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date: 23 April 2018

The Rise and Fall of Mississippian Ancient Towns and Cities, 1000–1700

Summary and Keywords

The story of the pre-Columbian Mississippi Period (1000 ce–1600 ce) of the American South and parts of the Midwest is the story of the rise of the ancient Mississippian towns and cities and the world they made, the history of that world, and its collapse with European contact. First, however, readers must become acquainted with the chiefdom concept as it applies to these ancient towns and cities in order to outline some of the basic organizing structures of Mississippian political units. The Mississippi Period began 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 polities that archaeologists call “chiefdoms” (the Early Mississippi Period 1000 ce–1300 ce). The fall of Cahokia around 1300 ce cleared the way for the elaboration of these early 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 of warfare, disease, and commercial slave raiding that resulted in another collapse of the Mississippian world, only this time never to rise again. However, the survivors of these fallen chiefdoms regrouped and restructured their lives and societies for living in a new world order—this one being a colonial world on the margins of an expanding European empire.

Keywords: Mississippi Period, chiefdom, Cahokia, Moundville, Etowah, Cofitachequi, Tascalusa, Hernando de Soto, Indian slave trade, Mississippian shatter zone


Around 1000 ce, people living along the middle Mississippi River underwent a dramatic transformation in life—they built one of the largest cities in the world, and they adopted a new world order that mandated a restructuring of their political, social, and religious lives. This new way of life lasted over 600 years, from approximately 1000 ce to 1600 ce, and spread throughout the American South and much of the Midwest. During this time period that archaeologists call the Mississippi Period, most Indians in the region became organized into a particular kind of political organization that anthropologists call “chiefdoms,” or a kind of ranked political order. Our knowledge of the Mississippi Period comes mostly from archaeology, although the documents of the early Spanish explorers who encountered some of the Mississippian chiefdoms are also important sources of information. The people of the Mississippian saw numerous polities rise and fall over its 600-year history, but with European contact this world collapsed, never to rise again. It is important to remember, however, that the survivors of these fallen chiefdoms regrouped and restructured their lives and societies for living in another new world order: a colonial world on the margins of an expanding European empire.

With one important exception, most Mississippian chiefdoms were made from the same building block—the simple chiefdom. Simple chiefdoms were characterized by a two-tiered social ranking of elites and commoners, a civic and religious capital where the elite lineage lived, and five to ten affiliated farming towns in close proximity up and down a river valley. The capital towns often had one or more flat-topped, pyramidal mounds situated around a large, open plaza. The towns were small, with an average population of 350 to 650 people; a simple chiefdom, as a whole, had an average population between 2,800 and 5,400 people. The mico, or chief or chieftainess, lived atop the largest mound in the capital, and lesser people of the chiefly lineage lived on the lesser mounds. Commoners lived in houses circling the mounds and plazas in the capital as well as in the farming towns. A simple chiefdom’s territory usually encompassed about 20 kilometers (12 miles) of a river valley, and a chiefdom was separated from other chiefdoms by about 33 kilometers (20 miles) of uninhabited space, what archaeologists call “buffer zones.”1 In some cases, leaders elaborated on the simple chiefdom by establishing secondary mound towns a few miles away from the capital and instituting a second tier of control; archaeologists refer to this more elaborate polity as a complex chiefdom. Sometimes, simple and complex chiefdoms merged to form larger political units that archaeologists call paramount chiefdoms, which could incorporate many small and complex chiefdoms. Over the 600-year history of the Mississippian way of life, many simple, complex, and paramount chiefdoms rose and fell. This rising and falling, or cycling, was an internal dynamic common to Mississippian chiefdoms, and the life span of a typical chiefdom, no matter its size, was about 150 to 200 years.2

The ritual and political gear of the Mississippian people constitutes some of the most important pre-Columbian artwork in America. Craftspeople used an assortment of stone, clay, mica, copper, shell, feathers, paints, and fabric to fashion a brilliant array of ceremonial items such as headdresses, beads, cups, masks, statues, cave art, ceramic wares, ceremonial weaponry, necklaces and earrings, and figurines. Many of these ritual items are decorated with a specific repertoire of motifs, such as the hand-and-eye motif, the falcon warrior, bi-lobed arrows, severed heads, spiders, rattlesnakes, and mythical beings (Figure 1).3

The Rise and Fall of Mississippian Ancient Towns and Cities, 1000–1700Click to view larger

Figure 1. Copper repoussée plate representing the warrior deity “Birdman,” from Etowah. Courtesy of Anthropology Department, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USNM Number A91117.

War iconography, in particular, is prevalent on much Mississippian artwork, indicating that warfare was important and imbued all aspects of daily life. The palisaded towns that typically lay on a chiefdom’s borders and the large buffer zones also suggest that warfare was not just important but probably endemic.4

This artwork represents the iconography of religious and political ideologies, and archaeologists have gone far in deciphering the meanings behind the objects. Archaeologists do not necessarily understand these objects to represent a unified religion for the Mississippian world but rather a set of basic concepts and principles used by various polities. In other words, there probably was not one religion for the whole of the Mississippian world for 600 years but rather several religions deriving from a core set of fundamental beliefs and assumptions.5 Perhaps the most fundamental concept was that of the cosmos. The cosmos was believed to comprise three worlds: the Above World and the Below World, which were opposites, and the Middle World, or This World—the world of humans. The Above World epitomized perfect order; it was clear, with no uncertainty. The Below World was a place of inversion, ambiguity, and uncertainty. The Above and Below Worlds were complementary halves of a whole, and This World stood somewhere between the two. Like a multilayered cake, the Above World and Below World were subdivided into tiers or levels, and each level was home to specific deities and supernatural beings. Mythic warriors in particular figured prominently in Mississippian religions and underscored the reverence for warfare.6 The boundaries between the worlds were porous, however, and deities, mythic beings, and even humans who had acquired supernatural abilities could travel among cosmic levels.

Mississippian religion also underwrote elite authority, and the elites represented the highest religious authorities as well as the political leaders. Archaeologists are uncertain about the extent and nature of a mico's authority and power. They generally agree that the chiefly elite constituted a centralized political body and that those members held permanent, inherited offices of high rank and authority, with the mico holding the highest office. But it appears that an elite's consolidation of power varied over time from one chiefdom to another and spanned the continuum from autocratic power to simply being the first among equals.

Chiefdoms operated through a mixed economy of hunting, gathering, fishing, trading, and agriculture. The chiefly elite sponsored traders who maintained far-flung trade networks through which they exchanged exotic goods such as copper, shell, mica, high-grade stones like flint, and other materials, which were then fashioned by elite-sponsored artisans into the emblems of power, prestige, and religious authority. Everyday needs came from the local environments. Although people in the South had been growing maize, or corn, and other crops for almost 2,000 years when the Mississippian world emerged, corn, in particular, came to provide the basic caloric intake and foodstuff for Mississippian people, and they began to grow it intensively.

The geographic extent of Mississippian polities conforms to the parameters of intensive corn agriculture. These polities were found from the Atlantic coast to present-day eastern Texas and eastern Oklahoma, from the Gulf coast to present-day St. Louis and into the Ohio River Valley, and up the Atlantic seaboard into present-day Virginia. Not all Mississippian chiefdoms across this vast region, however, were alike. There were polities of various sizes, complexity, ideological convictions, centralized governances, and cultural expressions, although archaeologists have yet to map out each of these expressions. Archaeologists have come to agree that Mississippian chiefdoms, no matter how varied, were bound together in what could be called the “Mississippian world.” Generally speaking, one can define a “world” as the various polities within a defined time and geographic space, and the network of political, economic, cultural, and social relationships that exist between these polities. As we will see, such a “world” is not a discrete unit; its borders are porous, and it is often connected to distant places.

