Ramsey recalls that while growing up in the Mississippi Delta the only notable topography was in the form of ancient indian mounds scattered about an otherwise flat landscape. When were they built and by whom? How’d those people live and what became of them? Retired archaeologist Sam Brookes spent his career studying prehistoric Mississippian Indian cultures and takes Ramsey on a whirlwind tour spanning 13,000 years, explaining why these mounds were built, why they possibly represented the zenith of pre-American civilization, what they hunted–and what hunted them–interesting digs and much more. As well, Brookes describes what explorer Hernando Desoto found and what that expedition left in its wake. Fascinating conversation.
Mississippi Hunting History
It was a male hunting camp, a deer camp 10,000 years old.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. Man, I’ve got a really interesting story today. Now, look, I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, basically flat ground as far as you can see, it was all agriculture growing up and I grew up in the shadows of the only topography on the landscape which were the mainline Mississippi River levee and Indian mounds. And as a kid, I was just fascinated, who’s not fascinated with the native American culture, especially these mounds that just propped up out of the Delta and seemed to be holy ground or sacred, because one we saw were protected. And as a little boy, I had just a shoe box full of pottery shards and primitive points and I’ve always wondered who were these ancient people that lived in what has been likened to the Amazon Basin of North America, how they live, what became of them? Today’s guest, Mr. Sam Brooks is going to speak today on the prehistoric Mississippi Indians. How are you, Sam?
Sam Brookes: Doing well.
Ramsey Russell: Tell us a little bit about yourself, you were an archaeologist?
Sam Brookes: Yes, sir. I’ve worked many years for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, then went to the Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg and then finished up my career as the Forest archaeologist for the National Forest in Mississippi.
Ramsey Russell: Wow, and you did a lot of investigations on this primitive culture pursuant to cultural type stuff with working for those agencies.
Sam Brookes: Yes, sir. Archaeology is a lot of fun and I want to talk to you about some of the sites I’ve worked on and some of the animals these Indians were hunting, most of this be about the delta. But one of the sites I had to work on was up in the Mississippi Hills and it’s the oldest site ever found in Mississippi, it’s over 10,000 years old and the very bottom level is a hunting camp. And we know that because the tools there are all either killing tools, spearheads or butchering tools. There are no flakes or flint chips, they were not making tools there, there are no grinding stones or food process, they were butchering animals, I assume whitetail deer. It was a male hunting camp, a deer camp 10,000 years old. That was one of the sites I worked on and very interesting. After that, that site was occupied by many later groups and you see women’s tools and all sorts of things, different activities going on. But the first people there were male deer hunters.
Ramsey Russell: And this would have been 10,000 years ago, that’s a long time ago, I don’t know how far back that goes in the Bible, but that is a long time ago. Could you tell if those people were coming out of the Mississippi Delta just to hunt there during certain times of year? Or was that just they just convening there because of the habitat? And what kind of deer, whitetail deer?
Sam Brookes: I assume whitetail deer. Yeah, this is an upland site, it was near Amory, Mississippi. But these first Mississippians came into Mississippi and they came from the north, we know that because some of the earliest points we find are made out of church from the Tennessee River valley. So they came from north to south and then they began to go down the streams and along the Mississippi River and then into the interior of Mississippi following some of these streams that emptied into the Mississippi. So the initial penetration was from the north.
Ramsey Russell: Like I grew up in Greenville and the most indelible memory was Winterville mounds, how do those date, how are those related to that mound there?
Sam Brookes: Those are much later than these early people. The mound building culture, we thought it began around 200 BC, something like that. Then we began to get some strange date out of Louisiana and Mississippi and we didn’t accept them because they were too early. We didn’t think that they were civilized or sophisticated enough to build mounds that old and it turns out we were wrong in the 1980s there was a revolution in American archaeology and we had to accept the first mounds in America were built in Louisiana and Mississippi starting about 5000 BC with most of the mounds being built around 3000 BC.
Ramsey Russell: That’s just incredible. I wondered, did you ever imagine to yourself what that landscape must have looked like 7000 or 8000 years ago? Because when I hear descriptions from back in the 1700s and 1800s, it’s primeval. It’s just even when the first seller showed up in the mid 1800s on Lake Washington and began to inhabit the first white sellers, I should say in the Mississippi Delta, it was the wildest place hardly in North America.
Sam Brookes: It was wild. Climate is a little bit hard to deal with. We see some major episodes of climate change, these first people in the Mississippi 13,000 years ago, came at the very end of the last ice age. So the Mississippi Gulf Coast went much further out into the Gulf than it does now, there was maybe an additional 20-30 miles of land out there. So a lot of those early sites are buried, they’re under water, they’re covered by water. Then we had a time of this early mound building around 5000 BC it begins to warm up, really warm, it was sort of a global warming in the southeast, hot and dry. And actually, animals migrate, but over hundreds of years plants will migrate and a lot of the hardwood forests moved out and we got prairie areas into Mississippi and Prairie animals moved into Mississippi.
Ramsey Russell: It’s like over on the eastern side over there, getting close to Amory, especially down into towards Kemper County, you still got that old White Chalk Prairie.
Mississippi’s First Inhabitants
That’s a remnant of this Prairie that came in around 5000 and 3000 BC and that’s when the first mound building began.
Sam Brookes: Yes, sir. That’s a remnant of this Prairie that came in around 5000 and 3000 BC and that’s when the first mound building began. And I think the first mound building is sort of a religious response to this global warming because their whole world was changing and they had to adapt to it. And you are right about those prairies in Mississippi, there are insects found out on the Mississippi Prairies that only occur there and on the prairies out in the west, they’re not found in the delta or anywhere in between.
Ramsey Russell: When you get over there to eastern Mississippi and those white chalky souls, it looks like old oyster shells but they’re dinosaurs shell, I mean, they’re old, old. How much earlier? And which indicates to me that, they’re at the bottom of the ocean at one time. How many thousands of years would that have been before on a timeline?
Sam Brookes: You’re getting out of my field they are several millions of years. And you get up into the Chickasaw country around Lee County, around Tupelo, up on top of some of the highest hills in Mississippi, you’ll find oyster beds. So, when the earliest missionaries came in and began talking to the Chickasaw, they talked to them about the great flood Chickasaw were aware of that because they had oyster beds and sharks teeth and fish bones up on top of the tallest hills in Mississippi. So they knew it had been under the ocean at one time.
Ramsey Russell: That’s mind blowing stuff there. So, all these Indian mounds – because as a child, I just assumed – when you grew up in Mississippi Delta, you used to flood water and I just assumed the people just pitched their tepe or pitched their stuff up on top of those mounds when it flooded, but that’s not what they were doing at all. What were they doing? Like in Winterville, what were they doing in that Winterville?
Sam Brookes: The earliest mounds, we’re not really sure, we haven’t dug enough of them. The later mounds, they’re two types, there are conical mounds, cone shape and they tend to be burial mounds. Some Indians used burial mounds, other Indians had cemetery areas in the village, but some of these conical mounds, most of them are burial mounds. Then the second type of mound is a flat top, truncated pyramid and like Winterville and the one at Mount Helena and those had structures on them. Generally, the tallest man in the group would have the temple on it and then the others would have houses of important people, they had a very stratified ranked society in those times.
Ramsey Russell: Were they building those temples out of wood?
Sam Brookes: They would. Wood with a thatched grass roof and they split cane and wove that together on the sides and then covered it with wet mud, dobbed it and that would dry and they were pretty much air tight to keep the wind out. The temple had a fire going inside it and it was guarded all the time. People kept the fire burning, there were people whose job was to keep it burning and the punishment was death if you let the fire go out. So it was a good incentive to do your job. We also know from the Natchez Indians that occasionally they would get flea infested, vermin infested and they would take the sacred fire out, move it to another building, they would burn the temple, they would cover the sacred fire, what was left of it with earth? Then they’d build a mound up another level, everyone put layers of dirt over it, then they rebuild a new temple and re light the sacred fire. So these mounds grew through time.
Ramsey Russell: My goodness. What kind of artifacts besides the mounds in that same time period, you must have done a lot of archaeology digs not related to the mounds of maybe the same people, if they were using that for religious purposes, they must have been living elsewhere?
