Contact Between the Southern Indians and Mexico

The relations existing in prehistoric times between the Indians formerly inhabiting the territory of the present United States and those south of them have been a subject of discussion from the earliest period of ethnological speculation in America. Dissemination of culture and of blood takes place, of course, where any tribe is in contact with any other tribe, but something more than this has frequently been alleged of the relations between the two areas under consideration.

In parts of Mexico and Central America, not to mention regions farther south, there existed historically, as is well known, relatively high native cultures, usually spoken of as “civilizations.” In the southeastern and southwestern parts of what is now the United States were two groups of tribes exhibiting cultures inferior to those of the peoples just mentioned but distinctly superior to those of the tribes north of them, and in the southeast there were earthen structures which suggested to the earlier investigators a culture still higher, one seeming to recall that of the more southern nations. With the Pueblo cultural area of the Southwest it is not proposed to deal in this paper except in so far as it affected the cultural area of the Southeast with which we are specifically concerned.

As long as the builders of the mounds are supposed to be a varnished race possessed of a civilization superior to that of the Indians found in the same country in later times, it was almost inevitable that students should turn to the existing civilizations elsewhere for an explanation of them. But even after the “mound builder” theory had been given up it was held that the culture represented by the mounds and by the more advanced peoples of the Southeast must owe much of its superiority to Mexico and Central America, either through the migrations of entire tribes or by the transplantation of entire cultures. This is the question which I propose to discuss in the present paper.

The Culture of the Southeastern Indians

The culture of the Southeast reached its highest levels in the lower part of the valley of the Mississippi and its main tributaries, and in the region east of it, back from the coast, -as far as the Atlantic Ocean, including also northern Florida. Northward it formerly extended over most of the Ohio valley, while the Iroquoian peoples of New York and Ontario formed its marginal territory. On the Atlantic coast it shaded out much more rapidly although cultural elements belonging to it are traceable as far as New England. Toward the northwest it did not extend much beyond the Mississippi, and directly toward the west it ended rather abruptly with the Caddoan Indians of northwestern Louisiana and northeastern Texas. The habitat of these Caddo fell short of Trinity River, and toward the south they did not reach the coast. In the neighborhood of the Gulf the cultural area can not be traced beyond Vermillion Bay, Louisiana.

The possibility of contact between the culture of the Southeast and that of Mexico has been artificially enhanced by confounding and identifying the area of ancient Mexican civilization with the territory of the modern republic. But, while the latter stretches northeast as far as the Rio Grande, the Aztec or Mexican state proper was more than four hundred miles southwest of that river in a direct line. There were other of the so-called civilized tribes less distant, but the nearest of these, the Huastec, were still more than two hundred miles south of the Rio Grande. The intervening territory was occupied by numerous small tribes without any pretensions to an advanced culture and so difficult to subdue that, although the Huastec were conquered by Cortez early in the sixteenth century, these wild peoples did not succumb until well along in the eighteenth. Populations of an identical character and status extended beyond them as far as the Caddo — the Coahuiltecan tribes, the Tonkawa, and the Karankawa -described tersely on the maps as “wandering and cannibal” people, and pictured by Cabeza de Vaca, the companions of La Salle, and later explorers of all nationalities as exceedingly crude and barbarous. To find the like in North America we should have to go to the cold northern interior, or the arid districts of the Great Interior Basin and Lower California. And this cultural “sink,” to borrow a geological term, extended considerably over six hundred miles in a direct line from the Huastec boundaries to the nearest Caddo towns. Measuring along the coast, which might be thought by some a more natural line of movement, it would be fifty or a hundred miles farther to Vermillion Bay. The nearest points between these two cultures were thus as far apart as Washington and Chicago or Columbus and Kansas City. If any southeastern cultural features came by this route, they must, therefore, have been transported for this immense distance before establishing themselves again, so that even in the case of single cultural elements, with which we are not now concerned, the problem must be recognized as a serious one. To prove that an entire culture was transplanted from the one region to the other demands a still greater drain on the imagination, and for it we must have historical, linguistic, or archaeological proof.

The first (historical) is, of course, entirely wanting, and the same may be said of the second (linguistic). In one of his early papers Brinton attempted to show a linguistic connection between the Huastec and Natchez Indians but he subsequently retracted the theory. 1 Very recently the writer has brought data together tending to establish the relationship between several of the languages of central and southern Texas 2 but these were all spoken by people belonging to the low type of culture above mentioned and include neither the Caddo nor the Huastec.

