The Regional Review

Volume VI - Nos. 5 & 6

May-June, 1941


sketch of palisade wall

Four hundred years ago the wooded valley of a winding stream, now called the Ocmulgee River, echoed the tread of warhorse and soldier and the dull crack of the arquebus. These discordant sounds belonged not to the native Indian but signaled the advance of Hernando de Soto and his soldiers in search of a new land filled with glory and gold. The Spaniards never reached the Old Ocmulgee Fields which now comprise Ocmulgee National Monument. They did, however, visit Indian towns a few days' journey down-river, thus giving the modern student his first written record of that past. These Indians we now call Lamar, because the plantation of that name was one of their principal villages. They spoke the Muskogean language and had but recently come into central Georgia conquering and driving out the earlier tribes. Their conquest was not an easy one, however, and we find that their larger towns were carefully defended against attack. These defenses have recently been explored at the Lamar tract and it is now possible to draw an accurate picture of them.

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

The Lamar Indians first chose, as the site for their village, a secluded spot in the Ocmulgee valley. The river valley was much wetter than now. The Ocmulgee River has deposited two or three feet of silt in this region since the forests were cut, thus raising the level of the entire area. The place the Indians picked was a hammock of higher ground in the swamp. This siland or knob, itself fairly dry, was completely surrounded by sloughs and dank bogs. Travel through these swamps today is extremely difficult, except during dry weather. Four hundred years ago travel must have been almost impossible.

At the present the swamps are inhabited by a large and bloodthirsty tribe of mosquitoes. They certainly did not make the Lamar village a pleasant place to live. The Indian, with a protective coat of grease, probably got along with a minimum of slapping and scratching. His practice of keeping the household fire burning from one New Year's Dance to the next may have helped to drive off mosquitoes and gnats.

In addition to the encircling swamps the town was provided with a man-made defense. This consisted of a palisade and ditch completely surrounding the village. The first drawing shows a modern artist's conception of this town. The palisade was arranged in a half circle around the two mounds and the residences of the village. It completely enclosed an area of about 25 acres. This semicircular form was necessary because of the shape of the "island" on which it was built. Their first palisade enclosed a comparatively small area which soon proved too restricted for the village. Then the second line was built which enclosed nearly all of the available land higher than the swamp.

To modern soldiers the palisade would not appear to be of much value in defense. It was made of logs about eight inches thick and twelve to fifteen feet long. These were firmly set in the tough red clay to a depth of about 18 inches, the posts were placed about one foot apart, this resulting in an open or "picket" type of fence about 12 feet high. This palisade was not a curtain or screen to stop arrows, but an obstacle to stop the charging enemy. Outside the stockade was a large open ditch which followed the edge of the island and connected with the swamps. This ditch, partly filled with water and muck, was an additional barricade. Georgia red clay, when wet, is a good obstruction. On some sides, perhaps were attacks had occurred frequently, extra lines of posts were put up to reinforce or screen the main line. Entrances were likewise protected by an outer line of posts, as the Indian had no use for a gate in such a palisade. He constructed the entrance by curving one line outside the other. One early writer described this as resembling the coil of a snail shell. It is probable that small watch towers guarded the entrance. Only one entrance, on the north side, has been found at the Lamar Site. There the outer line of posts forming the entrance disappears into the swamp muck. It is possible that this indicates that travel through the swamps was by canoe. That would seem to be the most pleasant way to travel but we do not know exactly how much water there was in the swamps at that time.

sketch of the Lamar Village
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

At the northwest side of the palisaded town there were two large pits, each more than fifty feet in diameter and at least five feet deep. One lay outside the palisade, the other inside. These pits were kept partly filled with water as the bluish muck in the bottoms clearly shows. Also there was an additional pair of pits at the southeast side. The simplest explanation for these pits is that they were water reservoirs for use during attack. This may well have been their original use, but one of De Soto's soldiers says that such pits were fish ponds. Fish in large numbers were caught in the spring by various methods. A favorite method was to stun the fish with a poison made from the roots of the Dwark Buckeye. Those fish not immediately eaten were placed in the fish ponds to be used when needed. Many kinds of fish found in the region will live for long periods in such small ponds. The Lamar Indians were not very particular about the sanitation of their ponds as large quantities of refuse were found in the pits.

