In This Article The Creek Indians in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews/Historiography
  • Methodology
  • The Red Atlantic
  • Global Civil Rights, Treaty Rights, and Sovereignty

Atlantic History The Creek Indians in the Atlantic World
by
Bryan Rindfleisch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0315

Introduction

The Creek Indians (Mvskoke) are a nation of Native Peoples recognized by the US federal government today. Historically, though, the Creeks were a multiethnic group of Indigenous Peoples in the Southeast descended from Mississippian societies. European colonialism in the 16th and 17th centuries disrupted Mississippian societies—primarily due to the mortality associated with diseases and the Indian slave trade—and they gradually dispersed throughout the region. Several of these peoples, led by the Muskogean-speaking Abihkas, Tallapoosas, and Apalachicolas, formed a loose coalition of towns during the mid-17th century. The emergent Creek Indians eventually incorporated non-Muskogean groups, such as the Yuchis, Chickasaws, Hitchitis, Natchez, and Apalachees. By the turn of the 18th century, Europeans identified the existence of a Creek Confederacy, a political entity noted for its divisions between Lower and Upper towns. Throughout the 18th century, the Creek Confederacy perfected a strategy of playing Europeans powers—Great Britain, Spain, and France—against one another. Despite being a confederacy of towns, Creek peoples remained distinct from one another. The primary source of identity in the Creek world was the talwa, one’s home community. From political mediation and ceremonial gatherings to hosting the annual Busk festival, one’s town meant everything. Within the town it was the micos, or civil leaders, who spearheaded political life in the Creek world. However, the authority of a mico did not involve coercion but persuasion, which forced town leaders to abide by their community’s will. The authority of a mico also hinged on sustaining a steady flow of trade between his town and Europeans, which revolved around the exchange of deerskins harvested by Creek hunters. This deerskin trade was the basis for the Creeks’ engagement with the Atlantic world. The Confederacy again experienced profound transformations after the American Revolution, when, faced with an expansionist United States. Conflict with the United States varied between restrained acts of violence and outright war, but eventually a new generation of leaders, born of Euro-American and Creek worlds, reimagined the Creek Confederacy. The resulting “Plan of Civilization,” which included everything from a written constitution to adopting racial slavery, was intended to prove that the Creek peoples could become “civilized,” even though such a status came at the expense of the distinct identities that previously defined the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the efforts to convince the United States to accept Creeks on a nation-to-nation basis failed and produced the removal of Creek peoples during the 19th century. Today, though, despite centuries of colonialism, the Creek (Muscogee) peoples continue to adapt to the world around them, whether in Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, or Louisiana.

General Overviews/Historiography

The titles cited in this section are regarded as the classics in Creek history, which focus primarily on the 17th to 19th centuries. Swanton 1998 (originally published in 1922) is one of the first book-length treatments of Creek history and it mixes documentary research with anthropological study. Similar to Swanton’s work as both a historical and an anthropological account of the Creeks, Hudson 1976 remains one of the most authoritative accounts of Creek history and culture, a culmination of Hudson’s life-long work on the Native American peoples of the South. Meanwhile, Debo 1941 provides one of the first narrative histories of the Creeks, whereas other scholars at that time, such as R. S. Cotterill, contextualized Creek history within the larger story of the “five civilized tribes.” Besides these works, Creek history remained relatively under the radar, aside from a few “tribal histories,” until the emergence of the “New Indian History” in the 1980s and 1990s. It is Green 1985 that has succeeded in reorienting historians’ attentions to the Creeks and other Native American peoples of the South. In the following decades, a number of books similarly redefined Creek history—and Native American history for that matter—and they include Ethridge 2003, Saunt 1999, Piker 2006, and Hahn 2004. Specifically, Ethridge 2003 and Saunt 1999 provide a window into the Creek world at the turn of the 19th century, detailing everything from politics, economics, and cosmology to gender, kinship, and geography. As for Piker 2006, the author uses a specific Upper Creek community, Okfuskee, to illustrate what the Creek world looked like and how it functioned in the 18th century as well as how town identities were central to shaping the Creek world, in contrast to previous works that situated the Creek Confederacy as a monolithic national entity. Meanwhile, Hahn 2004 focuses on a specific Lower Creek town, Coweta, to similarly breakdown scholars’ assumptions of Creek nationhood and the author demonstrates how politics operated at an intimate level in the Creek world. Other general overviews of Creek history include Wesson 2008, an archaeological study of Creek political authority from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and Grantham 2002, a collection of Creek Creation Stories and oral traditions. Since these seminal works, the field of Creek history—and that of the Native Peoples of the South in general—has experienced significant scholarly attention. That attention continues to grow today, as demonstrated within this article.