Hernando de Soto’s Exploration of Mississippi
…De Soto came in the 1500s and this mound culture and these people, they still existed very similar to how they had back then.
Sam Brookes: They lived in and around the mounds. When we get a good glimpse of the mound builders with Hernando de Soto. He was the initial European who penetrated deep into the interior southeast. He is the only one who really saw many of these mound building groups at the height of their culture. So we got a very brief window to look at them. And many of these sites had moats dug around them, they were filled with water, the Lake George site over at Holly Bluff has a moat dug around it when it rains a lot that moat fills up with water, the dirt out of the moat was piled up inside and on top of that was a wooden palisade because they had warfare going on then. They would have a draw bridge where you could get in and out and then outside the moat would be sharp and bamboo stakes. And they had bastion towers on the palisade, set up for maximum killing distance of bow and arrow. So a lot of warfare going on there.
Ramsey Russell: Who were they fighting, each other?
Sam Brookes: Each other. These city states, these provinces, what the archaeologists call chiefdom de Soto talked about, we left the province of this man and entered the province of another man. And so he knew he had left one community and entered another and they were fighting each other.
Ramsey Russell: He probably used that against them.
Sam Brookes: He did. They used it against each other because one man in Mississippi saw an opportunity to overthrow the big warlord in Arkansas, but the warlord in Arkansas escaped and there was no way to attack him and so the man from Mississippi saw what had happened and he made peace with this man in Arkansas.
Ramsey Russell: How did de Soto describe what he saw? And when did De Soto show up in Mississippi? Because my Mississippi history is a little rusty. I’m guessing the 1400s.
Sam Brookes: 1540-1542.
Ramsey Russell: 1540. And I guess he came up from Mexico or did he land a ship somewhere?
Sam Brookes: They landed in Florida and they found a site in Florida. They think they may have found a site in Alabama. But there’s still a dispute over where he was in Mississippi. We know he encountered the Chickasaw Indians because he talks about Chickasso. Then he came through the North Delta somewhere, we think we know a site in Arkansas where he landed, but we don’t know for sure where many of those sites are.
Ramsey Russell: So, when we start going back to 3,000 or 4,000 and 5,000 years and I’m just trying to keep it sorted as we tell this story, we had these primitive people building mounds with complex chiefdoms scattered about De Soto came in the 1500s and this mound culture and these people, they still existed very similar to how they had back then.
Sam Brookes: I don’t think they were preemptive, I consider them very advanced. Now, they didn’t have metal, they were stone age metal, whereas the Incas and Aztecs had gold and silver, but they lived in the mountains. People lived in the Delta, you’re not going to ever find gold and silver there because there’s none there. What were they doing in the Delta? They were farming, they were agriculturalist and they were efficient hunter gatherers. They were fishing and getting game like you wouldn’t believe same thing people are doing in the Delta today.
Who Were Mississippi’s First Farmers?
Were they just trading in grain, that was their economy?
Ramsey Russell: What were they farming, corn?
Sam Brookes: Corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, all those are native to the new world, peppers. Europeans had never had any of those foods until they discovered America. Everybody knows corn, but most people don’t realize potatoes, beans, squash are all native to the new world.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the most interesting artifacts you’ve ever found? Like, I’ve seen some of these old canoes, some of these stone heads, what were some of the cool things as you were excavating and exploring and digging over your long career? What are some of the cool stuff you found?
Sam Brookes: Well, one of my buddies, I didn’t get to go to it, I was having to do another site but he went down on the river and they found a fish weir, it was well over 1000 years old. So, you talk about fishing, these guys weren’t going out with a pole in line like we do today, they had a fish trap set up, blocking the entire river and every fish that went up or down the river had to come through a narrow little opening and it was an Indian there and they were feeding their families with those fish. They weren’t getting like mounting them on the wall or anything else.
Ramsey Russell: It was all about subsistence back then. So when De Soto showed up, I’m just imagining that the Mississippi Delta was predominantly forested. And break-break, we were talking before the recording of you work for US forest Service, you know what I’m talking about on Delta National Forest, there’s a stand called the Sweet Gum Natural Area and it’s the oldest stand on the forest, it was developed preceding the mainline Mississippi River levee and that’s what I imagine, mybe De Soto was going through back in those days. But who knows, I would imagine that’s what he was going through. How scattered about where these chief and these tribes?
Sam Brookes: He was following trails, he was following trails that the Indians had cleared and we know from some of the Spanish accounts that they were actually planting corn along the edges of these things, they were keeping them clear and enlarging them. And there were large areas the Indians had in the delta that were cleared for corn, beans and squash agriculture. So, he was after gold and silver, they had found nothing, they had found some freshwater pearls in Georgia, but they were burned up when the Chickasaw attacked them in North Mississippi. So they got to Mississippi, they had absolutely nothing to show for anything. They were very despondent, very depressed, things weren’t going well, they had been beaten up by the Chickasaw and run out of North Mississippi. And then they come to the Mississippi river, the greatest river any of them had ever seen and they began building raft across the river and here comes this flotilla of over 200 canoes. Now, these canoes are dugout canoes, they’re 60ft long, each one has 20 warriors standing at attention and 20 horsemen on each side, they’re painted up red for a war color, they’re wearing white plumes, 200 canoes like that, it was very impressive. And when De Soto saw that, that sort of power, that much influence, that level of civilization, he got excited again, he thought there’s got to be gold and silver there’s somewhere, there’s got to be riches there, there weren’t any. But it got his group excited and going again and they marched in then into Arkansas.
Ramsey Russell: Sam, how big was the De Soto expedition?
Sam Brookes: They had a couple of 100 men and they had 400 Spanish Range pigs which were brought in –
Ramsey Russell: That’s where all these wild hogs come from.
Sam Brookes: Yes, sir. And the Indians had never had pork and they began stealing these things and the Indians got a pot going all the time and people go help yourself and so they began eating some of this pork that hadn’t been cooked very well and the Spanish range pig in 1540 it’s not good to eat that thing raw or rare and this is what had happened, a lot of diseases came down on these Indians, they had no natural immunity and the Spanish brought in measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, everything, whatever they could catch from eating the raw hog meat, the death toll was just amazing, in some place it was 75% to 80% of the people in just a matter of a few months. And the first people to die off would be the old people who had all the traditional knowledge and the young people, the younger children died off. And with that sort of depopulation, the Indians had no idea what had happened to them, what was happening or what to do, they abandoned these big cities, these big mound groups and they fled. A lot of them went upland and the Choctaw formed, they were a group of mound builders. When De Soto came through the heart of what we know as the Choctaw country in 1540 who knew Indians there. He didn’t mention the word Choctaw, Choctaws formed after 1541.
Ramsey Russell: I’ll be darned. If De Soto saw that impressive number of Indians, they had a complex mound system with temples and forts and moats and bridges, never imagined all that. What was their source of wealth?
Sam Brookes: They were agriculturist.
Ramsey Russell: Were they just trading in grain, that was their economy?
Sam Brookes: They did trade. Salt was being traded in areas. One of the things that was coming into Mississippi was rock. Mississippi is a great one for the rich place to live, one thing it really lacks, especially in the delta is rock. You get these little pebbles, you need a big axe to chop down trees, you have to trade for it that rock comes out of Alabama. The big hose that we find in the delta, that rock comes out of Illinois and what they were getting from the Gulf Coast was shell. And Shell was being exchanged up into the interior of the Southeast, big shell so they can make jewelry out of it.
Ramsey Russell: My grandfather born and raised there in Mississippi Delta and I can remember, somewhere around Indianola, there’s a bend in the road and he swore that historically that highway, that bend was where there was an Indian trail. And I always thought of an Indian trail to be just maybe a little bit bigger than a deer trail going out through the woods. But these were big roads, I mean, there’s a lot of people coming through here, when you start talking 200 boats that’ll hold 20 men, that’s a lot of community coming up and down this road, this wasn’t just little high of trails wrapping through the woods was it, this was big stuff.
