Chapter II - Some Probable Recent Ancestry Of The Five Civilised
As we have seen in the previous chapter, the blood-ties between the
American black and the Indian of the southern tribes - the Five
Civilized Tribes - was far stronger than is generally accepted. In
particular, in the world of the Blues, the folk song of the working
class black. As we shall see later on, the names of these five
tribes crop up in several blues of the pre-war era (1920-43); as
well as references direct and indirect. But if the aim of this study
is to establish links between the southern tribes and the Blues
singer, it also seeks to explore the possibilities of other tribal
connections, albeit greatly diminished by the time the Blues had
fully evolved in the 1880's. Apart from the Five
Civilized Tribes in the southeastern states, there were other
smaller tribes and also tribes who have become extinct, to all
intents and purposes, or in some cases moved away from the region
altogether. An important factor in this brief linguistic/historical
exercise is the fact that most of these tribes took slaves as spoils
of war, which was later extended to taking black slaves as we have
Contrary to a popular concept, not all Indians adhered to the images
depicted in the media, particularly in the cinema. Nichols and co.
state "The tribes and nations that occupied North America varied
enormously and their condition was anything but static."(1). They go
on to say that "When the white men first landed, there were three
major centres of high culture; the Southeast-Mississippi Valley,
the Southwest, and the Northwest Coast." (2). The high culture that
sprang from the Southeast-Mississippi Valley peoples was that known
as "Mound Builder". "A series of invasions ...seems to have struck
the Mound Builders in late prehistoric times, when they were overrun
by tribes of Muskhogean and Iroquian linguistic stock. Chief among
these were the ancestors of the well-known Five Civilized
Tribes"--(3). La Farge relates that, east of the Rockies, these
tribes maintained the highest level of culture, "in Florida,
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia,"(4).
One of the most important of these tribes was the Natchez. Together
with "...two related subtribes, the Taensa and the Avoyel,"(5), the
Natchez lived in the area of Natchez, Miss. along with the Tunica
Indians, yet another Natchez tribe. Said Wissler: "The Natchez and
Tunican tribes, and a number of less-known divisions, spoke
languages related to the Muskhogean tongues; the best known tribes of
the latter family are the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and
Seminole."(6). And Wissler goes on "It is the opinion of our leading
scholars that the Natchez and the Taensa, whose many villages lined
the Lower Mississippi, were the most typical members of the family,
which probably means that they had
a wide influence and exercised a kind of culture leadership,"(7).
As he observed, that like many of the tribes of Muskhogean stock,
the Natchez eventually owned "a goodly number" of black slaves. The
cultural leadership referred to, also influenced those slaves and
their descendants. For instance the Natchez "... knew how to make
lye-hominy and corn bread, which, in due time, made southern Negro
cooks famous."(8). Corn bread also passed into the folklore of the
Blues, and the following lines, although quoted from a particular
Blues, became one of the 'floating verses' that singers could draw
on when inspiration flagged:
"Some of these women I just can't understand,
All you women I just can't understand.
They cook corn bread for their husbands and biscuits for their man."
Constituting part of the rich sexual imagery in the Blues, where the
corn bread is more basic fare!
Unlike most of their southern contemporaries, who had a strong collective
and socialist streak in their culture, the Natchez were very theocratic
in their outlook and had a highly-developed caste system. The
aristocratic class were Suns and were sub-divided into Nobles and
Honored Ones. The third stratum were the common people "...known simply
as Stinkers."(10). Although Wissler says "The French writers of the time
speak of the commoners as "Stinkards". (11). A youthful pianist, Louise
Johnson from Mississippi, sang of her sexual prowess in a particularly
aggressive and acrobatic way!
"Now, you can snap it you can break it, you can hang it on the wall,
Throw it out the winder, see if you can catch it 'fore it fall.
I mean you can snap it you can break it, hang it out-the
Throw it out the winder, women, an' if you catch it 'fore it fall."
Johnson's use of the word "stinkin'" as a
form of substitute swear word might be a coincidence or a throwback to
her possible Natchez ancestry, the tribe becoming
extinct after being defeated in the war against the French in 1729-30.
Over three-quarters of the tribe split into three groups of refugees.
"One fled to South Carolina and joined the Cherokee, another went to
live with the Chickasaw of northern Mississippi, and the largest remnant
settled with the Creek on the Tallahassee River."(13). The remainder
were enslaved by the victorious French who shipped them out to Santo
Domingo. So Louise Johnson's connections with the Natchez (if any),
would probably have been indirect via the Chickasaw tribe from northern
Mississippi. Partridge tells us that a "stinker" was "A stinkard, or
disgusting, contemptible person:"(14), and that it was a vulgarism from
the seventeenth century. Interestingly, "stinking" was Standard English
from the thirteenth century until in the nineteenth, it too became a
vulgarism, meaning "Disgusting; contemptible:"(15).
The city of Natchez, named after the tribe who were once the most powerful and the largest in southern Mississippi, was one of the states
oldest cities and the state capital, until the latter was transferred to
Jackson in 1821. Eaton notes that Natchez was "originally a French town,
which was destroyed by the Natchez in 1729,"(16). It was rebuilt as a
township "...when the English acquired this territory in 1763..."(17).
