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The Coosa Chiefdom was one of the strongest groups encountered by Spanish explorers with a sophisticated political system and complex fortifications. / Contributed photo

Archaeological studies point to more than 12,000 years of continuous occupation by Native Americans in the Chattanooga area, whose best known sites were Williams Island, Moccasin Bend, Maclellan Island and Citico. The first written accounts describing life in the valley came from journals kept by the scribes of Hernando de Soto, Tristan de Luna and Juan Pardo, explorers who sought gold, spread disease and altered the trajectories of Native American life.

Before European exploration, the Indians of the Southeast had achieved one of the highest levels of political organization north of the Aztec and Mayan states. Among the strongest groups encountered by the explorers was the Coosa Chiefdom, which held influence from 1400 to 1600 A.D., mainly over a 400-mile area along the Coosawattee River. That waterway with its seven or eight primary villages extended from southern Tennessee through northwest Georgia and ended in northeast Alabama. The chiefdom's sphere of influence also extended into the Tennessee Valley.

The governing bodies of Coosa and other Mississippian chiefdoms were more politically sophisticated than the Spanish realized. These chiefdoms normally had anywhere from 100 to 1,500 permanent residents living within their borders. A major town served as the capital, while several smaller, outlying towns paid tribute to a central cacique, or tribal chiefdom.

Inhabitants had what archaeologists call a Mississippian lifestyle. The women were farmers growing corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other plants. The men hunted, fished and gathered herbs, nuts and berries. Warfare was another major occupation for men. Spanish explorers had the misfortune of fighting battles against large armies of Native Americans in the Southeast. Archaeologists have uncovered complex fortifications around native towns and found evidence of widespread war wounds, including scalping marks on excavated skeletons of buried warriors. By the time DeSoto arrived, Coosa had became a complex paramount chiefdom created by military conquests and political alliances.

Towns in the Mississippian culture serving as boundaries to the chiefdom were often fortified with palisade walls, defensive towers and defensive ditches. The capital town contained the cacique's house, a temple or temples, and other important public buildings. Natives built most of these public buildings atop pyramid shaped, flat-topped, earthen mounds that took several years to construct. Primarily, these mounds elevated the elite class above the commoners and asserted the cacique's power over his surrounding chiefdom.

Two villages in the Chattanooga area were described as being on the bank of a deep river, "two arquebus (muskets) shots wide," or 1,000 feet. Research suggests that Audubon Acres on the South Chickamauga Creek and the Citico Mound near downtown Chattanooga on the Tennessee River were both Coosa sites.

Excavations at Citico in 1867, 1914, 1967 and 1989 exposed a ceremonial site inhabited by 300 to 900 people from 1350 to 1550 A.D. The mound was about 19 feet tall, oval-shaped, 158 feet by 128 feet at the base with a flat top 82 feet by 44 feet. The impressive structure was composed of alternating layers of dirt and ashes, raised two or three feet at a time. Shell gorgets, earrings, bone instruments, flint knives, arrowheads and spearheads, stone celts, pipes representing birds and a child's rattle of tortoise shell were typically found in these type sites.

Having never had contact with Europeans, the Coosa lacked immunity to Old World diseases, including smallpox, which spread rapidly through native populations. Decimated by disease and economic ravages from the Spanish explorers, the Coosa stronghold collapsed. Its survivors, the forerunners of several individual Native American tribes including the Muskogee, fled downstream to smaller villages and developed their own cultures. Oral tradition holds that Cherokees migrated south from the Great Lakes region and brought their Iroquoian language to be shared by tribes in today's Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and other eastern states. After the Muskogees withdrew, Cherokees entered much of the original Coosa area, including the Tennessee Valley, only to be later pushed out by white settlers.

Chattanooga's Citico Mound was regretfully destroyed in June 1915 to create Riverside Drive, which later became Amnicola Highway. However, plans are underway at the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological Site, a part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, for an interpretive venue, programming pavilion and accessible walkway with trail maps and highlights of the area's rich history.

Today, admire the Tennessee River from the Riverwalk, stroll across the Walnut Street Bridge and see Maclellan Island, gaze from Lookout Mountain's Point Park onto Moccasin Bend and consider the people who came before us and how we learn from their lives.

Jennifer Ley Crutchfield is an author and educator with a passion for local history. Frank "Mickey" Robbins coordinates the Local History column.

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