The Regional Review

Volume V - Nos. 4 & 5

October-November, 1940

An Archeological Survey of the Natchez Trace


Archeology as a word, and as an activity, has a definite meaning to every one. It calls up a vision of exciting adventures in desert wastes, or tangled jungle growths, adventures which but only prelude the triumphal, thrill of discovering a huge ruined city, littered with golden debris and dotted with tombs containing fantastic baubles. Many people have also become aware of the equally informative, if less glittering, "dirt" archeology now going on in eastern North America, Possibly because romance usually lies across international boundaries, the sweaty diggers in the United States are rarely glamorous figures, nor do their mild adventures rate Sunday supplement space. Plodding along without benefit of such stimulus, the archeologists of the South are steadily building up a composite picture of the pre-European Indian populations of America.

As is true in all scientific endeavor, many men labor here toward a common aim. The ultimate story is the sum of their contributions. In the past decade governmental agencies, cooperating with other public institutions, have conducted in the South some of the world's most extensive excavations. Major W. S. Webb's TVA-PWA explorations in the valley of the Tennessee; J. A. Ford's Louisiana State University-WPA work in Louisiana; A. R. Kelly's Smithsonian-WPA activities in Macon, Georgia; D. L. DeJarnette's Geological Survey in Alabama in cooperation with Major Webb; Robert Wauchope's University of Georgia-WPA reconnaissance in North Georgia; Major Webb's University of Kentucky-WPA work in Kentucky; T. M. N. Lewis' University of Tennessee-TVA-WPA work, first in association with Major Webb, and later alone, in East and West Tennessee --- these comprise a list of the major continuing archeological undertakings financed largely by the relief organizations. Besides these, many other valuable projects, albeit of shorter duration, were financed in North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, and other states. There is little wonder, therefore, that much information is now available, although even yet so little is the Southeast known that after nearly every excavation small segments of the entire prehistoric mosaic shift and rearrange their relation to the whole pattern.

Stippled portions show roughly the areas which have been explored archeologically
(click image for an enlargement in a new window)

Interestingly enough, little of the interest shown by students is localized in the State of Mississippi. More than 300 miles of the Natchez Trace lie in Mississippi in the northeast-southwest line1 shown on the accompanying map. Almost unknown archeologically is the area it cuts across. At its southern terminus, J. A. Ford2 and Moreau B. Chambers3 have done good work, but for the major length almost nothing is published. Realization of the near lack of information, although rich unstudied remains were known to exist, prompted the initiation in 1939 of a Natchez Trace National Parkway archeological survey which would be concerned not only with Mississippi but also with the entire length of the Trace.

While the purposes and needs guiding the operation of the Trace survey are implicit in the foregoing paragraphs, and there is the ultimate aim of contributing a few paragraphs to the final outline of pre-European Indian history, the immediate aims are definite and urgent. Five major objectives have been outlined, although the first three listed are of the more urgent nature,

First, comes the search for sites for purposes of parkway location and for compilation of the base historic sheet. This first activity is, in addition, an important archeological technique, inasmuch as a rapid surface reconnaissance permits the collection of surface material, where this exists, and gives a partial preview of the cultural horizons represented by the content of the sites visited.

Second, upon the completion of the preliminary analysis of survey collections and other data, sites of potential scientific value or of outstanding intrinsic display appeal, are recommended for preservation either through acquisition as parkway right-of-way or by other public agencies. Action has not yet been taken on the recommendations submitted.

Third, aside from the sites eventually acquired, many other sites discovered by the survey will lie too far from the motor road for acquisition, or may not be spectacular, even though there is evidence from surface material that several cultures, or a new variant of one already recognized, once existed on the site. In order to verify the suggestions derived from surface material or to check on the scientific value implied, it is necessary to conduct digging operations in varying degrees of intensity. The excavation program is primarily for the purpose of filling out the blanks in the archeological framework through the addition of new scientific data.

Fourth, if excavations are conducted on federally-owned Natchez Trace Parkway lands, any features of interest, such as a well-preserved burial, a firepit, a house-pattern, or other object which can be preserved or restored, should be dug carefully so as to preserve it entirely and protect it until a field display can be made available to users of the Trace.

Fifth, the last point is allied closely to the preceding in that the survey is in the larger view collecting data for use in the informational program of the parkway. It is further hoped that contributions to the general knowledge can thus be made.

Already referred to is Mr. Gardner's lucid account of the Natchez Trace and its early history. The account tells how the Trace came into being: as a prehistoric highway, no less. Its purpose was to link tribal centers for commercial and social reasons. In Mississippi alone three such tribes, similar in language, but with differing habits of living, were connected by the trail.