  • Debo, Angie. The Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941.

    E-mail Citation »

    While being a problematic declension narrative that shows its age, Debo’s book remains one of the more popular narrative accounts of the Creek Indians and traces the history of the Creeks from before the arrival of Europeans to the early 20th century.

  • Ethridge, Robbie. Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

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    Ethridge provides a comprehensive look at Creek society and culture at a seminal moment in Creek history, at the turn of the 19th century. She provides an authoritative account of a Creek world in flux as Creek peoples confronted the United States and its attempts to seize Creek lands and impose a “Civilization Plan” upon the Native Peoples of the South, and she illustrates how Creek peoples responded in myriad ways to such efforts.

  • Grantham, Bill. Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a compilation of the Creation Stories and oral traditions for the many ethnic groups that comprised the Creek Confederacy at the turn of the 18th century. This book remains invaluable to scholars who wish to understand the cultural significance and cosmology of the Creek peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries.

  • Green, Michael D. The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

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    Green provides a thorough account of a Creek world, society, and culture in transition during the early 19th century when faced with the pressures of the US government to cede their lands and to remove westward. This book also analyzes the contentious politics behind Indian Removal in the South, with its intended and unintended consequences for the Creek Indians.

  • Hahn, Steven C. The Invention of the Creek Nation, 1540–1763. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

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    Hahn uses the Lower Creek town of Coweta to illustrate how politics in the Creek world functioned in intimate, community-based ways. Hahn argues that Coweta’s leaders, led by the mico Brims, forged what was called the “Coweta Resolution of 1718,” in which Creek micos perfected a strategy of neutrality in their negotiations with Europeans, while playing France, Spain, and Great Britain against one another in exchange for more favorable trade relationships.

  • Hudson, Charles. Southeastern Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is one of the most influential works ever published on Creek history, culture, and society. While the scope of the book includes the other Native Peoples of the South in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the Cherokees and Choctaws, Hudson’s work devotes significant attention to Creek political structures, gender relations, cosmology and ceremony, economics, language and symbolism, and more.

  • Piker, Joshua A. Okfuskee: A Creek Indian Town in Colonial America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Piker’s book changed how historians understand the Creek world. By focusing on a specific Upper Creek town—Okfuskee—Piker illustrates how Creek peoples thought of themselves according to their town identities, and that everything in Creek society unfolded within the community. He also emphasizes the “peculiar connections” between Creek and European worlds, which highlights how Creek communities were as much a part of “colonial America” as the thirteen colonies.

  • Saunt, Claudio. A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733–1816. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511511554E-mail Citation »

    Saunt demonstrates the political and social transformations to the Creek world during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He focuses on how a new leadership class of “mestizos” —men of mixed Creek-European parentage—rose to prominence in Creek society and politics, and who, representing new class divisions that emerged in Creek society, attempted to transform a loose coalition of Creek towns into an autonomous nation-state to rival that of the United States.

  • Swanton, John. Early History of the Creek Indians & Their Neighbors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.

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    Originally published in 1922, Swanton’s work is a must-read volume for any scholar of Creek history or the Native American peoples of the South. As one of the leading anthropologists of the 20th century, Swanton spent considerable time among the Muscogee people and this book reflects that career. Swanton’s work contains a wealth of cultural and historical information as well as oral sources passed down in the early 20th century, which remains invaluable to this day.

  • Wesson, Cameron B. Households and Hegemony: Early Creek Prestige Goods, Symbolic Capital, and Social Power. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book is a combination of archaeological and historical analysis, in which Wesson examines the cultural, economic, and political changes in the Creek household between the 16th and 18th centuries, specifically tracking the changes to political authority in the Creek world. As he concludes, a continual tension existed between the authority of Creek micos and younger men (predominately male warriors), which reached a tipping point during the late 18th century.

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