Sam Brookes: It was big stuff. And his army marched along this thing and as I said, he would say, today we left the province of whatever and entered the province of another group. Now they wanted a mound group but they somehow knew that they had left one area and entered another. So evidently these things were marked, they had some sort of boundaries put up to let you know, you are no longer in the province of whatever you’re in somebody else’s territory.
Ramsey Russell: Was there any truth to the rumor that he was looking for the fountain of youth?
Sam Brookes: No.
Ramsey Russell: That’s just a myth?
Sam Brookes: I think that’s a myth. He was looking for gold and silver, they had had so much success with the Aztecs and Incas in Central and South America and that’s what they were looking for here and it just did not turn out.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I had heard that he had become wealthy conquering down in South America and all and kind of just leverage some of his wealth into this exploration into the Mississippi from starting in Florida, wherever to find more and build his riches was there a lot of truth to that? How did he get along with the native Americans?
Sam Brookes: He used them. He was looking for gold and silver, he was a conquistador and they captured Indians, they used them as guides as slaves to carry burden. They seized all the food when they came in, so they grabbed the storehouses, ate every bit of the food, left the Indians without any, ate the seed corn, even fed stuff to the horses and they were ruthless, they punished the Indians and shows the force to demonstrate, you don’t fight us, we’re stronger than you, they’re not hesitant to kill people, torture people, cut off hands, whatever it took to get the population to submit to them.
Ramsey Russell: Subdue. Because they had these religious temples, I’m assuming they worship some form of God. Do you have any idea who or what they were worshiping?
Sam Brookes: Most of them were pretty much sun worshipers, they worshiped the sun. They had priests and the great son of the Natchez Indians would get up every morning and welcome the sunrise. They also kept good records somehow and he knew exactly where that sun would rise on certain days as the earth shifted in winter and summer and that’s another little interesting fact. The French in the 1700s, 1600s lived on site with the Natchez Indians, the last mound builders in North America. So when you go to these big mound groups, anywhere in the southeastern United States, they have interpretive displays to tell you how the mound builders lived, what they did, every bit of that is based on one site, the grand village of the Natchez Indians in Natchez, Mississippi.
Ramsey Russell: They were worshiping to the sun, they were praying to end global warming, praying to end drought, praying for more rain and all of a sudden here comes this conquistador with smoke poles and everything else. And he must have been God like to them.
Sam Brookes: Yeah, they had never seen the horses, they had never seen hogs, they were stone age people, here these Spaniards had glass beads which they’d never seen, they had metal armor just a lot of new things that they were totally unfamiliar with, the cross bows, the pikes the horsemen used just totally different, something completely that they had never dealt with.
Ramsey Russell: With different way of warfare. I mean, it had to have been a religious experience to meet the Spanish Conquistadors living in this remote, peaceful Amazon like area and along here and here they come rape, pillaging and plundering.
Sam Brookes: Yeah. The Chickasaw, however, fought them tooth and nail and the Chickasaw quickly figured out the horses are the key to the whole thing and so they would always attack where the horses were at a disadvantage. And by the time they were Spanish were able to get their riders mounted and start to counter the attack, the Chickasaw would flee and they’d go across terrain across boundaries that made it difficult for the horses to follow them. So the Chickasaw figured out immediately how to deal with these Spaniards.
MS Barbecue Roots
So the first barbecue was somewhere out on the Black Prairie of Mississippi in the winter of 1540.
Ramsey Russell: How long did De Soto fool around in this part of the world?
Sam Brookes: He was here in 1540, 1541. He camped in the winter outside somewhere around Pontotoc, between Pontotoc and Tupelo the winter of 1540. Now, you were talking about climate there’s event going on then called the Little Ice age, so it was colder than you can even imagine. It was terrible. But that’s also where they had the first barbecue in Mississippi because they had pigs and they had corn and they had beans and the Spaniards had not had corn and beans until they got to the new world and the Indians had not had the pork. So the first barbecue was somewhere out on the Black Prairie of Mississippi in the winter of 1540.
Ramsey Russell: That makes perfect sense. That’s why we’ve got the market corn on great barbecue, isn’t it? Great pork. And I got in a conversation, speaking of barbecue, I got in a conversation with some boys down in Texas one time, I say, we say barbecue in the Mississippi, we mean pork, they don’t mean pork over in Texas, you get West Mississippi River, they mean beef, brisket and ribs and things like that. But now we know where that originated. Isn’t that something? Did De Soto died during this era, is that what ended his being here?
Sam Brookes: Yeah, they were trying to escape they went out west and then they came back, De Soto died.
Ramsey Russell: Where they go out west?
Sam Brookes: They went out, you’re getting out of my specialty now. They were heading out some of the pueblos out there because Spanish already had some Spaniards out there. They turned around, they didn’t make it, they came back in and fled down the Mississippi river.
Ramsey Russell: And left. And did De Soto die in Mississippi?
Sam Brookes: He died possibly in Louisiana.
The High Point of North American Culture
How would you describe this native culture back then before and after De Soto?
Ramsey Russell: How would you describe this native culture back then before and after De Soto?
Sam Brookes: Before De Soto, it was zenith of civilization in North America, in my opinion, I would love to have seen what they look like. The people, De Soto talked about one town in Arkansas that had over 500 houses in the town, had a moat dug around the palisade draw bridge, when he and his men went to attack, the Indians, went out the back and the moat had a channel dug out into the Mississippi river and they all went in canoes out to the island on the Mississippi river and they had a palisade built on that island and De Soto saw that there was no way he could attack that. And so that’s when they made peace and started to bargain with this Indian warlord.
Ramsey Russell: You say the zenith of North American civilization, how else did it compare with other native civilizations around the country?
Sam Brookes: I just think the Mississippian, we call it Mississippian that late culture was a high point of North American culture. They’re still stone age people but their art, their pottery, the brilliant red and white painted pottery go up to the museum of the Mississippi Delta sometime in Greenwood and look at that pottery, it’s amazing. Some of the finest pottery ever made in North America. They also traded, they got copper, they made fabulous copper artifacts. Now they cold hammered it, they didn’t know how to melt it and work it, they never reached that level. But carved shell, the shell coming from the Gulf Coast, they made fabulous gorgets and pieces carved out of that are just exquisitely done, really masters of their technology.
Ramsey Russell: You spent a long time doing research, researching these via your trade in archaeology because like you were saying, back in one of the oldest hunting camp and you could tell, initially it was just an all man hunting camp and then it progressed, how can you tell that progression through time?
Sam Brookes: Well, it was very easy on that side. Like I said, there were no flint ships, so every artifact we found in that lower level was a finished artifact and everything was a butchering tool, either killing, piercing or butchering. So they were killing something and cutting it up there, processing the meat. They weren’t manufacturing tools, there were no grinding stones, there was nothing like that. And then later on higher up on the site, we began to find all that. In fact, we see grinding stuff found in a circle of grinding stones and I saw a great picture of African women one time the nuts had come right. And they go out together the nuts, so they’ve got to beat some of these animals to them. So, not like us sitting around cracking a nut before Christmas some by the fire. But they go out and they gather several 1000lbs of nuts and they bring these things back to the village and they’re nuts stacked up 6ft high and these women are sitting in a circle, cracking nuts and throwing the halls away and saving the nuts and processing them. So, it’s a major activity and I found something that looked just like that at this site over near Amory.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy, man. I think, I could have enjoyed being an archaeologist.
Sam Brookes: It’s a lot of fun, I’ve had some great times.
Ramsey Russell: Because what I’m getting at it, we talked about De Soto being in the 1500 and to end that story, I had heard – you said before that were civilization, primarily agrarian, they grew squash and beans and corn and I just imagine looking at that delta probably on a lot of sites that whatever was cane, it’d be easier to clear it in trees. It would be good drainage, they could grow good crops, get out of the swamps a little bit. And somebody I read or somebody told me that when De Soto came through, he saw that corn, it feeds for his troops, feed for his hogs, concubine the women, conquer the people, take what they want, make war and that began the end of a mound culture of an agrarian culture that pursuant to those Conquistadors, those people, that’s when they – like you were talking about the Choctaws, they scattered them and began making a living else out, maybe just hunt and gather instead of agriculture.
