This Was the First Real North American Empire
Timing was everything for Christopher Columbus and the handful of Europeans who initially followed in his wake after the Italian explorer “sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” Had such bold men crossed the Atlantic a scant seven decades earlier, they would have encountered, instead of scattered, primitive tribes, a civilization more than capable of halting their European intrusion into the New World.
For more than a millennium the interconnected peoples of the Mississippian culture built cities, warred and traded across the trail systems and rivers lacing what today is the eastern half of the United States. The loose confederation comprised upward of 3 million people from some 60 different tribes speaking more than 30 languages and spanned from Virginia to the Rockies and the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. The civilization dominated the region from roughly 700 to 1420.
Fourteen-acre Monks Mound anchors the site of Cahokia, the largest Mississippian culture city, east of present-day St. Louis. ( Matthew Gush/Alamy Stock Photo)
Mississippians initially settled along the major rivers in the Midwest and Southeast, where they developed fortified settlements with protective palisades, broad plazas and large earthen mounds. Though primarily farmers, they were also exceptional potters and metalworkers, primarily in copper. Warfare among the disparate tribes was continual, but they did share certain basic religious tenets, such as their concept of a sun god. They also indulged in high-stakes gaming and gambling. Their cities became the springboards for familial dynastic ambitions.
The largest of these cities was Cahokia, with an estimated peak population approaching 20,000. Sprawling across 6 square miles on the east bank of the Mississippi River immediately opposite present-day St. Louis, Mo., the city encompassed some 120 earthen mounds. Today 2,200-acre Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site centers on the largest surviving Mississippian earthwork, Monks Mound, which stands 100 feet high and occupies 14 acres. Its size is all the more remarkable when one considers the millions of cubic feet of earth brought to the site basketful by basketful. It was atop such mounds residents held religious ceremonies, proffered offerings and human sacrifices and interred the bodies of deceased nobles. Farmers, tradesmen and commoners alike built their homes—simple thatched huts—adjacent to these ceremonial mounds, while secondary plazas on the fringes of each settlement served as farmers markets.
Cahokia manufactured ornaments and other trade objects crafted from stone, shell, bone and copper, as well as daggers, maces and other weapons renowned across the Mississippian world. Such were must-have items among the nobility of other cities, including Spiro and Natchez, for the Cahokians were trendsetters. Their goods spread across North America, speaking to a robust trade system that returned to these cities hoes of stone and bison bone from the Great Plains, copper from Lake Superior and shells from the Gulf of Mexico.
This effigy pipe of a male figure known as Resting Warrior or Big Boy is from Spiro Mounds, in eastern Oklahoma. (University of Arkansas Museum)
Yet, by the mid-14th century Cahokia had collapsed. There is no evidence of an attack at the site, let alone conquest by another people. Many researchers believe the city simply could not sustain itself at the size it had reached, so its people scattered. The broader Mississippian culture hung on another century or so.
From its 10th century origins Spiro, along the present-day Oklahoma-Arkansas border, evolved into an important religious and political center of the Mississippian culture. Primarily traders, the Spiroans established outposts along the great rivers at which they exchanged pipes and pottery for buffalo hides, meat and shoulder bones they used as plows. The Spiroans and surrounding peoples sustained themselves with harvests of corn, beans and squash from the rich soil of alluvial floodplains. One distinguishing characteristic of the Spiroans was the deliberate deformation of their skulls. Shortly after giving birth, mothers would tightly wrap animal skins around their babies’ heads, gradually transforming their skulls into conical, oblong shapes unmistakable by other tribes even at a distance. It is thought they did so to mark their status in society and familial or clan membership.
While Spiro’s population peaked at about 10,000 people, the winter and summer solstices drew thousands more for three days of religious ceremonies. In Spiro’s Temple Plaza anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 men could be found paying homage to their sun god, who spoke through the priests, telling them when to plant their crops, how to conduct their ceremonies and other details of religious and everyday life. In preparation for such ceremonies, worshipers smoked sacred tobacco, drank a highly caffeinated purgative tea brewed from yaupon holly leaves they called the “black drink” and then promptly vomited up the contents. After three days without food, water or sleep, they would dance, sing and wait for planting instructions from the priests.
Around the turn of the 15th century crop yields began to decrease in Spiro and other cities across the Mississippian world. The Little Ice Age, which gripped Europe in cold, also took a toll in North America. At first Spiro traded for food with the cities in warmer climes to the Southeast, until those cities also began to feel the pinch from a changing climate. The alarmed priests ultimately had Spiro evacuated, remaining behind in order to perform religious rites in hopes of appeasing their god. Fleeing residents migrated west and south to settle in neighboring communities, much like modern-day exoduses from major cities to suburban enclaves.
Researchers believe that around 1420 the Spiroan priests, their efforts having failed to stem crop losses or stave off hunger, decided to make a final grand spiritual appeal to their sun god. After having everything deemed religious brought to Spiro and ceremonially buried in the sacred mounds, the priests resumed their religious rites for more than a year.
But there was no turning back to better times. Crop failures became endemic, and the consequent drop in food supply made it impossible to sustain large, concentrated populations. Out of options, the Spiroans and other city-dwelling Mississippians dispersed into the surrounding countryside, forming smaller groups and doing their best to survive. The collapse in many respects echoed the fall of the Roman empire.
For the first time in centuries the disparate peoples of North America returned to their tribal and seminomadic roots even as Spanish and French explorers began penetrating the continent. Much of our knowledge of Mississippian culture derives from observations of the Grand Village of the Natchez, in the lower Mississippi Valley, which survived well into the period of European colonization. While the people of Natchez resisted French incursion, by 1731 they had been defeated and dispersed, some seeking refuge and blending into such well known tribes as the Chickasaws, Cherokees and Muscogees (Creeks). Their bloodline survives, if not in name.