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The Muscogee maintained independence against colonizers for 200 years

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Illustration: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This week’s entry: Muscogee

What it’s about: Since prehistory, the Muscogee (also known as the Creek, and sometimes spelled Mvskoke), lived in Alabama, as well as parts of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. In the 1830s, they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma alongside the Cherokee and others on the Trail Of Tears. They were a complex society that built cities and massive monuments, fought off Spanish conquistadors, and adopted European cultural norms, thinking (incorrectly, sadly) that doing so would help keep their place in the newly established United States.


Strangest fact: While to this day many Americans believe the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic encountered an unaltered wilderness, that’s far from the truth. Ancient Muscogee were part of a broad tradition of mound builders, cultures all over North America that built massive earthworks across the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes region. These were generally the center of a layout of well-planned cities and small surrounding towns, but by the time English settlers reached the interior, disease had already wiped out most of the population, and these cities were dwindling. But the earthworks remain—some of the Muscogee mounds have larger footprints than the pyramids of Giza.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The Muscogee were able to fight off the first wave of outside invaders. Despite massive losses to both disease and the indigenous slave trade (which was legal in all 13 colonies and continued well into the mid-1700s), various Muscogee tribes united to fight off conquistador Hernando de Soto. They launched a surprise attack on him and his army in the Battle Of Mabila in 1540. While the Spanish burned the town of Mabila and reportedly killed 5,000 people, de Soto’s army lost so many men, horses, and equipment that they were forced to retreat. After a harsh winter in enemy territory, de Soto died of fever, and his surviving forces returned to Mexico City sickly and hurt. Over the next two centuries, the Spanish, British, and French all set up colonies in the region, but the Muscogee remained, usually as a trading partner and neutral buffer between the colonizers.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: That peace didn’t last forever. For over 200 years, the Muscogee remained valuable trading and sometimes military partners to the British. When the American Revolution broke out, the Creek Confederacy (which is what the various Muscogee tribes were collectively called by that time) backed the British. After the war, they were dismayed to find the British had given a claim to all of the Muscogee’s land to the new United States. The state of Georgia claimed more and more of that land until 1786, when a faction of the Muscogee went to war against white settlers. George Washington persuaded one of the Muscogee leaders to travel to New York (then the nation’s capital), and signed a treaty in which the Muscogee gave up some of their land in exchange for sovereignty over the rest.

Washington promoted a program of “civilizing” Native Americans, and the Muscogee were one of the first tribes designated as such under the program. But by 1811, Shawnee leader Tecumseh was leading a movement to fight back against white encroachment on their lands and attempts to “civilize” their culture. Muscogee were divided, to the point that a civil war broke out, with one side supporting the U.S., and one opposed (and allied with Britain, which was in the middle of invading during the War Of 1812). The pro-Tecumseh faction, the Red Sticks (a longtime symbol of war), won a few battles, forcing U.S. soldiers to retreat. But their success was short-lived. Wikipedia posits that the Red Sticks naively underestimated the strength and size of the U.S., which could assemble state militias numbering thousands even while the Army was otherwise occupied fighting the British. Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee did just that, with Andrew Jackson leading a combined force that routed the Red Sticks at the Battle Of Horseshoe Bend, and then a few years later marched south and defeated the Seminoles in Florida.

While the military defeats were costly, another loss came in the form of Americans’ public perception. Native Americans quickly went from neighbors who could adapt to American society to being an enemy to be overcome. When Jackson became president in 1829, the U.S. abruptly stopped recognizing Native American nations’ sovereignty, and he pushed the Indian Removal Act, which barely passed Congress. Most of the Creek Confederacy was forced to Oklahoma on the Trail Of Tears.

Also noteworthy: Muscogee society is divided into clans, and matrilineal, so children are considered part of their mother’s clan, and marriage within a clan is discouraged. (Like previous Wormhole subjects the Mosuo, biological fathers were less important than uncles, who were responsible for helping raise a child according to that clan’s tradition.) Partly because women were expected to marry outside their clan, there was a fair amount of marriage with the English, during the period of relative peace during colonial times. The children of these marriages were often seen in adulthood as valuable intermediaries, who were familiar with both cultures. But anyone with a Muscogee mother was considered Muscogee.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Several individuals of mixed race became prominent Muscogee leaders, though one such leader had no Muscogee heritage at all. William Augustus Bowles was an Englishman born in Maryland (still a colony in 1763), who fought for the British in the Revolutionary War as a teenager. He was assigned to defend Pensacola, but resigned, left the fort, and was promptly captured by the Creek. He lived with them for a time, and convinced his captors to support the British against attacking Spanish ships (although they only played a minor role in the Revolutionary War, the Spanish were also at war with the British at that time). He was reinstated in the army, and after the war, Britain sent him to establish trade with the Creek Confederacy. He married two women, one Cherokee and one the daughter of a Muscogee chief, the latter marriage granting him some political influence. He began pushing for Muscogee independence, and with British support, declared himself “Director General” of the new State Of Muskogee, which comprised a chunk of then-Spanish Florida, though Bowles envisioned expanding northward and including the Georgia-based Muscogee, plus Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. He built a three-ship navy to harass the Spanish fleet, but couldn’t compete with its naval superiority. When the 1802 Treaty Of Amiens ended the war Britain was waging against France and Spain, the Muscogee feared the Spanish would turn their full military attention on the state, and abandoned Bowles’ leadership, signing a treaty with Spain. Bowles was captured in 1803, and died two years later in a Spanish prison in Havana.

Further down the Wormhole: As part of the ill-fated attempt to assimilate the Muscogee, many converted to Protestantism. That branch of Christianity (began when Martin Luther famously protested the Catholic Church), has innumerable denominations and factors, many of which have absorbed different influences. One of the first Protestant groups, the Anabaptists, were influenced by spiritualism. That movement believes that the spirits of the dead surround us and can communicate with the living. Attempts at communication with those spirits have been a mainstay of entertainers and frauds for centuries. One such medium was Chung Ling Soo—doubly a fraud, as he was an American of Scottish ancestry. We’ll look at his career as a magician, medium, and fake, next week.