The Hunter & the Hunted: Hunting Changes Over Time
How did things change in terms of what they hunted or what hunted them?
Sam Brookes: Well, they’re still doing agriculture, but it wasn’t the sites, the big mound groups, they didn’t do that anymore, that went away. The exception being the Natchez Indians in Natchez they were still mound builders, but they were a smaller group, they were much smaller, nothing like the huge sites that De Soto saw. The huge mound down there. Emerald Mound, you’ve seen that near Natchez that the top of that mound is as big as six collegiate football fields, the Harvard Crews when they were digging, they would sometimes play soccer at lunch and they never once kicked the ball off the side of the mound, it’s so big.
Ramsey Russell: We got here earlier and I know they hunted, they grew a lot of crops, but they hunted, it must have been a game abundant, relatively speaking. You were talking about during weather changes, a lot of animals, prairie type animals came in, prior to that you had wood animals and that just takes us all the way. We talked about the 1500 De Soto was here and you all can go back 5,000, 6,000 years from there even further. How did things change in terms of what they hunted or what hunted them?
Sam Brookes: Yeah. Well, the earliest people came in 13,000 years ago, there was some big critters around here, the giant bison that was here was a lot bigger than the regular bison they have out on the plains today. We had two species of elephants here and we had the giant ground sloth, those things were huge, they were killing those and eating them, we found butchered ground sloth remains on archaeological sites. But strange thing, some of these people may have been being hunted too. We had the Sabertooth tiger has been found in Mississippi out on the Black Prairie. We had the giant short faced bear that thing standing on its four legs would look you right in the eyes when it stood up to fight, it was 12ft tall.
Ramsey Russell: Just like a polar bear.
Sam Brookes: Much bigger than a polar bear and it was a running bear, it could run right at 40 miles an hour. Now, the fastest humans in the world, those guys from West Africa win 100 yard dash, they can run right at 25, so it’s no match, you’re not going to outrun it unless you have a torch or something, you were, lunch if you ran into a giant short faced bear.
Ramsey Russell: We know those joke, you just need to be outrun the guy next to you, let him catch him first.
Sam Brookes: Yes, sir. And we had an American lion that weighed around 1000lbs, those things were walking around the delta.
Ramsey Russell: I had never even heard of an American lion, describe him to me. How big would he compared to an African lion?
Sam Brookes: Modern African lion, the big male would be about 650lbs, the American lion would be about 1000lbs, half again as big and an African lion can kill a wildebeest that size of a cow and pick it up and carry it off and you can imagine what a 1000lbs lion can do. It could bite a person almost in half and carry them off to eat them later.
Ramsey Russell: And in lot of your excavation areas, did you find the bison and the mastodon and the mammoth bones? Did you find bones and associated with these camps? I mean, because I’m sure, if I had a short face bear around that was trying to kill me, maybe if I caught a chance I’d kill him.
Sam Brookes: Yeah, we haven’t found those – we found the bones of these animals in Mississippi, unfortunately, not in association with human tools, we’ve not found that. Most of the sites I worked on the data in the delta much later. And the most abundant big game animal, we find, white tailed deer. And then the most abundant thing, fish bones, they were eating fish like you wouldn’t be. I told you about that fish weir. So they weren’t fishing for sport, they were fishing for food and then we get the small mammals and that would be primarily raccoon and possum, but they were eating everything else you can imagine. And then, migratory waterfowl, we find those bones, how they hunted them, I don’t know, De Soto didn’t care about that.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a million dollar question.
Sam Brookes: Yes, De Soto didn’t care about that. He was looking for gold and silver. He saw them doing all these things, but he didn’t write any of that down. That’s what’s so frustrating to us about Hernando de Soto. There’s so many things we’d like to ask and he saw them, but he didn’t bother to write it down.
Puzzle-Pieces: Putting Together Mississippi’s Past
Ramsey Russell: That brings up a good point, a lot of your research as an archaeologist is not just what you can dig or find or put together, putting the puzzle together in the soil, it’s also written record, whatever, you’re like a detective, putting all kinds of resources into play to form an idea of what really happened back then.
Sam Brookes: Right. And these people now they’ve been cooking these things for 10,000 years, so they had some recipes. The site I did in my thesis on is covered up with coon and possum bones when I worked at Ole Miss, I worked at a barbecue joint to help pay my way through school and one time the owner said to you’re working tomorrow night, but we closed to the public, his coon hunting club came in and we cooked about 50 coons and had them with sweet potatoes and turnip greens and that was the best smelling thing I ever smelled in my life and I said tonight, I’m going to eat some coon and those guys ate every scrap of meat. I looked at bones, there was nothing left and I didn’t get to taste any of the coon, they had every bit of it. And I imagine with possum, the cooking of that possum they probably had some good recipes and they knew how to cook it.
Ramsey Russell: When you found, I know those small game bones like waterfowl didn’t last very long, like some of these big femurs or something like that. But could you tell what kind of species it was?
Sam Brookes: Sometimes they can tell, sometimes they can’t, occasionally they can tell it’s sort of hard to do. And again, you have these hunting camps, people go out to hunting camps and then, so I know a lot of Mississippi dove hunters, they just hold out the breast and so they bring that back, that’s what they eat. So the other parts are left out in the field and that may be, depending on the type of game they were hunting at the Hester site with that early deer camp, I’m sure they were getting rid of most of the scrap, they would bring back all the edible meat and hides and some pieces of bone, but they were leaving a lot of it in the field. So, it’s hard to tell sometimes about cooking techniques and what type of bird it might be.
Ramsey Russell: When I think about how native Americans dressed, I always think of the Western Indians, west of the Mississippi River wearing buck skins, we shot a lot of white tailed deer on this side of the river, but we were up in the woods, was there a similar dress code?
Sam Brookes: Similar, yeah. Spring, summer, early fall, pretty much naked shoes and G-strings.
Ramsey Russell: They must have something special to keep all those mosquitoes off of them.
Sam Brookes: Well, I’m not sure we have mosquitoes here then. I think that may be an introduced species. I’m worried that people never mentioned that in the early days. And I’m hearing that mainly came in with clearing wood for steamboat traffic that, that opened area where mosquitoes could get in here and breed.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that have been tolerable back then without mosquito. Could you talk about some mosquitoes, they got the market on?
Sam Brookes: Yeah. Well, I had a friend did some work on a historic site in Natchez and there were two elderly white women and they were in their late 80s, they had been raised by an elderly black woman and that black woman was born a slave and she dated an old Natchez Indian. And they said, this old Natchez Indian would go out in his dugout canoe at night and he had a clay fire pit, he had built in that canoe and had a fire going in it and he had a blowgun and he killed bullfrogs with a blowgun. Now, blowguns a stealth weapon and they said they loved it when that old Natchez Indian come see his girlfriend, he’d bring a whole sack full of bullfrogs.
What Hunting Tools Were Used in the Past?
No, the bow hadn’t been invented, they were using spears and they had a spear thrower, an Atlatl.
Ramsey Russell: What a great story. What implements did they hunt with over time, when you look at this old camp 13,000 years ago? Were they using a long bow?
Sam Brookes: No, the bow hadn’t been invented, they were using spears and they had a spear thrower, an Atlatl. And an Atlatl it gives you so much power, it’s hard to believe. But you could throw a stone spearhead right through a wooden door with that thing.
Ramsey Russell: What about up in the forest?
Sam Brookes: They used spears and spear throwers up until about 800 AD, that’s when the bow and arrow reached Mississippi and they then quickly went over pretty much to the bow and arrow to use. And a lot of people find these little points like this and they call it bird points and say that’s what they hunted birds with, nonsense, that’s a true arrowhead. And I found those things embedded in deer bone, excavated at one point skeletons, human skeletons that had their heads removed and they had 12 of those arrow heads embedded in them. And the arrowheads were not Mississippi arrowheads and were not Mississippi rock, they were Arkansas rock.
Ramsey Russell: Maybe a tribe come across the river to fight, is that what you think?
Sam Brookes: Yes, tribe came across, executed them, cut their heads off trophies.
