The Muscogee Nation

A picture of an ancient Muscogee village
An ancient Muscogee village

NPS

When the early English explorers and traders first encountered the native people that are now called the Muscogee, they were living in the valley of the Ocmulgee River. In those times, the river was known as the Ochese Creek to the English, and the natives living in the area were called “Ochese Creek Indians.” Through time the name was shortened to be simply “Creek Indians.” However, this was the European name for these people, while they called themselves “Muscogee.”

The basic tribal unit of the Muscogee centered on the idalwa or town, which was comprised of a central settlement and surrounding villages. A confederacy of towns was formed prior to European contact. The Muscogee incorporated into their alliance such small tribes as the Alabama, Hitchiti, Yuchi, some Shawnee, and others. By the middle of the 18th Century, the Muscogee Nation consisted of about 60 towns.

The town government consisted of a principal micco or chief, a second subordinate micco, and a council. The micco was elected for life by the town council, which he chaired. Government for the entire nation centered in the General Council, which decided matters of peace and war. In form it resembled the town councils. It was made up of the head men of each town and served as the single unifying institution of the Muscogee. The government was not as centralized as it might appear to an outsider. The towns retained their autonomy and often acted without the direction of the Nation’s General Council.
 
In 1690 a British trading post was constructed on Ochese Creek (at the site now protected within Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park). Several Muscogee towns moved from the Chattahoochee River to this vicinity to be near the English. The Muscogee culture and dress were modified by use of trade goods such as iron pots, steel knives, and cotton cloth.

In 1715, the Yamasee War erupted in protest against British indignities related to the fur trade, including the taking of Indians shipped as slaves to work in Caribbean sugar plantations. Many traders in Indian territory were killed. In retaliation, the British burned Ocmulgee Town on Ochese Creek. The Muscogee towns withdrew to the Chattahoochee River, and the Yuchis moved with them. They were known as the Lower Creeks. The Upper Creeks were centered on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers to the northeast.
 
Painting of William McIntosh
William McIntosh

Charles Bird King

After the Revolutionary War, a new wave of American settlers poured into Georgia seeking claims to rich river bottomland. This land was perfect for growing cotton, a crop made highly profitable by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The Muscogee, who had always been excellent farmers, adapted quickly to a cotton-based economy. But American settlers wanted the land for themselves and saw the Muscogee as obstacles to “progress.” Pressure increased on the federal government to remove all Indians to areas west of the Mississippi River. In an attempt to protect themselves, the Muscogee Council passed a law providing the death penalty for anyone ceding land without the Council’s authority.

The Muscogee were divided over the issue of removal. Many, including Chief William McIntosh, remained loyal to the United States government, believing voluntary removal was the only way to escape complete annihilation. Others, however, wanted to go back to their way of living before the settlers’ influences. This division eventually led to civil war. The “Red Sticks,” so called because of the red club that they carried, became militant, preferring to remain in their homeland and pursue their traditional way of life. The Creek Indian War, begun in 1813, was a result of these conflicts. The Red Sticks attacked settlers and loyalist Muscogee and the United States struck back with forces led by General Andrew Jackson. Ultimately the Red Sticks lost, and the war ended with the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814, which ceded 23 million acres of Muscogee land to the United States.

In 1805, the first Treaty of Washington ceded the remainder of the land between the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers, excluding a 3x5-mile strip known as the Old Ocmulgee Fields Reserve at present-day Macon, which the Muscogee people refused to give up. The treaty allowed the United States to construct a road across the Muscogee Nation to the Alabama River and facilities for public accommodations along this road. Much of this "Federal Road" followed the ancient Lower Creek Trading Path and eventually stretched from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. The treaty also provided for a United States military fort on the Reserve to guard the frontier along the Ocmulgee River. This outpost was called Fort Hawkins in honor of Benjamin Hawkins, U.S. Indian Agent to the Muscogee and friend of George Washington.

In 1825 the Treaty of Indian Springs, signed by Chief William McIntosh, ceded all Lower Creek land in Georgia. Not only had members of the state government manipulated McIntosh into signing, but McIntosh did so without a clear mandate from his people. He and several other leaders were assassinated by their own people for their involvement. The treaty was declared illegal by the federal government, but Georgia authorities disagreed. They pressed harder for removal. Some of the Muscogee joined the Seminole in Florida while others moved into Alabama. About 1,300, mostly members of the McIntosh faction, resettled to the valley of the Arkansas River in "Indian Territory," now the state of Oklahoma, on lands given to them under the government's voluntary removal program.
 
A map showing the routes of the various Trail of Tears for the Five Civilized Tribes
Routes of Indian Removal from the southeast

National Geographic

The Creek War of 1836 ended when about 2,500 people, including several hundred warriors in chains, were marched on foot to Montgomery, Alabama, and crowded onto barges during the extreme heat of July. They were carried by steamboats down the Alabama River, beginning their forced removal to Indian Territory. During the summer and winter of 1836-early 1837, over 14,000 Muscogee Indians made the three-month journey to Oklahoma, a trip of over 800 land miles and another 400 by water. Most left with only what they could carry.

The overall effect of the Muscogee Trail of Tears was staggering. 21,792 Muscogee Indians lived in Georgia and Alabama in 1832. Twenty years after the “removal” ended, only 13,537 Muscogee remained in Oklahoma. Counted as a percentage of their population, the Muscogee and related tribes suffered more deaths than the Cherokee in their own, far better-known trail of tears. The once-mighty Muscogee Nation was down, but its spirit was not destroyed. Despite continued hardships, its citizens carved a new life for themselves in Oklahoma.
 
In 1867, the Muscogee began operating under the guidance of a written constitution and code of laws. The city of Okmulgee was established as the capital, named after the original Muscogee capital in Georgia. The Principal Chief and National Council ran the affairs of the nation from Okmulgee. In 1898 the Curtis Act dissolved tribal government, and in 1907 Indian lands became part of the new state of Oklahoma. During the 1930s, the Indian Reorganization Act granted the right of Indian tribes to adopt a constitution subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. Two years later, the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act gave Indians the right to incorporate and to establish cooperatives. A national system slowly developed, and in 1979 a new constitution was adopted by the people. This new constitution recognized chartered Muscogee communities which serve as local government units within the national system.

Today, the Muscogee Nation is the third largest federally recognized tribe in the United States. Like the United States government, the Muscogee government is composed of executive, legislative and judicial branches. The Executive Branch administers a variety of service programs for their people. The Division of Human Development provides education and vocational training. The Division of Community Services provides hospitals and clinics, and the Division of Tribal Affairs oversees Tribal Lands, Agri-Business and Natural Resources. Law Enforcement is under the Lighthouse Commission.

The Executive Branch includes the Chief and National Council. The nation is divided into voting districts, and representatives to the Council are elected by district. Elections for Principal Chief and Second Chief are held every four years while National Council Representatives are elected every two years. Tribal offices are located in a circular, earth-embanked building patterned after the Earth Lodge at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park.

Despite the conveniences, technology, and influences of the twentieth century, the Muscogee people maintain many traditional values. Family ties are strong as values and beliefs continue to be passed down from generation to generation. Tribal Towns and ceremonial grounds, along with the micco, still exist. Each ceremonial ground is the site for sacred ceremonies like the Green Corn ceremony, a ritual that dates to pre-removal times. Life in the Muscogee Nation in many ways is no different from anywhere else in the United States. Children go to school, blue jeans are common, and individuals go to various churches and have varied political beliefs. A common heritage, however, binds the people together. It is this heritage, this special culture, that makes the Muscogee Nation what it is today.

Last updated: January 29, 2022

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