From digging, the archaeologist is able to reconstruct a picture of life in the past. We see a central town of fair size with two temple mounds and many residences. It was built on an "island" of higher ground surrounded by miasmic swamps. Insufficient natural protection caused, or led, the Indians to build a palisade with a maze-like entrance. Outside of that a ditch, partly filled with water, connected with the deep swamps. As the village grew in size the palisade was placed farther out till it bordered the swamp. Convenient ponds were provided for the storage of water and fish. The field, of corn, beans, and squash occupied nearby hammocks in the swamp. Travel may have, been by canoe or by foot, following the winding trails through the bogs. Such a place to live could not have been chosen because it was attractive and must have been dictated by military necessity.

It was during this period that the Muskogean invaders of Georgia developed their native empire that eventually became the Creek Confederacy led by Emperor Brims. They were not purely defensive, however, as they successfully conquered and absorbed many of the earlier tribes.

The Indian method of fighting was based on small parties, surprise and short hand-to-hand combat. The swamps, with the ditch and palisade, prevented real surprises. The palisade, while allowing entrance for daily purposes, gave the defenders some advantage. Close combat usually goes to the party with some defenses, however poor. The palisade probably gave the Lamar people a real sense of security but certainly did not lull them into a false sense of safety.

While the archaeologist can deduce all these things from holes in the ground and from differences in the color of the soil, he must depend on written records to breathe life into his pictures. These written records do not come from the Indian but from early travelers in the South. As mentioned earlier, we have the soldiers of De Soto to thank for one description of the Indian towns and fish ponds. Other writers, soldiers, botanists, and missionaries left descriptions of Indian towns, but one man especially helps us. That was the Frenchman, Jacques le Moyne, a painter of considerable skill, who accompanied the expedition of Laudonnier to the Georgia and Florida Coasts in 1565. This party was to reinforce the Huguenot settlements already threatened by the Spanish. Le Moyne was supposed to map the rivers and paint whatever there was of interest. He was inclined to exaggerate the size of alligators and other strange animals but his drawings show a real ability and a keen perception. The French were disastrously defeated by the Spanish from St. Augustine but le Moyne escaped and returned to France. His paintings were not published until after his death when de Bry issued them, with a Latin text, at Frankfort en-Maine in 1591. As they were drawn in 1565 they represent the coasts of Georgia and Florida during the period of the Lamar Indians.

LeMoyne's drawing of a fortified town - 1565

The first picture shows a fortified village of the period. Le Moyne gave us the following description of their fortifications.

"The Indians are accustomed to build their towns in this manner. Some place is chosen near which a swift stream flows. They level the place as much as they are able. Then they dig a furrow laid out in a circle. Thick round poles of twice a man's height are placed close together around the town (in this furrow) which is carried past the entrance like a snail shell (spiral) so that a narrow entrance is formed. No more than two abreast or together could be admitted. The channel of the stream is also lead to this entrance. To each entrance head it is the custom to erect a small round building, each one full of loop-holes and slots. These houses are well made, considering their means. In these are stationed as sentinels men who can detect the enemy a long ways off; and who, as soon as they discover the enemy pursue them and raise a loud cry, which is heard by the inhabitants of the town. These rush to the defense armed with bows, arrows and clubs. In the center of the town they place the kings house, sunk a little below ground to avoid the sun's mid day rays. Circling this the houses of the nobles."

This is a free translation of the Latin text of the original and fairly well describes the type of fortified town found at Lamar. Those coastal Indians had no mounds but the ditch and palisade were described. They were probably closely related to the Indians of central Georgia and le Moyne's drawing reveals to us a great deal about the remains we have uncovered.

LeMoyne's drawing of the attack on a town - 1565

The second Le Moyne drawing shown illustrates an attack on a palisaded town. Arrows with burning Spanish moss attached are being used to fire the dry thatch of the houses. Little actual combat is shown and the Frenchmen were surprised at the brevity of Indian battles. In connection with this sketch it is interesting that several burned houses were found at Lamar. The attack was only partly successful and a later picture shows some houses still burning while the Indians sadly bury their chief with appropriate ceremonies.

The Lamar site is being systematically excavated. In the future it will be possible to restore the palisade and the houses. In that restoration the work of the archaeologist and the early painter Jacques le Moyne will be combined to recreate the village of an Indian tribe who lived on the banks of the Ocmulgee when De Soto invaded Georgia four hundred years ago.

Palisades with Native Americans in front

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Date: 04-Jul-2002