with each other by means of holes which can be crawled through. These caves open immediately upon the precipice, and from their floors it is at least seventy feet down to the surface o the river. Many persons who have visited this sinualr place, call these "De Soto's Rock Houses." and they have strecthed their imagination to such an extent as to assert that they have distinctly traced his pickaxes in the face of the rocks. There can be no question, however, but that these eaves have been imptroved, to a slight extent, in size and shape, by human labor. But it was the labor of the Red people. Ocaasionally we could see where they smoothed off a point, and leveled the floors by knocking off the uneven places. It was, doubtless, a strong Indian fortification, and long used as a safe retreat when the valleys belwo were overrun by a victorious enemy. The walls are black with smoke, and everything about them bears evidence of constant occupation for years. These caves or rock houses constucted a most admirable defence, especially with the assistance of the walls, at the head of the peninsula. In order to get into the first cave, a person has to pass along a rock passage wide enough for only one man. Below him, on his right, is the awful precipice, and on his left, the rock wall reaching ten feet above his head. A few persons in the first rock house with swords or spears, could keep off an army of one thousand men; for, only one assailant being able to approach the cave at a time, could be instantly despatched and hurled down the abyss below. In regard to the inner walls of the ditches, the author saw no cement among the rocks, although he had heard that that ingredient (never used by Indians) was to be found there.

Upon creeks and rivers in Alabama, where they meander through mountainous regions, are occasionally seen cuttings upon rocks, which have also been improperly attributed to Europeans discoverers. In the county of Tallapoosa, not far below the mouth of the Sougohatchie, and a few miles east from th Tallapoosa river, are cliffs of a singular kind of graying silver ore. The face of these cliffs is literally cut in pieces, by having round pieces taken out of them. The ancient Indians used to resort to this place to obtain materials for manufacturing pipes of large and small sizes and, more particularly, for bowls and other household vessels. They cut out pieces with flint rocks fixed in wooden handles. After working around as deep as they desired, the piece was prized out of the rock. Then they formed it into whatever vessel, toy or implement they pleased. Hence, bowls, small mortars, immense pipes, and various pieces resembling wedeges * in shape, are often ploughed up in the fields in Macon, Tallapoosa and Montgomery, and other counties in Alabama, of precisely the same kind of rock of which these cliffs are composed. The author is also sustained in this position by unquestionable Indian testimony, which has been secured by him.

* These wedges, in appearance, were used by the Indians in dressing their deer skins. They were also used as clubs in war, having handles fixed to them.

A few miles from Elyton, in the county of Jefferson, the author is informed that there stands a large quandrangular mound, about fifty feet high, and flat on the top; that, near its base, are to be seen cuttings in the rock something like mortars, some of which would hold over a gallon. These were done by the Indians, for the limestone rock could easily be worked into any shape by means of flint picks.

The reader has observed that we have often mentioned the published works of Bartram, the botanist, who was in our country just before the Revolutionary War. We now quote from his MS., never published ebtirem but occasionally introduced by Squier in his "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, " Squier embodies in his work the following account, from Bartram's MS., of the "Chunke Yards" of the Creeks and Mucscogees: "They are rectangular areas, generally occupying the centre of the town. The public square and rotunda, or great winter council house, stood at the two opposite coners of them. They are generally very extensive, especially in the large old towns. Some of them are from six hundred to nine hundred feet, in length, and of proportionate breadth. The area is exactly level, and sunk two, and sometimes three, feet below the banks or terraces serve the purposes of seats of spectators. In the centre of this yard or area there is a low circular mound or eminence, in the middle of which stands the Chuck Pole, which is a high obelisk m or four-square pillar, declining upward to an obtuse point. This is of wood, the heart of a sound pitch pine, which is very durable. It is generally from thirty to forty feet in height, and to the top is fastened some object which serves as a mark to shoot at with arrows, or the rifle, at certain appointed times."

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