Cahokia and the Rise of the Mississippian World (1000–1300 ce)

The Mississippian world began around 1050 ce with the rise of a polity that does not wholly conform to the chiefdom pattern—Cahokia. Cahokia was one of the grandest cities of its time and one of the most powerful and influential polities to exist in pre-Columbian North America. Cahokia, part of which is today a state park, is located on the large floodplains of the Mississippi River, just east of present-day St. Louis in an area known as the American Bottoms. The city emerged almost overnight from a dense concentration of small-scale, village farmers in the region. People from a variety of regions and cultures had been drawn to the area undoubtedly because of the rich, alluvial floodplain soils and perhaps because it was a place of relative peace, with little of the raiding between villages that was typical of other places in the eastern woodlands at this time.7

Cahokia served to unify the disparate, independent farming towns of the American Bottoms, but what was the impetus for doing so? Archaeologists are not in agreement over why these farmers decided to unite; they point to a variety of ecological, economic, religious, and political factors. One thing they do agree on though is that Cahokia burst on the scene—the city was planned, quickly built, and the building of this city enacted a new world order, a new vision of how the world and the cosmos worked. The building of Cahokia, then, signaled a dramatic transformation in life—the religious, political, and social lives of these farmers and others were changed forever.8

At its height, the city of Cahokia spread over 14.5 square kilometers, and its influence swept up and down the Mississippi River and into the interior South and Midwest for hundreds of miles.

The city itself was composed of over 120 earthen mounds, the largest being Monks Mound, which measures 5 hectares at its base and is about 30.5 meters (100 feet) tall. Remarkably, it still stands today. The city was characterized by three ritual precincts with mounds, plazas, and elite households and had between 10,000 and 15,000 citizens, including elite artists, traders, administrators, military leaders, and priests, among others. They also built the so-called woodhenge—a large circle of upright posts aligned with celestial reckoning and most likely used for astronomical sightings. In addition, over a dozen single- and multiple-mound towns grew up around the city, and they most likely fell under Cahokia’s control.9 A cadre of local farmers provisioned the city, providing agricultural foodstuffs and perhaps other items such as wild meats, furs, forest products, and gathered plants.10 The city of Cahokia also represented a new religious ordering, one wherein the elites were divinely ordained. The most dramatic rendering of this new religion was in the burial practices of elite Cahokians as seen at the famous Mound 72. Mound 72, located in Cahokia proper, was the burial site of elites and dozens of sacrificial victims, along with thousands of finely crafted grave goods. Mound 72 apparently was integral to a grand, staged reenactment of a sacred myth about the godly warrior Red Horn and his twin.11 Cahokia attracted migrants from far and wide, and Cahokia’s political and religious elite devised rituals, ceremonies, and other mechanisms to integrate these outsiders into the Cahokian fold.

Cahokia reached its height around 1200 ce, and during its heyday, Cahokia’s influence spread far and wide, resulting in what archaeologists call the “Mississippianization” of the American South and much of the Midwest. People living in heretofore independent farming villages blended their lives with these new ideas, institutionalizing hereditary elite leadership as well as a class of priestly elites. They also rebuilt their cities and towns to mimic Cahokia, with central elite precincts characterized by the presence of one to several large, flat-topped earthen mounds on which local elites built large homes and expansive public plazas with a central pole representing the cosmic central axis connecting the Above World, This World, and the Below World.12 Although Cahokia could arguably be called a state, archaeologists understand the new kinds of polities that emerged from Cahokia’s influence to have been chiefdoms.

While still functioning, Cahokia undoubtedly served as the center of this new world, diminishing any and all rivals. The Mississippianization of the American South, then, did not result in a fluorescence of other Cahokias. Rather, during this time (known as the Early Mississippi Period, 900 ce–1200 ce), the polities that arose reflected Cahokia but on a smaller scale: the mounds and polities were significantly smaller than those at Cahokia, and the elite control over local populations does not appear to have been as total as that at Cahokia. This is not to say that local leaders had no political and social ambitions. Rather, it appears that Cahokia’s leaders managed to tamp the ambitions of elites from these distant chiefdoms either through religious ideologies, military strength or threat, or some other mechanism. Therefore, despite any ambitions of local elite rulers, during Cahokia’s height, other chiefdoms throughout the region remained relatively small and fairly unimpressive, compared to Cahokia. However, Cahokia offered something no local leader could guarantee—peace. In fact, archaeologists suggest that with the rise of Cahokia, a peace settled over the land, a pax Cahokia, or a nonaggression pact among the true believers of the new faith. The lack of defensive palisades around most of the capital towns of these Early Mississippian chiefdoms testifies to a lack of, or at least low levels of, neighboring hostilities.13

Cahokia also laid the foundation for much of the history of the Mississippian world because one can discern some structures of this world that began with its rise. These are the chiefdom political order with its hereditary elite leadership, an explicit architectural grammar of mounds, plazas, and house architecture emphasizing elite order, an intensive corn agriculture mixed with the hunting and gathering, matrilineal kinship and extended kin networks of clans and moieties, a three-world belief system and associated deities, and the reverence for warfare.

Around 1250 ce, Cahokia went into a hundred-year decline. By 1350 ce, the metropole and most of the associated secondary centers were abandoned, and people scattered to parts unknown, not to return to the region until well after European contact. Archaeologists are not in agreement as to why Cahokia declined. They have pointed to factors such as climate changes and resultant decreases in agricultural outputs, depletion of wood and other environmental degradations, collapse of the religious order, political discord, and divisive ethnic factionalism.14

The Middle Mississippi Period (1300–1475 ce)

With the fall of Cahokia, people fled from the American Bottoms, and archaeologists have not been able to determine their destination. Perhaps most puzzling is the fact that the memory of Cahokia also vanished. Later people did not tell tales of a once magnificent city in their oral traditions passed down and recorded by early Europeans, nor is Cahokia represented in later iconography.15 As Cahokia began its decline, the mechanisms that truncated local ambitions also disappeared, and elite leaders throughout the Mississippian world took the opportunity to exert their own strength. We see striking elaborations on Early Mississippian chiefdoms and the rise of new simple and grand complex chiefdoms. Archaeologists call this the Middle Mississippi Period (1200–1475 ce). Today many of these Middle Mississippian chiefdoms, considered classic Mississippian, are known only by their archaeological names—Moundville, Etowah, Spiro, Irene, Rembert, Town Creek, Bottle Creek, Lake George, and Winterville, to name but a few. These chiefdoms were still grounded in the true faith that originated from Cahokia, as evidenced in their elaborate mortuary iconography, but in time these beliefs began to take on local variations. In other words, some fundamental beliefs and ways of life persisted across chiefdoms, but varying interpretations of these beliefs and variations in life emerged.16 Hostilities also began to rise, and the elites commanded the building of tall palisades, moats, and other defensive measures to protect their capitals and towns from enemies.

Of the Middle Mississippian chiefdoms Moundville and Etowah are perhaps the best known. Moundville, which is today an archaeological park, is located near present-day Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on the Black Warrior River (Figure 2).

The Rise and Fall of Mississippian Ancient Towns and Cities, 1000–1700Click to view larger

Figure 2. Arial view of Moundville Archaeological State Park, showing the temple mound, the plaza, and the surrounding mounds. Moundville Archaeological State Park. Photo by Altairisfar, public domain.