Ramsey Russell: What about this large stone head? What kind of head is that?
Sam Brookes: That’s a replica of a Clovis point.
Ramsey Russell: Clovis point, I’ve heard about that.
Sam Brookes: That’s what the people were hunting, ground sloth, the big elephant, that’s what was being used, it’s an early one. And like I said, the first ones we get in Mississippi are usually made out on the north part, they’re made out of Tennessee River Valley. So these people coming in from the north.
Ramsey Russell: Today with the internet, word between the internet, social media all that mess, word scatters quick. I mean, somebody invented something today, the whole world would know about it tomorrow. I wonder how long it took back in those days for the bow to spread around North America or the Atlatl, I mean, how long did it take? Can you tell or do you know enough about that?
Sam Brookes: Like I said, it appears here suddenly at about 800 AD.
Ramsey Russell: Somebody just showed up and said, hey, I got this bow for sale.
Sam Brookes: Got this works well. Now corn, we find corn early, but a lot of groups didn’t really accept it. They didn’t get heavy into it until later on time.
Ramsey Russell: Like put me on timeline.
Sam Brookes: 1200 AD is when we see corn begin on a large scale.
Ramsey Russell: Where did it come from?
Sam Brookes: Well, it came in, I think originally from South America, they tried to find the original corn and it’s actually a grass, they started grass with big seeds and kept harvesting and growing it and breeding it. And the ancestor of corn is almost unrecognizable, it’s grass but through the years – but now when De Soto came in, there were several 100 varieties of corn being grown by the Indians and about 100 different varieties of potatoes also.
Did Ancient Hunters Use Hunting Dogs?
We see dog burials on many of the sites and they loved them and cared for them because they gave them nice little burials.
Ramsey Russell: Isn’t that something. I’m looking at this picture of extinct animals in North America that’s a dire wolf and I heard a podcast the other day talking about all breeds of dogs originated from wolves, they’ve done DNA samples now, were these people here were dogs associated, any form of dog associated with their tribes?
Sam Brookes: Yeah. We see dog burials on many of the sites and they loved them and cared for them because they gave them nice little burials.
Ramsey Russell: Can you tell if they were hunting with them?
Sam Brookes: Probably were, the ones in the Southeast are smaller, tend to be smaller type dogs, they’re not very large. Now, you’ve told me wolves in the North Delta where I did my thesis of about 800 AD, 900 AD I found on the site, I did my thesis on lots of coon and possum, but I found a partial wolf skull, red wolf and it had been carved, cut down, ground and polished had a whole drill through it and had red paint on it. They were using some sort of a red wolf ceremony. Now, we dug another site that same age right near there near Moon Lake and we were coming down on a human burial and all of a sudden it looked like count Dracula, it had a huge giant big tooth stuck up. And when we got down, there was a cut down wolf mandible had been placed on his mandible and it had that big incisor tooth stuck up. So I don’t know if that was put in his mouth and this thing was sticking up like he was a vampire or something. But it was a wolf mandible placed on his mandible. A wolf mandible placed on a human man. Cut down wolf Mandible. So red wolf ceremonialism was going on in the North Delta around 800 AD. You don’t see much about red wolves anymore.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me some more stories, doc, that’s some good stuff.
Sam Brookes: Well, it’s a lot of fun. Fish bones and scales in the delta when we dig these trash pits, they dig their garbage, they dig down into the sterile soil and we get down below the plough zone and it’s real tan and then you get to the bottom of it and it’ll be a big black circle and that’s a trash pit. And we like to dig those things out, we save all the dirt out, put it on a fine mesh screen, like from a screened in porch and run water through it. And that saves everything that’s in that pin. They fill with fish bones and fish scales.
Ramsey Russell: Can you tell what kind of fish they were fishing? Blue gill, bass, catfish.
Sam Brookes: Bowfins, they ate every bit of it. Well, we went to a site in near Marks Mississippi one summer in the 1980s and a man had found something there near a big Indian Mound and I wanted to see it. So we went out in the spring, we had a lot of rain that spring kind of like this one and we were walking across the soybean field and it had about 3 inches of water in it and fish was spawning in that soybean field. They were big fish, you could see the fins, two big fish side by side and this guy was trying to – he reached down to pick one up and it was almost a foot long. And I thought golly in 1982 in Marks, Mississippi, you can go on a soybean field, reach down and grab a fish, imagine what it must have been like in the time of the Indians. And we also used to go over the levee on the sand bars to look for a shark’s teeth and agates and things like that, fossil animal bones. When that water goes down, there’s some low aligning areas and those things were filled with fish, it might be an area the size of the room we’re in 2ft deep and there might be 200 big carp and bass and catfish and everything and they’re going to die there and those Indians just weighed in and throw those things out with their hands. So, fish were a vital source of food for the Native Americans and they were catching them not for sport.
Ramsey Russell: I had read an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition many years after this took place 100-200 years later. And it described them going up the Mississippi river and the rule was you had to stick your drinking cup down to your shoulder just to pull it up just so you wouldn’t have any bugs or something on top. But they described it as clear. When I think of the rivers throughout the delta now it’s all muddy because of sedimentation and farming and run off and things of that nature. But back in those days, a lot of those waterways were clear, this was all forested. And that reminds me of a question earlier when we started talking about the mound people, where were they getting the soil for the field? Because I’m sitting here thinking, it’d be one thing to go just start moving a bunch of soil without equipment with little buckets and bags, something else entirely different to scratch around in a hardwood forest and come up with all that field.
Sam Brookes: Yeah. Well, there are borrow pits where they dug the dirt out, we can see that on some of the sites. Those are still there because so many of them have been land formed of the people farming them and trying to get rid of the mounds and flatten everything out. But they had borough pits. Now, there was a famous mound down in Jonesville, Louisiana it was torn down and used for highway fill and one of the biggest mounds in Louisiana and they tore that bridge down, so they were going to use some of the original dirt and sort of rebuild a smaller version of the mound, they got a good archaeologist, a friend of mine, I think they gave him a dump truck and a bulldozer or something in a couple of assistants and he said, no sweat, I’d be easy to build a mound. Of course, in Louisiana, summertime, you build up a big pile of dirt, you get a thunderstorm like we had the other day, all that dirt washes away. And he said 3 months later, he had like 10 engineers, 2 bulldozers, couple of dump trucks and he hadn’t built the mound yet, it kept washing away and he said, you just can’t throw up a bunch of dirt and have it stay there, not in Mississippi or Louisiana in the summertime. So, mound building is very complex and those people knew how to do it and how to do it right to make it last.
Ramsey Russell: Some of the mounds you see now the residual mounds are lower than others covered with woods, did they let them grow up naturally in the woods?
Sam Brookes: No, they kept them clear. Most of those things, they evidently had a cap over it of clay which was burned, fired hard and I think some of them, there’s evidence at the shallow site up at Shallow Battlefield up in Tennessee were painted. They were red and white striped mounds paint around.
Ramsey Russell: What were they using for colors or pigment?
Sam Brookes: Oh, that’s a good question, I’m not sure. But we found red and white striped pottery on these late sites, so they certainly do that. There was also a mound group in Pinson, Tennessee. I went up to look at that and nice layers in there, you could tell where different layers of mound had been built. But then capping it off, they had a layer of pure white sand, white as sugar and then over that was a pure layer of bright red sand and then another layer, that had to be brought in from some – from a long ways and very carefully done and very carefully planned.
All About Ancient Mississippians: Hunting, Religion, Warfare & Culture
Ramsey Russell: Change of subject completely, we were in Mongolia one time, now when I get off in far flung places, I love it. And so much of this history exists right here in my backyard, that’s one point. But we were out in the middle of – just imagine two tire tracks running across the Asian step forever and ever, we were six hours into this drive, I hadn’t seen nothing but two tire tracks in front of the jeep and we stopped there was somewhere, we’ve been through some little community and we stopped and just started eating a sack lunch. And next to us was a big refrigerator sized stone like a short refrigerator, I’m going to say it was 5ft tall and I’d asked a lot of questions about this at another to my tour guide, my translator. And he said, Ramsey, this stone right here predates Christ by 2000 years and I noticed there’s a bunch of ribbons and flowers and like you come and pay it at a headstone. And I said, something, he goes, well, nobody has any idea who it is, but he must have been very important because that stone exist, that’s that kind of stone doesn’t exist in Mongolia, it’s from 3000 miles from here. So, just to imagine somebody picking up a stone inside a gun safe and carrying it 3000 miles for a headstone that just blows my mind, thousands of years before Christ.
