Upper Creek Towns of the Historic Period


When Alabama was first established as part of the Mississippi Territory in the early nineteenth century, the vast majority of the land belonged to the Creek Indian Confederacy, and most of the Native American towns in Alabama were inhabited by the Creeks. These towns were significant political and tribal centers, but they were much more important as places of personal identity for the Native Americans who were born in them. The Creek Nation was divided among the group known as the Upper Creeks, who occupied territory along the Coosa, Alabama, and Tallapoosa rivers in central Alabama, and the Lower Creeks, who occupied the areas along the lower Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee, and Flint rivers in southwestern Georgia. Both groups resided in those areas from the early seventeenth century until the Indian removal era of the 1830s. During the mid-eighteenth century, the political organization of the Creeks consisted of the Upper and Lower town divisions, which were located relative to the upper and lower trade paths that connected the Creeks with South Carolina. The loose confederation, or alliance, of towns comprised the extent of the political organization of the entire confederacy, and each tribal town maintained self-governance and distinct land holdings. The alliances were generally significant only in times of war or in political negotiations with the colonial governments in the Southeast.

An engraving based on William Bartram's 1789 drawing Engraving of Creek Town LayoutCreek Indian towns and settlement patterns were recorded in the accounts of travelers who visited them. Some early writers, such as James Adair, David Taitt, William Bartram, and Benjamin Hawkins, provided detailed accounts of what they witnessed when traveling through Creek territory. Most of the towns were situated on the fertile plains bordering large creeks and rivers among stands of oak, hickory, and walnut. Many towns were scattered along the banks of rivers for miles and included outlying "town plantations," where the inhabitants grew their crops. European American visitors often described the populations of Creek towns in terms of the number of "gun men," or the number of men able to bear arms.

Town Features 

Typical towns were divided on opposite sides of a creek or river, with fields on one side and residences on the other. Creek towns of the early eighteenth century contained several important features. Each had a town square that consisted of an open area surrounded by terraces or banks, a circular mound topped with a rotunda, and a square terrace upon which a public square stood. The rotunda consisted of a conical building approximately 30 feet in diameter made of poles and mud and used for council meetings. The public square was a community area used for ceremonies and games and could be as long as 300 yards. It was here that the Sacred Fire was rekindled annually at the Green Corn Festival. By the late eighteenth century, however, some travelers observed that most towns no longer featured a mound or terrace for the foundation of a rotunda or a public square. The public square consisted of four buildings of equal size placed at each side of a rectangular courtyard. Two of these buildings were designated as a council house and a banquet house used for communal meetings and communal meals, respectively.

Residential buildings in Creek towns mirrored the organization of the public square. Family plots consisted of small compounds of up to four houses enclosing a courtyard, with the number of houses depending upon the size of the family. Generally, one house served as a cook-room and winter lodge, another served as a summer house, and another as a granary. If a family was wealthy enough, its residential complex had a fourth house that served as a warehouse for trade goods. Each of these buildings was constructed as a wooden frame set into the ground and lathed with canes. This frame was plastered inside and out with clay and roofed with bark or grass. In the late nineteenth century, some Creek houses also had chimneys and were constructed of logs, similar to those of European settlers.

Social Structures

Historically, the basic social unit of Creek towns was the family, and because the Creeks were matrilineal, women were considered the head of household. A female head of household owned the houses and land and generally lived with her husband and their children. Square ground towns could consist of several hundred people, but often the houses were scattered for miles around the center of the town, usually along the creeks and rivers. The towns consisted of groups of houses owned by women. Their daughters built houses on family land or nearby after they were married. Creek clans were dispersed through several communities, with each town containing members of several clans. Clan identity influenced where members lived, as clan members' houses were generally located together in a household group, or "huti."

Individual Creeks frequently moved to other towns when their hometowns became overpopulated. Increases in population often meant that the surrounding area suffered from impoverished soil, a lack of wood, and scarcity of game. Moves were often local, and most adopted towns were only a short distance from old ones. Inhabitants also abandoned towns because food and human waste and other rubbish accumulated, leading to rodent and insect infestations that produced unhealthy living environments. After contact with Europeans, the British colonial government's Indian agents were tasked with encouraging the Creeks to adopt European concepts of private property and individual farming practices in order to disperse them across the land and move them from the more densely populated towns.

