Creek War Customs And Tactics

A few notes on the war-customs of the Creeks, which resembled those of most Southern tribes, may be useful for shedding light on the early migrations of the people and upon the tactics observed in their campaigns.

The principal motive for Indian wars being the conquest of scalps, slaves, plunder and hunting grounds, the Creeks, conscious of their great power, were not very particular in finding causes for warfare, and did not even advance specious reasons for declaring war. Thus, Adair gives as the true cause of a long war between the Creeks and Cheroki, the killing and scalping of two Chicasa hunters by a Shawano “brave.” This man took refuge among the Cheroki people, and war was declared to them by the Creeks, because they then had concluded a war alliance with the Chicasa (History, p. 278).

It is rather improbable that a declaration of war always preceded the attack, for the advance into the hostile territory was made clandestinely 1 ; but the resolution of starting upon the warpath was heralded in the towns with

The Creeks of old were in the habit of carrying on their warfare chiefly in small bodies, like other Indian tribes. Small commands are better enabled to surprise the enemy or his camps in clandestine or night attacks, or to cut off hostile warriors, than large ones. There are instances that the Creeks formed war parties of four men only. Their leader was then styled imíssi, immíssi or “the one carrying it for them,” this term referring to the battle-charm or war-physic. War parties of forty to sixty men are mentioned also.

When warriors started for the “field of honor” in larger or smaller bodies, they were led by a commander (pakā’dsha) who simultaneously was an ahopáya or hopáya, “charmer at a distance.” Men of this order had, like other warriors, to undergo, while quite young, a severe course of initiation into manhood, which also comprised instructions in herbphysicking. To become initiated they camped away from other people, and had for their only companion the old conjuror, who for four months initiated them and taught them the incantations intended to act as charms upon the enemy. To begin with, a fast of either four or eight days and the eating of certain bitter weeds was prescribed, to purify the system and to prepare the youth for a ready comprehension of the objects of tuition. The whole process was sometimes repeated for another four months, in the spring of the year following, and differed in every town. The knowledge thus acquired, it was believed, imparted to the person a full conjuring power and charmer’s influence over the antagonist, and enabled him to conquer the hostile warriors at a distance (hupá-i) and before reaching them, or to make them come near enough for easy capture.

When the Great Warrior started on the warpath he gave notice to the participants where he would strike camp that night, and then set out, sometimes with one or two men only. A war-whoop and the discharge of his gun were the signals of his departure, and were responded to by his followers by acting in the same manner. The other warriors took their time, and went to rejoin him one or two days after. A man taking part in a war-expedition was called hu li-a la.

A war party always preceded in Indian file, each man stepping into the footprints of the foregoing, to prevent the enemy from knowing their number. This explains also the episode of the legend referring to the tracks lost in the bottom of the river, q. v. 2 The tracks, footprints, strokes of hatchets visible on the bark of trees, etc., differed in every American tribe. Among the Creeks the last man in the file often sought to cover the tracks by placing grass upon them. A considerable force of scouts hovered around the marching file, to prevent surprises; the leader marched at the head of the file.

The attack was made in true Indian and savage fashion, before daybreak. The warriors crept up as silently as possible, tried to dart their missiles from secret spots, and never exposed their bodies to the enemy when they could cover them by some eminence or rock, tree or bush. The leader took a position in the rear. The Chicasa Indians continually taunted the colonial troops upon the fearless but useless exposure of their men to the battle-fire of the wary Indian braves. Milfort relates that his men fought nude, because they had noticed that the fragments of clothing entering the body with the point of the missile rendered the wound much more dangerous than the missile itself.

When making prisoners the Creeks habitually spared only the lives of children, killing mercilessly the adult males and females. They even burnt many of them at the stake, and Milfort claims that this barbaric custom was abandoned only through his influence (Mem., pp. 219-220).

The food on which they subsisted, on their expeditions, was pounded maize, contained in a small bag, which they carried upon their bodies.

The encampments for the night (hápu) were round-shaped, every man lying in contiguity to another in a circle, and leaving only a small issue, which was guarded by the commander. After the commander’s signal no one was allowed to move from his place. The same order was observed when the army halted during the day, and the same arrangement is conspicuous in the campings of the Southern Dakota tribes, as Iowa, Ponka, Ugáχpa, etc.

A graphic description of southern war camps is found in B. Romans, Florida, p. 65: “A Choctaw war camp is circular, with a fire in the centre, and each man has a crutched branch at his head to hang his powder and shot upon and to set his gun against, and the feet of all to the fire; a Cherokee war-camp is a long line of fire, against which they also lay their feet. A Choctaw makes his camp, in traveling, in form of a sugar loaf; a Chicasa makes it in form of our arbors; a Creek like to our sheds or piazzas, to a timber-house. The Creek war-camps in the woods were constructed in such a manner that the exact number of the party could at once be ascertained. 3

After their return the warriors placed the scalps in the public square, or divided them among their acquaintances. Anciently the privilege of raising the scalp-pole (itu tcháti) belonged to two tribes only, the Kasiχta and the Kawita. 4 The cause for this is shown in our half-mythic migration legend. The tradition that the custom of scalping was but recently imported among the Creeks from the Northern Indians was manufactured for a purpose, and invented by many other tribes also, to appear more human in the eyes of the white settlers. Scalping and the drying of scalps had been observed in Florida as early as 1564 by Rene de Lau-donniére.Citations:

  1. The Timucua of Florida declared war by sticking up arrows in the ground around the town or camp of the enemy on the evening before the attack (Rene de Laudonniere, ” Histoire Notable”). great ceremonies. Of these we shall speak under the heading: Creek Confederacy.[]
  2. Milfort, Mm., p. 217. 218. Walking through watercourses necessarily destroyed all vestiges of a marching body of warriors.[]
  3. Swan, in Schoolcraft V, 280.[]
  4. Cf. Hu li-Wá’hli, and the name of this town[]

Gatschet, Albert S. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians. Pub. D.G. Brinton, Philadelphia, 1884.

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