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Learning about the Caddo Past

painting of Caddo origin story
An archeologist digs a shovel probe in pine forest in southwestern Arkansas to look for evidence of an ancient Caddo settlement. Much of the Caddo past lies hidden beneath the ground, unwritten between lines in archival records, and shrouded in the memorized words and steps of Caddo song and dance. Photograph by Bill Martin.
Whitebread family
Three generations of Whitebread family descendants celebrate their Caddo heritage during a parade in Andarko, Oklahoma. Photograph courtesy Donna Spaulding Smith.

Click images to enlarge  

Julia Edge, 1908
Julia Edge and her parents, 1908. Julia was one of the last generations born and raised speaking Caddo. In the 1970s, historian and Caddo tribal member, Cecil Carter, spent many hours talking with Julia Edge and carrying on the Caddo oral tradition. Archives and Manuscript Division, Oklahoma Historical Society.
Drum Dance
Drum Dance underway at the dance ground at the Caddo Tribal Center. Photograph by Dayna Bowker Lee, folklorist and anthropologist at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Lee has done ethnohistoric research on the Caddo tribe and she often attends tribal dances to document modern Caddo traditions.
Henri Joutel's journal
Henri Joutel's journal provides an eyewitness account of his 1687 journey through the Caddo Homeland. Historian William Foster's editorial notes help put Joutel's observations into meaningful context. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Bolton's study
This study by famed historian Herbert Eugene Bolton was not published until 1987, at least 50 years after it was written. Although belated, it is still an important compilation of early Spanish accounts concerning the Hasinai Caddo. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Color plate of Caddo pottery vessel
Color plate of late Caddo pottery vessel excavated by C.B. Moore in 1911 from the Haley site along the Red River in southwestern Arkansas. Moore was the first archeologist to systematically explore portions of the Caddo Homeland.
1979 dig
1979 dig during an archeological field school held by Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas under the direction of professor James Corbin. The Reavley House Mound is a surviving remnant of a 700-year-old Caddo ritual center. Photo courtesy Dee Ann Story.
Alex Krieger
Alex Krieger is regarded as the first real scholar to take an interest in Caddo archeology. Photograph from TARL archives.
1950 Caddo Conference
1950 Caddo Conference participants comparing and discussing pottery types. From left to right, Alex Krieger, Clarence Webb (conference host), John Cotter, Walter Hagg, and Lynn Howard. Photograph by Robert L. Stephenson, TARL archives, Louisiana G-1.
geophysical map
Section of geophysical map showing a small area at the George C. Davis site in which at least three structural patterns are readily discernable. The orange square highlights a circular pattern of a building about 11 meters (36 feet) across with four internal roof supports and a hearth in the middle. The angled line running through the image is one of the signature of one of the interpretive footpaths at Caddoan Mounds State Historic Park. (The right-angled glitches are minor data/processing gaps.) Courtesy Darrel Creel and Dale Hudler, TARL.

Oral history, written history, linguistics, ethnography, ethnohistory, bioanthropology, and archeology each provide critical clues about the long march of Caddo history. Here we briefly mention some of the major sources of knowledge and highlight the strengths and limitations of each. Sophisticated understandings of the complex and lengthy history of Caddo peoples can only come through combining sources of information and checking one against the other.

Oral tradition remains important to Caddo people, but the most essential context for maintaining that tradition—Caddo language—is gravely imperiled. Anthropologists and linguists have shown that languages and cultures are so intimately linked that one can hardly exist without the other. Languages become extinct when children are no longer raised speaking the mother tongue, and that has been the case with the Caddo for at least a generation. There are still about 30 fluent Caddo speakers, but none is young. A small nonprofit foundation, Kiwat Hasinay, is dedicated to preserving the Caddo language and encouraging its revival. One of the foundation's projects has been an effort to create a community-based program to teach the language to Caddo children. Through such efforts and through shared stories, song, and dance, Caddo peoples will continue to pass on important memories of the Caddo past and present. In doing so they are creating a new living tradition, a celebration of Caddo history and identity.

Caddo oral traditions have entered into the written record in various ways. Some are known through the records of linguists and ethnographers who have interviewed Caddo elders and translated their stories. The work of linguists, those who study the nature and structure of language, is discussed in the "Caddoan Languages and Peoples" section. Linguistics is sometimes considered a subfield of anthropology and sometimes a separate field of its own. Unfortunately, only a single linguist, Wallace Chafe, has intensively studied the Caddo language in modern times and the major results of his work have not been published.

