The Creek Indians are more properly called the Muscogee, alternatively spelled Mvskoke. Creek oral tradition, recorded in the eighteenth century, told a legend of migration of one group of ancestral Creeks who established a colony at the Ocmulgee site near present Macon, Georgia. From that colony grew the pivotal towns of Cusseta and Coweta, in the period of A.D. 900-1000. The historic Creek Confederacy eventually was so widespread and influential that early-twentieth-century scientists speculated that Mississippian migrants had left their central Mississippi Valley homeland and journeyed onto the Macon Plateau, where they settled at Ocmulgee before beginning their regional expansion. Archaeologists corroborated that Ocmulgee Mounds was one of the ancestral Creek residences.
Subsequent archaeological investigations indicated that Creek Indians derived from prehistoric South Appalachian woodland cultures such as Western Lamar in the region of present Georgia and Alabama. While there were local variations, all were believed to share what is termed Mississippian culture. They resided in fortified towns, which had flat-topped pyramid temple mounds surrounding a central plaza. The Mississippian culture declined after A.D. 1400, which then became single-mound ceremonial centers among separate towns that were either related or allied. Perhaps half of them used the Mvskoke language, which was spoken along the Coosa and Tallapoosa watercourses, while those who lived along the Chattahoochee River perhaps spoke Hitchiti and Euchee. Although the people spoke different languages, they shared basic traits and beliefs with other Southeastern Indians. The arrival of Europeans accelerated the decline and had a devastating demographic impact upon the natives.
Coosa had been an influential paramount chiefdom prior to the Hernando de Soto expedition's visit in the 1540s but rapidly declined in the aftermath. The diseases introduced by those Spaniards decimated the Creek towns, and their survivors coalesced as populations shifted. Refugees from Coosa along the Coosawattee River at the headwaters of the Coosa River in northwestern Georgia moved downstream to Alabama, where they merged with other town survivors like Abika. The towns of Abika, Coosa, Coweta, and Tuckabutche are considered the four "mother" towns of the Creek Confederacy, featured in oral migration stories.
Each Creek town had a ceremonial center like the former Mississippian plaza. At one edge was a rotunda or council house in which elders transacted town business. Nearby were a chunkey yard and a ball-play ground. Maternal clans determined membership in the society, but members also held loyalty to a town beyond the clan, unlike many other Indian tribes. The confederacy's towns were divided into red/war and white/peace groups. With the assistance of advisors, a meko ruled each town. Creek clans and towns met annually. During the early eighteenth century Creeks had at least fifty towns and a population of more than twenty thousand.
Population shifts, amalgamation of town survivors, pressure from slave traders, and changes in trade practices all combined to accelerate a long-term trend toward merging groups aimed at stability. This led to formation of what Europeans termed the Creek Confederacy, especially under Alexander McGillivray in the late eighteenth century. British traders labeled the Indians along the Ochese Creek by that geographic name and eventually it was simplified to "Creeks." The Indian slave trade transformed the interior of the Southeast to 1717 and then was replaced by the deerskin trade through the first half of the eighteenth century. Trade helped transform Indian society.
After the pivotal Yamasee War (1715 16), influence of the Creek Confederacy peaked, while the Upper Creek division of the Creek Nation coalesced. The emerging division of the confederacy led Upper Creeks to reside along the Tallapoosa River in northwestern Georgia, while Lower Creeks lived along the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries in southeastern Alabama. Rival European desires, combined with shrewd native diplomatic and survival skills, made the Creek predominant in the region. Creeks maintained a delicate balance of French, Spanish, and British colonial interests until the British emerged in 1763 as the sole European power. The Americans succeeded to British influence after 1783.
McGillivray's death (1793) left Creek interests under the guidance of U.S. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins in that decade. He implemented an assimilation policy that emphasized missions, education, and individualized farming. His policy made inroads among Lower Creek towns. Eventually, the changes that became visible, like ownership of slaves, Anglo clothing and lifestyle, and restructured government, lent the assumption and label "civilized" to the tribe.