Moundville’s history is one of small beginnings, multiple transformations, and decline. Around 1120–1250 ce, local farming communities along the Black Warrior fused their local ways with Mississippian influences from Cahokia that were infiltrating the interior lower South at the time. Although retaining much about their life before these Mississippian influences, the people built a simple chiefdom and a capital town with two small mounds, instituted social ranking, and intensified their corn production, although most people still lived in the surrounding farm communities.17

Then, around 1200 ce, just before Cahokia began its decline, the elites at Moundville consolidated their power and elaborated their capital town. People from the surrounding countryside moved to the capital, swelling the population to around one thousand. The residents of the capital then undertook to build the 57-foot-high Mound B, the largest mound at the site, and atop of which the mico and his or her family lived. Mound B fronted a large central plaza around which were arranged an additional twenty-one smaller flat-topped mounds, each paired with a conical burial mound. These paired mounds most likely represent the households and burials of ranked elite lineages, with those most closely related to the mico closer to Mound B. An impressive wooden palisade encircled the town for defense. The rapidity with which the new capital was built indicates that it was a planned community; in addition, any vestiges of old local cultural elements gave way to pure Mississippian ones. Pottery styles changed completely, as did house construction, among other things. Archaeologists interpret this event to signal a social and political reordering at Moundville where the elites expanded their influence, consolidated their power, and invested in place. One measure of this can be seen in the affiliated secondary mound centers that were established along the Black Warrior River, probably to facilitate the flow of tribute to the elites at the capital.18

A century later, around 1300 ce, the people of Moundville once again underwent a radical social shift. A large portion of the residents left the capital, many of the mounds were abandoned, and the palisade was left to rot. The former residents moved into the countryside, into the extant secondary centers, and into new ones they built, indicating a dispersal of political power.

A small cadre of priestly elites stayed in the capital where they apparently oversaw the burial of those elites who had taken their residence at the other centers. Upon death, however, these elites were returned to the capital to be interred with numerous luxury and symbolic goods associated with warfare, death, and ancestors. The capital, then, had become, essentially, a cemetery for the hierarchy, or a necropolis. In short, the capital town, though the site of important mortuary rituals, was no longer the center of power. Then after about 1400 ce, people stopped burying their dead at the former capital, and they quit manufacturing the religious icons for the burials. This abrupt end to a century-long tradition may indicate that the people in the region lost faith in their religion, or in their religious and political leaders, or both. Only a few families remained at the former capital; most people now lived in simple, apparently independent, one-mound chiefdoms along the Black Warrior. The former capital had by now lost all its glory.19

Etowah, located in present-day northwest Georgia on the Etowah River and now a state park, was contemporaneous with Moundville. Although their histories have some similarities, the two polities were quite distinct. Around 1000 ce, this region was populated by distinct social groupings of farming towns. The towns were mostly fortified with palisades indicating a high level of raiding and warfare. Between 1100 and 1200 ce, however, a social movement centered on efforts to knit these disparate groups together into a unified polity swept through the Etowah River Valley. People came together to build a small capital town with two modest mounds (Mounds A and B). Archaeologists have also uncovered much evidence for community feasting at the site at this time, indicating that in its beginnings the capital was the center for ceremonies designed to build community solidarity and cohesion (Figure 3).

The Rise and Fall of Mississippian Ancient Towns and Cities, 1000–1700Click to view larger

Figure 3. Seated male and kneeling female marble statures from Etowah. Photo by Heironymous Rowe, Creative Commons License, CC BY-SA 3.0.

An elite hierarchy emerged at this time, but they focused on integrating these disparate, warring groups into a unified polity.20 Wide acceptance of the three-worlds ideology fueled a coalescence between the groups, and elites no doubt served as proseltyzing priests, promoting a new worldview that mandated leadership by those in a divine kinship line. The elites at Etowah soon established two small, secondary mound communities along the Etowah River.21

Curiously and for reasons unknown, around 1200 ce, people abandoned Etowah and the secondary centers as well as other sites along the Etowah River Valley. When people returned in 1250 ce, they embarked on a new social and political reordering. Over the next decades, people elaborated on the capital city of Etowah as well as the secondary centers. At the capital, citizens significantly enlarged the existing mounds and built a third mound (Mound C) as well as a large plaza and palisade. Mound A, especially, grew to tower over the town at approximately 60 feet high. Mound C served as a burial mound for the elites of the polity, who were buried with some of the most elaborate and artistic grave goods in North America.

Archaeologists interpret this elaboration of the capital with an emphasis on elites to indicate a move away from consolidating disparate groups to an intensification and solidification of elite power, prestige, and authority. These elites also expanded their influence by refurbishing the old secondary centers and building or incorporating others up and down the Etowah River.22

Then, sometime between 1325 and 1375 ce, the capital was abandoned, the palisades burned, and the stone statues representing the ancestry unceremoniously tossed off of Mound C. The capital was apparently raided, sacked, and desecrated, although who attacked or why is not known. The former capital remained empty for about a hundred years, with a small population returning around 1475 ce, when they put a new mantle on Mound B.23 These new residents did no further elaborations, and the former capital of Etowah, like that of Moundville, never again reached its former glory.

That Etowah and Moundville declined around the same time is noteworthy. In fact, other grand and lesser chiefdoms throughout the Mississippian world also fell or were diminished around this time. This upheaval in the Mississippian world may have been precipitated by a prolonged drought. Between 1375 and 1475 ce, much of North America came under a massive drought that most likely stretched across the continent. The drought would have seriously impacted Mississippian agriculture, undermining the subsistence economy. In addition, the power of the elite rested, in part, on acquiring and controlling any surplus agricultural foodstuffs for festivals, large gatherings, and emergencies such as crop failure. The drought most likely entailed successive crop failures over several years, stressing the food stores as well as the political stability of an elite lineage. Equally important, such a drought would have strained the faith of the true believers—they would have questioned the abilities of their divine elites to manage the three worlds. The lines of leadership in Mississippian politics were multiple and gave ample opportunity for contesting successions to office. This was especially so during times of stress and during succession to the chieftainship.24 The drought, then, undoubtedly contributed to political instability through widespread famine, social discontent, and religious crisis, all of which also would have exacerbated existing tensions and hostilities between chiefdoms, which could account for the attack at Etowah that resulted in its abandonment.

The Late Mississippi Period (1475–1600 ce)

Although chiefdoms across the South fell during the drought, this did not spell the end of the Mississippian world, and by the end of the drought, new chiefdoms were arising. This is the period of the Late Mississippi (1475–1600 ce). We have a better sense of Late Mississippian history than earlier times because early Spanish explorers such as Hernando de Soto, Tristán de Luna, and Juan Pardo, in the mid-16th century, penetrated into the interior, and the documents from these expeditions, though quite fragmentary, recorded many details about the Native world they saw.25

Figure 4 presents a map of the Late Mississippian world that Hernando de Soto encountered, compiled from archaeological and documentary records, featuring the known polities in existence at the time of the de Soto expedition c. 1540 (Figure 4). Recent estimates of the population of the Mississippian world at the time of contact put the figure at around a half million people.26 As shown in Figure 4, these half million people were organized into dozens of chiefdoms, and some had joined together into complex and paramount chiefdoms. Although some of the Late Mississippian chiefdoms were quite impressive, none matched those of the Middle Mississippi Period in size and grandeur.

The Rise and Fall of Mississippian Ancient Towns and Cities, 1000–1700Click to view larger

Figure 4. The Mississippian world, showing the Route of Hernando de Soto, c. 1540. Map drawn by author.

Canvassing the whole of the Late Mississippian world, one can also see differences in the chiefdoms themselves. For example, the frontiers of the Mississippian world look different from the heart of this world. The northern and western frontiers of the Mississippian world were home to small, simple chiefdoms. To the south and east, the Mississippian world is bordered by the Gulf and Atlantic oceans. Although the coastal regions could support larger chiefdoms as seen by the Middle Mississippian Bottle Creek site on the Gulf coast and the Irene site on the Atlantic coast, during the Late Mississippi Period, small chiefdoms dotted the coastlines. In the present-day Florida panhandle, however, one paramount chiefdom existed at the time of de Soto’s entrada, Apalachee. South of here, in the Florida peninsula, though, the Indian polities look somewhat different—they were small, independent hierarchical chiefdoms, but they grew very little corn because of the sandy soils.27 Those in the interior also showed much variation, ranging from simple, weakly centralized polities, to complex, strongly centralized polities, to paramount chiefdoms that integrated several polities into a single loosely organized political unit.