Sam Brookes: Yeah, we got some similar in Mississippi, we have a copper on some of these sites in Mississippi and the copper comes from around the Great Lakes, a lot of the outcrops, it’s just big native nuggets of copper and those things were salt traded down the river. And like I said, that shell trade that’s going on that shells moving North, copper is moving south, salt is moving all over. So they knew where people were, they’re following waterways mainly, but they also those trails, those roads, they knew where different people live and things we had here, might not be somewhere else. So that’s something good to trade. So there was interaction between groups over long areas.
Ramsey Russell: Why did they quit building the Indian Mound? You told me one time on the phone, they built them up until maybe the 1600s, 1700s, but it had slowed down after De Soto.
Sam Brookes: After De Soto, most of those sites that time period was just of the abandoned. De Soto like I said, he saw huge big cultures of mound builders at the zenith of their culture that was in 1541 in the 1600s when Lasalle comes down the river, a 100 years later, he saw 5 Indians in Arkansas, nobody in Mississippi. These Indians in Arkansas were hunters, they had portable shelters on their back, they were there hunting. He went past one of these big mound sites, it was abandoned. One of the ones De Soto saw, they fled, they got out. The death rate was so incredible, they didn’t know what was happening to him.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I had heard that way before the civil war, that what we think of as the new frontier. When Western expansion, Western imperialism started going across the Mississippi River and building what we now think of as the American West that the people they encountered may have only represented fewer than 20% of what had one time existed because of the Spanish conquistador was coming through and introducing all those diseases. Are you aware of anything like that?
Sam Brookes: Well, the disease is what was just deadly for them. Yeah, so that caused tremendous changes. So, there’s just a cut-off date after about 1540 AD, 1580 AD we don’t see anything after that much. There’s one site in that rolling fork and it’s gotten three good dates of 1690 AD and it’s a good Tunica site. And then right up at Redwood, of course, you’ve got a historic Tunica village there, they were late mound builders –
Ramsey Russell: Tunica’s are Indians or a tribe?
Sam Brookes: Tunica, the tribe. Yeah. And this is at Redwood Mississippi on highway 3. There’s Fort Saint Pierre, there was a French garrison and the Hanes Bluff mound group was inhabited by Tunica right up the road with a tribe called the Yazoo. And the Yazoo rose up in 1729 and killed all the Frenchmen and captured the women and Children.
Ramsey Russell: You’re talking about those wars of skirmishes going on with the forts and the garrisons and bridges when you start talking about coming in and building roads and clearing and wide spots and agriculture that requires a lot of labor.
Sam Brookes: It does.
Ramsey Russell: Were they enslaving each other?
Sam Brookes: They did some of that, I think. But also building mounds that requires a lot of labor. And these people have to build their houses, they have to make their own clothes, they have to provide their own food, so how you going to talk somebody into going and piling up dirt to build a mound? There’s tremendous power and influence in the community for someone to do that. And these people, the higher ups were considered semi divine. So that plays into it also, like think of the emperor of Japan in World War II, he was the God emperor.
Ramsey Russell: He was. What did they live in? They weren’t living in – were they living in animal skin teepee?
Sam Brookes: No, they built houses in the late periods, I know at least is 800 AD they had houses, they were about 15ft on the side, they were rectangular. Sometimes they dug individual post holes and put upright post in. Sometimes they dug long trenches, that’d be about 8 inches wide and a little over a foot deep. And then they put upright post in that and then either bend them over or tied cross members and then put the thatched grass roof, then wove that split cane on the side and wet mud on it. And so they had pretty substantial houses in the center was a fire pit and they sometimes would put a wet clay ring around it, they would harden and they’d keep a fire going for light.
A Love of Hunting Arrowheads Leads to a Career
…all I did in my spare time was hunt arrowheads. And I thought, hey, why don’t I think about archaeology?
Ramsey Russell: How did you get into archaeology? Tell me, what led you into the field of archaeology?
Sam Brookes: We were raised on a farm in Virginia been in our family since the 1700s and there’s a big Indian site there, we were tobacco farmers. And my dad used to make me go out with him and look for arrowheads, I like being with dad, I never found anything. And then one day I found my first arrowhead and I was hooked and I got interested in it and went to college, went to junior college and after two years there, I didn’t know what I was going to do and I dropped out and I worked for a couple of years and all I did in my spare time was hunt arrowheads. And I thought, hey, why don’t I think about archaeology? And one day at the first Presbyterian church in South Boston, Virginia, I met a couple from Mississippi and they said there’s a great professor named Tom at Ole Miss and he’s an archaeologist and really neat. And so I said, hey, and I applied to Ole Miss and came down here and was going to go back and be the state archaeologist in Virginia and they offered me the job and I thought, I don’t know anything at all about Virginia Archaeology. All I know is Mississippi archaeology. So I stayed here, the best thing that ever happened for them and me, I didn’t go back to Virginia.
Ramsey Russell: There wasn’t a lot of written history about, like there weren’t maps or books, the native people didn’t have maps and books or written history, did they?
Sam Brookes: No, they did not, not here.
Ramsey Russell: So, how do archaeologist, how were you able to piece together the tribes and delineate this is Natchez or this is Yazoo or this is Choctaw and where did you know to go start scratching around to find a human skull with a canine molar on it?
Sam Brookes: It’s still hard to do, but we like –
Ramsey Russell: Like you go to your front yard, start digging and say maybe I’ll find something, you have to be a little more systematic than that.
Sam Brookes: Yeah, we have some good early sources from the French and Spanish and Mississippi. And we know where then we can look at, they live with the Choctaw and that Choctaw pottery is totally different from the Natchez Indian pottery and the Chickasaw pottery is also totally different. Now, the interesting thing after the Natchez massacre in 1729 when the Natchez killed the Frenchman there, a lot of them fled up the Natchez trace and they went to live with the Chickasaw. And you see these two totally different types of pottery. I mean, they’re different as anything you could imagine. And then after a while you begin to see Natchez style designs on Chickasaw pottery paste. And so you get the idea of these two tribes are starting to merge to come together, they’re losing their identity and –
Ramsey Russell: Maybe they had to because of disease. Maybe their population got so small, they had to unite just to survive.
Sam Brookes: They had to unite and they were fighting the French and the Chickasaw were allied with the British and the British were using the Chickasaw to fight against the French and the French were using the Choctaw to fight against the British and the Chickasaw, so there was a lot of that type of warfare going on in the early days.
What Became of the Ancient Mound Builders?
Ramsey Russell: It’s all been very interesting, Sam, that’s just amazing to me. So you had these communities, these tribes, these chieftains established way back in the Delta, building these fanciful mounds for religious purposes during a global warming period. What became of them? What became of those people? They dispersed and I guess, you said some became Choctaws, they moved out of the Delta. Why did they move out of the delta?
Sam Brookes: They die of from the diseases after the De Soto expedition. And the Natchez where they talked about the grand village of the Natchez and the other Natchez tribes and other villages. But they weren’t really Natchez that was a confederation of several small tribes and the French never really understood how that worked. And then 1729 they rose up, they massacred the garrison at Fort Rosalie. So then the French sent an army out of New Orleans up and the Natchez fled, went over to Sicily Island, Louisiana and the French attacked him over there, killed many of them, captured many, made slaves out of them, they were sold down to the Caribbean to work sugar cane plantations. And the Choctaw they went up to the area where they are now then with the trail of tears, most of them were moved out. And I met a lady who was with the fire service at one of our meetings one time. She was a full of blood Choctaw from the Choctaw Oklahoma. And I asked her, have you ever been to Mississippi? She said, yes, she had been to Philadelphia, she had seen Nanih Waiya, the supposed mother mound of the Choctaws. And I asked her, did she meet chief Philip Martin? And the look on her face, I knew I had said something wrong right then. And she said, well, he’s not really a chief, all the chiefs moved to Oklahoma. Some of the Choctaws stayed behind, but none of the Chiefs did. And I said, oh and I let that conversation go, we talked about something else.