In fact there were two townships that were Natchez. The rich people,
entrepreneurs, southern aristocracy, etc. occupied Natchez-on-the-Bluff and built beautiful homes there. But "...below, on the river
bank, flourished wicked and rowdy Natchez-under-the-Hill, where hundreds
of flatboats and steamboats floated at the docks."(18). In 1808, some
three years before the advent of the steamboat in this area, traveller
Christian Schultz Jr. "...described the worldly, hedonistic atmosphere
of this river town of three thousand inhabitants as follows: "all make
love; most of them play (gamble); and a few make money. With Religion
they have nothing to do.""(19). Obviously the part of town that a
"sinful" Bluesman such as the archaic Charlie Patton, from the
Mississippi Delta, would find idyllic and the part he had in mind, when
referring to it in his beautifully, primitive "Screamin' And Hollerin'
The Blues" from 1929:
Patton, the archetypal Delta Blues singer, being himself of part Indian
extract. As the Natchez became virtually extinct, so too the Taensa were
exterminated by the French around 1716. The Tunica hung on for another
200 years or so, but "...by 1930 there was only one who could speak the
"Jackson on a high hill, mama, Natchez just below,
Jackson on a high hill, mama, Natchez just below."
Spoken: "Some days, you know they hot."
"I ever get back home, I won't never be back no more".(20).
Another group of tribes to be considered in connection with the Five
Civilized Tribes, are the Caddo. Wissler informs us that "The term Caddo
may be applied to any of the groups speaking the Caddoan language, but
usually it refers to a group of confederated tribes once located in
eastern Texas and adjacent parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and
Louisiana."(22). The explorer, La Salle first came across these people
as early as 1687. Many Blues singers came from the Arkansas side of
the Mississippi River; such as Big Bill Broonzy and the totally obscure
guitarist, Lewis Black. From the state of Louisiana came, amongst many
others, Oscar "The Lone Wolf" Woods, Herman E. Johnson and Lightning
Slim. As with other southeastern tribes, the Caddo were war-like,
which was more to do with their cultural environment, rather than just a
plain desire to fight. Lavender reports that "In Indian warfare female
prisoners or female scalps were valid trophies: male children of the
enemy made desirable captives to raise replacements for men lost in
battle."(23). So tribal blood was mixed from earlier times, and when the
Indians later, kept black slaves and/or inter-bred, these earlier tribes
constituted at least a part of the genetic make-up of those slaves'
Some of the Choctaw, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, although living
in central and southern Mississippi at the time of European contact,
"...began moving west of the Mississippi as early as 1780 where they
clashed with the Caddo Indians."(24). This would be Louisiana and
Arkansas, as the latter "...settled settled on the lower Red River of
Louisiana and later spread into Arkansas."(25). So the Choctaw would
have reached the border cities of Texarkana (the twin states being Texas
and Arkansas), which were "situated 150 miles by road southwest of
Little Rock and 185 miles northeast of Dallas."(26). Indeed, "The cities
were founded in 1873 on the site of a Caddo Indian village."(27). Both
cities were frequented by Blues singers, especially Dallas which spawned
a strong early Blues tradition. Since the latter city is a virtual
neighbour (in American terms!), it become more readily understood why a
resident pianist, Whistlin' Alex Moore, would sing about "...his little
Southern Choctaw.", in 1929, on his recording of "It Wouldn't Be So
Hard", as if this was a familiar reference to his listeners. Obviously,
the Choctaw also spread into northeastern Texas, at any rate. The Caddo,
at some point between 1847 and 1859, "were led at last to a reservation
Amongst other possible links with the Five Civilized Tribes and the
Blues singers, are the Shawnee of Ohio. According to Lavender, some 48
million acres of land was taken from the southern tribes by the white
man, between 1802 and 1806. In a rather late attempt to stop this
'land-rot', two Shawnee brothers appeared on the scene. One was "homely
one-eyed mystic called the Prophet, and austere Tecumseh,"(29). These
Shawnees (based in Indiana) founded a village called Prophet's Town and
"Tecumseh's goal was the worn dream of an independent Indian nation
between the Ohio River, the upper lakes, and the upper
Mississippi."(30). To achieve this and to get a larger fighting
force together, Tecumseh "
...visited the Southern Indians during the fall of 1811 and enlisted their support."(31). It
didn't work out, as at "a great gathering of Southern Indians in Alabama
in October 1811,"(32), the Cherokees and Choctaws held back and only a
minority, militant section of the Creeks responded with any enthusiasm.
Interestingly, a female Blues singer called Tecumseh McDowell, cut two
sides in 1933 with St. Louis pianist Aaron Sparks. She might have
adopted the name as a sign of admiration and identification with the
rebel Shawnee chief.