Combining the archaeological and documentary evidence for the mid-16th century, we can highlight the encounters between the early Spanish explorers and two Mississippian chiefdoms—Cofitachequi, located in present-day South Carolina, and Tascalusa, located in present-day central Alabama—in order to provide a glimpse into the geopolitics of the interior South in the mid- to late 16th century. Hernando de Soto had heard about Cofitachequi soon after the expedition landed in present-day Florida, and de Soto believed he would find gold, pearls, and other wealth there. That is why he determined to move northeast from Florida, to find Cofitachequi. After departing from the province of Ocute on the Oconee River in present-day Georgia, de Soto and his expedition passed through an expansive uninhabited zone around the Savannah River for seventeen days before coming to the first towns of Cofitachequi around the beginning of May 1540.28 Archaeologists believe that Cofitachequi was a paramount chiefdom that administered a territory of large towns and hamlets along the lower Wateree watershed, centered most likely at the Mulberry site near present-day Camden, South Carolina.29 The uninhabited zone, which had been abandoned after the 1450 ce drought, served as a buffer zone between the chiefdom and Ocute. Cofitechequi was ruled by a woman, known to us today only as the “Lady of Cofitechequi.” Her niece served as royal envoy, and she met de Soto at the river crossing into her town in a large canoe outfitted with a fancy awning, ladies in waiting, and a retinue of soldiers. Although the Lady of Cofitechequi proffered her hand in friendship, de Soto and his men repaid her kindness by raiding the sacred ossuary where the bones and grave goods of the elites were kept and kidnapping the chieftainess, forcing her to accompany the Spaniards to guarantee safe passage through her lands. De Soto traversed her polity, but the Lady of Cofitachequi escaped with the help of one of de Soto’s African slaves, who accompanied her in her escape.30

About twenty years later, when Juan Pardo traveled into the lower Piedmont, he, too, encountered Cofitachequi in the same location reported by members of the de Soto expedition. At the time of the Pardo expedition (1566–1568 ce), the polity was composed of the chiefdoms of Cofitachequi, Guatari (on the middle Yadkin River), and Joara (on the upper Catawba River).31 From the Pardo accounts, it is obvious that the lower Piedmont was still densely inhabited even though some sort of political reshuffling had occurred since de Soto’s visit in 1540. Cofitachequi appears to have still been intact, although in a somewhat diminished form, and perhaps no longer representing a paramount chiefdom within the region. The seat of power seems to have been shifting from Cofitachequi to the previously subordinate chiefdoms of Joara and Guatari. Archaeologists surmise that Cofitachequi's paramountcy prior to 1540 inhibited the political ambitions of chiefs along its borders. By 1567, though, Cofitachequi was significantly diminished, and Joara and Guatari were flourishing. The de Soto records hint that introduced disease was present in Cofitachequi prior to 1540, perhaps having traveled from the coast where earlier European sailors had encountered Native people and possibly transmitted lethal diseases.32

This development could help explain the changing political fortunes, since a deadly disease outbreak would certainly have strained chiefly authority. Nevertheless, the dense Native population in 1567 indicates that any disease episode was probably a localized event. De Soto’s presence could also have precipitated such political changes in the region, especially if these challenges came directly on the heels of a major disease episode. Conversely, as we have seen, such shifts were common enough in the Mississippian world, and they may have derived purely from existing agencies and processes within Native communities.

In early October 1540, after passing through the paramount chiefdom of Coosa which stretched from present-day eastern Tennessee into central Alabama, de Soto’s army crossed into the chiefdom of Tascalusa. By all accounts, Tascalusa was a powerful chief. His chiefdom, Tascalusa, was most likely on the upper Alabama River in present-day Alabama, just south of its confluence with the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers. The capital was likely the Charlotte Thompson mound site.33 Tascalusa is most famous for his orchestration of a surprise attack against de Soto at the palisaded town of Mabila. Although Tascalusa and his allies did not destroy the Spanish expedition in this attack, they did succeed in doing them much harm, killing and wounding a number of the soldiers, killing several horses, and destroying many of their supplies. In hindsight, one can also see that they succeeded in pushing the Spaniards out of their provinces.34

Through use of archaeological evidence, the history of Tascalusa and the other polities in central Alabama can be partially reconstructed. The upper Alabama River and lower Tallapoosa River were only sparsely occupied during the Middle Mississippi Period. Instead, populations at this time were congregated in the grand Middle Mississippian sites such as Etowah, Moundville, and Bottle Creek (located in the Mobile-Tensaw delta region). However, as has been noted, all of these large Middle Mississippian polities failed sometime in the late 15th century. Groups from these fallen chiefdoms and elsewhere began to congregate in the upper Alabama and lower Tallapoosa river basins. Recent archaeological investigations indicate that the chiefdoms of Talisi, Tascalusa, Mabila, and Piachi, in present-day central Alabama, were multilingual, heterogenous polities wherein the descendants of people from various fallen Middle Mississippian chiefdoms had forged new political and social identities and lived side by side in the same towns.35 In addition, Tascalusa may have been in the process of putting together his own paramountcy at the time of de Soto’s visit by building an alliance with the adjacent polities of Mabila and perhaps Piachi to the west and by enticing the polity of Talisi, which lay on Tascalusa’s eastern boundary, away from the paramount chiefdom of Coosa with whom it was aligned at the time.36

These examples from Tascalusa and Cofitachequi demonstrate something of the historical dynamics and geopolitical jockeying of Mississippian chiefdoms. These chiefdoms were not isolated polities; rather, they were woven together through alliance, animosity, kinship, migration, and marriage into a distinctive, vibrant, intriguing pre-Columbian world that constituted part of the antiquity of the American South. One hundred fifty years later, with European contact, the Mississippian world that these early explorers witnessed would be in collapse, never to arise again, the polities gone and the survivors regrouping and restructuring their lives into yet another kind of new world.

Contact and the Collapse of the Late Mississippian World (1540–1700 ce)

After the Spanish entradas of the 16th century, many of the interior chiefdoms in the South did not have direct contact with Europeans for over 130 years; yet those later Europeans saw something quite different than what de Soto, Luna, and Pardo had observed. Gone were the multiple chiefdoms, replaced by the large coalescent societies with which we are more familiar—the Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Catawbas, among others. Between 1540 and 1700, with increasing European contact, colonialism destabilized and endangered the Native South , creating what scholars have called the Mississippian shatter zone. Certainly, de Soto’s march through the Mississippian world can account for some of this instability. De Soto and his men represented a formidable military force, and in the cases of those chiefdoms that experienced intense combat, the direct military assault of the Spanish may have precipitated their collapse. In addition, de Soto’s prolonged stay and ransacking of the region for food would have seriously depleted local stores and, as in the 1450 ce drought, created civil and religious unrest that could have initiated political declines.37 Undoubtedly, disease also played a dastardly role in shattering the Mississippian world. Most scholars agree that the introduction of Old World diseases resulted in the loss of much Native life. In recent years, the idea that disease alone was responsible for the dramatic loss of Indian life in the first hundred or so years after contact has come into question. Today, scholars agree that a demographic collapse of over 90% of the Indian population occurred, but they do not see disease as the sole cause. Scholars point to contributing factors such as slaving and increased warfare, and they understand this loss of life to have occurred not in a generation but over about 200 years.38

In addition, in present-day north Florida and south Georgia, the Spanish established St. Augustine and Catholic monks set about converting Native communities to Christianity and attempting to incorporate them into the Spanish empire as Spanish peasants. Native communities in “La Florida” became a blend of Spanish and Indian life. Native life, however, was not rosy co-existence—harsh labor regimes, Spanish meddling in local politics, and resentments against the monks lead to periodic Indian revolts against the Spaniards for the next 150 years. Certainly, the Spanish expeditions of the 16th century, the introduction of Old World diseases, and the Spanish presence in La Florida impacted Native life, but it was the mid-17th-century introduction of a new economic system ushered in by a commercial trade in Indian slaves and guns that completed the constellation of forces that created the Mississippian shatter zone and transformed the Mississippian world. As soon as English, French, and Dutch settlers landed on North American shores, they set about the business of making money, and they brought with them strong commercial connections in a nascent global economy. The initial form of this commerce was a trade in Indian slaves and armaments. The result was the spread of militarized slaving societies across the South, who were engaged as trading partners with European slavers to capture Indian slaves to trade for guns and other European goods. Out-of-control slave raiding and intra-Indian violence that lasted for almost eighty years resulted in the widespread dislocation, migration, amalgamation, and, in some cases, extinction of Native peoples.39

