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Pre-contact distribution of the Natchez people
|Regions with significant populations|
|United States Mississippi- Natchez Bluffs,(historical)|
|English, Natchez (isolated language)|
|Related ethnic groups|
Pre-contact distribution of the Natchez people
|Regions with significant populations|
|United States Mississippi- Natchez Bluffs,(historical)|
|English, Natchez (isolated language)|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Natchez // (Natchez language pronunciation [naːʃt͡seh]) are a Native American people who originally lived in the Natchez Bluffs area, near the present-day city of Natchez, Mississippi. They spoke a language isolate that has no known close relatives, although it may be very distantly related to the Muskogean languages of the Creek Confederacy.
The Natchez are noted for being the only Mississippian culture with complex chiefdom characteristics to have survived long into the period after the European colonization of America began. Others had generally declined a century or two before European encounter. The Natchez are also noted for having had an unusual social system of nobility classes and exogamous marriage practices. It was a strongly matrilineal society with descent reckoned along female lines. The paramount chief named the Great Sun was always the son of the Female Sun, whose daughter would be the mother of the next Great Sun. This ensured that the chiefdom stayed under the control of the single Sun lineage. Ethnologists have not reached consensus on how the Natchez social system originally functioned, and the topic is somewhat controversial.
Around 1730, after several wars with the French, the Natchez were defeated and dispersed. Most survivors were sold by the French into slavery in the West Indies; others took refuge with other tribes, such as the Muskogean Chickasaw and Creek, and the Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee. Today, most Natchez families and communities are found in Oklahoma, where the Natchez Nation is a treaty tribe. Members are also enrolled in the federally recognized Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations. Two Natchez communities are recognized by the state of South Carolina.
The historic Natchez were preceded in this area by what archaeologists call the indigenous Plaquemine culture, part of the larger, prehistoric Mississippian culture, which extended throughout the lower Mississippi Valley and its tributaries. Its peoples were noted for their hierarchical communities, building complex earthworks, platform mound architecture; and intensive cultivation of maize. Archaeological evidence indicates that people of the Plaquemine culture, an elaboration of the Coles Creek culture, had lived in the Natchez Bluffs region since at least as long ago as 700 CE. The Natchez Bluffs are located along the east side of the Mississippi River in present-day Mississippi. During the late prehistoric era, around 1500, Plaquemine-culture people occupied territory from the Big Black River in the north to about the Homochitto River in the south. The Plaquemine people built many platform mounds, including Emerald Mound, the second largest pre-Columbian structure in North America north of Mexico. Emerald Mound was an important ceremonial center.
The Natchez used Emerald Mound in their time, but they abandoned the site before 1700. Their center of power shifted to the Grand Village of the Natchez. The Grand Village has three platform mounds.
By 1700, the Natchez occupied a territory that covered only an area roughly between Fairchilds Creek and South Fork Coles Creek in the north to St. Catherine's Creek in the south. This area is approximately that of the northern half of present-day Adams County, Mississippi.
The earliest European account of the Natchez comes from the Spanish expedition of Hernando de Soto. In 1542 de Soto's expedition encountered a powerful nation which he called the "province of Quigualtam," the leader's name. Scholars have classified this as an Emerald Phase (1500 - 1680) emirate of the Mississippian Natchez chiefdom presumed the Winterville site. The encounter was brief and violent, and few Spanish escaped with their lives. No further European contact with the indigenous people in this area occurred for more than 140 years, by which time disease and other intrusions had reduced the native populations severely. Natchez culture continued at "The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians".
The French explored the lower Mississippi River in the late 17th century. Initial French-Natchez encounters were mixed. In 1682 René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle led an expedition down the Mississippi River. The Natchez received the party well, but when the French returned upriver, they were met by a hostile force of about 1,500 Natchez warriors and hurried away. At the time of the next French visit in the 1690s, the Natchez were welcoming and friendly. When Iberville visited the Natchez in 1700, he was given a three-day-long calumet peace ceremony and feast.
French Catholic missionaries from Canada began to settle among the Natchez in 1698. On the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, French colonists established Biloxi in 1699 and Mobile in 1702. Early French Louisiana was governed by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and his brother Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, among others. Both brothers played a major role in French-Natchez relations.
