Nokooshee in Autumn

Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi

When that part of America which extends westward from the Atlantic to the Mississippi was discovered by Europeans it was occupied by numerous tribes, speaking distinct languages, with many dialects. And as the habitations and other structures erected by the widely scattered tribes differed in form, size, and the material of which they were constructed, and presented many interesting charac­teristics, so did the cemeteries and forms of burial vary in distant parts of the country.

Native burials and places of burial have been questioned my many people, David M. Bushnell, provides many answers to forms, places, and tribal customs.  He does not include all the tribes but does offer an explanation on such tribes as Algonquian, Powhatan, Seneca, Huron, Natchez, Sioux, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw just to name a few.

The states of  Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, and Southern Ohio and the area around Bayou Lacomb, Biloxi, Pascagoula, are included along with several others. Here he provides the types of burial among the tribes, caves, mounds, and cremation.

For the serious researcher or those who are just interested in how our ancestors lived and died, this book provides many of the answers.

Algonquian Groups

Nacoochee Stone Box Grave
About the same time that construction was begun on the Track Rock terrace complex, a stone box grave cemetery was established near the Chattahoochee River, southeast of Brasstown Bald. Itza Maya commoners typically buried their dead in stone box graves, under or near their houses.

When that part of America which extends westward from the Atlantic to the Mississippi was discovered by Europeans it was occupied by numerous tribes, speaking distinct languages, with many dialects. And as the habitations and other structures erected by the widely scattered tribes differed in form, size, and the material of which they were constructed, and presented many interesting characteristics, so did the cemeteries and forms of burial vary in distant parts of the country. In New England and the lower Hudson Valley were tribes belonging to the Algonquian family, many of which were often mentioned in the early records of the colonies. Their small villages, a cluster of mat or bark covered wigwams, frequently grouped within an encircling palisade, lay scattered along the coast, and inland up the valleys of many streams. They cultivated fields of corn and raised other vegetal products, and during certain seasons of the year collected vast quantities of oysters and clams to serve as food, as attested by the great accumulations of shells now encountered along the coast. Others of this linguistic group dominated the coast as far south as s the central portion of the present State of North Carolina, thus including the people discovered by the English expeditions sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584 and subsequent years, and the group of tribes which formed the Powhatan confederacy, so famed in the early history of Virginia. Like all tribes then living near the sea, they visited the coast for the purpose of gathering oysters and other mollusks, and to take fish in their weirs. During other seasons they would leave their villages and enter the virgin forests to hunt, thus securing both food and peltry, the latter to be used in making garments and various necessary articles. Westward, beyond the mountains and the Ohio, were many Algonquian tribes, the best known being the Miami, the Sauk and Fox, the several tribes which constituted the loosely formed Illinois confederacy, the Menominee and scattered Ojibway of the north, and southward in the valley of the Ohio and elsewhere the widely dispersed Shawnee. While the Algonquian tribes of the East were sedentary, and continued to occupy their ancient sites For many years after first becoming known to Europeans, the majority of the western members of this great linguistic Family were ever moving from place to place. This movement, however, may have begun only after certain of their enemies had secured firearms from the Dutch and French traders in the early years of the seventeenth century. The habitations and other structures reared by all the Algonquian tribes were quite similar in form and size.

Iroquoian Groups

Iroquoian tribes occupied the greater part of the present State of New York, forming the League of the Iroquois, which often held the balance of power between the French and British colonies. Towns were numerous and frequently consisted of a strongly protected group of bark-covered houses, including the extended communal dwellings, some of which were 80 feet or more in length. The five nations of the league were the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. The Susquehanna, met by a party of Virginia colonists in 1608 near the mouth of the stream which bears the tribal name, the Cherokee of the southern mountain country, and the Tuscarora and neighboring tribes, were members of this linguistic family. The Tuscarora moved northward early in the eighteenth century and in 1722 became the sixth nation of the league.