Cofitachequi and the other lower Piedmont chiefdoms were some of the first polities to feel the effects of slavers, and by 1670 Cofitechequi and the other polities, besieged by armed Indian slave raiders working for Virginia and Carolina traders, were in a process of dispersal and coalescence. However, unlike in former times when new chiefdoms would emerge from the fall of polities, these new societies did not reconstitute the elite hierarchies and the impressive mound capitals. Instead, they were structured along more egalitarian, town-governance orders, and the people quit building mounds. By 1675, Cofitachequi was gone, and refugees from Indian slavers were pouring into the lower Catawba River Valley, where they would eventually form the Catawbas of the 18th century.40 As slaving spread, the interior chiefdoms also came under assault. The paramount chiefdom of Coosa broke apart, with some migrating south into present-day central Alabama. In the early 18th century, they would join the Creek Confederacy as the Abihka towns.41 Meanwhile, the chiefdoms in present-day central Alabama that had allied to defeat de Soto—Mabila, Piachi, and Tascalusa—also began to break apart. Some of the survivors moved south to the Mobile Bay area, and many moved to the northern Alabama River, where they also would become part of the Creek Confederacy as the Alabama towns. The Alabamas then began absorbing refugees from present-day Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi as survivors fled slavers and their failed chiefdoms. Along the Tallapoosa River, local populations soon abandoned their chiefly ways. They, too, began taking in refugees and came to form the Tallapoosa towns of the Creek Confederacy.42

Refugees also fled to the functioning polities along the lower Chattahoochee River, where the local chiefdoms soon also quit building mounds and organized themselves into an egalitarian, town-centered form of governance. They became known as the Apalchicola towns of the Creek Confederacy. Some of the people from these fallen polities may have migrated west, into present-day south-central Mississippi, where they joined with other refugees from the north and south to form the Choctaws.43

The coalescent society known as the Chickasaws also formed during this time. The Chickasaws were the descendants of a polity on the Tombigbee River called Chicaza. De Soto spent the winter of 1540–1541 at Chicaza. After the encounter with de Soto, the people of Chicaza began a series of migrations that led them away from the Tombigbee River and eventually into the vicinity of present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, where they established several towns along nonchiefdom lines.44 Once there, they became known as the Chickasaws, and by the early 18th century, they had entered into trade agreements with Carolina and had become militarized slavers, slaving across the lower South and destabilizing much of the region.45

At the time of the de Soto expeditions, the lower Mississippi River Valley was home to some of the most powerful, populous, and impressive chiefdoms through which the Spaniards had passed. About 135 years later, French explorers paddling down the Mississippi only encountered the Quapaws, the Tunicas, and the Natchez. Shockwaves from the Indian and European trade system had penetrated far beyond the Atlantic seaboard and affected Native polities on the Mississippi River, setting in motion a sequence of events, movements, opportunities, and failures that changed Indian life well before the French and their Indian allies canoed down river. The lower Mississippi Valley chiefdoms were now gone, the people apparently fleeing south and west. The Quapaws, who were relatively recent arrivals, having been forced out of the Ohio River Valley by armed Iroquois raiders, settled at the now-vacant mouth of the Arkansas River. Unlike other chiefdoms, the Natchez, in present-day Natchez, Mississippi, managed to retain their Mississippian political order through these tumultuous years, at least for a while.46

In addition to the Chickasaws, the other coalescent societies also sought trade agreements with Europeans, and they entered into slaving partnerships with both the English and the French. Slaving intensified across the South, impacting any remaining Mississippian polities. The simple chiefdoms along the Gulf coast suffered tremendously from slaving, with many becoming extinct and the survivors clustering into small towns close to the French. The chiefdoms in Spanish Florida, which had survived into the early 18th century, took the brunt of the slaving avalanche, and by 1710 most of Florida’s Native inhabitants were enslaved, had fled, or sought refuge with the Spanish.47 The sole remaining Mississippian chiefdom was Natchez. By 1730, however, it would be extirpated after a disastrous war with the French.48

When the Mississippian world collapsed, new kinds of Native polities and a new world emerged. Native South polities were now structured along lines that proved quite adaptable to the new global economic stage, and they developed a deep connection with Europeans, Africans, and the global networks they represented. Thus, the Mississippian world was transformed into the colonial world of the American South.

Discussion of the Literature

Archaeological research on the Mississippi Period is expansive and covers over a century of excavations and research, although modern archaeology can be said to have begun in the mid-20th century. Understanding of the pre-Columbian Southeast has undergone numerous paradigm shifts over this century, resulting in publications scattered in various journals, reports, anthologies, and books over decades. A good synopsis of this complicated history is Jay K. Johnson’s Development of Southeastern Archaeology.49 Two recent syntheses of the current state of Mississippian archaeology can serve as excellent guides to the most up-to-date literature: these are John Blitz, “New Perspectives in Mississippian Archaeology” and David G. Anderson and Kenneth E. Sassaman, “Mississippian Complexity and Contact Coalescence.”50

Whereas earlier archaeological scholarship concentrated on material culture and processes, today archaeologists examine the material record for what it can tell us about such things as human agency, ritual, ideas, and meaning, alongside what it can tell us about ecology, economy, politics, and social organization. The resultant interpretive frame is more historical and articulates structures of the longue durée with the event, human agency, and meaning in exciting and innovative ways. As part of this work, several publications reconstruct the histories of Mississippian centers and sites such as Cahokia, Moundville, and Etowah. Through these works, a new major understanding of the Mississippian has arisen—namely, that Mississippian polities show both important structural similarities and a tremendous amount of diversity across space and time. These works are too numerous to mention, but some notable ones are David G. Anderson, The Savannah River Chiefdoms; John H. Blitz, Ancient Chiefdoms of the Tombigbee; David J. Hally, King; Adam King, Etowah; Vernon James Knight Jr., Mound Excavations at Moundville; Patrick C. Livingood, Mississippian Polity and Politics on the Gulf Coastal Plain; Vernon James Knight Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, eds., Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom; Timothy Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians and Cahokia; Amanda L. Regnier, Reconstructing Tascalusa's Chiefdom; Marvin T. Smith, Coosa; and Gregory D. Wilson, The Archaeology of Everyday Life at Early Moundville.51

Archaeologists have also developed some major breakthroughs in the interpretation of Mississippian artwork and symbolism and how religion and ideology intersected with the lived experiences of ancient people of the Southeast. This work is ongoing, but the foundations of this scholarship are in F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber, eds., Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms, and George E. Lankford, F. Kent Reilly III, and James F. Garber, eds., Visualizing the Sacred.52 In 2004, the Art Institute of Chicago published a catalog for their magnificent exhibit of Southeastern Indian art, much of which was from the Mississippi Period. The catalog presents beautiful, oversized photographs of the art as well as informed essays by the leaders in Southeastern Indian iconography studies. The book is Richard F. Townsend and Robert V. Sharp, eds., Hero, Hawk, and the Open Hand.53