During the early 18th century, according to French sources, the Natchez lived in six to nine village districts with a population estimated at 4,000-6,000 people, and with the ability to muster 1,500 warriors. There were three village districts in the lower St. Catherine's Creek area, called Tioux, Flour, and the Grand Village of the Natchez. Three other village districts were located to the northeast, along upper St. Catherine's Creek and Fairchild's Creek, called White Apple (or White Earth), Grigra, and Jenzenaque (or Hickories).
The Natchez chiefs were called Suns, and the paramount chief was called the Great Sun (Natchez: uwahšiL li∙kip). When the French arrived, the Natchez were ruled by the Great Sun and his brother, Tattooed Serpent. The Great Sun had supreme authority over civil affairs, and the Tattooed Serpent oversaw political issues of war and peace, and diplomacy with other nations. Both lived at the Grand Village of the Natchez. Lesser chiefs, mostly from the Sun royal family, presided at other Natchez villages.
The Natchez performed ritual human sacrifice upon the death of a Sun. When a male Sun died, his wives were expected to accompany him by performing ritual suicide. Great honor was associated with such sacrifice, and sometimes many Natchez chose to follow a Sun into death. For example, at the death of the Tattooed Serpent in 1725, two of his wives, one of his sisters (nicknamed La Glorieuse by the French), his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant's wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs, all chose to die with him.
Mothers sometimes sacrificed infants in such ceremonies, an act which conferred honor and special status to the mother. Relatives of adults who chose ritual suicide were likewise honored and rose in status. The practice of ritual suicide and infanticide upon the death of a chief existed among other Native Americans living along the lower Mississippi River, such as the Taensa.
During the 18th century, the English and French colonies in the American southeast had a power struggle. The English colony of South Carolina had established a large trading network among the southeastern Native Americans. By 1700 it stretched west as far as the Mississippi River. The Chickasaw Indians, who lived north of the Natchez, were regularly visited by English traders and were well supplied with English trade goods. The most lucrative trade with the English involved Indian slaves. For decades the Chickasaw conducted slave raids over a wide region. Chickasaw raiders were often joined by Natchez and Yazoo warriors. The warriors raided over great distances to capture slaves from enemy tribes. For example, in 1713 a party of Chickasaw, Natchez, and Yazoo raiders attacked the Chaouachas living near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The grand chief of the Chaouachas was killed; his wife and ten others were carried off as slaves to be sold to the English.
English traders in the southeast had been operating for decades before the French arrived, but the French rapidly developed a rival trading network. Most Indian groups sought trade with as many Europeans as possible, encouraging competition and price reductions. Many tribes developed internal pro-English and pro-French factions. The Natchez appear to have developed such factions. By the 1710s the Natchez had a steady trade with the French and at least some contact with English traders.
The pro-French faction was led by the Grand Village of the Natchez and included the villages of Flour and Tioux. These villages were in the southwestern part of Natchez territory near the Mississippi River and French contact. The pro-English faction's villages lay to the northeast, closer to the Chickasaw and English contact, and further from the Mississippi River. The pro-English villages included White Apple, Jenzenaque, and Grigra. The Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent leaders lived in the Grand Village of the Natchez and were generally friendly toward the French. When violence broke out between the Natchez and the French, the village of White Apple was usually the main source of hostility.
The French regularly described the Natchez as ruled with absolute, despotic authority by the Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent. The existence of two opposing factions was well known and documented. The Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent repeatedly pointed out their difficulty in controlling the hostile Natchez. It is likely that the White Apple faction functioned at least semi-independently. Whatever power the family of the Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent did have over outlying villages was reduced in the late 1720s when both died. They were succeeded by relatively young, inexperienced leaders. While the new Great Sun was technically the paramount chief of the Natchez, the chief of White Apple became the eldest Sun chief and had more political clout than the Great Sun. The French continued to hold the Great Sun responsible for the conduct of all Natchez villages. They insisted on dealing with the Natchez as a unified nation ruled from its capital, the Grand Village of the Natchez.
During the 1710s and 1720s, French presence and settlement in Natchez territory increased from a handful of traders and missionaries to nearly 1,000 settlers (mostly French colonists and African slaves), who cultivated several large tobacco plantations, and maintained the military post of Fort Rosalie. At first the Natchez welcomed the French settlers and assigned them land grants.