The time of year also had an influence on the town's inhabitants. Creeks followed a seasonal cycle recorded by Europeans traveling through their lands and discerned by historians from the names of the Creek months. Planting and harvesting crops were priorities in the spring and fall. Early spring was noted as a good time to gather people together, and so most Creeks were settled in the towns during those seasons. In the winter months, men often spent much time traveling in search of game. House construction would begin in the early spring, stop during the heat of the summer, and resume in cooler weather. Fruit gathering likely took place during the months of May and June.

Agriculture and Livestock 

Each town set aside a section of its land as the town plantation, where families worked their own plots of squash, corn, and beans. After the crops were harvested, families gathered their own produce and placed it in their own granary. A portion of each family's harvest was deposited in a public granary. In addition to the town plantation, each family usually enclosed a garden plot adjoining their house. Whereas men and women tended the town plantation, only women worked in the household plot, where they planted small quantities of vegetables that could be harvested earlier than more distant plantation crops. The Creeks also raised poultry, goats, and swine, fished, and hunted for deer, turkeys, rabbits, and birds. Creek houses were often fenced to maintain stocks of cattle, hogs, and horses that the Indians had obtained from Europeans.

No one can be certain of the exact number of Upper Creek towns that existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The towns varied in size and number, and often when a town was abandoned and a new one was started, it carried the same name. Population estimates from the eighteenth century for the Upper and Lower Creeks range from 11,000 to more than 24,000 in approximately 60 towns. During the westward removal of the Creeks in the 1830s and 1840s to the Indian Territory, the population was estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000.

The largest eighteenth-century Upper Creek town in Alabama was Okfuskee, located along the Tallapoosa River. The town was spread out on both sides of the river and had as many as 270 "gun men," according to Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins. The town's location was important because it lay on the trading paths from Georgia and South Carolina, thus the town and its people played significant roles in diplomatic relations with the British colonial government.

Archaeological Studies 

Several Upper Creek towns have been studied by archaeologists, who have recovered artifacts and gained information on the lifeways of the Creeks that has allowed them to compare their findings with the written historical record. One of these historic towns, Tukabatchee, is located on a sharp bend of the Tallapoosa River in present-day Elmore County. During the late eighteenth century, Tukabatchee was home to 116 "gun men" as well as several important Creek leaders and people of mixed European and Native American descent. Several of the more prominent members of the town owned enslaved African Americans and lived in log dwellings with fenced gardens, similar to non-Indian Americans of the time. Archaeological data from the sites that comprised Tukabatchee indicate the presence of the typical household and courtyard dwelling pattern. Artifacts recovered from the sites also indicate that each household structure had a specific function, representing gender and seasonal division of labor.

Archaeologists have also studied two other Upper Creek towns. Hoithlewaulee was located on the north bank of the Tallapoosa River in present-day Elmore and Montgomery counties during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This town formerly held the right to declare war by sending a declaration to Tukabatchee and then throughout the rest of the Upper Creek towns. Archaeologists have discovered evidence here that indicates the pattern of the traditional Creek household arrangement as well. Foushatchee was located on the north bank of the Tallapoosa River, just west of Chubbehatchee Creek in present-day Elmore County. The fields there were often located on the south side of the river and separated from those of Hoithlewaulee by a small creek. Archaeologists have discovered the same household arrangement in this town, but with no clear domestic courtyards.

All of the former Upper Creek towns are important to the cultural heritage of Alabama. However, there were several considered especially prominent during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of these towns played a role in the political and military events from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. After 1814, most Creek lands were ceded to the United States, and when Alabama became a state in 1819 even more lands were bought or taken away. Many Creeks migrated to Florida; but most of those who remained in Alabama were forced to move westward to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the 1830s.

Additional Resources 

Hawkins, Benjamin. A Sketch of the Creek Country, In the Years 1798 and 1799 and Letters of Benjamin Hawkins, 1796-1806. 1848. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1974.

Knight, Vernon J., Jr. "Tukabatchee: Archaeological Investigations at an Historic Creek Town, Elmore County, Alabama." University of Alabama, Office of Archaeological Research, Report of Investigations 45, 1985.

Knight, Vernon J., Jr., and Marvin T. Smith. "Big Tallassee: A Contribution to Upper Creek Site Archaeology." Early Georgia 8 (1-2, 1980): 59-74.

Lolley, Terry L. "Ethnohistory and Archaeology: A Map Method for Locating Historic Upper Creek Indian Towns and Villages." Master's thesis, University of Alabama, 1994.

Read, William Alexander. Indian Place Names in Alabama. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1937.

Terry Lolley
Northport, Alabama


Published October 30, 2007
Last updated October 20, 2009