Finally, for diverse conceptual and methodological reasons, early scholars did not show interest in the connections between Etowah, Moundville, and the other Mississippian chiefdoms and the Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Choctaws, and Catawbas of the colonial era. Charles Hudson’s The Southeastern Indians epitomizes this lack of historicity to the Native South. Hudson, though, later criticized this approach and insisted that archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians should appreciate the antiquity of Southern history and question the line between so-called prehistory and history. Hudson set a Mississippian benchmark for doing so in his masterpiece Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun. He then went on to formulate the basic questions that one must ask in order to stitch together the ancient South to the modern South in Forgotten Centuries and The Transformation of the Southeastern Indians.54 Since then, some important works have explored this transformation. Patricia Galloway, in Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700, was the first to attempt to make sense of collapse and coalescence.55 Then, the contours of the commercial trade in Indian slaves in North America were revealed when Alan Gallay published The Indian Slave Trade, giving Native South scholars a new window onto the dramatic disturbances that occurred with contact.56 Robbie Ethridge, in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, developed the concept of the Mississippian shatter zone in order to provide a framework for thinking about the collapse and restructuring of Native life in the context of widespread, destructive commercial slaving. In From Chicaza to Chickasaw, Ethridge examines what the slave trade meant for Native polities and the transforming effect it had on the Mississippian world.57 More recently, Robin M. Beck published Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South, a detailed reconstruction of the early history of the lower Piedmont, the collapse of the chiefdoms, and the coalescence of the survivors into the Catawbas.58

Primary Sources

Because much about the Mississippian chiefdoms comes to us from archaeology, the reader is advised to consult the endnotes and the list of suggested readings for archaeological studies. However, a few primary documents have information on Late Mississippian chiefdoms, written by Europeans who witnessed some of the chiefdoms while they were still functioning. The relations of the Hernando de Soto expedition, especially, have proven useful, and these have been collected and translated into a two-volume set. They are Hernández de Biedma, “Relation of the Island of Florida”; Rodrigo Rangel, “Account of the Northern Conquest and Discovery of Hernando de Soto”; and Garcilaso de la Vega, “La Florida.”59 In addition, two later expeditions—that of Tristán de Luna and Juan Pardo—also contain information on Late Mississippian political orders in the Native South. These papers also have been translated and published in Herbert I. Priestly, ed. and trans., The Luna Papers; Juan de la Bandera, “The ‘Long’ Bandera Relation”; and “The ‘Short’ Bandera Relation.”60

In addition, the Spanish in present-day Florida lived with the Timucuan and Apalachee people, whose chiefdoms functioned into the early 18th century. Many of these records, some of which have been translated and published, contain information on the chiefdoms of northern Florida. They are John E. Worth, ed. and trans., The Struggle for the Georgia Coast; Discovering Florida; Mark F. Boyd, Hale G. Smith, and John W. Griffin, Here They Once Stood; Jeannette Thurbor Connor, ed. and trans., Colonial Records of Spanish Florida and Colonial Records of Spanish Florida: Letters and Reports of Governors, Deliberations of the Council of the Indies, Royal Decrees, and Other Documents; Jerald T. Milanich and William C. Sturtevant, eds., Francisco Pareja's 1613 Confessionario.61 Many of the unpublished records for Spanish Florida are in the Archivo General de Indias (AGI) in Seville, Spain. However, the P. K. Yong Library of Florida History at the University of Florida in Gainesville has microfilm copies, photocopies, and some recently digitized copies of much of the material at the AGI.

Finally, the French sources on the Natchez are also quite numerous. Many of these documents have been published. The best primary source material on the Natchez is Antoine Simone Le Page du Pratz, The History of Louisiana or of the Western Parts of Virginia and Carolina.62 The governmental correspondence is found in Dunbar Rowland and Albert Sanders, eds. and trans., Mississippi Provincial Archives.63 Unpublished French records from the lower Mississippi Valley are found at Archives Nationales de France, Centre des Archives d'Outre Mer, Séries C11, C13, and F3/290, in Aix-en-Provence, France and at the Archives du Ministére de la Marine, Série JJ, Archives du Service Hydrographique, Paris, France.

The major sites noted in the text can be seen today as state and national parks.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

Moundville Archaeological Park.

Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site.

Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.

In addition, a series of drawings of Late Mississippians done by early colonists John White who was at Roanoke in 1585 and Jacques le Moyne who was at Fort Caroline in 1564 were later engraved by Theodore de Bry. Much of these are available online for viewing. Le Moyne’s drawings can also be accessed online, as well as John White’s drawings along with the De Bry engravings made from them.

Further Readings

Beck, Robin M. Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Ethridge, Robbie. From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Ethridge, Robbie, and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall. Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Galloway, Patricia Galloway. Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1995.Find this resource:

Hally, David J. King: The Social Archaeology of a Late Mississippian Town in Northwestern Georgia. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Hudson, Charles. Conversations with the High Priest of Coosa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Hudson, Charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.Find this resource:

King, Adam. Etowah: The Political History of a Chiefdom Capital. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Knight, Vernon James, Jr. Mound Excavations at Moundville: Architecture, Elites, and Social Order. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Knight, Vernon James, Jr., and Vincas P. Steponaitis, eds. Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Lankford, George E., F. Kent Reilly III, and James F. Garber, eds. Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Pauketat, Timothy R. Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.Find this resource:

Regnier, Amanda L. Reconstructing Tascalusa's Chiefdom: Pottery Styles and the Social Composition of Late Mississippian Communities along the Alabama River. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Reilly, F. Kent, III, and James F. Garber, eds., Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Smith, Marvin T. Coosa: The Rise and Fall of a Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdom. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.Find this resource:

Townsend, Richard F., and Robert V. Sharp, eds. Hero, Hawk, and the Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press for the Art Institute of Chicago, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Vincas P. Steponaitis, “Contrasting Patterns of Mississippian Development,” in Chiefdoms: Power, Economy, and Ideology, ed. Timothy K. Earle (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 193–228; Steponaitis, “Location Theory and Complex Chiefdoms: A Mississippian Example,” in Mississippian Settlement Patterns, ed. Bruce Smith (New York: Academic Press, 1978), 417–453; David J. Hally, “The Territorial Size of Mississippian Chiefdoms,” in Archaeology of Eastern North America: Papers in Honor of Stephen Williams, ed. James A. Stoltman, Archeological Report, no. 25 (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1993), 143–168; David G. Anderson, Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 4–9; David J. Hally, Marvin T. Smith, and James B. Langford Jr., “The Archaeological Reality of De Soto’s Coosa,” in Columbian Consequences, vol. 2, Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on the Spanish Borderlands East, ed. David Hurst Thomas (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1990), 121–138; Patrick Livingood, “The Many Dimensions of Hally Circles, in Archaeological Perspectives on the Southern Appalachians: A Multiscalar Approach, eds. Ramie A. Gougeon and Maureen S. Meyers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015), 245–262.

(2.) Anderson, Savannah River Chiefdoms; David J. Hally, “The Nature of Mississippian Regional Systems,” in Light on the Path: The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians, eds. Thomas H. Pluckhahn and Robbie Ethridge (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 26–42. There is some controversy over the use of the chiefdom concept as well as the paramount chiefdom; on chiefdoms see Timothy R. Pauketat, Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions (New York: AltaMira, 2007); Book Forum: Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions, ed. Robbie Ethridge and David Anderson, Native South, 2 (2009), 69–132. On paramount chiefdoms see Robin A. Beck, Consolidation and Hierarchy: Chiefdom Variability in the Mississippian Southeast, American Antiquity, 68.4 (2003), 641–661.

(3.) F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber, eds., Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); George E. Lankford, F. Kent Reilly III, and James F. Garber, eds., Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011); Richard F. Townsend and Robert V. Sharp, eds., Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press in association with the Art Institute of Chicago, 2004).

(4.) David H. Dye, “Art, Ritual, and Chiefly Warfare in the Mississippian World,” in Townsend and Sharp, Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, 191–205.

(5.) Vernon J. Knight Jr., “Farewell to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex,” Southeastern Archaeology 25 (2006): 1–5; Reilly and Garber, eds., “Introduction,” in Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms, 4–5; James A. Brown, “Sequencing the Braden Style within Mississippian Period Art and Iconography,” in Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms, 213–245; Lankford, Reilly, and Garber, eds., Visualizing the Sacred.

