Ca. 1800 Georgia illuminated in Creek ethnohistory

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Ethridge Creek Country cover

Ethnohistorian Robbie Ethridge set herself with high goals when she wrote Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World (2003: University of North Carolina Press). As she notes in the introduction (page 1):

This book is about a distant, lost world—the world of the Creek Indians at the close of the eighteenth century. I have attempted to portray this world through the surface of Creek life as lived by ordinary Creek men and women, and I have tried to understand something of the landscape in which they labored and loved, their jobs and tasks, their day-to-day affairs and concerns, and their towns and loyalties, as well as the larger historical forces at work that would eventually transform this world into an altogether different one.

But this was not a purely Indian world, nor had it been for almost 300 years. Creek life at the turn of the nineteenth century was so seamlessly stitched to that of frontier whites and blacks that it is difficult to separate Indian life from the life of others on the frontier. The territorial borders of Creek country never formed an impermeable boundary to people, goods, animals, plants, microbes, or ideas. In short, the lives of people in the American South at this time were thoroughly interwoven. To portray Creek country in all its richness, detail, and complexity, then, requires telling something about Creek relationships with the others living in or near Creek country—other Indians, Africans, people of mixed parentage, and white Americans.

Dr. Ethridge, a professor at the University of Mississippi, achieves her goals. Read this book and you will be transported in time to about 1800—and Georgia locales are prominent in her discussions.

Reconstructing Creek life in this period is difficult. Dr. Ethridge writes (page 3–4):

Because the Creeks themselves left relatively few written documents, their lives (like the lives of all people from oral cultures) must be pieced together from the historical documents, through careful use of oral traditions, and from archaeological investigation. I have used all three in this book, but each presents challenges and limitations. In my research, I have examined significant documentary sources kept by a variety of literate people in Creek country: letters, journals, trade ledgers, account books, legal depositions, land deeds, military records, and census records, to name a few. These documents were written by Euro-American white males who were either in Indian territory or dealing with Indians for various reasons. Such documents are typically the resources for historians, and they have been used with great success in reconstructing aspects of the American past. But the information they contain on Indian life is often faulty and imprecise because there was an unevenness in the writers’ access to and in their understanding of what they saw of Indian life. Furthermore, the Creeks did not reveal some aspects of their lives to whites, and especially not to white elites and officials. Creek voices occasionally appear in the documents, but almost always in translation and as recorded by a Euro-American male.

In reconstructing Indian history, then, a more authentic Indian voice comes through oral traditions and archaeology. Oral traditions pose methodological problems that scholars are only now beginning to assess. Because of this, I have used oral traditions sparingly, and then not as literal renderings of past events or as explanations for past relationships and events but, rather, as later echoes of eighteenth-century social codes and beliefs. Archaeology, on the other hand, has developed rigorous methods and interpretations for reconstructing the lives of people by examining their material remains. Because of the nature of material evidence, archaeology speaks best to the economic and material basis of life. Archaeology also gives us the spatial context of a people’s life—how they situated themselves across a landscape and some sense of why they did so. Archaeology also is exceptional in delineating the long-term, persisting structures of life. However, archaeology cannot tell us everything, and it especially cannot speak definitively to the more intangible aspects of life that leave no material remains, particularly religious beliefs, ideologies, and opinions.

As an ethnohistorian, Dr. Ethridge unites anthropological and historical methods and perspectives to develop a fine-grained reconstruction of the lives of past peoples—the Creeks, in this case. Indeed, her research is so thorough that she includes an appendix that lists the scientific names of the plants and animals mentioned in the text using common names.

Dr. Ethridge’s closing sentences are sobering (page 241):

By 1850 the Creeks, as most of the southeastern Indians, except tiny handfuls here and there, were gone, forcibly removed west of the Mississippi. In the late eighteenth century, though, the heart of the American South was a complex whole of the cultural traits, people, communities, plants, animals, landscapes, political particulars, beliefs and ideas, local situations, and larger global dynamics that made up the world of Creek country. When these things changed, Creek country changed and became something else.

Archaeologists are happy that ethnohistorians distill and analyze information from letters and records that they find helpful in illuminating the data they recover from the soil. In turn, as Dr. Ethridge notes, archaeologists provide information helpful in understanding aspects of daily life that are rarely noted in documents preserved in historical archives.

The question posed by this Weekly Ponder: what is the wisest course when archaeological data contradict archived documents?