Or maybe her parents named her thus, as working-class parents of that
generation often named their offspring after famous names, military
leaders, U.S. presidents, etc. Another possibility is that some of the
Shawnee stayed in the South, if not in Alabama, after 1811 and inter
married, or at least inter-bred with Southern blacks. This seems highly
improbable as the Shawnee had their base in Prophet's
Town, Indiana. Much more likely is, prior to 1811, when the Shawnee and
Iroquois made warring raids on the Five Civilized Tribes via the
Cumberland Gap. Eaton relates "Through this famous rift in the mountains
ran the Great Warrior Path, which was used by the Shawnee and Iroquois
Indians to attack the southern tribes."(33). If slaves were taken, as
was customary, this could explain black singer, Sheila Ferguson's claim
that "...one of my great-great grandmothers, Vashti, was a Shawnee..."
(34). The Gap is "located at the point where the three states of
Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet,"(35).
It has been noted that four of the Five Civilized Tribes were all from
Muskhogean stock. The exception being the Cherokees. This large and
powerful tribe were part of Iroquoian culture and the name Iroquois
usually refers to a confederacy
of six tribes situated in New York state, according to Wissler. One of
these tribes, The Tuscorora, originally came from the Carolinas, fertile
Blues country, but after losing several battles with the whites between
1711-1715, which left them severely weakened as a tribe, they appealed
to the Five Nations (as they were
known) in New York state for help, and the latter finally accepted them
as the Sixth Nation. The Tuscorora subsequently left the South to
"...reside in northern Pennsylvania and adjacent New York."(36). But
before they left, the bloody Tuscorora
were the scourge of tribes east of the Mississippi River, and were bound
to have taken slaves, both red and black.
To return to the Muskhogean family; two tribes originally from Florida
could also feature in the Blues singer's not-too-distant past. The
Yamassee Indians who had settled in South Carolina in the early part of
the eighteenth century, "...
made slaving raids on the Creek and
Cherokee,"(37. It transpires that after being defeated by English
settlers in 1715, they returned to Florida "where the Creek destroyed
them as a tribe about 1733."(38). The Creeks, together with the whites,
were also responsible for the slaughter of the majority of Apalachee
Indians from northwest Florida. Some 1400 were taken prisoner and
"Finally they were assimilated among the Creeks and other southeastern
Indian tribes and lost their tribal identity.' (39).
Alone in the South as members of the Siouan language family, the Biloxi
inhabited the shores of "...the the lower Pascagoula River (in the
present state of Mississippi) in early historic times."(40). In the
first half of the nineteenth century they moved to Texas. At some later
date they split up and some went to Louisiana, while "The rest of the
Biloxi went to Oklahoma, where their descendants are said to have been assimilated into the
There were other tribes such as the Yuchis, the Chitimaha and the
Tankawa in coastal areas of Louisiana and Texas, and also in the
Galveston area in the latter state, resided the Karankawas. But like the
Caddo, they were all heavily decimated by wars with the Spanish,
English, and French, or with each other! Any survivors seemed to have
either removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) or been
assimilated by one of the Five Civilized Tribes. (see Fig. l. for
original distribution of some of these tribes). So although the genetic
influence of tribes such as the Yammasse, Shawnee, Natchez, and Caddo,
on the Blues singers of the turn of the century must be counted as
fairly minimal, they must be counted nevertheless. Although, as we
shall see in the next chapter that most of the southern tribes had moved
to Oklahoma by the early 1840's, some, including the Choctaws and
Cherokees, remained behind. For example, in the centre of Blues country,
in the state of Mississippi, a census of 1980 showed that whites
represented 64% of the population; "blacks 35%; and other races
1%."(42). And of the other races, one of the other two minority groups
of any size "are the approximately 6,100 Indians concentrated mostly in
three east central counties,"(43). These include Chickasaw and Choctaw
1. R. Nichols. & G.R.Adams. p.3.
5. "Encyclopedia Americana Vol.19."p.749.
6. C. Wissler.p.153.
9. "Corn Bread Blues." Texas Alexander (vo.), Lonnie Johnson (gtr.).
12/8/27. New York Vity.
10. Nichols & Adams. ibid.p.4.
ll. C. Wissler. ibid.p.157.
12. "On The Wall". Louise Johnson (vo. pno.), Charlie Patton and/or
Willie Brown (speech). 28/5/30. Grafton, Wis.
13. "Encyclopedia. Americana Vol.19". ibid.
14. E. Partridge.p.913.
20. "Screamin' And Hollerin The Blues." Charlie Patton (vo, gtr.,
speech). 14/6/29. Richmond, Ind.
21. C. Wissler. ibid.p.159.
23. D. Lavender.p.38.
24. "Encyclopedia Americana Vol.6."p.621.
25. Ibid. Vol.5.p.128.
26. Ibid. Vol.26.p.459.
28. Encyclopedia Americana Vol-5.p.128.
29. D.Lavender. ibid.p.127.
33. C. Eaton. ibid. p.114.
34. S. Ferguson.p.11.
35. C. Eaton. ibid.
36. C. Wissler. ibid.p.131.
37. T.H. Johnson.p.883.
39. "Encyclopedia Americana Vol.2".p.87.
40. "Encyclopedia Americana Vol.3."p.750.
42. "Encyclopedia Americana Vol.19".p.235.
Chapter III - Indians' Removal To The Nation - Black/Red Oklahoma
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