In the South, the autocratic Natchez, famous for their bloody funeral sacrifices, their rigid caste system, their austere sun-worshipping religion, and their stubborn resistance to French insolence, enjoyed the respect and fear of their red neighbors. East and north of the Natchez tribe lived the Choctaw, related in language but with a less noteworthy set of religious and ceremonial practices. Burial rites, though involving less bloodshed, were still not calculated to soothe a queasy stomach. The corpse was stored upon a rack or scaffold until the passage of time had removed most of the flesh from the bones. Next a pair of specially designated operatives, with long fingernails for the purpose, cleaned the vestiges of flesh from the bones, and placed then, with appropriate ceremony, in a charnel house where other baskets of bones lay. When an adequate number had accumulated, all were stacked in a selected spot, and were covered with a low mound of earth.

In other respects we are told that the Choctaw were not much given to ceremony. Very industrious, these Indians were the best farmers of the Southeast, growing corn and other products in excess of their needs, and diverting their surplus into trade. The Choctaw were good warriors although not given to aggression; they defended their homeland but did not seek to expand their territory by conquest. But in northwest Mississippi the gallant Chickasaw, a small hardy tribe of excellent warriors, were respected as fighters by red and white alike. Although farmers, they also ranged as far north as the Duck River in Tennessee on hunting and war expeditions. They also kept up an intermittent feud with the French and Choctaw to the south; the tribe was always friendly to both British and American overtures. Several interesting ceremonies were practiced but burial was accomplished quietly by placing the deceased with fitting solemnities, in a shallow pit beneath his bed.

From the Chickasaw country the Trace led over the Tennessee River (in what is now Alabama) and on along the ridges of central Tennessee to and beyond what is now Nashville. Part of this territory was claimed as a hunting preserve by the far-ranging Chickasaw and part by the Cherokee of North Carolina and East Tennessee, but no extensive long-lived settlements are reported.

So much for the recent Indian occupation, recorded by early explorers, missionaries, traders, and government officials. Before the Europeans saw the country, however, a long series of Indian civilizations had appeared, flowered and been displaced by more vigorous newcomers. What many of these early cultures were like is already partly known. The Natchez, for example, were preceded by four well-defined cultures which have been discovered and described by Ford and his associates. A related series, but by no means identical, has been less completely observed beneath the Choctaw remains. Before the Chickasaw came to the place where they were discovered by the whites, one or more vaguely outlined periods had already run their course, while in the Tennessee Valley a long series of occupations go back 1,000 or more years to a time when the red men did not even possess knowledge of pottery making or agriculture, but lived on such animals, shell fish, and wild vegetable foods as they could collect. No evidence as to their language or many of their customs has come down to the present day. Nor is it certain just what relation these earlier tribes were to the last ones in the region. In some cases the ages of the various periods and the interrelation of the tribes (those on the Tennessee River to those on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, for example) are not yet known.

The scientific problems therefore, are to gather data along portions of the Trace where least exploration has been done, to search for relationships between the archeologically discovered old cultures and the historically described recent tribes, and to continue to search for light on the relationship to each other of the old, incompletely known civilizations and for data about their actual ages.

Because the Natchez Trace cuts across tribal boundary lines, the range of archeological interest is necessarily greatly widened. In order to tell the complete story, it will be obligatory to borrow data from many sources and attempt to synthesize it with any original findings reported by the survey.

Since the scope of the effort is so ramified, a random controlled sampling of the sites along the roadway is being practiced rather than an immediate attempt to locate each site in the vicinity of 450 miles of parkway. This is done so that an early delineation of scientific problems may be made, and the direction where answers might be expected can be indicated. The map shows the path of the Trace and the areas sampled by the survey thus far. A report of the survey activities has been prepared and is now ready for a limited National Park Service distribution.4 This report shows that additional research on the problems mentioned two paragraphs above will take certain directions. It also demonstrates that a beginning was made toward determining the predecessors of the Chickasaw.

Enough data have been recovered to warrant initiation of an excavation program. This began only recently on a Chickasaw site just south of Tupelo, Mississippi. Already the finds are expanding our knowledge of this enigmatic tribe. While the party is operating in this region, some of the very old sites will be sampled also. With the birds, the excavation party will go south, and after January 1, 1941, operations will be in the vicinity of Natchez, Mississippi, where the Natchez Indian villages and older sites will be examined. Periodic notes on progress of the excavation will be forwarded to The Regional Review during the coming months.

1Malcolm Gardner, "The Natchez Trace - An Historical Parkway." The Regional Review, Vol. II. No. 4, April 1939, pp. 13-18.

2Analysis of Indian Village Site Collections from Louisiana and Mississippi, Anthropological Study No. 2, Department of Conservation, Louisiana Geological Survey.

3Associated with Mississippi State Department of Archives and History.

4Archeological Survey Natchez Trace, September 3, 1940.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002