While I was in Georgia I went to the Old Ocmulgee Fields on the Macon Plateau to pay my respects to some of my ancestors. My great grandmother, Melindy Philips was a full-blooded Muscogee Indian.
The Southeastern area of North America has been inhabited for about the last 12,000 years. The Ocmulgee National Monument preserves some of the archaeological and cultural artefacts of the Mississippian people who had flourished there from A.D. 900-1150 including a burial mound, temple mounds and a reconstructed earth lodge. There are also remains of prehistoric trenches and the site of a colonial British trading post.
Great Temple Mound
Ocmulgee is situated on the ancient Lower Creek trading path which was the main artery from north to southwest Georgia for many years. The Ocmulgee fields are situated near woodland, swamp and rich bottomland which was farmed by the indigenous people.
The Muscogee lived in what are now the states of Georgia and Alabama until 1836 and their forced removal to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Muscogee built a large town on the site in about 1690 to trade with the British. The village was abandoned in 1715 after the Muscogee were defeated by the colonists in the Yamassee war. In the following years as the Muscogee were forced to cede their traditional lands to the American government and state of Georgia, they held onto the Old Ocmulgee Fields until their Removal in 1836. Even though they hadn’t lived there since 1715 it was a sacred place to them and they would go there to hunt, fish and pay their respects to the ancestors.
Andrew Jackson, a war hero from Tennessee, was a forceful proponent of Indian removal. From 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west.
In 1830, just a year after taking office as the 7th president of the United States, Jackson pushed a new piece of legislation called the “Indian Removal Act” through both houses of Congress. It gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. Under these treaties, the Indians were to give up their lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands to the west. Those wishing to remain in the east would become citizens of their home state. This act affected not only the southeastern nations, but many others further north. The removal was supposed to be voluntary and peaceful, and it was that way for the tribes that agreed to the conditions. But the southeastern nations resisted, and Jackson forced them to leave.
The Muscogee refused to emigrate. They signed a treaty in March, 1832, which opened a large portion of their Alabama land to white settlement, but guaranteed them protected ownership of the remaining portion, which was divided among the leading families. The government did not protect them from speculators, however, who quickly cheated them out of their lands. By 1835 the destitute Muscogee began stealing livestock and crops from white settlers. Some eventually committed arson and murder in retaliation for their brutal treatment. In 1836 the Secretary of War ordered the removal of the Muscogee as a military necessity. By 1837, approximately 15,000 Muscogee had migrated west. They had never signed a removal treaty.
The Muscogee were called the Creeks by English and European settlers. During the summer and winter of 1836-early 1837, over 14,000 Muscogee made the three-month journey to Oklahoma, a trip of over 800 land miles and another 400 by water. Most left with only what they could carry. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 8,000 died during the journey.
In 1936 Ocmulgee National Monument was established and it was hoped that 2000 acres would be protected. Due to economic constraints, only 702 acres were set aside which are now administered by the National Park Service. There are 5 ½ miles of trails throughout the Park and there is a pretty comprehensive visitor center with a major archaeological museum. Exhibits describe the human habitation of the area with an emphasis on the Mississippian town that flourished from AD 900 – 1150.
Ocmulgee is a very beautiful and peaceful place. I thought about my ancestors who had lived and died there, held within the forest. I walked through the woods, along the swamp and down to the Ocmulgee River. I crossed through the bottomland where corn, beans and squash were farmed. I paid my respects to my ancestors at the funeral mound. I climbed to the top of the two temple mounds. I laid atop the Great Temple Mound and an emerald dragonfly landed upon my upturned palm.
It had rained the night before. As I entered into the forest and followed the ancient traces, the trees seemed to weep. Strange birds (wazhinga) that I had never heard before flew and called overhead. This place has been home for many thousands of years. A swarm of winged insects on a rotting log took flight one by one, spiralling upward into a shaft of sunlight.
While I was walking, I encountered some of the creatures who live there now. In the woods, I saw a deer (eco) who looked at me for a long while before it turned and bounded into the depths of the forest. A very patient box turtle stopped while I examined the patterns on its shell and head and legs. Then it resumed its lumbersome journey.
In the swamp, some other turtles were sunning themselves on logs.
Sunbaked turtles basking on swamp logs slip into the still, dark water.
In the bottomland near a stream I saw a rat snake (cetto) who was nearly three feet long. When I got quite close to the snake, it pointed its head towards me and flicked the end of its tail. I later learned that they can sense the size of animal by its body heat and then decide whether or not the animal is small enough to eat. I gave it plenty ofpersonal space even though I was too big for it.
Then it started to burrow underneath the leaves and dirt so it could cool off. Its steely grey scales were luminous.
Can you remember being held by the earth,
encircled by the trees
and speaking the language of the forest?