Ethnographers are anthropologists who study and describe other cultures by visiting, observing, and asking questions. The best ethnographers are "participant observers" who spend extended periods of time living in the community they are studying and learning the native language. Unfortunately, by the time ethnographers began visiting the Caddo in the early 1900s, Caddo society had been radically altered by historic events. Still, ethnographers and folklorists such as George Dorsey (working in 1903-1904), John Swanton (ca. 1911), and Elsie Clews Parsons (1930s) interviewed Caddo elders who were raised speaking Caddo. Modern historians such as Cecile Elkins Carter have carried on this tradition by interviewing Caddo elders and recording their recollections and stories.

Ethnohistorians are anthropologists who use documentary evidence to glean ethnographic observations and understandings of aboriginal societies. Their work overlaps with that of traditional historians, but stands apart because ethnohistorians are more concerned with reconstructing the nature of aboriginal societies rather than the sequence of events and the impact of individuals. Historians and ethnohistorians are both limited by the surviving documents; there are relatively few early accounts with substantive detail about Caddo life and Caddo peoples. Still, new documents and new versions of known documents are still being discovered from time to time in archives. New insight also can be gained from improved translations of known documents.

The work of John Swanton, a student of the famed ethnographer Franz Boas, is widely regarded as the most important ethnohistoric study of the Caddo. His 1942 book, Source Material on the History and Ethnology of the Caddo Indians, combines his own observations with cautious interpretations of those made by various explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and more. The eyewitness accounts of early Spanish and French visitors to the Caddo Homeland are primary sources of knowledge. Such observations are also often highly biased and selective, reflecting the prejudices, motives, and abilities of the observer as much or more than the character of the observed.

Two early chroniclers of Caddo life stand out. Henrí Joutel, a young Frenchman who survived La Salle's disastrous colony on the Texas coast, spent four months traveling through the Caddo Homeland in the spring and summer of 1687. His remarkable journey included visits to Hasinai villages in the Neches-Angelina drainages, the Nasoni village (see "Upper Nasoni" exhibit) and others linked to the Cadohadacho along the Red River, and Cahino villages further east on the Ouachita. Joutel's journal contains invaluable observations about the Caddo world as seen by an intelligent observer who had no real ulterior motive other than to survive.

Only a few years later, the Spanish priest, Francisco de Jesús Maria Casañas, spent 15 months (1690-1691) living among the Nabedache (the westernmost Nasinai group) on the Neches River. He was part of the Spanish expedition that founded the first mission to the Caddo, Mission San Franciso de las Tejas in present day Houston County, Texas. Fray Casañas was a devoted priest motivated by the desire to save heathen souls, but he was also a shrewd observer who stayed long enough in one place to get a real sense of the annual cycle of Caddo life. His Relacíon was written while in residence at the mission.

The primary documents written by Joutel, Casañas, and many others did not become well known until the 20th century when professional historians began translating and studying these sources. Famed historian Herbert Eugene Bolton became interested in the Hasinai Caddo in 1906 and studied many of the primary documents on and off over the next several decades. Regrettably, his manuscript on the Hasinai was not published until 1987, long after his death in 1953 and at least 50 years after it was written. Apparently he was never satisfied with what amounted to an ethnohistorical study. As a consequence, Bolton's work did not have the impact it would have had, had it been published in a timely fashion. Bolton's posthumous book, The Hasinais: Southern Caddoans as Seen by the Earliest Europeans, covers much of the same material presented in a similarly titled 1954 study by William J. Griffith, The Hasinai Indians of East Texas as Seen by Europeans, 1687-1772. Late in life, Bolton encouraged Griffith's work, apparently believing that his own would never be published.

In the last few decades a number of historians and archeologists have published historical accounts of Caddo peoples. These include traditional historians such as Todd Smith and David LeVere and historically minded archeologists such as Kathleen Gilmore, George Sabo, and Timothy K. Perttula, as well as several historians who are also members of the Caddo tribe. Hasinai: A Traditional History of the Caddo Confederacy by Vynola Newkumet and historian Howard Meredith was the first such study (1988). Cecile Elkins Carter's 1995 book Caddo Indians: Where We Come From synthesizes history, oral tradition, and archeology from a Caddo perspective.

Bioanthropologists (also known as biological or physical anthropologists) study the skeletal remains from archeological excavations at Caddo sites. This research domain has yielded extremely valuable data available through no other means. By studying human bones, bioanthropologists can look at the health of individuals and their diet, age, sex, incidence of disease, and evidence of trauma, such as broken bones. Some information comes from careful scientific examination and measurement, but some studies require the destruction of small samples of bone. Such samples can, for example, be used for radiocarbon dating and for determining carbon and nitrogen isotope values, which reflect diet. By comparing samples from individuals dating to different time periods and from different areas of the Caddo Homeland, one can examine broad patterns of health and nutrition. While such studies have been done very successfully in some parts of the country, the human remains in the Caddo Homeland are often very poorly preserved or completely destroyed by acidic soils.