An archaeological survey of the Texas ethnological “sink” is of the utmost importance on account of its bearing on the question we have raised and it is indeed, being undertaken by the University of Texas and the Texas State Historical Society, but to the present time the net result seems merely to establish the condition described as one that extended into the remote past.

Almost the only traditions of a migration of peoples from Mexico to the Mississippi valley arc given by the Frenchmen Du Pratz and Milfort. 3 The first merely states that his native informant indicated the southwest as the region from which his people had come, Du Pratz inferring that he meant Mexico. A still earlier authority, the missionary Do la Vente, however, quotes the Natchez to the effect that “they came from a very far country, and, according to our reckoning, to the northwest.” 4 Du Pratz’s work, was widely read and I can not avoid the conclusion that it influenced Milfort in later times in affirming that the Muskogee Indians traced their origin to the same quarter. In this particular Milfort, is not followed by any other person who has recorded the migration legends of the Creek Indians.

Du Pratz’s rendering of the Natchez migration legend is too confused to allow us to place much reliance upon it, yet there is one reference which may contain a true historical reminiscence. This is where his native informant speaks of stone houses in the country from which his people had come, some of them “large enough to lodge an entire village.” 5 This strikingly suggests one of the great houses of the Pueblo Indians and may be based upon a knowledge of the existence of the Pueblo people, though there is no reason to think that this knowledge had been handed down from a remote antiquity. This, however, is not the only suggestion of contact between the lower Mississippi and the Pueblos. The Caddoan peoples, who occupied the intervening territory at this point were upon a decidedly higher level than the tribes south of them, as evidenced for instance by the elaborate ceremonialism of the Pawnee. Certain Southeastern ceremonies like that of the new fire and certain customs like that of the matrilocal residence of individuals within the tribe, recall those of the Pueblos, artifacts from the Pueblo country are reported sporadically from parts of the Southeast, 6 and in particular it is known that the Tewa Indians obtained the best wood for their bows from the Osage Orange, most of which was probably obtained in trade from the Kadohadacho on Red River. 7 These facts and the prevailing migration legends of the area under consideration, nearly all pointing to the west, lead me to believe that contact with the Pueblo country was far more likely than with the civilized peoples of Mexico, and in consideration of the ethnological condition of southern Texas, I am inclined to regard most Mexican influences as having been introduced via the Pueblos rather than by the more direct route.

Contact Through the West Indies

Communication between regions north of the Gulf and Central or South America by way of Florida and the West Indies would seem at first more probable. It would have to be by sea, but the natives of Florida and the West Indies, as well as some of those of Central America, were skilful canoe-men, and in early historic times at least, Indians made the passage of the Strait of Florida quite regularly. On the Suwannee River Bartram met some Seminole who had just returned from a trading voyage to Havana, 8 and down almost to the middle of last century the descendants of the Calusa Indians of southern Florida looked upon Havana as their natural market and crossed to that place regularly to trade. 9

Indeed, in one of the earliest Florida documents, the Memoir of Fontaneda, there is a story of the immigration into the peninsula of a small body of Cuban Indians who afterwards formed a town by themselves.

Arawak Settlement on Florida Peninsula

If we turn now to the cultural features of the three regions we are confronted by contrasts almost as marked. The Maya civilization of Yucatan was, as is well known, in many respects the highest attained in America but there appears not to be a single trace of it in either western Cuba or southern Florida. In the West Indies there was also an area of higher culture, though not one comparable to that of the Maya. 10 It centered in the island of Haiti and extended to the eastern end of Cuba, but it faded out rapidly westward and is entirely wanting at the western extremity to say nothing of any possible influence on Florida. The tribes of the southeastern coast of the latter peninsula were small and of low cultural status, and, while the position of the Calusa Indians on the western side seems to have been distinctly more advanced, involving something of a centralized government over a wide area, there appears to have been little in common between it and the culture of western Cuba, still less with the culture of the Maya. In short, the Maya from the highlands of Central America, the Arawak from the forests of South America, and the Muskhogeans front the interior of North America seem to have converged in the Three points of land we have been considering and to have gone no farther. 11

