Creek Burial Customs

The Creeks had burial customs resembling those of the Chickasaw, and, in some instances, deposited the remains of their dead beneath the floors of their habitations. To quote from Bartram: ” The Muscogulges bury their deceased in the earth. They dig a four-square deep pit under the cabin or couch which the deceased lay on, in his house, lining the grave with Cypress bark, where they place the corpse in a sitting posture, as if it were alive; depositing with him his gun, tomahawk, pipe, and such other matters as he had the greatest value for in his life time.” And when Romans referred to the same people, he said: ” The dead are buried in a sitting posture, and they are furnished with a musket, powder and ball, a hatchet, pipe, some tobacco, a club, a bow and arrows, a looking glass, some vermillion and other trinkets, in order to come well provided in the land of spirits.” Another traveler a few years later, in 1791, left a brief account of the customs of the Creeks, and said in part: “Upon the Decease of an Adult of either Sex, the Friends and Relations of the Decedent religiously collect whatever he or she held most dear in Life, and inter them close by and sometimes in their Owner’s Grave. This pious Tribute to their Dead includes Horses, Cows, Hogs, and Dogs, as well as Things inanimate.” And the same writer mentioned the Creek’s belief in ghosts, which tends to recall the somewhat similar belief prevalent among the Choctaw. He told how ” The Creeks in approaching the Frontiers of Georgia, always encamp on the right Hand side of the Road or Path, assigning the left, as ominous, to the Larva or Ghosts of their departed Heroes who have either unfortunately lost their Scalps, or remain unburied. The Ghost of any Hero in either Predicament, is refused Admittance into the Mansions of Bliss, and sentenced to take up its invisible and darksom Abode, in the dreary Caverns of the Wilderness; until the Indignity shall be retaliated on the Enemy, by some of his surviving Friends.” About the time of the preparation of the preceding account an even more interesting record was made by an officer in the army, Maj. C. Swan, who visited the Creek nation during the autumn of 1790, and returned to Philadelphia March 13, 1791. After referring to various customs of the people with whom he had been he said: ” When one of a family dies, the relations bury the corpse about four feet deep, in a round hole dug directly under the cabin or rock whereon he died. The corpse is placed in the hole in a sitting posture, with a blanket wrapped about it, and the legs bent under it and tied together. If a warrior, he is painted, and his pipe, ornaments, and warlike appendages are deposited with him. The grave is then covered with canes tied to a hoop round the top of the hole, and then a firm layer of clay, sufficient to support the weight of a man. The relations howl loudly and mourn publicly for four days. If the deceased has been a man of eminent character, the family immediately remove from the house in which he is buried, and erect a new one, with a belief that where the bones of their dead are deposited, the place is always attended by ‘goblins and chimeras dire.’ They believe there is a state of future existence, and that according to the tenor of their lives they shall hereafter be rewarded with the privilege of hunting in the realms of the Master of Breath, or of becoming Seminolies [i. e. wanderers] in the regions of the old sorcerer. But as it is very difficult fer them to draw any parallel between virtue and vice, they are most of them flattered with the expectation of hereafter becoming great war-leaders, or swift hunters in the beloved country of the great Hesákádum Essé.”

