Mississippian Period: AD 1100–1541
The Mississippian period represents several major changes in prehistoric lifeways. Among the many technological innovations were the introduction of small projectile points, indicative of the use of the bow, and the use of new manufacturing techniques in ceramics. There was also a change in subsistence with the shift from incipient horticulture to an economy focused on tropical cultigen (maize) agriculture. Consequently, a corresponding change occurred in the settlement pattern with a shift from small villages to a dispersed pattern of small farmsteads and hamlets around a central ceremonial center.
In the area of Fort Smith, the Arkansas Valley Caddoan tradition is encompassed by three sequential phases: Harlan, Spiro, and Fort Coffee. The Harlan phase is marked by the appearance of regional mortuary mound centers located in the alluvial valleys of the major rivers, around which are sedentary habitation sites. The Spiro phase marks the florescence of the Mississippian period. During this phase, elaborate iconography and evidence of a hierarchical society are quite marked. The Fort Coffee phase is the terminal Mississippian phase. Around AD 1400, the elaborate ceremonial centers of the preceding phases were no longer used for mortuary practices. In addition, changes in artifact assemblages and suggestions of change in residential patterns indicate other alterations in the cultural adaptations of this period.
During the 1958–1963 archeological investigations at the site of the first Fort Smith, evidence of a substantial prehistoric occupation was brought to light. Beyond a brief description and interpretation of recovered remains, the prehistoric occupation of the Fort Smith site has never been investigated or formally recorded. The underlying prehistoric site is not listed in the files of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
Collections generated from this site reflect a probable extensive multicomponent occupation—at least within the circumscribed area of the first fort. The prehistoric occupations indicated by diagnostic artifacts in the park collection are Early to Late Archaic and Woodland to Mississippian.
Between AD 900 and about AD 1600, Mississippian people farmed maize extensively; lived in societies known as chiefdoms led by hereditary rulers; conducted long-distance trade in copper, marine shell, and other valuables; resided in towns, villages, and farmsteads; built monumental architecture in the form of earthen, flat-topped mounds; conducted warfare, often fortifying their towns with stockades; and shared religious and iconographic traditions. When the first Europeans (the Hernando de Soto expedition) arrived in Arkansas in 1541, the people they encountered were Mississippians.
Before the Mississippian Period in Arkansas, most settlements were small-scale and occupied seasonally. With the advent of agriculture and increased population, a variety of year-round settlements—such as towns, villages, hamlets, and farmsteads—began to appear on the landscape.
Mississippian towns display striking similarities throughout the Southeast. Common elements include square or rectangular houses about thirty-five square meters in size, houses aligned in orderly patterns, centrally placed plazas, stockades or embankments surrounding the town, and sometimes flat-topped earthen mounds upon which the house of the hereditary leader, or sometimes a temple, stood.
In eastern Arkansas, archaeologists identify one kind of Mississippian town known as the “St. Francis-type” town, found mostly in the St. Francis River basin. A typical St. Francis-type town is rectangular in plan, has houses arranged around a plaza, is elevated due to the buildup of living debris, and is surrounded by a ditch. The archaeological remains suggest that, during their heyday, St. Francis-type towns were bustling population centers encircled by protective stockades and moats that served the double purpose of defense and fish pond. Parkin Archeological State Park in Cross County is a St. Francis-type town.
One architectural element of some, but not all, Mississippian towns in Arkansas is the flat-topped earthen mound. Dozens of mounds dating to the Mississippian Period exist in Arkansas today. Most are in the Mississippi Valley, but some can be found as far away as the Ozarks. Flat-topped mounds served as platforms for large structures. The structure that stood atop Mound A at the Upper Nodena Site in Mississippi County, for example, measured almost seventy-five square meters, about twice as large as the typical Mississippian house. Many mound-top structures served as the residences of hereditary chiefs. The chronicles of the de Soto expedition state that Arkansas Mississippian chiefs made their homes on top of mounds. Other structures atop mounds may have served as religious temples. Platform mounds throughout Arkansas are similar in shape, usually truncated pyramids, but vary in height, ranging from less than one meter to thirteen meters tall.
Most Mississippian Period populations in Arkansas lived in a type of society called a chiefdom. Chiefdoms are kin-based societies in which people are ranked according to the family they belong to. Some families have higher status than others. In chiefdoms, the ruler typically comes from a high-status family and has privileges beyond those of ordinary people. Chiefs share some similarities with kings but are not as powerful (they do not collect taxes, for example, or have standing armies). Archaeologists interpret Arkansas Mississippian societies as chiefdoms from descriptions by the de Soto chroniclers in the 1500s and from the archaeological remains of earlier Mississippian societies. A platform mound, for example, provides a prominent, elevated location for the chief’s house that is separated from ordinary houses. A platform mound, which requires more labor than that of one family to build, is a sign that a hereditary chief lived in that locale or very nearby.
The End of the Mississippian Period
The Mississippian culture was in full flower in Arkansas when the de Soto expedition traveled through eastern Arkansas in 1541. By the time the next Europeans arrived to write down their observations (Marquette and Jolietin 1673), the flourishing Mississippian towns were gone. A variety of explanations has been offered to account for this disappearance, including European diseases and severe, long-lasting drought in the 1500s. Both undoubtedly played roles.