Tribes of the North Eastern Woodlands part 3

In the final part of his series about the native Indians of North America, Tim Greene concludes the series with a look at those tribes living in the South-east. (view; Part 1 Ohio Valley, Part 2 Great lakes)

Part Three: The South-east

By Tim Greene

South of the Ohio Valley was a region inhabited by some of the most advanced tribes in North America. So much so that when these tribes were later driven west of the Mississippi they became known as the Five Civilised tribes. Despite this the Southeastern tribes were extremely warlike and bitterly resisted both the incursions of the victorious Iroquois and the advance of white power.

Catawba

The Catawba were originally one of a number of Siouan-speaking tribes of the Carolina Piedmont country. During the late 17th Century they absorbed other south-eastern Siouans like the Saponi, the Tutelo, and the Cheraw. They may also have absorbed some non-Siouan groups. All that is known for sure is that by the early 18th Century numerous different languages could be heard in the Catawba towns and they seem to have been an agglomeration of different nations. They allied themselves closely to the Colony of South Carolina and fought staunchly for the British throughout the Colonial Wars in North America. They helped the British destroy French posts along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the French responded by embroiling their Great Lakes allies in constant wars with the Catawbas.

The Iroquois also raided the Catawbas and a bitter, protracted war broke out between the League and the Catawbas who stubbornly refused to be beaten into submission and join the Covenant Chain. This was much to the discomfiture of the British who relied on both tribes as allies. The Catawbas helped South Carolina destroy the Tuscaroras and drove the remanants north into refuge with the Oneida to become the Sixth Nation. They also fought the Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee driving several bands of the latter from North Carolina into Pennsylvania. They were ferocious warriors with a fearsome reputation. Constant warfare and disease steadily reduced their numbers, and usefulness to the British, as the 18th Century wore on.

By the 18th Century the Catawba had been long under British influence. While buckskin garments were still worn most Catawba wore muslin, calico, or linen garments. Breechclouts and leggings were often red or blue wool strouding. Shirts were often calico with complex patterns or muslin or linen. Unlike their neighbours the Catawba men wore their hair long often pulled back into a ponytail style. The roach was apparently not worn.

One of the most distinctive features of the Catawba appearance was the practice of cranial deformation. Their enemies called them the “flatheads” though this custom probably had died out by the mid-18th Century. Simple moccasins were worn on the war trail although the men often went barefoot at home. The Catawba had a very distinctive style of war paint. This consisted of painting the lower face black or red and a white circle around one eye and a black circle around the other. Combined with their deformed skulls the effect must have been terrifying.

Cherokee

The Cherokee were the southernmost of the Iroquoian speaking tribes and their dialect was the most aberrant of the Iroquoian languages. Like their Iroquoian cousins the Cherokee were matrilineal and very warlike. They had a formidable reputation as fighters too, though they seemed to have fared rather poorly against both the Catawbas and the Chickasaws. Warfare with their cousins of the Five Nations was common with the Iroquois as the aggressors and the Cherokee often responding by sending a single warrior north to collect a scalp in answer to an Iroquois raid!

The Cherokee and Shawnee also fought constantly and the honours were about even. The formidable warriors of the Chickasaw, Catawba, and Shawnee aside the Cherokee more than held their own against other enemies and the whites until it became apparent to their sachems that the whites were too powerful to be resisted and they moved West in the 19th Century. The Cherokee usually sided with the British in the North American Wars.

Skin breechclouts of the apron type were universally worn. Knee length leggings could also be worn and in cooler weather a light skin poncho. From the middle of the 18th century European-style cloth shirts were worn. Quillwork was rare. Some floral beadwork was done on pouches and shoulder bags with circular motifs being the most popular. Men shaved their heads except for a roach from front to back on top of the head, often with a fringe of hair along the forehead. The roach was often augmented by opossum or deer hair dyed red or yellow.

Buckskin moccasins were decorated by porcupine quills. The Cherokee often went barefoot and did not do much quillwork so the moccasins may have been obtained through trade. The Cherokee practiced extensive tattooing just like their Iroquois cousins. Symbols such as flowers, animals, and stars were early tattooed on a boy’s arms, torso, and thighs. Warriors used red paint for success, blue for trouble or defeat, black for death, and white for peace and happiness. Red and black were therefore the most popular war colors.

