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Setting the Stage


Before European exploration and settlement, there were perhaps two million American Indians living in what is now the southeastern United States. This area, bounded roughly by the Tennessee River and the Appalachians, the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and East Texas, contained as many as 100 different tribes. Although exact practices varied, these native populations shared similar ways of providing for themselves: they produced most of their food through farming and supplemented their crops through fishing and hunting.

Five indigenous groups dominated the region by 1776. Three of them—the Cherokee, the Choctaw, and the Chickasaw—can easily be called tribes, since each had a distinct and long-established cultural pattern and thought of themselves as "Cherokee," or "Choctaw," or "Chickasaw." The fourth, the Seminole, developed out of remnants of several tribes who migrated into Florida after its original inhabitants had died from disease or battle. Members of the fifth group, the most important for this story, were called the Creek. Rather than a unified cultural group, they were a political confederacy of approximately 50 villages in Georgia and Alabama.

Over time European Americans came to refer to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole as the "Five Civilized Tribes." This label indicated their attitudes of those who used it, since what made the tribes "civilized" was that they lived more like European Americans than most American Indians. A 1961 excavation of a Creek town, for example, found not only indigenous foods like deer, turtle and turkey, but also remnants of many of European origin—the shell of a chicken egg, the bones of pigs, chickens, and cows, and peach pits. The tribes also avidly acquired firearms, iron tools, and other manufactured materials they found beneficial. European cultural practices had a smaller impact on indigenous society: although some southeastern Indians adopted Christianity and spoke English, the vast majority continued to prefer their own religions and languages.

By the turn of the 19th century, European American society increasingly pressed in on the Creek. Two issues in particular created tensions. First, many Creek worried that European influences would destroy their traditional cultural values. The second problem revolved around land. Not only did European Americans appear to have an insatiable appetite for it, but their belief in private property differed dramatically from the Creek practice of collective ownership.

 

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