Ramsey Russell: I know there’s a Mississippi mound trail because I’ve seen the signs I’ve passed by some of them, a lot of me can’t see because of the trees or the cover, some of them you can, they’re very conspicuous, it’s just a raised mound covered with trees out in the middle of a soybean field. How many mounds still exist in Mississippi?
Sam Brookes: I’m not sure. Mississippi had more mounds than any state in the union, that Mississippi mound trail is fabulous. I helped him work on that Meg Cooper from the Rolling Fork area is one of the main people behind that, she really got that going, we’re very proud of it. If you look at the Carson mounds up in Clarksdale, right outside of Clarksdale, that was the second largest mound group in the United States. So, right at 90 mounds there.
Ramsey Russell: And how big of a geographic area?
Sam Brookes: Oh, gosh, it’s about a mile, about two miles. And today I think there are 5 mounds left out of those 90.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what I was getting at. That’s what I was getting at because you talked about a big one being repurposed for road. Were a lot of these mounds leveled out and cleared and just put into agriculture?
Sam Brookes: Most of them were, the impressive mound at Holly Bluff, Lake George, Mississippi, I think that had 28 or 29 mounds there. It had a moat dug around it, but it’s in agriculture and the previous owners were plowing them, trying to plow them down and flatten the whole thing out. And the guy, the big mound there is 55ft tall. He actually used dynamite on that in the 1920s and 1930s to try to blow up and get it to a road and knock it down. But it didn’t work, thank goodness.
The Impressive Antebellum House on an Indian Mound
The Bride of Annandale, they wrote a play about it, which won an award from the Mississippi Historical Society.
Ramsey Russell: One of the most conspicuous mounds in the state of Mississippi is just north of Anguilla, I believe, I don’t know, I guess it’d be highway 61 and there’s a big house built on it, a big antebellum looking house built up on an Indian mound.
Sam Brookes: Yeah, that’s Mont Helena. Really pretty. That’s a fabulous story about it. The Bride of Annandale, they wrote a play about it, which won an award from the Mississippi Historical Society. I don’t think they do the play anymore, but it’s really a beautiful, tragic, very sad story. But that house is really impressive and it has been –
Ramsey Russell: Tell me this story, I thought you were fixing to tell it to me.
Sam Brookes: Oh, gosh, I don’t know it that well. But there was a lady named Helen a young girl and she met the love of her life who was, I believe Henry Vick of Vicksburg. But he lived up in the Anguilla area and he wanted to marry her, but she was not of age. So they waited until she was 21, I think, 20 or 21. Anyway, he was bad to fight and do duels and Helen made him swear that he would never kill anybody in a duel and he gave her that promise. And he had his best friend up and his friend got on the horse that this servant had saddled and the saddle slipped and his friend fell off and his friend insisted that he beat the servant and he refused. So they had major disagreement over that. And later, he and Helen were going to get married, he had gone to the Gulf Coast for something and he ran into his friend and his friend jumped on him about that saddle incident and then slapped him and challenged him to a duel and they went out to fight the duel and Henry Vick fired his gun into the air and the other fellow fired and hit Henry Vick in the head and killed him. And this is the day before the wedding, so the day –
Ramsey Russell: He kept his promise, didn’t he?
Sam Brookes: He did. The day of the wedding, all the guests arrive and the train arrived with the wedding cake and the caterers and the body of the groom.
Ramsey Russell: My goodness, what a story.
Sam Brookes: Helen wore her wedding dress with a black veil.
Ramsey Russell: Was the house built before the duel?
Sam Brookes: No, the house wasn’t built. They had the funeral ceremony and instead of a feast to celebrate the wedding, they had a funeral feast and people there. Then a few years later, she met an episcopal priest and he fell in love with her and wanted to marry and she said, no, the only person she’d ever love would be Mr. Vick and eventually he talked her into marrying him. And so he had 10ft of dirt pushed off the top of that mound at Mont Helena and he built that house there around the turn of the century, 1890 or 1900. He built that for Helen and she had him build a little church out there for the servants.
Ramsey Russell: What a beautiful spectacle it is, especially like this photograph in your studio where it’s got all the cotton down around it, it’s just unbelievable, it’s gorgeous. That’s probably what saved a lot of these mounds was stuff like that, wasn’t it?
Sam Brookes: Absolutely. A lot of them had houses on them, many of them have cemeteries on them, so that kept them from being pushed down by the Highway Department to use for road.
Ramsey Russell: They didn’t worry about it being a Indian burial mound, but they worried about it being a –
Sam Brookes: Christian cemetery that would stop them.
Ramsey Russell: That would stop them. But there’s no idea how many were destroyed.
Sam Brookes: Hundreds.
Ramsey Russell: God, isn’t that crazy?
Sam Brookes: It’s crazy. And we’ve got a nice one out here at Pocahontas on highway 49 and they were going to push that one down with the bulldozer and the late great Charlotte capers from archives in history went out and actually stood in front of the bulldozer and said, absolutely not and since that time, we’ve pushed the burial law in Mississippi and had that applied to Indian graves. So, we can sometimes stop destruction of these sites, when you start hitting human skeletons, human remains, we can make them stop. If there’s an archaeological site, then they may excavate the human remains and then finish the project there. But they will care for those human remains give them some respect.
Ramsey Russell: When you talk about – like take the Clarksdale community had those 90 mounds or you take the mounds around Winterville or how many – talk about little possum coming across your yard right there speaking of a possum, I just saw one about 8 inches long trying to cross your backyard.
Sam Brookes: Okay. I’ve seen a little possum out there before we used to have a big one on the back.
Ramsey Russell: Well, it is spring time. I was just curious, how much train around or how far did they roam, how close did they stick? Where did they bury their people? You see what I’m saying? Was it like a town like Brandon? Was it like my hometown is that kind of how it was?
Sam Brookes: Well, they had names for the towns and we know that from De Soto and there would be a town with the center government there and then out from that would be smaller little hamlets and then out from that individual farmsteads, but they would all be under that central authority in the biggest town. And they did –
Ramsey Russell: Like a municipality operating under a larger government.
Sam Brookes: The later the mound builders, they were approaching the level of the state like the Aztec and Incas and they did pay some taxes to the higher ups and that’s one thing –
Ramsey Russell: What did they pay, crops?
Sam Brookes: Crops and some of these higher ups were eating more corn than there were other things and that’s not good for you. And we see some of their skeletons in the big mounds and they have all sorts of bone deficiencies and trouble teeth, especially because it just eating corn it’s not a balanced diet. Then you take the poorest people in the community and allow them to be in excellent shape because they’re eating rats and mice and snakes and lizards and corn and potatoes and fish balanced diet, very healthy.
Did We Learn Anything From Our Ancestors to Prosper in This Part of the World?
I’m sure they did, hunting and fishing.
Ramsey Russell: Do you think besides the mounds existing in the Delta, just what we see of that native culture. Do you think that our ancestors, when they began to develop and live and function in the Delta they borrowed anything from them? Did we learn anything from those people to prosper in this part of the world?
Sam Brookes: I’m sure they did, hunting and fishing. The Delta when I first came here, I thought, gosh, I’ve never seen anything that flat, it’s all just totally flat, no, it isn’t, it’s a ridge and swale topography. And all those archaeological sites are built on ridges and I wondered about the flooding and when I worked for the Corps, I asked one of the engineers about that, he said because of channelization and pavement and clearing floods they come 100 times faster and a 20 times more severe than in early times. And so those guys on those Indian sites, probably the only thing they worried about was the 500 maybe 1000 year flood, most of them, it just didn’t affect them. And what little flooding they had was good for the crops, it revitalized the land.
