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Mississippian People

Between AD 900 and 1600 a series of stable and prosperous Native American cultures lived in the major river valleys of the Midwest and Southeat. Collectively, scholars refer to these cultures and their material remains as "Mississippian." The fertile river valleys of Alabama's Black Belt proved an ideal environment for Mississippian communities to develop.

Some of these communities were large stockaded towns that served as capitals of regional chiefdoms, like the Moundville site on the Black Warrior River. With their immense earthen mounds and plazas, Mississippian towns formed the focus for Native American political, social, and ceremonial life in this period.

These Mississippian communities practiced flood-plain agriculture. Corn (or maize) was the dominant crop, but other plants such as beans, squash, sump weed, and sunflowers were also cultivated. Native peoples supplemented this agricultural diet with hunting and fishing. Moundville, capital of the Black Warrior, was the second largest Native American ceremonial center of the Mississippian Period, surpassed in size only by Cahokia Mounds in Illinois.

Constructed around AD 1100, Moundville was a walled community that reached its zenith around AD1200. By this time, the great Cahokia chiefdom had declined making Moundville the largest city north of Mexico in the thirteenth century. The community included the homes of artists, skilled craft persons, farmers, hunters, fisherman, aristocrats, and priests. The monds themselves served as platfroms to elevate temples and the homes of Moundville's rulers. In its heyday, Moundville was both political and ceremonial center of a large chiefdom stretching form present-day Tuscaloosa to Demopolis.

In the Mississippian Period these Native Americans possessed one of the richest culture of any group in eastern North American. They possessed a sophisticated system of symbols, and crafted elaborate works of art in varied styles. Far from living in isolation, the Moundville people were participants in warfare, the exchange of knowledge of the supernatural, and vast trading network that stretched across eastern North America.

By the time the Spaniard Hernando de Soto arrived in Alabama in AD 1540, the city was mostly abandoned, its population dispersed to other chiefdoms. During the 150 years following the entry of the Spanish, the remaining Mississippian chiefdoms broke down under the pressure of disease and social disruption brought about by European contract. By the late seventeenth century, the remnants of these chiefdoms coalesced into the tribal indentities that we know today as the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole).

In the years after the American Revolution, settlers began to cross the Appalachians and settle on lands that had been guaraneteed to the Five Civilized Tribes by treaty. These intursions were not accepted peacefully. After a few military successes, the Muskogee/Creek and their allies were defeated in Alabama at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, with the loss of approxiamtely 800 men. This battle marks the permanent end to the political and military power of the Southeastern tribes.

The U.S. Congress later passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, forcing the tribes to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River in return for lands in what are now the states of Arkansas and Oklahoma. While many Native Americans managed to escape this initial removal, thousands of Southeastern Indians were later forcibly relacted west of teh MIssissippi River by 1839, over the "Trail of Tears."

Many of the more than 500,000 modern descendants of the Mississippians create beautiful baskets and ceramics, as well as shell and stone patterns that are directly traceable to the artists of ancient Cahokia, Etowah, Mounville, and Spiro. Every fall season at Moundville, the descendants of the creators of this remarkable site display the results of their sophisticated artisty and celebrate their past and their future in the presence of their ancestors and in the shadow of the ancient mounds.