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Chickasaw

If the Great Lakes area was a French stronghold, the South-east was a British one. Probably the most formidable allies the British had in the region were the Chickasaw. These people were closely related to the Choctaws and both tribes have a tradition of having been originally one people. Despite this, by the 18th Century they were bitter enemies, the Choctaws being the main tribe allied to the French in the region while the Chickasaws were staunch British allies who hated the French. In fact, the Chickasaws fought no less than five wars against the French and whipped them every time. They also fought and whipped virtually every other tribe within reach of them particularly the Illinois Confederacy and the Shawnee and Cherokee.

The Chickasaws never lost a war and kept their record perfect by packing up and fleeing West when it became apparent the Whites were too strong for them. They were the only one of the 5 Civilized Tribes to keep most of their horses on the trek west! Like their Creek cousins the Chickasaws were Muskhogean speakers who divided their tribe into two moieties: the White (peace) and Red (war) moiety. Entire towns were either White or Red towns. Some scholars think the Chickasaws may have originally been the Red (war) moiety of the larger Choctaw-Chickasaw tribe. This would account for their extreme proficiency in war.

Deerskin breechclouts were universally worn. In cooler weather a light skin poncho was worn. From the middle of the 18th century European-style cloth shirts were worn. Men shaved their heads except for a roach from front to back on top of the head, often with a fringe of hair along the forehead. They often fastened feathers, the skin of a hawk, or a red bird’s wing to this scalplock. At the crown of the head a large conch-shell bead was sometimes worn.

A skein of threads was sometimes wrapped around the head with the ends hanging down like tassels. Moccasins were made of bear or elk hide. These were smoked to prevent hardening. Like the other South-eastern tribes the Chickasaw often went barefoot. Red, yellow, and white paints were used. War Captains were extensively tattoed. Figures of serpents and similar motifs were popular tattoos.

Choctaw

The Choctaws were close relatives of the formidable Chickasaws. According to tradition the two tribes split when there was an argument during the crossing of the Mississippi River, the Muskhogeans having migrated into the area from the West. Less warlike and more easygoing than their Chickasaw cousins the Choctaws were nonetheless good warriors. They were a numerous people and absorbed remnants of the Natchez, Tunica, Atakapa, and other Mississippi and Louisiana tribes after these were shattered by smallpox and wars with the French in the first quarter of the 18th Century. The Choctaw were staunch French allies and remained loyal to the French until the bitter end.

Breechclouts were simple fitted affairs with front and back flaps. Leggings were seldom worn. From the middle of the eighteenth century European style cloth shirts were worn. Fitted breechclouts of blue strouding were favored. Men wore their hair long. The roach was also worn in a distinctive style, an upright fringe on top which widened at the back to cover the lower part of the head and the back of the neck. Colorful feathers were worn in the hair. Deerskin moccasins decorated with beads and feathers were worn though it was common to go barefoot throughout the Southeast. Like the Catawba, the Choctaw were said to practice head flattening. Men painted themselves with designs of suns, swastikas, and serpents. Tattooing was far less common than it was among the Chickasaw or Cherokee.

Creek

The Creeks were Muskhogean speakers closely related to the Choctaws and Chickasaws. They were not a single tribe but rather a confederacy which absorbed quite a number of alien tribes in the Southeast. Their name comes from the fact that many of their towns were located near the tributaries of rivers in the Southeast. Organized into White (or peace) towns and Red (or war) towns under powerful chiefs the Creeks were highly organized and less individualistic than most other tribes in the Eastern Woodlands, except possibly the Illinois. The Creeks were staunch British allies. They warred among themselves at times and also against the Cherokees.

Fitted breechclouts hanging down in front and behind were worn. Leggings of leather were worn. These were dyed black and laced with white thongs and bordered with fringes of colored leather. Men wore the roach on the front of the head with a braid on each side and the scalplock pulled back through a hair tube hanging behind. Another kind of roach like those of the Choctaw which widened at the back of the head was also worn. A tonsure like a monk’s with a fringe all around the head was worn by some men. Moccasins were made from bison or deer hide. But like the other South-easterners, the Creeks went barefoot often. Creek warriors extensively tattoed themselves with stars, crescents, scrolls, flowers, animals; and sun designs usually placed in the center of the chest. The head, neck, and breast were often painted vermillion.

By the early nineteenth century all the tribes were wearing a lot of cloth manufactured in England or America, especially calicoes and red or blue strouding. Sashes were often woven around the head like a turban.

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Hopefully this series of articles will inspire players to customize and field war parties from specific tribes for the wargames table.

View Part 1: Ohio Valley

View Part 2: Great Lakes