Ramsey Russell: I know there’s some guys that go out to certain fields in the Mississippi Delta and collect airhead stone point and it’s certain fields and they’re high, they’re cotton land so it’s high and it’s white and I had a buddy up in the delta that would study aerial photography and see some kind of stone pattern, some kind of something that let him know there was probably an Indian encampment there. And when I was asking earlier about moving around, so I’m in this one named town and you find all the hunting points over here where there are parts of town – I mean, like here’s what I’m trying to say. You go and do a dig on one of these old campsites, are you finding where they napped it at one part of the year? And they found the projectile points? I mean, you find it all in one or did it just kind of spread out a little bit around that city?
Sam Brookes: It will be their individual household units you will see things like that. I was on one site, we were digging an Indian house, just outside of Clarksdale.
Ramsey Russell: And how did you know it was an Indian house because those natural materials would have been gone.
Sam Brookes: We had gotten down and there was burned all around it, there were pieces of broken pots sitting on the floor and my partner, he was getting one little arrow head after another and then he got a stone axe and I wasn’t getting anything like that, I was getting burned corn and then like double handful of beans, burned beans. When he burned, turns to charcoal preserves them. And I was in the kitchen and he was in the man’s area with the hunting kit. And this house I told you it had a fire pit in the center, it all dried wood, dried, split cane and a dried grass roof. Now, you can imagine what happens if a big piece of fire goes up hits that roof. Boom. It’s going to explode and they run out of it to save themselves. They don’t save anything. And when it burns it preserves everything as charcoal, which is great for us archaeologists, we get the beans, we get the corn cobs, we get sometimes whole years of corn, we get to burn bone, we get to burn wood, we can tell what kind of wood it was that they used to build the houses out of, gives us an idea of what the land looked like back then.
Ramsey Russell: Are they still doing a lot of archaeology in the Delta or have you all kind of figured it out? Are you all still exploring?
Sam Brookes: We are far from figuring it out. But most of the work that goes on unfortunately is salvaged and that’s when something’s going to be destroyed, we go in and try to dig it up before it gets torn up.
Ramsey Russell: And where does it go?
Sam Brookes: Oh, it goes to various museums and to universities, that’s who does most of the work.
Ramsey Russell: Here in Mississippi?
Sam Brookes: Ole Miss had a great archaeology department, theirs has died in the last year. State and Southern both have good archaeology departments. Mill Saps has a great archaeology department but they just do Mayan work, they don’t do much in Mississippi. Smithsonian had done work in Mississippi early on, they haven’t done much lately. Harvard University was very interested in the lower Mississippi Delta, so most of the work done to Delta in the early days was done by Harvard. The head man up there, Philip Phillips, that’s what he was interested in and he was heir to the Phillips Milk of Magnesia fortune, so he pretty much privately financed it.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. I can see where – like I’ve been down to Peru out in that Atacama Desert and a lot of these pots and mummies and human remains, hair, clothing just remains intact, it’s so dry.
Sam Brookes: You’re right. Dry will preserve or if it’s totally wet, it will preserve. But if it’s wet and dry like we have in Mississippi, it rots it away.
Ramsey Russell: Makes it very difficult to put that together, doesn’t it?
Sam Brookes: Now, talking about hunting and gathering, I’ll tell you one more story. Jim Ford was born in Water Valley, Mississippi, he became one of America’s greatest archaeologist, a native of Mississippi is big railroad town, his father was killed in a railroad accident when Ford was two, family moved to Clinton, he graduated from Clinton high school and then went to Mississippi College. But he met a guy at Millsaps, Henry B. Collins and Collins was an archaeologist and college was interested in Arctic archaeology. So he got Ford to come with him and dig in the Arctic one time. And he told Ford now don’t be late because we’re going to sail back to America on this date and you don’t want to miss the boat because you’ll be stuck here with the Eskimo through an Arctic winter. This is the 1930s Ford, of course, has got interested and missed the boat. And so he built every house he ever lived in, built it himself, he built him a house and he lived with the Eskimo. He had a rifle and he killed seals and he made him some Eskimo winter clothes and Ford was 6’4ft and these Eskimos, all little short stocky people and they were going to do a whale hunt and here is this giant Mississippian. So they asked Ford if he would like to go on the whale hunt with them and he said, sure. And he was a harpooner and Ford harpooned and killed a whale. And these Eskimos in this war canoe then paddled this thing back, dragging his dead whale and then the overhaul handed the whale up onto the beach and they cut the head off and gave it to Ford in appreciation for what he did. And he brought that back that’s on display in the American Museum of Natural History and hand kill by a Mississippi archaeologist. Now, a whale skull that size is my SUV parked out front, big. But Ford, most people never heard of James Alfred Ford, a fascinating character, major Mississippi figure and one of America’s greatest archaeologists.
Major Archaeological Finds in Mississippi
Ramsey Russell: Last question I got just made me think of this. What are some of the most significant finds in Mississippi? And which lastly lead me to another question related to that, you got these cluster of Indian mound, is that where all the artifacts were found in the delta is in association with them or were they walking distances to get to them?
Sam Brookes: Well, major finds in Mississippi, there have been so many. There was the global warming period up in northeast Mississippi there are some fabulous giant spearheads found up there, they’re over a foot long, made out of this fabulous rock. We have no idea what they’re used for except I am sure they were ritual dance knives. And I think again, that it was in response to this global warming that was going on.
Ramsey Russell: Well, what made the find so significant because it was in Mississippi or it’s something that’s not really been found anywhere in Native America?
Sam Brookes: It’s something that hadn’t been found anywhere else except along the Tom Beckbe River during that brief time period.
Ramsey Russell: What are some other big finds in Mississippi?
Sam Brookes: In Mississippi, of course, any of the late sites in the Mississippi Delta. We’ve been looking for Hernando de Soto, but it’s hard to find, we’re going to find horse bones or pig bones, that’s what’s going to. People always looking for Spanish swords and they held on to the swords, most of their trade objects they had given those away or they burned up when the Chickasaw attacked the village. De Soto is just a fascinating thing because he saw these Indians at the zenith and like I said, you can ask me about how they were doing it, we don’t know, De Soto saw it but he didn’t write it down.
Ramsey Russell: Well, some of them had to get sick or die, have you all ever found any conquistador armor?
Sam Brookes: No. They found a lot of it at the site in Florida. Now, think about that, those guys weren’t nearly as big as I am, also of Spaniards at that time 5’6, 5’7 and you put on 80lbs or 90lbs of armor and you’re going to try to cross one of these slews in Mississippi they got rid of that right away. And I think some of that chain mail I’ve heard some of those Indian arrows would penetrate it. So, I think they were pretty much by the time they were in Mississippi, all that was pretty much gone, they were wearing Indian outfits.
Ramsey Russell: Buck skins or what not. How big were the native around here?
Sam Brookes: The Chickasaw were very large. They were very tall. The Choctaw center to be a little bit shorter and a little bit more heavy set. But the Chickasaw were very tall, very slender and they’re the most warlike tribe in North America, forget the patch or anybody else, the Chickasaw were always ready for a fight.
Ramsey Russell: And which part of Mississippi did they primarily?
Sam Brookes: Around Tupelo up in that area?
Ramsey Russell: And they were the most warlike tribe?
Sam Brookes: Yes, sir.
Ramsey Russell: I had no idea.
Sam Brookes: The famous battle Dartaguiette and the French attack the Chickasaw and they got caught and they tied them all up and Dartaguiette and his man beg for mercy and the Chickasaw said I would normally do it, but you fought so bravely and so well, however, these women are upset, their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, their sons are dead and the women want blood. And so the Dartaguiette and his men were tied up and they build a huge roaring fire and they threw him into the fire and burned them alive.
Ramsey Russell: If mom ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy is what they say.
Sam Brookes: Yes, sir.
Ramsey Russell: Well, we could talk for days about this. We could literally talk for days about this, I’ve got a million questions, I may have to come back by here, Sam.
Sam Brookes: You’re always welcome folks.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you all for this episode of Ducks Season Somewhere with Mr. Sam Brookes, retired archaeologist from US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. We’ve been talking about prehistoric Mississippi Indians, a lot of my questions, a lot of my childhood questions are now answered. I hope you all enjoyed this episode, see you next time.