Natchez Burial Customs

When referring to the burial customs of the Natchez, that most interesting of the many tribes of the lower Mississippi Valley, the early writers by whom the tribe was visited seldom alluded to the rites which attended the final disposition of the remains of the less important members of the nation, but devoted themselves to describing the varied and sanguinary ceremonies enacted at the time of the death and burial of a Sun. Swanton has already brought together the various accounts and descriptions of these most unusual acts, and consequently they need not be repeated at the present time. Nevertheless the first two will be quoted to serve as means of comparing the remarkable ceremonies followed by members of this tribe with the manners and customs of their neighbors. Of the two accounts given below, Swanton said ” The first was given to Gravier by the French youth whom Iberville left in 1700 to learn the Natchez language, and the second details the obsequies of a grand chieftainess of which the author Penicaut claims to have been a witness in 1704.” The Frenchman whom M. d’Iberville left there to learn the language told me that on the death of the last chief they put to death two women, three men, and three children. They strangled them with a bowstring, and this cruel ceremony was performed with great pomp, these wretched victims deeming themselves greatly honored to accompany their chief by a violent death. There were only seven for the great chief who died some months before. His wife, better advised than the others, did not wish to follow him, and began to weep when they wished to oblige her to accompany her husband. Mr. De Montigni, who has left this country to go to Siam, being informed of what they were accustomed to do, made them promise not to put anyone to death. As a pledge of their word they gave him a little female slave, whom they had resolved to put to death but for his prohibition; but to keep their cursed custom without it being perceived, the woman chief, whom they call Ouachil Tamail, Sun women (who is always the sister and not the wife of the great chief), persuaded him to retire to a distant village so as not to have his head split with the noise they would make in a ceremony where all were to take part. Mr. De Montigni, not suspecting anything, believed her and withdrew, but in his absence they put to death those whom they believed to be necessary to go to cook and wait on the chief in the other world.” The second account given by Swanton, that claimed to have been witnessed by Wnicaut in 1704, follows: “It happened in our time that the grand chieftainess Noble being dead, we saw the burial ceremony, which is indeed the most horrible tragedy that one can witness. It made myself and all my comrades tremble with horror. She [ i. e. the great female Sun] was a chieftainess Noble in her own right. Her husband, who was not at all noble, was immediately strangled by the first boy she had had by him, to accompany his wife into the great village, where they believe that they go. After such a fine beginning they put outside of the cabin of the great chief all that was there. As is customary they made a kind of triumphal car in the cabin, where they placed the dead woman and her strangled husband. A moment later, they brought 12 little dead infants, who had been strangled, and whom they placed around the dead woman. It was their fathers and mothers who brought them there, by order of the eldest of the dead chieftainess’s children, and who then, as grand chief, commands to have die to honor the funeral rites of his mother as many persons as he wishes. They had 14 scaffolds prepared in the public square, which they ornamented with branches of trees and with cloth covered with pictures. On each scaffold a man placed himself who was going to accompany the defunct to the other world. They stood on these scaffolds surrounded by their nearest relatives; they are sometimes warned more than ten years before their death. It is an honor for their relatives. Ordinarilv they have offered to die during the life of the defunct, for the good will which they bear him, and they themselves have tied the cord with which they are strangled. They are dressed in their finest clothing, with a large shell in the right hand, and the nearest relative for example, if it is the father of a family who dies, his oldest son-walks behind him bearing the cord under his arm and a war club in his right hand. He makes a frightful cry which they call the death cry. Then all these unfortunate victims every quarter of an hour descend from their scaffolds and unite in the middle of the square, where they dance together before the temple and before the house of the dead female chief, when they remount their scaffolds to resume their places. They are very much respected that day, and each one has live servants. Their faces are all reddened with vermilion. For my part I have thought that it was in order not to let the fear that they might have of their approaching death be apparent. “At the end of four days they begin the ceremony of ‘the march of the bodies.’ ” The fathers and the mothers who had brought their dead children took them and held them in their hands; the oldest of these children did not appear to be more than three years old. They placed them to right and left of the entrance to the cabin of the dead female chief. The 14 victims destined to be strangled repaired there in the same order; the chiefs and the relatives of the dead woman appeared there all in mourning-that is to say, with their hair cut. They then made such frightful cries that we thought the devils were come out of the hells to come and howl in this place. The. unfortunate persons destined to death danced and the relatives of the dead woman sang. When the march of this fine convoy was begun by two and two, the dead woman was brought out of her cabin on the shoulders of four savages as on a stretcher. As soon as she had been taken out, they set fire to the cabin (it is the usual custom with the Nobles). The fathers, who carried their dead children in their hands, marched in front, four