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Alabama's Indian Peoples:
Their Towns and Traditions

William Bartram Describes an Eighteenth-Century Creek Town

The town, or talwa, was the heart of Creek Indian political and social life. The town was also the central organizational feature of the other southeastern tribes, such as the Choctaw and Chickasaw. To portray the flavor of what an actual traveler to an eighteenth-century Indian town might have experienced, teachers could distribute copies of William Bartram's account of his visit to the Upper Creek town of Otassee (spelled Attasse by Bartram), near the Tallapoosa River in what is now Macon County.

William Bartram was a naturalist who toured the South in the early 1770s collecting plant specimens and recording information about the native plants, animals and peoples of the region. On his trip through what is now Alabama, he traveled with a caravan of deerskin traders. In December 1775, he spent almost a week at Otassee, an important Upper Creek town. When Bartram visited the town, it was home to approximately 400 people. During the Creek War of 1813-1814, the town was the site of a major battle and was destroyed.

By examining Bartram's account of his stay at Otassee, students should become familiar with the concept of the Creek town and come to understand the importance of diplomacy and ceremony to the Creeks, particularly the importance of the sacred central fire, Black Drink, and smoking tobacco. His vivid descriptions of the town's square and winter council house will provide students with a better idea of the settled, agricultural lifestyle of Alabama's native peoples. Bartram's account also introduces students to the single most important force in Indian life in the eighteenth century: the deerskin trade.

Bartram's account is taken from William Bartram on the Southeastern Indians. This work, as well as those listed in the bibliography, provides additional information on the cultural practices described by Bartram and could be used as a reference by the teacher.

Primary Source:
The following is excerpted from pages 102-105 of William Bartram on the Southeastern Indians, edited and annotated by Gregory A. Waselkov and Kathryn E. Holland Braund, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1995 by the University of Nebraska Press. Bracketed numbers refer to an eighteenth-century edition of Bartram's work.

[450] Leaving Coolome, I re-crossed the river at Tuccabache, an ancient and large town, thence continuing up the river, and at evening arrived at Attasse, where I continued near a week, waiting the preparations of the traders, with whom I was to join in company to Augusta.

The next day after my arrival, I was introduced to the ancient chiefs, at the public square or areopagus, and in the evening in company with the traders, who are numerous in this town, repaired to the great rotunda, where were assembled the greatest number of ancient venerable chiefs and warriors that I had ever beheld; we spent the evening and greater part of the night together, in drinking Cassine and smoking Tobacco. The great counsel-house or rotunda is appropriated to much the same purpose as the public square, but more private, and seems particularly dedicated to political affairs; women and youth are never admitted; and I suppose it is death for a female to presume to enter the door, or approach within its pale. It is a vast conical building or circular dome, capable of accomodating many hundred people; constructed and furnished within, exactly in the same manner as those of the Cherokees already described, but much larger than any I had seen there; there are people appointed to take care of it, to have it daily swept clean, to provide canes for fuel or to give light.

As their vigils and manner of conducting their vespers and mystical fire in this rotunda, is extremely singular, and altogether different from the customs and usages of any other people, I shall proceed to describe it. In the first place, the governor or officer who has the management of this business, with his servants attending, orders the black drink [451] to be brewed, which is a decoction or infusion of leaves and tender shoots of the Cassine: this is done under an open shed or pavilion, at twenty or thirty yards distance, directly opposite the door of the council-house. Next he orders bundles of dry Canes to be brought in; these are previously split and broke in pieces to about the length of two feet, and then placed obliquely crossways upon one another on the floor, forming a spiral circle round about the great centre pillar, rising to a foot or eighteen inches in height from the ground; and this circle spreading as it proceeds round and round, often repeated from right to left, every revolution encreases its diameter, and at length extends to the distance of ten or twelve feet from the centre, more or less, according to the length of time the assembly or meeting is to continue. By the time these preparations are accomplished it is night, and the assembly taken their seats in order. The exterior extremity or outer end of the spiral circle takes fire and immediately rises into a bright flame (but how this is effected I did not plainly apprehend; I saw no person set fire to it; there might have been fire left on the hearth, however, I neither smelt fire or smoke until the blaze instantly ascended upwards) which gradually and slowly creeps round the centre pillar, with the course of the sun, feeding on the dry Canes, and affords a cheerful, gentle and sufficient light until the circle is consumed, when the council breaks up. Soon after this illumination takes place, the aged chiefs and warrior being seated on their cabbins or sophas, on the side of the house opposite the door, in three classes or ranks, rising a little, one above or behind the other; and the white people and red people of confederate towns in the like order on the left hand: a trans-[452]verse range of pillars, supporting a thin clay wall about breast high, separates them: the king's cabbin or seat is in front, the