The "Red Stick War" of 1812 14 climaxed in what is known as the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, among the Upper Creeks. A punitive land cession resulted. The treaty led to increased Anglo settler pressure and to the growing prominence of William McIntosh of the Lower Creeks. The latter removed west of the Mississippi River in the 1820s. Thereafter, Opothleyahola's leadership of the Upper Creeks increased. The majority of the Creeks with their slaves were removed over their Trail of Tears to a new Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, through the late 1830s.
Lower Creeks settled in the Three Forks area of the Arkansas River in Indian Territory, while the Upper Creeks lived along the North Fork, Deep Fork, and Canadian River valleys in their new homeland. They still showed their ancient divisions of the old confederacy. The disparate groups numbering perhaps only thirteen thousand by then agreed (1840) to a new national government, located at both Upper and Lower Creek sites of Council Hill, in present Tulsa. A new golden age of independent development ensued but was short lived. The Civil War destroyed much that had been built up in the Creek Nation, but another new national government, modeled on a bicameral legislative system similar to that of the United States, emerged after 1866. It was located at the newly selected national capital in Okmulgee. The nation formulated a new constitution the following year.
Again, a period of rebuilding began as the Creek Nation prospered while the tribe was left to its own influences. Schools, churches, and public houses were built as the tribe reestablished itself as a working government. At Okmulgee a national capitol building was constructed in 1867 and then enlarged in 1878. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Creek National Capitol (the present Creek Council House Museum) is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 66000632).
The rebuilding of the tribe continued. Its florescence was marred by changes on the United States level that were all too familiar land envy. Beginning in the 1880s an outburst of violence from a bloody political turmoil of resistance greeted the renewal of allotment and assimilation policies that climaxed with Oklahoma statehood (1907). The Creeks lost more than two million acres of allotted domain. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mainstream pressures gradually transformed many of the forty-seven tribal towns from ceremonial grounds into rural agricultural communities. These centered on their Baptist Indian church among Upper Creeks and their Methodist Indian church for descendants of Lower Creeks. The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act (1936) helped establish the former Creek tribal towns of Kialegee, Thlopthlocco, and Alabama-Quassarte as sovereign nations.
The federal government permitted the Creek Nation to elect its own principal chief beginning in 1970. The Harjo v. Kleppe (1976) case marked the end of federal paternalism and the start of a new era for a revitalized Indian nation. The elected government supports three branches of tribal governmental organization and ongoing economic development. There are presently more than fifty-eight thousand tribe members, based on a descendancy roll stemming from the Dawes allotment rolls. Some tribal citizens are spread throughout eleven Oklahoma counties that formed the historic Creek Nation boundaries as well as throughout the world. A mix of gaming, farming, and other business income combined with federal expenditures to support a wide range of Creek Nation programs and services, which included tribal government offices, a national council, a tribal court system, police force, business enterprises, health care, housing, education, and expenditures on infrastructure within the boundaries of the historic Creek Nation. A new constitution in 1975 replaced the 1867 document. A series of federal court decisions through the 1980s helped bolster Creek Nation sovereignty.
Creek claimants that are scattered across the Southeast have sought federal recognition. The Poarch Band of Eastern Creeks in southern Alabama gained recognition in 1984. More than two thousand of them reside near Atmore, a town in the ancient Creek homeland. Still other Creeks are spread throughout the nation in an urban diaspora, with Creek families seeking employment in Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and other cities. There are also descendants among most ethnic groups in the United States, including blacks, who are called Freedmen, although the latter have no tribal rights.
Despite tragedies and drastic changes through the years, the Muscogee survived. Through a series of rebuilding stages, the culture, the language, the hymns, the medicine songs, and the traditions were still enjoyed during the early twenty-first century. The people continued to celebrate their cultural heritage. They still danced around the sacred fire and sang sacred songs to their Creator, and they still offered hymns to their Savior. They continued to transact tribal business in the Mvskoke language. New stories of contemporary life joined ancient oral literature to chronicle cultural activities, including the high jinks of the trickster Rabbit, the traditional culture hero. As in those stories, the Mvskoke people learned lessons of perseverance and overcoming adversity, which is the hallmark of the Este Mvskokvlke (Creek people) of the old Southeast.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Angie Debo, The Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941). Michael D. Green, The Creeks (New York: Chelsea House, 1990). John R. Swanton, Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors (1922; reprint, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998).
Theodore Isham and Blue Clark
© Oklahoma Historical Society