In the 1710s and 1720s, war broke out four times between the French and the Natchez. The French called these the First Natchez War (1716), the Second Natchez War (1722), the Third Natchez War (1723), and the Natchez Rebellion of 1729.
The last of these wars was the largest, in which the Natchez destroyed the French settlements in their territory. In retaliation, the French eventually killed or deported most of the Natchez people. Overshadowing the first three in scale and importance, the 1729 rebellion is sometimes simply called the Natchez War. All four conflicts involved the two opposing factions within the Natchez nation. The Great Sun's faction was generally friendly toward the French. Violence usually began in or was triggered by events among the Natchez of White Apple. In all but the last war, peace was regained largely due to the efforts of Tattooed Serpent of the Grand Village of the Natchez.
The First Natchez War of 1716 was precipitated by Natchez raiders from White Apple murdering four French traders. Bienville, seeking to resolve the conflict, called a meeting of chiefs at the Grand Village of the Natchez. The assembled chiefs proclaimed their innocence and implicated the war chiefs of White Apple. The Choctaw assisted the French in fighting the 1716 Natchez War. After the 1716 Natchez War, the French built Fort Rosalie near the Grand Village of the Natchez. The present-day city of Natchez, Mississippi had its origin in the 1716 establishment of Fort Rosalie.
War broke out again in 1722 and 1723. Called the Second and Third Natchez wars by the French, they were essentially two phases of a single conflict. It began in White Apple, where an argument over a debt resulted in a French trader's killing one of the Natchez villagers. The French commander of Fort Rosalie reprimanded the murderer. Unsatisfied with that response, Natchez warriors of White Apple retaliated by attacking nearby French settlements. Tattooed Serpent's diplomatic efforts helped restore peace. But within a year, Bienville led a French army into Natchez territory, intent on punishing the warriors of White Apple. Bienville demanded the surrender of a White Apple chief as recompense for the earlier Natchez attacks. Under pressure from the French and other Natchez villages, White Apple turned the chief over to the French.
In November 1729, the French commander Sieur de Chépart ordered the Natchez to vacate the village of White Apple so that he could use its land for a new tobacco plantation. This turned out to be the final affront to the Natchez, and they were unwilling to yield to the French demand. The chiefs of White Apple sent emissaries to potential allies, including the Yazoo, Koroa, Illinois, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. They also sent messages to the African slaves of nearby French plantations, inviting them to join the Natchez in rising up to drive out the French.
On November 29, 1729, the Natchez attacked. Before the day was over, they had destroyed the entire French colony at Natchez, including Fort Rosalie. Warriors killed more than 200 colonists, mostly French men, and they took captive more than 300 women, children, and slaves. In January 1730, the French attempted to besiege the main fort of the Natchez, but they were driven off. Two days later a force of about 500 Choctaw attacked and captured the fort, killed at least 100 Natchez, and recovered about 50 French captives and 50-100 African slaves. French leaders were delighted, but surprised when the Choctaw demanded ransoms for the captives.
War continued until January of 1731, when the French captured a Natchez fort on the west side of the Mississippi. Between 75 and 250 Natchez warriors escaped and found refuge among the Chickasaw. The young Great Sun and about 100 of his followers were captured, subsequently enslaved, and shipped to work French plantations in the Caribbean.
The Natchez revolt expanded into a larger regional conflict with many repercussions. The Yazoo and Koroa Indians allied with the Natchez and suffered the same fate in defeat. The Tunica were initially reluctant to fight on either side. In the summer of 1730, a large group of Natchez asked for refuge with the Tunica, which was given. During the night, the Natchez turned on their hosts, killing 20 and plundering the town. In return, the Tunica attacked Natchez refugees throughout the 1730s and into the 1740s.
The Chickasaw tried to remain neutral, but when groups of Natchez began seeking refuge in 1730, the Chickasaw allied with the refugees against the French. By 1731 the Chickasaw had accepted many refugees. When in 1731 the French demanded the surrender of Natchez living among them, the Chickasaw refused. French-Chickasaw relations rapidly deteriorated, resulting in the Chickasaw Wars. Some of the Natchez warriors who had found refuge among the Chickasaw joined them in fighting the French. The Natchez Wars and the Chickasaw Wars were also related to French attempts to gain free passage along the Mississippi River. During the 1736 campaign against the Chickasaw, the French demanded again that the Natchez among them be turned over. The Chickasaw, compromising, turned over several Natchez, along with some French prisoners of war.