From a scientific perspective, studies of human remains can be very informative. But many Caddos and other Native Americans feel very strongly that any disturbance of their ancestors' graves is wrong. Some view archeological excavations of graves as grave robbing and oppose all forms of bioanthropological analysis. Others see the value of some studies, particularly the non-destructive ones, when graves lay unalterably in the path of "progress." Still others do not object to destructive testing when it is being done for a solid scientific purpose that promises to shed light on Caddo history. See "Graves of Caddo Ancestors" for more discussion of this controversial topic.

Archeologists study early Caddo history by documenting, mapping, and excavating Caddo sites and examining "material culture," meaning the tangible physical remains such as pottery, stone tools, animal bones, and so on found at the sites. Since archeologists have been investigating sites in the Caddo Homeland for almost a century, a thorough review of the history of investigation would be lengthy. Here we will outline only the major developments.

The first systematic archeological exploration of the region began around 1908 through the efforts of Clarence B. Moore of the Philadelphia Academy of Science. Moore's elaborately illustrated reports of his work at sites along the Red and Ouachita rivers are valuable sources of information. In fact, his observations are all that will ever be known of several mound sites that were subsequently destroyed by the meandering Red River. Moore's work in the Caddo area was followed by the 1917-1920 explorations in the southern Ouachita Mountains by Mark R. Harrington on behalf of the Heye Foundation of New York.

By 1920s, it was thought that the mound sites along the Red River in Arkansas and Texas were probably associated with the Cadohadacho and that sites in the Neches-Angelina drainages in east Texas were linked to the Hasinai. In 1930, with modest funding from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Texas began undertaking major excavations at a number of Caddo sites in east Texas under the supervision of James Pearce and his field director, A. T. Jackson. After the mid-1930s, funding and manpower from the WPA (Works Progress Administration) allowed the University of Texas to expand its work in east Texas.

Like Moore, the University of Texas archeologists chose prominent mound sites like the Hatchel Mound near Texarkana (see Upper Nasoni exhibit) and the Sanders site north of Paris, Texas, and locales where prehistoric cemeteries were known to exist. Graves were sought out because they often contained whole pots and other interesting objects. Similar excavations were undertaken at Caddo sites in Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 1930s under the WPA. Such projects resulted in a great many whole and fragmentary pottery vessels and many other artifacts, but little real appreciation of Caddo history and few substantive publications. This was to change in the 1940s as the result of the efforts of the first real scholar to take an interest in Caddo archeology, Alex D. Krieger.

Krieger was placed in charge of the WPA lab at the University of Texas in Austin in the late 1930s and soon began systematic comparisons among collections from different sites in the Caddo area. During World War II, he wrote the first synthesis of Caddo history based on his comparative studies as part of his larger 1946 study Culture Complexes and Chronology in Northern Texas. He continued this work during his analysis of the artifacts from the George C. Davis site. The Davis site near Nacogdoches, Texas, had been excavated in 1939-1941 by the WPA under the direction of a skilled and meticulous field archeologist, Perry Newell. Newell died just after World War II, leaving Krieger to finish their now-famous 1949 report, The George C. Davis Site, Cherokee County, Texas.

In these two studies, Krieger synthesized the culture history of the "Caddoan" area, including Spiro and the Arkansas Basin. He defined Early Caddoan (Gibson aspect) and Late Caddoan (Fulton aspect) periods as well as thirteen geographical clusters (foci) across the Caddoan area that he thought represented closely related sites. Krieger put quote marks around the term "Caddoan" because he realized the area had a more diversity than implied by the label. While many of Krieger's concepts were later refined or discarded, his work brought national recognition of the Caddo area and of its relationship to parallel developments in the lower Mississippi Valley and elsewhere in the Eastern Woodlands.

One of Krieger's most important collaborators was Clarence H. Webb, a pediatrician from Shreveport, Louisiana, who became a very influential Caddo archeologist. Webb began investigating Caddo sites along the Red River in northwestern Louisiana in 1935 and kept at it for the next 45 years. While Webb had no formal training in archeology, his medical education, familiarity with the area, and aptitude more than made up for it. Webb's energy, enthusiasm, and long-term persistence were unmatched. Working on weekends and vacations, Webb and his friends conducted excavations at numerous major Caddo sites including Mounds Plantation, Gahagan, and Belcher. He reported the results in conference presentations, journal articles and monographs, including one entitled The Belcher Mound: A Stratified Caddoan Site in Caddo Parish, Louisiana that was published in 1959 as a Memoir of the Society for American Archaeology. Through such efforts he succeeded in demonstrating the antiquity of Caddo and pre-Caddo settlement in the region. He also pioneered the use of the direct historical method in the Caddo area, tracing Caddo patterns back in time from historical records into prehistory.

