Preserving 17,000 Years of History
The area in and around the Ocmulgee National Monument has great significance to the Muscogee Native American community as well as anyone who is interested in Georgia’s cultural heritage. The Monument site contains ancient earthen mounds and has rendered one of the three largest archaeological collections in the National Park System. Although a majority of the area’s cultural significance is derived from the current estimate of 17,000 years of habitation by native peoples, the area we seek to preserve is also representative of southeastern American culture. It would be a tragedy if the area’s incredible cultural resources go unprotected and underappreciated.
The length of time that the site has been inhabited by humans has been repeatedly underestimated over the years, as scientists once thought the site was only 10,000 years old, then 12,000 years old, and now it is believed to be at least 17,000 years old. The oldest evidence of humans in the United States is the famous Clovis Spear Point, two of which have been found in the Ocmulgee Old Fields. The Clovis style of creating a sharp edged tool was used by humans called Paleo-Indians, who first followed animal herds into North America. In the so-called Archaic Period, ranging from 8,000 to 1,000 B.C., the occupants of the Ocmulgee area lived as hunters and gatherers. Discoveries from this period include mounds of shells and a spear throwing device called an “atlatl,” which was used to hunt the abundance of white tail deer that still thrive in the southeastern United States.
Let the Pottery Speak
The type of pottery a particular culture uses is given heavy consideration in archeological studies because a people’s way of making and decorating pottery says a lot about their way of life. In discovering the story of the people who have inhabited the Ocmulgee area, the pottery they created from 2,500 B.C. and later tells a great story. The first pottery in what is now the United States was made by the hands of the inhabitants of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. This pottery was made strong with plant fibers, which burned away in the firing process, giving the final result its trademark wormhole appearance on the surface. This technique soon made its way to the Ocmulgee area, where it flourished until a new form of creation was adopted in the Woodland Period, which ranged from 1,000 B.C. to 900 A.D. This era’s inhabitants of the Ocmulgee River made pottery tempered with sand for more strength, and they sometimes decorated their work with elaborate designs. As the increasingly sophisticated designs of pottery indicate, the Woodland Period was marked by the cultural evolution of the residents of the Ocmulgee River area.
Settling the Macon Plateau
The Woodland Period marks the timeframe in which the indigenous people settled on the Macon Plateau and began to transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to a more stationary lifestyle with larger populations and settlements. In addition to its unique pottery, the Woodland culture is known for the cultivation of crops including sunflowers and gourds. It was with the construction of semi-permanent villages in the Ocmulgee River area that the people of this culture created the first mounds including platform, earthen burial, and stone effigy mounds. The people of the Woodland Period laid the foundation, literally and figuratively, for the Mississippian Period, which brought to Middle Georgia the incredible Indian mounds that mark the area’s landscape to this very day.
History of the Muscogee-Creek People
The Muscogee-Creek people are most often associated with the characteristics of the Mississippian period, which ranged from 900 A.D. to the time of European colonization. However, Muscogee oral tradition holds that the Macon Plateau is the tribe’s original area of settlement, which could have occurred well before this period. The Mississippian cultural period is known for its agriculture and large ceremonial centers. During this time the Muscogee people cultivated the crops known by some Native American groups as the “three sisters”- corn, squash, and beans. Evidence of corn cultivation has been found within the Ocmulgee National Monument, where many of this cultural period’s giant earthen mounds and lodges are located. Some of the more well-known mounds of the area include the Greater Temple Mound, the Funeral Mound, and the earthen lodge used as a formal council chamber. Although the Muscogee people’s inhabitance of the Macon Plateau would eventually give way to other nearby settlements, the culture begun there, known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, would thrive across the entire region.
Rise of the Lamar Culture
The Mississippian culture peaked and began to decline around 1200 A.D., but by the 14th century the so called “Lamar” culture, named after Georgian property owners, had developed a few miles down the Ocmulgee River from the Macon Plateau. The Lamar way of life is considered a later form of the Mississippian culture, in large part because the Lamar people continued to build magnificent earthen mounds. Of their many constructions, including villages and walled perimeters, the Native Americans who inhabited Lamar are known for building the only spirally ascended mound in North America. A few of the Mississippian period’s many cultural characteristics that would continue into the Lamar culture are the Muscogee respect for harmony and balance, as well as the tradition of playing stick ball, which was sometimes used to settle disputes between rival communities. The game and ritual of stick ball was and is so significant to the Muscogee people that the U.S. government outlawed the sport in the early 20th century. However, despite the brutal treatment of the Muscogee by the U.S. government, the descendants of the Native Americans who lived in Middle Georgia continue to play stick ball today as it is continues to be a central part of Muscogee-Creek ritual.
Decline of the Lamar Culture
Although the Muscogee people thrived for hundreds of years at the Lamar site, their way of life would eventually give way to European Colonization and the Southern American culture that followed. The first non-Native account of the inhabitants of the Ocmulgee River area was made by the men who accompanied Conquistador Hernando De Soto through the southeastern U.S. in 1540. The diseases brought by the Europeans to the Muscogee living on the Ocmulgee River led to the decline of the Lamar culture by the 17th century, but there was soon a resurgence of Native American life around the Ocmulgee when the Muscogee reentered the area to trade with a British Fort built in 1690. It was the British at this fort who popularized calling the Muscogee people “Creeks,” which led to their current self-identification as Muscogee-Creek. During this period of colonization, the Muscogee-Creek people lived the best they could despite frequent fighting and disrespectful treatment at the hand of Europeans. Unfortunately the native inhabitants of the Ocmulgee River were completely pushed out over time.
The last and most important piece of land belonging to the Muscogee-Creeks was the Reserve Tract, which is now known as the Old Ocmulgee Fields. That land was eventually ceded to the U.S. government by Creek Chief McIntosh, who received the death penalty from the Creeks for not authorizing the Treaty which gave their most sacred land away. Following the infamous 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs, settlers surveyed and auctioned off the land around the mounds to establish the City of Macon in 1828. American control of the ancient and sacred Native American lands along the Ocmulgee River was made evident with the 1843 construction of a railroad through the Macon Plateau which cut in half a Temple Mound and unearthed prehistoric burials. The period of Southern American control of the land is now also immortalized within the Ocmulgee National Monument by the National Park Service’s preservation of the Dunlap House built in 1856.
Efforts to Protect the Land
The United States’ general neglect of these culturally significant lands held sway until the 1920′s when a group of concerned Macon residents led an effort to protect the mounds, which culminated in the 1934 law creating the roughly 700 acres of the Ocmulgee National Monument. Until only recently, the protection of the mounds and lands outside of the Monument depended on private individuals and interested groups. However, in 1997 concerned Macon residents led the effort to establish a much larger area of land around the Monument as a Traditional Cultural Property. That designation provides the area greater legal protection from short sighted development. The Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative firmly believes that the preservation of these lands, which are rich with evidence of our nation’s, and humanity’s history, must be conserved and protected for future generations.