Westward from the region just described, in the northern part of the State of Ohio, bordering on the south shore of Lake Erie, are to be found many ancient inclosures, erected to surround and protect a village, thus resembling the works once so numerous in the country of the Five Nations. And it is quite evident that these were likewise erected by an Iroquoian trifle, probably the long extinct Erie who were lost to history about the middle of the seventeenth century. The works in northern Ohio, often of irregular form, and in many instances a wall extending across a neck of land, must not be confused with the remarkable squares and circles, octagons, and great walls existing in the southern part of the State. Tribes belonging to the same linguistic stock occupied the greater part of the State of Pennsylvania, adjoining the country of the Five Nations on the north. Of these tribes the Susquehanna, known in history since the year 1608, was the most important. But their territory in later years became the home of other tribes, some of which had been forced westward by the ever-growing colonies along the coast, and many moved into the rich valley of the Susquehanna, where game was plentiful and consequently food could be easily secured. There were several important villages in the valley of the West Branch of the Susquehanna, near the present Lockhaven, Clinton County. One of these later Delaware towns stood near “Monseytown Flats,” and the site of the cemetery which adjoined the village is shown in plate 10, a. It is said that in addition to Delaware and Shawnee, many Seneca and Cayuga are buried here. The cemetery occupied the level area on the far side of the river, as shown in the photograph.

Muskhogean Groups

The southern pine lands, from the Mississippi to the Atlantic and from the lowlands of the Gulf coast to the southern Alleghenies, was the home of Muskhogean tribes. The Choctaw, Natchez, and Chickasaw lived in the West. Numerous smaller tribes, later recognized as forming the Creek confederacy, occupied the valleys of the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Chattahoochee. The Yamasi and others were nearer the coast on the east. The Seminole of Florida were immigrants from the Lower Creek towns on the Chattahoochee and did not enter the peninsula until about the middle of the eighteenth century. Their number was increased from time ‘to time by others from the same towns. Certain members of this linguistic group erected great circular town houses, frequently a strong framework of wood covered with clay, in which to conduct their various ceremonies. These were the largest and most imposing structures reared by any of the eastern tribes. Similar buildings were erected by the neighboring Cherokee. The majority of these village houses appear to have stood on mounds raised for the purpose. The habitations of these people were, in many instances, frames of either circular or quadrangular form, covered with ‘thatch, or clay applied in a plastic state and allowed to dry and harden.

Siouan Groups

The Piedmont region of Virginia, and southward, was claimed and occupied by tribes belonging to the Siouan linguistic group. Among these may be mentioned the Monacan, enemies of the Powhatan tribes during the early years of the colony; the Tutelo and Saponi, whose lands extended into the northern part of Carolina; and the better known Catawba, the most important of the eastern Siouan tribes. The Biloxi and Ofo of Mississippi and the Winnebago of Wisconsin were likewise members of this stock. And there is reason to suppose the upper Ohio Valley was once the home of other Siouan tribes who had moved westward, beyond the Mississippi, some years before the coming of Europeans.

Southern Ohio

The origin and age of the earthworks of southern Ohio and the adjoining sections of Kentucky and West Virginia have remained unsolved questions.


With the development of the country between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, the cutting away of the great virgin forests and the cultivation of the soil, the erection of new towns and the expansion of the older ones, all traces of the former period of aboriginal occupancy are rapidly disappearing. The native villages no longer stand and the sites of many are now covered by cities, each having a population greater than that of all the tribes east of the Mississippi three centuries ago.