It is by virtue of this statement that an Arawak settlement is indicated on the Florida peninsula in one of the latest linguistic maps of the Bureau of American Ethnology. If such frequent communication took place between Cuba and Florida immediately after white contact, why may it not have taken place before? And if it took place between Cuba and Florida, why not between Cuba and Yucatan? From the western end of Cuba to the northernmost point of Yucatan is about 130 miles, approximately the same distance as from Cuba to the mainland of the Florida peninsula, although from Key West to Cuba it is about 40 miles less. From Key West to Yucatan the distance is a little less than 400 miles. We may add that from Florida to the island of Great Bahama the distance is somewhat less than the distance from Key West to Cuba, 65 miles, and to the Little Bimini Islands it is only 50 miles. It would indeed seem strange if the episode recorded by Fontaneda had not taken place between these various islands and peninsulas many tunes during the prehistoric period and if considerable bodies of Indians had not sought out new homes in one direction or another across the straits.

While underlying racial movements of the sort just indicated may be discovered by physical anthropologists, evidence from other sources is astonishingly negative in view of the probabilities. Instead of occupying intermediate or transitional positions in larger linguistic or cultural areas, southern Florida, western Cuba, and northern Yucatan rather convey the impression of marginal territories. Beginning with the, last we find that through it was the seat of one of the highly developed civilizations in America, a civilization dating back beyond the Christian era, students of this Mayan culture have demonstrated that the older states constituting it were in the mountainous country to the southward and that the Mayan states in Yucatan proper did not rise to prominence until considerably later. 12

The West Indian archipelago, as is well known, received at least two successive waves of immigration from South America in prehistoric times, one consisting of peoples of the Arawakan linguistic stock, the second of the remotely related Caribs. And, as is also well known, these latter drove out or absorbed their predecessors in these islands lying .nearer to South America, the Lesser Antilles. They might have done the same in the larger islands or Greater Antilles had not European discovery and colonization put a stop to the process when they had reached the eastern end of Porto Rico. The researches of M. R. Harrington have substantiated an earlier opinion of ‘Dr. J. W. Fewkes that the western end of Cuba was occupied by a people whose occupancy of the island antedated that, ,of the Arawak. and he believes that these people, whom he calls “Ciboneys”, represent an earlier wave of immigration into the West Indies as a whole, but not enough of their language has been preserved to enable ‘us to state positively that they were distinct from the Arawah. 13

Turning to Florida we find that, at the discovery, the central and northern part of the peninsula, including a small section of the adjacent state of Georgia, but excluding all of that part, of Florida west of Ocilla River, was populated by a number of tribes speaking dialects markedly divergent from those of the tribes north of them. These arc called the Timucua and they have been grouped into a distinct stock called the Timuquanan. South of them again, from a little below Tampa Bay and a, little above Cape Canaveral, were people of another linguistic group. Unfortunately two or three expressions in Fontaneda’s Memoir and a considerable number of place names are all of their language known to be in existence. This is enough to prove that there was but one language in southern Florida, or at least that all of the languages there were closely related, but it proves nothing more with certainty. However, in a forthcoming publication of the Bureau of American Ethnology I have adduced evidence tending to show that this language – or these languages- actually belonged to the Muskhogean stock, the same as that of the Creeks, Chickasaw, and Choctaw, and that it was probably rather close to the one last mentioned. Since the argument is, presented in full in that publication.

Phonetics can be Judged

I will merely review the points there made very briefly. 14 In the first place the phonetics, as well as can be judged, are markedly like (those found in the Muskhogean languages and markedly unlike those of northern Florida. Secondly, a few words translated by Fontaneda seem recognizable in Choctaw–notably oski, cane, in “Guasacaesgui, the river of canes”; and okla or ogala, people, in “Cañiogacola, a crafty people, skilful with the bow” – while one or two place names not translated also strongly suggest Choctaw words–as, Calaoba (a town), cf. Choctaw kali hofobi, deep spring. Finally, two early American writers mention a band of “Choctaw” Indians in the country which it seems impossible to connect with the well-known Choctaw of Mississippi. The suggestions contained in these fragments of evidence are so tantalizing and the consequences of establishing the hypothesis so important that it is to be hoped more of this south Florida tongue will ere long be discovered.

