The Regional Review

Volume VI - Nos. 1 & 2

January-February, 1941

To Georgia Indians It Was A Business


Five hundred years ago Georgia was an Indian land. Only the red men hunted the forests and fished the streams. No firearms disturbed the primeval silence, then broken only by the call of quail and duck. Modern hunters might expect that the first Georgians enjoyed a veritable Nimrod's paradise. Such was probably not the case as many an Indian certainly experienced days when his luck just would not work.

In the first place, while the woods literally swarmed with game and no hunting license was required, the Indian was not the care-free hunter that might be imagined. To him hunting was strictly a business proposition. If he did not kill game, he usually failed to eat, because there was no "corner" market to supply the deficiency caused by a day's bad luck. Today, the man who misses a buck loses little more than part of his shirt at the hands of his companions. Five hundred years ago the man who missed was in imminent danger of losing his reputation, and of being regarded as a slacker, an incompetent, and generally, a pretty sorry type of individual.

illustration of native americans
This illustration in the temporary museum at Ocmulgee National Monument shows a Swift Creek hunter ready to throw a javelin with the use of a throwing-stick

Game was plentiful, as is indicated by the bones of bear, deer, panther, wildcat, raccoon, fox, opossum, beaver, squirrel, and rabbit in the refuse of Indian villages. The collections preserved at Ocmulgee National Monument, Georgia, give us a good idea of the game hunted and the methods used. Turkeys either were abundant or were the favorite game bird as their bones are the most plentiful in village refuse. The occurrence of bones of duck and geese indicated that they were killed occasionally. Small birds apparently were not popular as their bones are seldom found. The size of the kill was certainly an important factor with those who hunted for food rather than sport. Along the rivers and coastal islands fish, shellfish, and even turtles were important articles of diet. The earliest Indians lived almost solely on shellfish, if the tremendous piles of discarded shells are a reliable indication.

Although all possible sources of food were used, the bear and deer were the favorites because of their useful hides and abundance of meat. Moreover, the large bones of these animals could be fashioned into a variety of tools. The canine teeth of the bear furnished material for making excellent ornaments, while deer antler was used for spear points. The deer was, perhaps, the most important animal to the Indian. With the arrival of the English traders, the deer skin assumed an even greater value as it was the basis of all the trade. The history of the Indian trade for deer skins is a fascinating story that unfolds from the earliest settlement until the final expulsion of the Indians from Georgia.

The two major hunting weapons were the spear and the bow. The spear was the earlier and was used for a long time before the bow and arrow were introduced. Spears or javelins, four or five feet in length, were equipped with stone heads, often four inches long and two inches wide. In order to increase the force and distance of the throw, the throwing-stick was extensively used. This useful little gadget was simply a hooked stick about 16 inches long with a hand-grip at the front end. It was usually balanced with a drilled and polished stone at the hook end. With this, the light javelin could be thrown with terrific force, resulting in severe wounds caused by the broad flint points. The javelin, especially when thrown with this stick, was never very accurate. Hence, the introduction of the bow and arrow was a distinct improvement. It took about 20 years to train a bowman thoroughly, and at least that long for the complete mastery of the javelin. This long training period was the most serious drawback to both the bow and spear.

Even with the bow, the early hunter was far from well equipped for the field. That used in Georgia was called the "self-bow", which means that it was of the most primitive type, being simply a tapered stave of ash or oak. It was probably much shorter than is often imagined. The pull was, perhaps, never more than 45 pounds, which is about the average for modern hunting bows. Thus, legends of the Indian's prowess with the bow are probably without foundation. The arrow was of wood or reed, provided with three split feathers. It was tipped with an antler or flint point, of ten of small size. With the increased accuracy and speed of the bow, it was possible to hit vital spots. Arrow points scarcely an inch long have been found imbedded in bone in such a way as to indicate that they were the cause of death. In his method of drawing the bow, or rather of releasing the arrow, the early Georgian was somewhat inefficient. He used only the thumb and forefinger rather than the three-finger-release method of Robin Hood and modern archers. While the former method seems logical, it results in the loss of both distance and accuracy.

illustration of native america hunters

The accompanying illustration is copied from a painting by the Frenchman, Jacques Le Moyne, who sketched the Indians of the Georgia and Florida coasts in 1565. It shows a group of hunters, dressed in skins, stalking deer. The artist has apparently decreased the distance from the hunters to their game in order to make the picture clearer, but they were probably able to get quite near the deer with these disguises. Almost every early traveler in the South described this method and it was apparently a favorite technique. It could not be advocated in the present day of firearms and careless shooting. Dogs were used to drive game, especially bear and deer. Usually the drives were community affairs and seem to have had a sort of picnic air. Various nets and snares were used for small game. It is probable, however, that they did not contribute much more than odds and ends to the diet.

We do not know much about early fishing because it did not leave many definite objects. Many Indians appear to have known the hook and line, and most of then also used nets and traps. Spears and even arrows were extensively employed and probably demanded exceptional skill. A favorite method was the use of native poisons which were placed in streams or overflow ponds. The powdered root of the Dwarf Buckeye was the most important poison, and one traveler records that about a bushel of the stuff poisoned fish for eight miles in one North Georgia stream. It appears to be a most unattractive way to fish, but probably did not greatly affect the taste of the product. Many early travelers describe artificial ponds near Indian villages which were used to hold excess fish until needed. Perhaps fish were regarded as a sort of emergency supply because they were stored easily in these ponds.

Birds were killed with the bow and arrow as well as snares, nets, and traps. The larger birds were naturally favored as game, and turkey seems to have been especially sought. Young birds were caught and tamed to be used as decoys. The eagle was killed less for the meat than for the feathers, which were used in ceremonies. The eagle feather-fan was a required article among the Creeks for nearly all religious or public meetings. Other small game included the various land and water turtles. No specific techniques of catching turtles are recorded and it is probable that turtle chasing was left to young boys.

It is not exactly clear whether the Indian realized that uncontrolled hunting would soon deplete the animal population. Almost all of his hunting methods, however, acted as common-sense conservation measures. Most of the hunting was done in the fall and winter. In the case of bears, the Indian seems to have practiced actual conservation. Certain sections, known as favorite haunts of these animals, were closed periodically until the population again reached larger proportions. After several consecutive closed seasons for these areas the restrictions would be called off and several villages would unite in a big drive.

The Indian, by sharing all game equally, did much to help conserve the native animals and birds. No such thing as a "game-hog" was tolerated. All went hungry or shared what was available. Until the advent of the whites, and the beginning of commercial hunting for deer skins, no Indian ever killed more than was needed by his group. And no meat was ever wasted, except for small portions offered to the spirits. Of course the Indian regarded these morsels as well invested to insure good hunting and continued health. Certainly the Indian regarded hunting as a livelihood rather than sport and was not apt to carry it to excessive slaughter.

In spite of inadequate weapons, the Indians must have derived some pleasure from hunting. Of course the woods were full of spirits which had to be offered various scraps of game, but then the modern hunter has many little superstitions which do not spoil his sport.

map of Ocmulgee NM
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Date: 04-Jul-2002