During the 1730s and 1740s, as the French-Natchez conflict developed into a French-Chickasaw war, the Choctaw fell into internal discord. The rift between pro-French and pro-English factions within the Choctaw nation reached the point of violence and civil war.
Louisiana's Africans, both slave and free blacks, were also affected by the Indian wars. The Natchez had encouraged African slaves to join them in rebellion. Most did not, but some did. In January 1730 a group of African slaves fought off a Choctaw attack, giving the Natchez time to regroup in their forts. More slaves fought for the French, however, as did some free blacks or people of color (gens de couleur libres). Because of the free blacks' contributions during the Natchez War, the French allowed them to join Louisiana's militias, which gave them more connections into the colonial society, where they achieved an independent social status between the French colonists and slaves. Many worked as highly skilled artisans; others became educated; they established businesses and acquired property.
After the war of 1729–1731, Natchez society was in flux and the people scattered. Most survivors eventually settled among the Creek (Muscogee), Chickasaw, or with English colonists. Most of the latter two Natchez groups ended up with the Cherokee, due to patterns of subsequent conflicts. Natchez who lived among the Upper Creeks fled with them after the Red Stick War ended in 1814. They also took refuge with the Cherokee in North Carolina.
The Cherokee Natchez settled mostly along the Hiwassee River in North Carolina. The main Natchez town, dating to about 1755, was located near present-day Murphy, North Carolina. Around 1740 a group of Natchez refugees settled along a creek near the confluence of the Tellico River and the Little Tennessee River. The creek became known as Notchy Creek after the Natchez. The settlement was called Natchey Town or Natsi-yi (Cherokee for "Natchez Place"). It was the birthplace of the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe, whose mother was Natchez. In later years Dragging Canoe's Cherokee father, Attacullaculla, lived in Natchey Town. Most of the Natchez living with the Cherokee accompanied them in 1830 on the forced removal of the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.
A few remained in North Carolina. Their descendants are part of the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Some Cherokee-Natchez were permitted to remain in South Carolina as settlers along with the Kusso (State of SC state recognized Natchez-Kusso tribe and Eastern Band Natchez). There are significant numbers of Natchez in the federally recognized Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Today the primary settlements of the Natchez Nation (Nvce or Nahchee), a treaty tribe, are within the southern halves of the Muscogee and Cherokee Nations in Oklahoma. The nation developed a constitution in 2003, which confirms its long-held traditions of self-government. Approximately 6,000 Natchez are members of the nation. Membership is based on matrilineal descent from people listed on the Dawes Rolls or the updated records of 1973. The nation allows citizens to have more than one tribal affiliation, asking only for work or donations to support the nation.
Small Natchez communities and settlements may be found in and throughout the Southeast and as far north as North Carolina. There are two state-recognized Natchez communities in South Carolina, each of which have independent governments: the Eastern Band Natchez, formerly Natchez-PeeDee; and the Edisto (Four Holes Indian Organization – Natchez-Kusso.)
The current leadership of the Natchez Nation consists of a Peace Chief (called the "Great Sun"), a War Chief and four primary Clan Mothers. Other Natchez Sun leaders have included K.T. "Hutke" Fields (Principal Peace Chief / Great Sun, 1996), Eliza Sumpka (Primary Clan Mother), William Harjo LoneFight, Robert M. Riviera (Principal War Chief, 1997), Watt Sam, Archie Sam, White Tobacco Sam and others.
The Natchez language had been believed by scholars to be a language isolate. It is currently believed to be related to Muscogean languages; Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw and may have been a precursor to those tongues, per Swanton. Its two last fluent speakers were Watt Sam and Nancy Raven. The Natchez nation is now working to revive it as a spoken language among its people.
The Natchez are noted for having an unusual social system of noble classes and exogamous marriage. Members of the highest ranking class, called Suns, are thought to have been required to marry only members of the lowest commoner class, called Stinkards or commoners. The Natchez descent system has received a great deal of attention. Scholars debate how the system functioned before the 1730 diaspora. The topic has attracted controversy.