(6.) George E. Lankford, “Some Cosmological Motifs in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex,” in Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms, 14–15, 21–27; R. Kent Reilly III, “People of Earth, People of Sky: Visualizing the Sacred in Native American Art of the Mississippian Period,” in Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms, 127–129.

(7.) Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 47–66; Susan M. Alt, “Making Mississippian at Cahokia,” in The Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology, ed. Timothy R. Pauketat (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 501–503; John E. Kelly and Jim Brown, Cahokia: The Processes and Principles of the Creation of an Early Mississippian City, 2014, in Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies, ed. Andrew T. Creekmore, III, and Kevin D. Fisher (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 292–323.

(8.) Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia, 67–84; Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), chapter 2; Thomas E. Emerson, “Cahokia Interaction and Ethnogenesis in the Northern Midcontinent,” in Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology, 400–401; Kelly and Brown, “Cahokia.”

(9.) Emerson, “Cahokia Interaction and Ethnogenesis,” 401.

(10.) Alt, “Making Mississippian at Cahokia,” 499.

(11.) James A. Brown, “Where's the Power in Mound Building? An Eastern Woodlands Perspective,” in Leadership and Polity in Mississippian Society, ed. Brian Butler and Paul D. Welch, Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper no. 33 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2006), 197–213; Brown, “Sequencing the Braden Style.” See also Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, 84–95; Cahokia, Chapters 6 and 7.

(12.) Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia, 47–66, 119–143; Cahokia, 11–24. In fact, Pauketat argues that Cahokia arose as religious movement when acolytes of a new religion moved from present-day Arkansas, north to the American Bottoms.

(13.) Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia, 124.

(14.) Recent overviews of the archaeology and reconstruction of Cahokia history are George R. Milner, The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archaeology of a Mississippian Society (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998); and Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians and Cahokia. On the decline of Cahokia see Thomas E. Emerson and Kristin M Hedman, “The Dangers of Diversity: The Consolidation and Dissolution of Cahokia, Native North America’s First Urban Polity,” in Beyond Collapse: Archaeological Perspectives on Resilience, Revialization, and Transformation in Complex Societies, ed. Ronald K. Faulseit, Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper no. 42 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), 147–175.

(15.) Alt, “Making Mississippian at Cahokia,” 505.

(16.) For regional variations see the essays in Lankford, Reilly, and Graber, eds., Visualizing the Sacred.

(17.) Vernon J. Knight Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, eds., Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 10–12.

(18.) Knight and Steponaitis, Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, 12–17; John H. Blitz, “Moundville in the Misissippian World,” in Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology, 539–541; Vernon James Knight Jr., “Moundville as a Diagrammatic Ceremonial Center,” in Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, 44–62.

(19.) Knight and Steponaitis, Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, 17–24; John H. Blitz, “Moundville in the Misissippian World,” in Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology, 541–542.

(20.) Adam King, Etowah: The Political History of a Chiefdom Capital (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 52–62; King, “Mississippian in the Deep South: Common Themes in Varied Histories,” in Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology, 516.

(21.) King, Etowah, 86–89; King, “Mississippian in the Deep South,” 516.

(22.) King, Etowah, 63–81, 89–91.

(23.) King, Etowah, 78–83, 92.

(24.) Vernon James Knight Jr., Mound Excavations at Moundville: Architecture, Elites, and Social Order (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 348–366; John E. Worth, “An Ethnohistorical Synthesis of Southeastern Chiefdoms: How Does Coosa Compare?,” ‘Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Charlotte, NC, 2003; John Blitz, Ancient Chiefdoms of the Tombigbee (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 12–13; Blitz, “Mississippian Chiefdoms and the Fusion-Fission Process,” American Antiquity 64.4 (1999): 583–587; Hally, “The Territorial Size of Mississippian Chiefdoms”; “Platform Mound Construction and the Instability of Mississippian Chiefdoms,” in Political Structure and Change in the Prehistoric Southeastern United States, ed. John Scarry (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 92–127; Jon Bernard Marcoux, “On Reconsidering Display Goods Production and Circulation in the Moundville Chiefdom,” Southeastern Archaeology, 26(2007): 232–245; Anderson, Savannah River Chiefdoms, 28–34; Mark Williams, “Paired Towns,” in Lamar Archaeology: Mississippian Chiefdoms in the Deep South, ed. Mark Williams and Gary Shapiro (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990), 163–174; John F. Scarry and Mintcy D. Maxham, “Elite Actors in the Protohistoric: Elite Identities and Interaction with Europeans in the Apalachee and Powhatan Chiefdoms,” in Between Contacts and Colonies: Archaeological Perspectives on the Protohistoric Southeast, ed. Cameron B. Wesson and Mark A. Rees (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 152; Hally, “Nature of Mississippian Regional Systems,” 33–37; David Pollack, Caborn-Welborn: Constructing a New Society after the Angel Chiefdom Collapse (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 19–24. The Mississippi Period began during the climatic event known as the Medieval Warm Period (c. 800–1200 ce), which may help account for the easy adoption of intensive corn agriculture across the South. Around 1300 ce, this warming trend ends with the beginning of the Little Ice Age (1300–1850 ce). The drought referred to here would have occurred within about 75 years of the onset of the Little Ice Age. For more on these climatic events and the changes in Native life, see Anderson, Savannah River Chiefdoms, 277–289 and David G. Anderson and Kenneth E. Sassaman, Recent Developments in Southeastern Archaeology: From Colonization to Complexity (Washington, DC: Society for American Archaeology, 2012), 163–165.

(25.) Luys Hernández de Biedma, “Relation of the Island of Florida,” in The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 15391543, 2 vols., ed. Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon. J. Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, trans. John E. Worth (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 1: 221–246; Rodrigo Rangel, “Account of the Northern Conquest and Discovery of Hernando de Soto,” in The De Soto Chronicles, 1:246–306; Gentleman of Elvas, “True Relation of the Vicissitudes That Attended the Governor Don Hernando de Soto and Some Nobles of Portugal in the Discovery of the Provence of Florida,” in The De Soto Chronicles, trans. James Robertson, 1: 25–219; Garcilaso de la Vega, the Inca, “La Florida,” in The De Soto Chronicles, trans. Charmion Shelby, 2: 25–560; Herbert I. Priestly, ed. and trans., The Luna Papers: Documents Relating to the Expedition of Don Tritán de Luna y Arellano for the Conquest of La Florida in 15591561, 2 vols. (Deland: Florida State Historical Society, 1928); Juan de la Bandera, “The ‘Long’ Bandera Relation,” in The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 15661568, Charles Hudson, trans. Paul E. Hoffman (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990, reprint), 205–296; “The ‘Short’ Bandera Relation,” in The Juan Pardo Expeditions, trans. Paul Hoffman, 297–316.

(26.) Anderson and Sassaman, Recent Developments, 166. Note that Mississippian polities existed farther north than de Soto went, on the Kentucky and Ohio rivers and into present-day Virginia, which are not represented on this map.

(27.) Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 14, 82–87, 190–203, 335–373.

(28.) Biedma, “Relation,” 229–230; Elvas, “True Relation” 82–86, 89; Rangel, “Account,” 278–280; Hudson, Knights of Spain, 172–184.

(29.) Chester DePratter, “The Chiefdom of Cofitachequi,” in The Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South, 15211704, ed. Charles Hudson and Carmen Chaves Tesser (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 197–226; Robin A. Beck Jr., “Catawba Coalescence and the Shattering of the Carolina Piedmont, 1540–1675,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South, ed. Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 115–116; Robbie Ethridge and Jeffrey M. Mitchem, “The Interior South at the Time of Spanish Exploration,” in Native and Spanish New Worlds: Sixteenth-Century Entradas in the American Southwest and Southeast, ed. Clay Mathers, Jeffery M. Mitchem, and Charles M. Haecker (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013), 173–174.