The divergence of Timucua from the languages spoken north of it led earlier investigators to believe that it might owe its peculiarities to influences from the West Indies, and Dr. A. S. Gatschet, who made a considerable study of Timucua, thought that he detected in it certain West Indian and South American words. 15 Some of these might be explained equally well, however, by means of North American tongues spoken not very far away. Thus, paha, house, is almost as near Choctaw aboha as Arawak bahü; moca, sea, as nea to Choctaw oka, water, as to Taino bagua, sea; while piro or pira, red, may be connected with the stem which gives Chitimacha pini, Tunica mili, and perhaps also Choctaw homa, as well as with Galibi ta-piré, red and yellow, Tupi piranga, red or Taino pu or bu, scarlet, as cited by Gatschet. My own investigations would indicate that Timucua is remotely connected with the Muskhogean group of languages rather than with Arawak, and if future research adds the fact of a pure Muskhogean dialect spoken in the region south of Timucua. The argument for West Indian influence within it would be very much weakened. There appears to be a non-Muskhogcan element in Timucua requiring explanation and contact with West Indian languages may account for it though I am rather inclined to look for the causes toward the north and west than toward the south. As to the Mayan, Arawakan, and Muskhogean linguistic stocks themselves, I am not aware that anyone has until recently, suggested a connection between them, and the attempt so far has been confined to the two former.

The Gradual Transmission of Separate Cultural Elements

To the present time, then, there is no positive proof of the wholesale transplantation of peoples or of cultures into the Gulf area of the United States from Mexico, Central America, or the West Indies. Until new discoveries are made bearing upon this question we must be satisfied with supposing the influences of the northern and southern regions upon each ether to have been confined to that gradual radiation of single elements which is constantly taking place where peoples are in contact. Specific effects of such a radiation certainly exist in the south-north distribution of corn and the “milpa culture” 16 connected with it, as also in the south-north distribution of tobacco and probably other cultivated plants. It is to be noted that one of the words applied to the potato and similar tuberous roots by the peoples of the West Indies and the Southeast were the same. 17

Again, it seem, difficult to, believe that the customs of frontal head deformation found on the north and the south sides of the Gulf of Mexico originated entirely independently of each other. Some years ago Professor Holmes called attention to certain apparent Caribbean influences in designs found upon pottery in the pastern Gulf area 18 , and numbers of students have believed that the incised decorations on shell and copper objects in the Mississippi region boar a resemblance to lexicon patterns too close to be accidental. Yet, after a lengthy comparison of three features of northern and southern culture, namely “pyramids and ocher features of material culture,” “religious ideas connected with the serpent,” and “similarities in symbolism and art” Dr. Spinden finds little upon which to base a satisfactory claim of transmission by direct contact. Speaking of the last of these he says, “we may see in these designs the result of a slow exfiltration, with many relays, of ideas originating among the Maya, if you will, but not passing from them directly to the ancient peoples of the Mississippi Valley. There are no trustworthy evidences of trade relations between the Mexicans and Mound-builders, nor is there any sure indication of fundamental unity of culture at any time in the distant past.” 19 Nevertheless the evidence of corn is by itself sufficient to prove that “exfiltration” from south to north did take place, and the amount and extent of this still offers interesting problems for investigation.


  1. Proof of the direct influence of southern cultures upon the culture of the Indians north of the Gulf of Mexico or of transplantation of peoples there from the south is as yet wanting.
  2. There are evidences of more intimate contact between the Indians of the Southeast and the Pueblos than between the former and Mexico.
  3. Single cultural elements are known to have been introduced from the south but for only a few of these is the evidence entirely satisfactory.

In spite of the small number of proved cases of transmission there is good reason to believe that the cultures of the southeastern United States as well as that of the Southwest constituted marginal areas in that succession of semi-civilizations extending through Mexico and Central America to the Andean region of South America.

Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D. C.

