American Indian Heritage -- one of MSNHA's three main themes
Native American history in the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area spans from pre-historic times to the present. It includes times of great prosperity, times of heartache and wonderful legacy of culture. (Photo of Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum)
Early Native American Tribes
Evidence of large concentrations of prehistoric Native American tribes was found in Colbert County at the Stanfield-Worley Bluff Shelter in the 1960s and later at Dust Cave in Lauderdale County. Paleo Indians (12000-8500 BC) are thought to have crossed a land bridge between Asia and North America during the Ice Age, following herds of giant bison and mammoths into the North Alabama region.
As the climate warmed, the Native Americans began settling down in areas for longer periods of time. Dwindling herds of larger mammals caused the Archaic Indians (800-1000 BC) to rely more on smaller mammals and vegetation. They began developing better tools, including pots that allowed them to create stews from the smaller game they caught.
From the Archaic Indians came the Woodland Indians (1000 BC-900 AD), who were skilled potters that created artistic pots. The Woodland Indians and later the Mississippian Indians built large earthen mounds that were used for ceremonial purposes and as burial grounds. Today, several Woodland mounds remain in Alabama, including the Florence Indian Mound and the Oakville Indian Mound. More than 70 ceremonial mounds were mapped in and around the Muscle Shoals region in the 1920s and 1930s.
The River's Importance to Native American Life
The Tennessee River became a great resource for early Native Americans. The rocky shoals and its abundance of mussels and other shellfish provided food for the growing tribes. The mussels were easy to gather and were rich in protein. The river also helped sustain the lives of the various wildlife and plant life in the region, providing another source of food for the Native Americans.
A Culture Destroyed
As European explorers arrived, they brought with them diseases to which the Native Americans had never been exposed. Many of these diseases, such as small pox, had mutated from the domesticated animals to humans in Europe and the Europeans had been able to develop some resistance to them. These diseases proved much more fatal to the Native American tribes, almost wiping out the entire Mississippian population.
Modern Tribes in North Alabama
The Chickasaws and Cherokees were the primary Native American tribes in the Muscle Shoals region, with some Creeks (Muscogees) living briefly or hunting in the area. Perhaps, one of the more famous Chickasaws was George Colbert, a half-Chickasaw chief that operated Colbert's Ferry on the Natchez Trace. Colbert was the son of a Scottish trader, James Logan Colbert. Colbert provided strong leadership for the tribe. He served under General Andrew Jackson during the Creek Wars of 1813-14 and during the War of 1812. Colbert, along with others in the Chickasaw tribe, moved to Oklahoma during the time of the Indian Removal. Colbert County was named for George Colbert, and his brother Levi.
Another well-known Native American who lived in the Muscle Shoals region during the same time period as George Colbert was Cherokee Chief Doublehead. Doublehead was a prominent leader among the Cherokees in the Muscle Shoals region, and he took part in many raids on Tennessee settlers in the late 18th century. In his later years, he allowed settlers to live on his reservation against the wished of the tribe and was later assassinated by other members of the Cherokee nation.
Trail of Tears
In the 1830s, tensions between settlers moving into the south and the Native Americans grew to a boiling a point. The U.S. government, under the control of President Andrew Jackson, began forcing the removal of Native American natives from their homes in the South to lands west of the Mississippi. Many of the Chickasaws were removed from the area and relocated to Oklahoma.
At the end of the period of Indian Removal, the Cherokee nation was moved from its homes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina. One of the routes used was near the Tennessee River (close to the present day U.S. Highway 72) and ended at points in the Muscle Shoals region, including Waterloo and Tuscumbia Landing. The Tuscumbia-Courtland-Decatur railroad was also used to transport Cherokees to Tuscumbia. In Tuscumbia and Waterloo, the Cherokees would wait for the large steamboats to take them on their final trip westward to the new tribal lands. Many Native Americans died during the period of Indian Removal, including those encamped in the Muscle Shoals region.
Each year, the Muscle Shoals region honors the Native American culture and remembers the sacrifice of the tribes through the annual Trail of Tears event. The Trail of Tears motorcycle ride begins near Chattanooga, Tennessee and ends at Waterloo for a three-day pow-wow event.
Area Museums and Festival
You can learn more about the Native American culture at area museums and festivals. Museums include the Florence Indian Mound and Museum and the Oakville Indian Mounds Education Center. In addition to the annual Trail of Tears event, another annual Native American event is the Oka Kapassa Festival held in Tuscumbia.