The ancient mounds and earthworks are being leveled by the plow, and in the cemeteries the remains of the (lead are fast crumbling to dust. Thus is passing all evidence of those who occupied the land when it was entered by Europeans. And although much still remains to indicate the positions of Indian settlements, nevertheless it is easily conceived that little will be discernible by the close of the century. Considering this great change which has occurred within a few generations it is interesting to study the peculiar manners and customs of the native tribes of this part of North America. On the preceding pages are revealed some of the burial customs of the native tribes, as practiced by them when first visited by Europeans, and as described and recorded in the journals and accounts prepared by the early explorers and missionaries. The vast territory was the home of many tribes, some small, others larger, forming groups in which the different tribes were connected linguistically. Often the tribes of one linguistic family possessed many customs in common, but this was not true of all. In every section of the country it has been possible to identify the makers of a large proportion of the ancient graves, although seldom did one tribe follow a single method of disposing of their dead to the exclusion of all others; nevertheless every tribe appears to have had some characteristic form of burial. But the identification of many burials in some parts of the country is made especially difficult by reason of the tribes having moved about from place to place. This is particularly true of the region north of the Ohio, where, during the past two and one-half centuries, the Algonquian tribes have seldom remained long in any locality, but during the same period the southern tribes have been more sedentary, and where many were discovered by the Spaniards about the year 1540, they continued to dwell for three centuries. Now, summarizing the many quotations brought together, it is evident the Algonquian tribes of New England deposited their dead in pits, after the remains had been wrapped and tied, usually with the legs drawn up and folded against the trunk. And it is evident that some among them followed a. strange custom of depositing a large quantity of pulverized red oxide of iron in the pits with the remains, and that the custom was followed long after the settlement of Plymouth is indicated by the discovery made a few years ago in Warren, Bristol County, Rhode Island. Quite similar were the pit burials of the Iroquoian tribes west of the Hudson, although ,the people of a restricted area, dominated by the Hurons and ancient Neuters, had a very elaborate method of disposing of their dead which culminated, about once in 10 years, in a great communal burial, when the remains were collected and deposited in large pits, or ossuaries, lined with rich furs, and which were later covered with brush and earth. The Algoncluian tribes farther west followed various customs. Some had a form of scaffold burial, others bound the bodies in skins or mats, and, thus wrapped, suspended them among the branches of trees, and it is evident these were the “lofty coffins” of an early French narrative. And in some instances the bones were later gathered and deposited in graves, thus probably explaining the occurrence of disarticulated skeletons in stone-lined graves, so many of which have been discovered in graves not more than 2 feet in length, and these small graves were thought by the early explorer to be the burial places of a race of pygmies. Again some of these tribes resorted to cremation as a means of reducing the bulk of a body when it was desired to transport the remains from the place of death to another locality, often the home village of the deceased, for burial. Evidently the Algonquians seldom burned the bodies of their dead unless for some particular reason, as just mentioned, but among the ancient inhabitants of southern Ohio, undoubtedly Siouan tribes, the art of cremation had become highly developed, and the ashes were deposited in great structures, erected for that purpose, and probably dedicated to that use alone. And it is apparent from discoveries made (luring the past years that offerings made to the cremated dead included the richest possessions of the living. The Algoncluian tribes of tidewater Virginia; those forming the Powhatan confederacy so famed in the early days of the colony, had two distinct ways of disposing of their dead. The bodies of the more important members, the chief men and others, were prepared, dried, and certain organs removed, then laid in the Temples, one of which stood in every village. Such was the structure described by the artist. John White, a member of the English expedition of 1585. The other members of the tribes were buried in pits, thus resembling the general custom of the northern Algonquians. The Siouan tribes of piedmont Virginia, or some of these tribes, may have followed customs not unlike those of the Hurons and Neuters, but instead of depositing the accumulated remains in great pits they were placed on the surface and covered over with earth, later another layer of bones and another mass of earth, until a mound many feet in height was formed. The southern country was occupied for the most part by tribes of the Muskhogean linguistic family. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creeks were members of this group. The Choctaw dead were first exposed until the flesh could easily be removed, when the bones were collected, cleaned, and placed in baskets or other receptacles, then deposited in a “bone-house,” a structure resembling the Temple of the ancient tribes of Virginia. Later, on a day chosen for the ceremony, the remains were carried from the “bone-houses” and placed on the surface, in the form of a pyramid, and when so arranged all were covered by a mass of earth, thus accounting for the numerous small mounds standing in the country once occupied by their many towns and villages. In some instances the bones were placed in earthenware vessels, which are now found containing the crumbled remains, although the great majority were in baskets or wrapped in skins, all traces of which have long since disappeared. But very different were the customs of the Chickasaws and Creeks, who usually buried their dead, soon after death, beneath the floor of the house in which they had died. In some instances the houses were then abandoned or destroyed by fire, but at other times they continued to be occupied by the survivors. Among some tribes, both in the north and in the far south, when it became necessary for the inhabitants of a town to remove to a new locality, their dead would be transported from the old to the new settlement, a trait which proves the reverence in which they held the memory of the departed. Only one instance can be cited where objects found in contact with burials had apparently been made especially for the purpose of being placed in the graves. This refers to the small thin earthenware vessels discovered in the stone graves in Missouri, as described. These small, delicately formed bowls would have been of no practical use to the living. being very fragile and composed solely of clay without the usual admixture of pulverized shell or sand, and consequently they may be considered as mortuary bowls, fashioned to hold the offerings to the dead, to be placed in the graves with the remains. Such, briefly told, were the burial customs of the native tribes who once occupied the region from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, but of whom all traces are now disappearing.

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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