(30.) Biedma, “Relation,” 229–230; Elvas, “True Relation,” 82–86, 89; Rangel, “Account,” 278–280; Hudson, Knights of Spain, 172–184.

(31.) Hudson, Knights of Spain, 68–73.

(32.) Robin A. Beck Jr., “Catawba Coalescence and the Shattering of the Carolina Piedmont, 1540–1675,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 115–116; Hudson, Knights of Spain, 421; Biedma, “Relation,” 231; Elvas, “True Relation,” 83; Bandera, “The ‘Long’ Bandera Relation.”

(33.) Hudson, Knights of Spain, 229; Amanda L. Regnier, Reconstructing Tascalusa’s Chiefdom: Pottery Styles and the Social Composition of Late Mississippian Communities along the Alabama River (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press), 42–43.

(34.) Elvas, “True Relation,” 96–105; Biedma, “Relation,” 232–236; Rangel, “Account,” 291–294; Hudson, Knights of Spain, 231. See also Robbie Ethridge, Kathryn E. Holland Braund, Lawrence A. Clayton, George E. Lankford, and Michael D. Murphey, “A Comparative Analysis of the De Soto Accounts on the Route to, and Events at, Mabila,” in The Search for Mabila: The Decisive Battle between Hernando de Soto and Chief Tascalusa, ed. Vernon James Knight Jr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 153–181.

(35.) Craig T. Sheldon Jr., “Introduction,” in The Southern and Central Alabama Expeditions of Clarence Bloomfield Moore, ed. Craig T. Sheldon (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001), 23; Ned Jenkins, “Tracing the Origins of the Early Creeks, 1050–1700 ce,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 200–216; Amanda R. Regnier, “A Stylistic Analysis of Burial Urns from the Protohistoric Period in Central Alabama,” Southeastern Archaeology 25.1(2006): 128; “What Indian Pottery of the Sixteenth-Century Central Alabama Looks Like and Why It Matters,” in The Search for Mabila, 83–93; Reconstructing Tascalusa’s Chiefdom, 129–139; Robbie Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 66–67; Ethridge and Mitchem, “The Interior South,” 176–178.

(36.) Hudson, Knights of Spain, 230–231.

(37.) Hudson, Knights of Spain,110–115, 238–249, 266–274, 336–338; Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 60–88.

(38.) Robbie Ethridge, “Introduction: Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 10–13; Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 87–88.

(39.) Robbie Ethridge, “Creating the Shatter Zone: The Indian Slave Trader and the Collapse of the Mississippian World,” in Light on the Path, 207–218; “Introduction,” 2010. For analysis of the Indian slave trade and slavery among Southern Indians see Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 16701717 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002) and Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); On the spread of the gun trade see David J. Silverman, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

(40.) Robin A. Beck, Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013); “Catawba Coalescence,” 130–137; Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 104–108.

(41.) Marvin T. Smith, Coosa: The Rise and Fall of a Mississippian Chiefdom (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 103–104, 107–109; Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 62–69.

(42.) Jenkins, “Tracing the Origins”; Regnier, Reconstructing Tascalusa’s Chiefdom,135–137; Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chicasaw, 67–73; Gregory A. Waselkov and Marvin T. Smith, “Upper Creek Archaeology,” in Indians of the Greater Southeast: Historical Archaeology and Ethnohistory, ed. Bonnie G. McEwan (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 242–264.

(43.) John E. Worth, “The Lower Creeks: Origins and Early History,” in Indians of the Greater Southeast, 265–298; Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 15001700 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1995).

(44.) Johnson, “The Chickasaws,” in Indians of the Greater Southeast, 85–121.

(45.) Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 149–193.

(46.) Marvin D. Jeter, “Shatter Zone Shock Waves along the Lower Mississippi,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 365–387; Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 116–148. The designation of the Quapaw as recent migrants from the Ohio Valley is still controversial. For a discussion of these debates, also see Marvin D. Jeter, “From Prehistory through Protohistory to Ethnohistory in and near the Northern Lower Mississippi Valley,” in The Transformation of the Southeastern Indians, 15401760, ed. Robbie Ethridge and Charles Hudson (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 177–224.

(47.) Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 149–231; see also Elizabeth Ellis, “The Many Ties of the Petites Nations: Relationships, Power, and Diplomacy in the Lower Mississippi Valley 1685-1785,” PhD diss., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2015.

(48.) James F. Barnett Jr., The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 101–131.

(49.) Jay K. Johnson, ed., Development of Southeastern Archaeology (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).

(50.) John Blitz, “New Perspectives in Mississippian Archaeology,” Journal of Archaeological Research, 18(2010): 1–39; and David G. Anderson and Kenneth E. Sassaman, “Mississippian Complexity and Contact Coalescence,” in Recent Developments in Southeastern Archaeology (Washington, DC: Society for American Archaeology, 2012), 152–190.

(51.) Anderson, Savannah River Chiefdoms; Blitz, Ancient Chiefdoms of the Tombigbee; David J. Hally, King: The Social Archaeology of a Late Mississippian Town in Northwestern Georgia (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008); Adam King, Etowah; Vernon James Knight Jr., Mound Excavations at Moundville; Patrick C. Livingood, Mississippian Polity and Politics on the Gulf Coastal Plain: A View from the Pearl River, Mississippi (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011); Knight and Steponaitis, eds., Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom; Timothy Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians and Cahokia; Regnier, Reconstructing Tascalusa's Chiefdom; Smith, Coosa; and Gregory D. Wilson, The Archaeology of Everyday Life at Early Moundville (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008).

(52.) Reilly and Garber, eds., Ancient Objects and Sacred Realm and Lankford, Reilly, and Garber, eds., Visualizing the Sacred.

(53.) Townsend and Sharp, eds., Hero, Hawk, and the Open Hand.

(54.) Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976); Hudson, Knights of Spain; Charles Hudson and Carmen Chaves Tesser, eds., Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994); and Robbie Ethridge and Charles Hudson, eds., The Transformation of the Southeastern Indians, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002).

(55.) Galloway, Choctaw Genesis.

(56.) Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade.

(57.) Ethridge, Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone; Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw.

(58.) Beck, Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence.

(59.) Biedma, “Relation;” Rangel, “Account;” Elvas, “True Relation;” Garcilaso de la Vega, “La Florida.”

(60.) Priestly, ed. and trans., The Luna Papers; Bandera, “The ‘Long’ Bandera Relation”; and “The ‘Short’ Bandera Relation.”

(61.) John E. Worth, ed. and trans., The Struggle for the Georgia Coast: An Eighteenth-Century Spanish Retrospective on Guale and Mocama, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, no. 75 (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1995, reprinted Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007); Worth, Discovering Florida: First-Contact Narratives from Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2016); Mark F. Boyd, Hale G. Smith, and John W. Griffin, Here They Once Stood: The Tragic End of the Apalachee Missions (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1951); Jeannette Thurbor Connor, ed. and trans., Colonial Records of Spanish Florida: Letters and Reports of Governors and Secular Persons, Volume I, 1570–1577 (Florida State Historical Society, 1925) and Colonial Records of Spanish Florida: Letters and Reports of Governors, Deliberations of the Council of the Indies, Royal Decrees, and other Documents, Volume II, 1577–1580 (Florida State Historical Society, 1930); and Jerald T. Milanich and William C. Sturtevant, eds., Francisco Pareja's 1613 Confessionario: A Documentary Source for Timucuan Ethnography (Gainesville: Florida Department of State, 1972).

(62.) Antoine Simone Le Page du Pratz, The History of Louisiana or of the Western Parts of Virginia and Carolina (Baton Rouge, LA: Claitor’s Publishing Division, 1972; English translation originally published 1774).

(63.) Dunbar Rowland and Albert Sanders, eds. and trans., Mississippi Provincial Archives: French Dominion. Vols. 1–3 (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1927–1932).