Articles

A MUSCOGEE BRASS MEDALLION

 

The immense Swift Creek Culture collapsed around AD 600 in the Southeast of the North American continent.  From its demise came many smaller cultural entities that were later given such names as Pee Dee, Irene, Little Egypt and Burke and which lasted for about another 800-1,000 years.  These were traditions of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex also called the Southern Cult and they were known for building large ceremonial and burial mounds under the auspices of regional autocratic rulers.  As the ordinary citizens tired of doing all the drudgery for these spiritual but lackadaisical kings and their courtly appointees, the Southern Cult also collapsed.  But what became of all these ordinary citizens?  In the region that is now Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina, these native people began a new communal group, that called themselves the Muscogee Confederacy  (pronounced Muss-KOH-gee with a hard “g” as in go).  These natives built new or continued to live in old villages along the many rivers in the region beginning in the first half of the sixteenth century AD.  But they had no supreme political and divine rulers and instead each individual town reportedly elected a chief or Mico and assistant chief or Mico Apokta by popular vote.  This consortium of villages and Indians was a loose association of the mainly Muskogee related people though others were seemingly welcome to join the alliance.  They are, today, more generally known as Creek Indians which comes from the eighteenth century English naming of them after Ocheese Creek in Georgia or as it is better recognized today, the Okmulgee River.   From shortly after AD 1500 until the groups were forcefully removed from the territory, by the United States government in the 1830’s, the confederacy was in continual change as village bands joined or withdrew from the federation.  The names used today for some of the larger individual Muscogee villages are Coosa, Cusseta, Koasati, Yuchi, Tukabatchee, Coweta, Abihka, Tuskegee, Chiaha, Oakfuskee and Hitchiti in their native language of Muskoke and were mostly centered around the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in modern Alabama and the Flint and Okmulgee Rivers in Georgia.  There were four very large towns known as “mother towns” that were named Abihka and Tukabatchee in Alabama and Coosa and Coweta in Georgia and they more or less governed the indigenous people in their respective territories.  And their lifestyles were probably good for these natives since they no longer had to build massive earthen mounds and support pious and greedy kingly courts and they most likely had plenty of  game animals and fish and corn for food.  That is until the Spaniard Hernando de Soto brought his legion into the territory in AD 1540.  And then more Spanish explorers began investigating the coastal areas of Florida and Alabama and constructing forts and towns inland along the rivers.  Subsequently the French and English decided they must have a presence in the Southeast region in a futile attempt at quick riches.  Soon an estimated eighty percent or more of the native population was gone from European introduced smallpox and measles, from being kidnapped into slavery and from being killed by the European guns.

 

Of course, these European invaders did not locate an anticipated hoard  of silver and gold but they did find another commodity wanted in the Old Country – a steady supply of deer skins for the European leather working industry.  And they discovered that the American natives were willing to trade the skins for items the Europeans considered to be low cost items such as brass, and iron and glass ornaments and tools.  So a flourishing trade began in the late sixteenth century between the natives and the conquerors-to-be for the animal skins as well as the much cherished land.  These Europeans brought in iron axes and hoes and cooking pots and skillets to replace the stone implements made and used by the Indians.  They also traded woolen cloth and brass items such as circular disks, bells, kettles and small beads for use and adornment by the metal-hungry Amerinds and later the brass beads were replaced by millions of glass beads made in Europe.  They also, on rare occasions, traded flintlock guns to the natives. 

The Muscogee citizenry evidently relished the circular polished brass disks or medallions which they used as body ornaments.  There are  reports of the village elders and chiefs suspending the brilliant embellishments from their necks and allowing them to rest on their chests.  These trade items, that were considered to be sun disks by the natives, varied in sizes with most being four to six inches in diameter but some were much bigger.  The famous and much written about, and now possibly forever lost, circular brass Tukabatchee plates were supposedly about 18 inches across according to first hand reports from Europeans visiting or living with the Creek people during the AD 1600-1800 time period.  The Natchez Indians, who were living in the current state of Mississippi and who were probably related to the Muscogee people, had a king who was known to his people as Great Sun.  When the French visited his group in AD 1682, the king was given a large highly polished brass medallion which he wore on his chest until the French later took him prisoner, and sold him into the slave trade, during the French/Natchez War. .  After the conflict, a large group of these Indians existing in Mississippi relocated so as to live with the Muscogee in Central Alabama.

This particular brass disk was found on the Town House Hill Site adjacent to the Tallapoosa River in Macon Co, AL. This village was across the river from the famed and reportedly “five miles long” Tukabatchee town.  And only a few miles south of Town House Hill is the location where the great Seminole leader Osceola is believed to have been born and spent his youth.  This plate is 5 11/16 inches in diameter with a small 5/16 inch hole in the center.  There is a narrow pressure tear going from one edge to the center hole which is common on these decorative artifacts.   Such cracks as this are caused by stress from the upheaval and contraction of the acidic soil during freezing and thawing periods while the thin brass sun disk was in the ground.  There is considerable patina on the plaque from it being subjected to several hundred years of mineral percolation through the soil which included decades of chemical fertilizers being dug into the earth using modern agricultural techniques.   It could have been bartered to some Muscogee official by Spanish or French or English traders as far back as maybe AD 1600 or as late as perhaps 1800.  We will probably never know exactly from where or when it came to this Creek village.  But we can certainly believe that some hundreds of years ago, a native warrior was certainly the envy of his fellow peoples as he paraded around the village wearing his polished and gleaming sun disk - this Muscogee brass medallion.

 

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