Primary source documentation on the pre-1730 Natchez kinship and descent system come from a relatively small number of French colonists who recorded information about Natchez social life between about 1700 and 1730. Although fragmentary and ambiguous, the French accounts are the only historic documents of Natchez society before 1730. Natchez oral traditions have also been studied. The first modern ethnographic study was done by John R. Swanton in 1911. Swanton's interpretations and conclusions are still generally accepted and widely cited. Later researchers have addressed various problems with Swanton's interpretation. Some researchers have proposed modifications of Swanton's model, while others have rejected most of it.
In Swanton's interpretation, social status among the Natchez was divided into two major categories, commoners and nobility. The nobility was further divided into three classes (or castes) called Suns, Nobles, and Honored People. Noble exogamy was practiced, meaning that members of the noble classes could marry only commoners. A person's social status and class were determined matrilineally. That is, the children of female Suns, Nobles, or Honoreds kept the status of their mothers. However, the children of male Suns and Nobles did not become commoners, as noble exogamy and matrilineal descent would appear to dictate, but rather inherited one class below their fathers. In other words, children of male Suns became Nobles, while children of male Nobles became Honored, according to Swanton.
Many later researchers have focused on the so-called "Natchez Paradox" that Swanton's model is said to engender. The paradox is that if the rules described were followed strictly, over time the commoner class would become depleted, while the lower nobility classes would grow ever larger.
Three general changes to Swanton's interpretation have been proposed to address the Natchez Paradox. First, a type of asymmetrical descent may have been practiced in which only male children of male nobility inherited the social class one step below their fathers, while female children of male nobles inherited their mothers' commoner status in matrilineal fashion. Related to this is the idea that the Honored category was not a social class but rather an honorific title given to commoner men and was not hereditary.
Second, the assimilation of foreign people, such as groups of Timucua, could have at least delayed the Natchez Paradox's effects. Researchers who argue for this idea often couple it with the proposal that the Natchez system of noble exogamy in the early 18th century was a relatively recent development in their society. According to this argument, during the relatively chaotic 16th and 17th centuries, the Natchez were able to maintain their old social system by adapting it to new conditions. They assimilated foreigners as commoners and made a new requirement of noble exogamy.
Third, the social classes described by Swanton were not classes or castes, as the terms are generally used in English, but exogamous ranked clans or moieties, with patterns of descent common to most Native peoples of the American southeast. Tribes such as the Chickasaw, Creek, Timucua, Caddo, and Apalachee were organized into ranked clans, with the requirement that one cannot marry within one's clan. Related to this theory is the idea that Honored status was not a class or a clan, but a title. Sun status, likewise, may not have been a class but rather a term for the royal family. If true, Natchez society would have been a moiety of just two groups, commoners and nobles. The requirement of exogamy may have applied to Suns only, rather than the entire nobility.
Some researchers argue that the prohibition against Suns' marrying Suns was largely a matter of incest taboo. In the early 18th century, all the Suns of a given generation appear to have been related within three degrees of consanguinity (siblings, first cousins, and second cousins). The custom of Suns' marrying commoners rather than Nobles may have been a preference rather than a requirement. Finally, while Swanton's interpretation claims that Nobles were also required to marry commoners, later researchers have questioned this idea. They have noted in particular a mistranslation of the primary sources and a misreading by Swanton. In other words, it could be that only Suns were required to marry exogamously, and this requirement may have been mainly a result of the taboo against incest.
Lorenz further reinterprets Swanton's model by proposing that the entire system was not based on classes, castes, or clans, but rather degrees of genealogical separation from the ruling Sun matriline. Lorenz's interpretation does not include asymmetrical descent or noble exogamy. Rather, a person was a Sun if he or she was within three degrees of matrilateral separation from the ruling matriline's eldest female Sun (called the "White Woman"). Nobles were those people who were four, five, or six degrees removed from the White Woman, while people seven degrees or more removed were commoners. In this system, the male children of male ruling Suns would naturally descend one "class" per generation, and would be required to marry outside the "class" to avoid incest. The only exception was the case of a male child of a male Noble, who acquired the Honored title by birth.
Many researchers agree that the Honored group was not a noble class but rather a title of prestige given to commoner men for acts of valor in war, or to commoner women who sacrificed their babies upon the death of a Sun. In addition, people of Honored status could be promoted to Nobles for meritorious deeds.
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