John R. SwantonCitations:

  1. Brinton, in Historical Magazine, 2d series, 1867, I, pp. 16-18.[]
  2. American Anthropologist (N. S.), Vol. XVII, no. 1, pp. 17-40.[]
  3. Le Page du Pratz, Historic de La Louisiane, Paris 1758, III, 62-70.[]
  4. De la Vente, letter of 1704, in Compte Rendu Cong. Internal. Amer., 15th sess., I, 37.[]
  5. Le Page du Pratz, op. cit.[]
  6. A few pieces of Pueblo ware have been found; a fragment kind from southwestern Missorná fell into the hands of Mr. W. E. Myer, collaborator in the Bureau Ethnology. West of the Mississippi, probably in the Caddo country the army of De Soto “found some turkoises, and shawls of cotton, which the Indians gave them to understand, by signs, were brought from the direction of the sunset. “Narratives of De Soto, ed. Bourne, I. p. 181. New York, 1904.[]
  7. Bull. 55. Bureau of Am. Ethnology, p . 52 . The Caddohadacho country is known to have been the principal source of supply for the tribes about who evidently passed the material on to the Pueblos.[]
  8. Bartram, Travels, London, 1792, p. 225.[]
  9. See John Lee Williams, The Territory of Florida, 1837, p. 242.[]
  10. Fewkes in Twenty-fifth Ann. Rep., loc. cit.[]
  11. Documentos Inéditos, V. pp. 536-7-Madrid, 1866.[]
  12. See Morley in Bull. 57, Bureau of American Ethnology, pp. 2-7. Washington, 1915.[]
  13. Twenty-fifth Ann. Rep. Bur. Am. Eeth., pp. 178-9-Ancl. Notes and Monographs (Heye Mus. Pinh. ), Cuber before Columbs, Part. I, Vol.11.[]
  14. Bull. 73, Bur. Am. Ethnol., pp. 27-31.[]
  15. Procedings Am. Philosoph. Society, XVIII p. .478.[]
  16. O. F. Cook, in Smithsonian Report for 1919, pp. 307-326.[]
  17. Journ. Wash. Acad. Sci., Vol. VI, pp. 136-7.[]
  18. American Anthropologist, (N. S.), VII, pp. 71-79.[]
  19. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. VI, p. 247; Cambridge, 1913.[]


Swanton, John Reed. Southern Contacts of the Indians North of the Gulf of Mexico. Imprensa nacional. 1924.

2 thoughts on “Contact Between the Southern Indians and Mexico”

  1. Hello! Thank you! I am researching the Taino and Cayugas tribe people as family histories relate to Amerinds of mxd race ancestry/forebears in the deep South, USA. I agree that the Arawak we’re not extinct no longer living in colonial ‘merica ( dumb Caucasian cracker trash). These Arawak traded interacted with the mulatto negro and Indian people (free negroes and white slaves descendants) in the west indies. There are related Taino tribal people native aboriginals in the sub tropical area of Florida who moved out of Southeastern TX. They are the Ais who were influenced by the Caddo-Witchia Waco Indians in TX. The Coahuilecan tribe people disliked the Spanish as exploration groups moved in to their area . This intrusion caused a great migration in to French Florida, Lou, Missisouri (River valley) territory among the Sioux people at war with the Iroquois and Cherokees in competition with European influence upon the tribal population. Cherikee Indians partnered with displaced Anglo-Indians from all over the continent! The Spanish government admin. of frontier American society has endured in the Carribean Isles and Florida into places like Wisc. , New Jersey where these southern Indians customs continue to exist. ROYALTY. Thus the southern Indian fingerprints are recognized in the blood of Afro-American women who have identified with the Native American male warrrier! In my line specifucally the Mayan Muscogees of the aboriginal Creek Ind. confed. partnered with mxd race people to establish the Seminoe Ind. noblility of Cow Creek Muscogee ranch Alachua per Ahaya and relatives. Osceola’s in-laws and Ggps have verifiable Carrib, South American , Algonk. also New Mexico native ancestors who opposed dominance by the Euro American settlers. I love Nippy Houston. Thanks!

  2. This article is pretty good, I especially appreciate the information about the Arawak Florida contact. Their are some disingenuities though. I think a better tack would be to prove that there were not contact. The Chontal Maya had large sea fairing canoes very similar in size and shape to the the contemporary Viking vessels. How is it in one side of the Atlantic the Vikings were known to sail up every river, bay and estuary, but on the other side they settled on the first piece of land they found. The reasoning doesn’t hold. The Indians of the Southeast also had large canoes, they got around, and established trade routes. The Aztec would march hundreds of miles, just to collect sacrifice victims? I don’t think so.

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