paces distant from each other, and after marching 10 steps they let them fall to the ground. Those who bore the dead woman passed over and went around these children three times. The fathers then gathered them up and reassumed their places in the ranks, and at every 10 paces they recommenced this frightful ceremony, until they reached the temple, so that these children were in pieces when this fine convoy arrived. While they interred the female Noble in the temple the victims were stripped before the door, and, after they had been made to sit on the ground, a savage seated himself on the knees of each of them while another behind held his arms. They then passed a cord around his neck and put the skin of a deer over his head; they made each of these poor unfortunates swallow three pills of tobacco, and gave him a draught of water to drink, in order that the pills should dissolve in his stomach, which made him lose consciousness; then the relatives of the deceased ranged themselves at their sides, to right and left, and each, as be sang, drew an end of a cord, which was passed around the neck with a running knot, until they were dead, after which they buried them. If a chief dies and still has his nurse, she must die with him. This nation still follows this execrable custom, in spite of all that has been done to turn them from it. Our missionaries have never been able to succeed in that; all that they were able to do was to succeed sometimes in baptizing these poor little infants before their fathers strangled them. Besides. this nation is too much infatuated with its religion, which flatters the evil inclinations of their corrupt nature, for anyone ever to have made any progress in conversion and to have established Christianity there.” This barbaric ceremony was unknown among any other eastern tribe, and while so much pomp attended the burial of a Noble, the less important were conducted to their last resting places with simple rites. And mourning among the Natchez, so Charlevoix wrote, consisted of ” cutting off their hair, and in not painting their faces, and in absenting themselves from public assemblies,” but, so he continued, ” I do not know how long it lasts. I know not, either, whether they celebrate the grand festival of the dead. It seems as if in this nation, where everybody is in some sort the slave of those who command, all the honors of the dead are for those who do so, especially for the great chief and the woman chief.” The Temple of the Natchez, which in many respects resembled the temple-tomb of the Algonquian tribes of Virginia and Carolina, was described by all the early historians of lower Mississippi Valley. These accounts have been grouped by Swanton and consequently only the earliest will be quoted at the present time “There are only four cabins in [the village] in which is the temple. It is very spacious and covered with cane mats, which they renew every year with great ceremonies, which it would be prolix to insert here. They begin by a four days’ fast with emetics till blood comes. There is no window, no chimney, in this temple, and it is only by the light of the fire that you can see a little, and then the door, which is very low and narrow, must be open. I imagine that the obscurity of the place inspires them with respect. The old man who is the keeper keeps the fire up and takes great care not to let it go out. It is in the center of the temple in front of a sort of mausoleum after the Indian fashion. There are three about 8 or 9 feet long, 6 feet broad, and 9 or 10 feet high. They are supported by four large posts covered with cane mats in quite neat columns and surmounted by a platform of plaited canes. This would be rather graceful were it not all blackened with smoke and covered with soot. There is a large mat which serves as a curtain to cover a large table, covered with five or six cane mats on which stands a large basket that it is unlawful to open, as the spirit of each nation of those quarters reposes there, they say, with that of the Natchez. There are others in the other two mausoleums, where the bones of their chiefs are, they say, which they revere as divinities. All that I saw somewhat rare was a piece of rock crystal, which I found in a little basket. I saw a number of little earthen pots, platters, and cups, and little cane baskets, all well mule. This is to serve up food to the spirits of the deceased chiefs, and the temple keeper finds his profit in it.”

Du Pratz a generation later gave a more detailed description and told how the temple stood on ” a mound of earth brought thither which rises about 8 feet above the natural level of the ground on the bank of a little river.” Thus an artificial mound of earth had been reared to serve as a site for the temple. Du Pratz’s drawing of the temple is reproduced in figure 13. (Du Pratz, (1), III, pp. The burial customs of the northern and southern tribes differed in many ways, but the habit of removing the bones of the dead from an old settlement to a new site, so vividly described by Heckewelder as being followed by the Nanticoke during the first half of the eighteenth century, finds a parallel in the far south. To quote from Pere Charlevoix, who wrote under date of January 26, 1722, there stood, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, immediately below the English reach, a short distance below New Orleans, “not long since, a village of the Chouachas, the ruins of which, I have visited. Nothing remains entire but the cabbin of the chief, which bears a great resemblance to one of our peasants houses in France, with this difference only, that it has no windows. It is built of the branches of trees, the voids of which are filled up with the leaves of the trees called lataniers [palmetto], and its roof is of the same materials.” The “village is at present on the other side of the river, half a league lower, and the Indians have transported thither even the bones of their dead.”

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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Access Genealogy

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top