next back of it the head warriors, and the third or last accommodates the young warriors, &c. the great war chief's seat or place is on the same cabbin with, and immediately to the left hand of the king and next to the white people, and to the right hand of the mico or king the most venerable head men and warriors are seated. The assembly being now seated in order, and the house illuminated, two middle aged men, who perform the office of slaves or servant, pro tempore, come in together at the door, each having very large conch shells full of black drink, advancing with slow, uniform and steady steps, their eyes or countenances lifted up, singing very low but sweetly, advance within six or eight paces of the king's and white people's cabbins, when they stop together, and each rests his shell on a tripos or little tables, but presently takes it up again, and bowing very low, advances obsequiously, crossing or intersecting each other about midway: he who rested his shell before the white people now stands before the king, and the other who stopped before the king stands before the white people, when each presents his shell, one to the king and the other to the chief of the white people, and as soon as he raises it to his mouth the slave utters or sings two notes, each of which continues as long as he has breath, and as long as these notes continue, so long must the person drink, or at least keep the shell to his mouth. These two long notes are very solemn, and at once strike the imagination with a religious awe or homage to the Supreme, sounding somewhat like a-hoo _ ojah and a-lu _ yah. After this the manner the whole assembly are treated, as long as the drink and light continues to hold out, [453] and as soon as the drinking begins, Tobacco and pipes are brought. The skin of a wild cat or young tyger stuffed with Tobacco is brought, and laid at the king's feet, with the great or royal pipe beautifully adorned; the skin is usually of the animals of the king's family or tribe, as the wild-cat, otter, bear, rattle-snake, &c. A skin of Tobacco is likewise brought and cast at the feet of the white chief of the town, and from him it passes on from one to another to fill their pipes from, though each person has besides his own peculiar skin of Tobacco. The king or chief smokes first in the great pipe a few whiffs, blowing it off ceremoniously, first towards the sun, or as it is generally supposed to the Great Spirit, for it is puffed upwards, next towards the four cardinal points, then towards the white people in the house, then the great pipe is taken from the hand of the mico by a slave, and presented to the chief white man, and then to the great war chief, whence it circulates through the rank of head men and warriors, then returns to the king. After this each one fills his pipe from his own or neighbours skin.

The great or public square generally stands alone, in the centre and highest part of town, it consist of foursquare or cubical buildings, or houses of one story, uniform, and of the same dimensions, so situated as to form an exact tetragon, encompassing an area of half an acre of ground, more or less, According to the strength or largeness of the town, or will of the inhabitants; there is a passage or avenue at each corner of equal width; each building is constructed of a wooden frame fixed strong in the earth, the walls filled in, and neatly plaistered with clay mortar; close [454] on three sides, that is the back and two ends, except within about two feet of the wall plate or eves, which is left open for the purpose of a window and to admit a free passage of the air; the front or side next to the area is quite open like a piazza. One of these buildings which is properly the counsel-house, where the mico chiefs and wariors, with the citizens who have business, or choose to repair thither, assemble every day in counsel; to hear, decide and rectify all grievances, complaints and contentions, arising betwixt the citizens; give audience to ambassadors, and strangers, hear news and talks from confederate towns, allies or distant nations; to consult about the particular affairs of the town, as erecting habitations for new citizens, or establishing young families, concerning agriculture &c. &c. and this building is somewhat different from the other three; it is closely shut up on three sides, that is, the back and

two ends, and besides a partition wall longitudinally from end to end divides it into two apartments, the back part totally dark, only three small arched apertures or holes opening into the front apartment or piazza, and are little larger than just to admit a man to crawl in upon his hands and knees. This secluded place appears to me to be designed as a sanctuary dedicated to religion or rather priest craft; for here are deposited all the sacred things, as the physic pot, rattles, chaplets of deer's hoofs and other apparatus of conjuration; and likewise the calumet or great pipe of peace, the imperial standard, or eagle's tail, which is made of feathers of the white eagles tail curiously formed and displayed like an [455] open fan on a sceptre or staff, as white and clean as possible when displayed for peace; but when for war, the feathers are painted or tinged with vermillion. The piazza or front of this building, is equally divided into three apartments, by two transverse walls or partitions, about breast high, each having three orders or ranges of seats or cabins stepping one above and behind the other, which accommodate the senate and audience, the like order as observed in the rotunda. The other three buildings which compose the square, are alike furnished with three ranges of cabins or sophas, and serve for a banqueting-house, to shelter and accommodate the audience and spectators at all times, particularly at feasts or public entertainments, where all classes of citizens resort day and night in the summer or moderate season; the children and females however are seldom or never seen in the public square.

The pillars and walls of the houses of the square were decorated with various paintings and sculptures; which I suppose to be hieroglyphic, and as an historic legendary of political and sacerdotal affairs: but they are extremely picturesque or caricature, as men in variety of attitudes, some ludicrous enough, other having the head of some kind of animal as those of a duck, turkey, bear, fox, wolf, buck, &c. and again those kind of creatures are represented having the human head. These designs were not ill executed, the outlines bold, free and well proportioned. The pillars supporting the front or piazza of the council-house of the square, were ingeniously formed in the likeness of vast speckled serpents, ascending upward; the Otasses being of the snake family or tribe.