Several mounds of the greatest interest have been discovered in the territory which was formerly the home of Muskhogean tribes, and from their nature it is evident they were constructed long after the coming of the Spaniards. One stood about one-quarter mile from the left bank of Alabama River, 6 miles below the city of Montgomery, in Montgomery County, Alabama. This was in the midst of the Creek towns. The mound was 9 feet in height, with a diameter of 67 feet. Objects of iron, of glass, and other materials, all derived from the whites, were encountered throughout the work, from the summit to the base, which proves the entire work to have been erected after the advent of Europeans. And, in addition to these objects of foreign make, were associated others of stone, shell, and earthenware of aboriginal workmanship. This was one of the most remarkable of the many mounds examined by Moore throughout the South. Two others far south of the preceding, also discovered by Moore, may be mentioned. Of these the first was situated about 200 yards north of Alligator Harbor and 1 mile from its lower end, in Franklin County, Florida. When examined, 79 burials were discovered, among them the flexed; the bunched, which sometimes included several skulls together; and bones scattered. All the burials were in the southeastern half of the mound, and in the same section were encountered 62 pottery vessels and various objects of stone and shell. The lack of European objects in this mound makes it appear to be quite ancient, but in the adjoining county of Calhoun, on the northern bank of Chipola cut-off, stood a mound which had undoubtedly been reared at a much later time, as glass beads and pieces of brass, found at the base of the work, indicate the entire tumulus to have been reared since the first part of the sixteenth century. Forty-two burials were encountered scattered throughout the mound, and these included flexed skeletons, bundles of bones, and separate skulls, the latter not in contact with other bones. Now, it is more than probable that both mounds just mentioned were erected by the same people, one before, the other after, contact with the whites. The forms of burials in both were similar, characteristic of the region, and resembling those revealed in mounds farther south on the peninsula. The mounds in Franklin and Calhoun Counties were probably erected by a Muskhogean tribe, whose identity has not been determined, who may have had customs resembling those of the Choctaw. The bundles of bones had probably been gathered from the ” bone-houses ” after all flesh had disappeared, then wrapped or put in baskets, and so deposited and covered with a mass of earth, thus forming the mound. In some instances the bones were put in large earthenware vessels which, by reason of their imperishable nature, are now found containing the remains, but there is no reason to attribute any special meaning to these so-called urn burials. This merely proves that large vessels were sometimes used to hold the remains when prepared for the last disposition, rather than baskets, bags, skins, or some such material, which soon decayed and disappeared, allowing the bones to become as now found-matted and massed in the earth, broken and compressed by the weight of the superstratum. And it is highly probable that as these burial mounds are now found they may represent not more than one-half of their original height. The baskets in which the bones had been buried crumbled away, the remains sunk and became more compact, and gradually the entire accumulation of bones and earth, baskets, mats, and vessels became a comparatively solid but confused mass. All materials of a perishable nature soon disappeared, allowing some of the firmer bones to remain, together with vessels of earthenware and objects of stone, now to be discovered embedded in the sand or clay with which they were originally covered. The islands lying off the coast of Georgia appear to have been the home of a Muskhogean tribe, the Guale, at the time This part of the country was first visited by the Spaniards during the early part of the sixteenth century. And the many burial mounds standing on the islands and near-by mainland may have been erected by these people. Many of the mounds have been examined and have revealed several forms, or rather methods, of disposing of the dead. One such burial place, a mound of exceptional interest, wits near the bank of the Sapelo River, about 2 miles from Sutherland Bluffs, in the present McIntosh County, Georgia. When examined it was about 6 feet in height. and 46 feet in diameter. It “was composed of rich, loamy, brown sand with many local layers of oyster shells. The usual charcoal and fireplaces were present. A black layer from three inches to one foot in thickness, made up of sand mingled with charcoal in minute particles, ran through the mound at about the level of the surrounding territory.” Human remains were discovered at 36 points, and ” in no one mound investigated by us has there been so well exemplified the various forms of aboriginal disposition of the dead-tire burial in anatomical order; the burial of portions of the skeletons; the interment of great masses of human bones; the pyre; the loose deposit of incinerated remains; the burial of cinerary urns.” Probably few mounds yet found have revealed such a great variety of forms of burial as did this low, spreading work on the bank of the Sapelo. And this discovery also proves conclusively that one tribe followed at the same time many methods of disposing of their dead. A short distance northward from the preceding, on Ossabaw Island, in Bryan County, Georgia, was a similar low, spreading mound. And when excavated it likewise proved to be of great interest. ” In no part of the mound, outside of the calcined remains, among which were parts of adult skeletons seemingly belonging to males, were skeletal remains of adult males-the skeletons being exclusively those of women, adolescents, children, and infants-and that in one portion of the mound burial vases exclusively contained skeletons of infants, unaffected by fire, while in other portions cinerary urns were present filled-with fragments of calcined human skeletons. Again we see pockets of calcined human remains and skeletal remains of women and children unaffected by fire and not included in vessels of earthenware.” The most remarkable feature of this discovery was the lack of male skeletons in the body of the mound; in other words, the exclusion of males from this particular tomb. This fact tends to verify to some extent a statement made by Oviedo, who observed the burial customs of the inhabitants of this coast early in the sixteenth century. He mentioned the custom then followed by the people of placing the remains of the children and young persons apart from the others, and continued by saying the principal men of the tribe were buried in a distinct group. He failed to mention the disposition of the remains of the women, but they may have been placed with those of the children and younger members of the tribe. Thus the discovery and careful examination of this low mound on Ossabaw Island has tended to verify an observation made some four centuries ago. It is possible within this same region to trace another custom from historic back into prehistoric times, and whenever this may be done it tends to make more clear the. customs of the inhabitants of ancient America at the time of the coming of Europeans. About the year 1730 a small group of Creeks, together with a few Yamasee, all belonging to the same linguistic family, settled on the south or right flank of the Savannah, at a place now known as Y ama-craw Bluff, within the limits of the present city of Savannah. Their chief was the famous Tomochichi, who, together with others, later accompanied Gov. Oglethrope to England. While there, during the year 1734, a member of the party died, and “previous to interment in the church-yard of St. John’s, Westminster, the body was sewn up in a blanket and bound between two boards.” It was placed in a grave together with many ornaments and other objects. Moore drew attention to the occurrence when describing burials encountered by him in a mound on Creighton Island, McIntosh County, Georgia, only a short distance south of Savannah, and consequently not far from the former village on Yamacraw Bluff. He remarked on the discovery of traces of wood associated with the skeletal remains, and said in part: ” In seven cases layers of decayed wood or bark, occasionally showing marks of fire, lay above human remains, and in two cases, above and below.” There is little doubt of these mound burials having been similar, in all essential details, to that of the Indian who died in London in 1734. And, although it is not possible to determine the exact age of the mound on Creighton Island, nevertheless it is reasonable to attribute it to a period after the coming of the Spaniards to the coast of Florida. It is interesting to know that a small mound which stood in Chatham County, Georgia, not far from the preceding, when examined revealed a human skeleton resting upon the original surface, and associated with it was a sword of European origin.


Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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