- Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World
This is a book about the Creeks and their land. A confederacy of numerous native groups that drew together in the late seventeenth century, the Creeks occupied a central place in the history of the American South through the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Settled in towns along numerous waterways mostly in modern-day Georgia and Alabama, [End Page 674] their diversity of languages was not reflected in a great diversity of lifestyles. The Creeks practiced mixed agriculture and hunting and gathering, with minor variations dependent upon the location of towns, and they adapted to new market conditions brought about by an influx of settlers to their lands after the American Revolution.
Anthropologist Robbie Ethridge takes a refreshing approach to her subject. Most historians would tell a history of the Creeks by focusing on politics, diplomacy, and warfare. Ethridge provides relatively little discussion of the Creeks' external relations except in regard to treaties and settlers that had a direct impact upon Creek land. She provides no extensive discussion of Creek relations with their native neighbors, in part because of her chronological focus on the last decades of Creek Country when disputes with the Choctaw and Cherokee declined in importance. Nor does Ethridge much discuss the internal dynamics of the confederacy, such as relations between the Upper and Lower Creeks or among towns. There is, however, political, cultural and social history here, including an excellent overview of the historic period and a superb discussion of European encroachment on Creek Country. Cultural analysis informs all of her work, but Ethridge focuses firmly on the Creeks and their environment, and that focus is the strength of the book and a significant part of its great accomplishment. Ethridge forces us to reconceptualize Creek history from the perspective of the internal dynamics of the people's relationship with their land.
The book's first half is largely concerned with documenting daily life in Creek towns. Drawing upon the extensive records of Benjamin Hawkins, the federal agent to the Creeks, as well as an array of other sources, Ethridge plots town locations in the surrounding ecosystem, providing an invaluable aid to future researchers. Rivers and creeks, varying mixes of trees, prairies and swamps, and much-used and valued canebrakes characterized the Creeks' "human-landscaped environment" (53). Nuts provided an especially valued dietary staple, particularly during hunting season, and Coweta Tallahasee, Etheridge notes, "maintained a 2,000 acre stand of hickory and other trees" (60). One family alone, a contemporary observer noted, gathered 100 bushels of hickory nuts, which among other things, were boiled into oil used in cooking. Just as ubiquitous near many Creek towns was Great River cane, used for building, weaving, food, firewood, musical instruments, as a refuge against invaders, and, after the adoption of domestic animals, as fodder.
If the first half of the book examines traditional land use for hunting, [End Page 675] gathering, farming, and warfare, the second half documents how that usage changed as the Creek entered more fully into the market economy through production for, and exchange with, white settlers. Hawkins, who served as agent from 1796 until 1816, played a key role in mediating relations between the Creeks and the American government and its citizens. He oversaw government trading posts, allotted government payments to the Creek for their land, and directed Creek involvement in the new economy. Hawkins subscribed to a "plan for civilization" intended to shift the Creeks from hunting to the care of domesticated animals and the cultivation of commercial crops such as wheat and cotton. To replace clothing produced from deerskins, women were provided with hundreds of looms, spinning wheels, and other accoutrements of textile production. As the number of deer declined, homespun allowed the Creeks to clothe themselves and to sell the surplus for items they did not produce, such as sugar and coffee. Hawkins and other well-meaning American allies of the Creeks promoted the plan of civilization in...