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date: 24 March 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Mississippian Chiefdoms, 1000–1700

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The pre-Columbian Mississippi Period, extending from 1000 ce 1600 ce, across the American South and parts of the Midwest, encompasses the rise of the Mississippian chiefdoms and the world they made, the history of that world, and its collapse with European contact. The chiefdom concept, as it applies to these ancient polities, helps to outline some of the basic structures of a Mississippian chiefdom. The story really begins, though, with the rise of the great Indian city of Cahokia and the long reach of its influence over a vast region, resulting in a new social, religious, and political ordering across the land, and the formation of numerous small chiefdoms (the Early Mississippi Period, 1000–1300 ce). The fall of Cahokia, around 1300 ce, cleared the way for the elaboration of these early, small chiefdoms and the rise of others throughout the Mississippian world (the Middle Mississippi Period, 1300–1475 ce). Many of these grand Middle Mississippi chiefdoms, in turn, collapsed around 1450 ce. In the wake of this collapse, people regrouped and built new chiefdoms throughout the American South (the Late Mississippi Period, 1475–1600 ce). These are the people that the early Spanish explorers met in the 16th century. Encounters with the Spaniards set in motion a series of colonial disruptions—warfare, disease, and commercial slave raiding that resulted in the complete collapse of the late Mississippian world, never to rise again. However, the survivors of these fallen chiefdoms regrouped and restructured their lives and societies for living in another new world order—this one being a colonial world on the margins of an expanding European empire.