Webb was instrumental in starting a very useful scholarly tradition, the Caddoan (or Caddo) Conference. The first conferences in the late 1930s were informal gatherings at Webb's house attended by only the handful of researchers who knew or cared about Caddo archeology (Krieger and Newell were among them). As time went on the Caddo Conference became a more regular, and then annual, event attended by dozens and sometimes hundreds of researchers, students, and enthusiasts. These conferences were and are essential devices for breaking down the state-line barriers and uniting archeologists in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. By the 1970s Caddo tribal members began participating in the conference, resulting in improved communication between the archeologists and the Indians whose ancestors they studied.

In recent decades there have been dozens of major investigations at Caddo sites and hundreds of smaller ones. In 1960s and 1970s reservoir salvage archeology provided the impetus and opportunity to undertake research at a number of important locales within the Caddo Homeland in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. Since the late 1970s, federal and state cultural resource laws have led to much more archeological work in the region. In fact, contract or CRM (cultural resource management) archeology accounts for most of the research done at Caddo sites over the last 25 years. Although many CRM projects are small and the results usually reported in technical reports of limited distribution, excellent research has been accomplished on smaller sites that probably would not have attracted other researchers. CRM projects have also provided the first systematic surveys in the Caddo Homeland, recording many small habitation sites in places archeologists had previously ignored.

Despite the increase in CRM-related investigation, the Caddo Homeland has seen less concentrated research than many other areas of the Eastern Woodlands. One of the main reasons for this inequity is that major public and private universities in all four states are situated outside the Caddo area. As a direct consequence, the region long lacked resident professional archeologists. Fortunately, two changes have occurred. One has been the hiring of archeologists as teachers at several smaller universities in the area. In Texas, James Corbin at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches has been active in Caddo archeology as has Hiram Gregory at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The other welcome change has been the establishment of regional "station" archeologists in Arkansas and Louisiana in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. This has meant that professional archeologists are living and working in the Caddo Homeland year round. Archeologists Ann Early (now Arkansas State Archeologist), George Sabo, and Frank Schambach in Arkansas, as well as Jeff Girard and George Avery in Louisiana have made major contributions. Typically, the station archeologists also teach at small universities and colleges in the region.

In Texas and Arkansas and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma and Louisiana, state and regional archeological societies and associations have held field schools and conducted research at numerous Caddo sites. Such organizations are made up of avocational (amateur) and professional archeologists. In Arkansas and Louisiana, avocational archeologists usually work with the regional and station archeologists. In Texas and Oklahoma, avocational archeologists sometimes work with the state historic preservation offices and sometimes work on their own.

Today archeologists are asking new questions and applying new technology to learn more about Caddo ancestors. Darrell Creel, director of TARL, and Samuel Wilson, professor of anthropology at UT Austin, are currently directing new investigations at the George C. Davis site. Their goal is to create a detailed map of the Early Caddo settlement using state-of-the-art geophysical survey equipment. This equipment allows archeologists to detect subtle magnetic variations created 700-1200 years ago by Caddo builders. The result, as can be seen to the left, are nothing short of amazing. The use of such non-destructive techniques holds great promise for the future of Caddo archeology.

Donna Spaulding and her graddaughter
Donna Smith Spaulding and young Caddo friend, LaDawna Supernaw, in traditional dance clothes. Although the Caddo language is no longer spoken by Caddo children, Caddo traditions and ceremonial regalia are passed down from generation to generation. Photograph courtesy Donna Smith Spaulding.
Julia Edge
Portrait of Julia Edge as a Caddo elder in the late 1970s. Photo by Cecile Carter.
Caddo source book
The 1996 edition of John Swanton's classic Caddo source book originally published in 1942. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

There are normally eight or ten families in these huts, which are very large; some are 60 feet in diameter… These are round, in the shape of beehives, or rather like large haystacks … They are covered with grass from the ground to the top. They make a fire in the center, the smoke going out the top through the grass.
(Henri Joutel, describing the houses he saw among the Hasinai groups in 1687.)

Cover of Cecile Elkins Carter's book, Caddo Indians: Where We Come From Cecile Elkins Carter's 1995 book synthesizes history, oral tradition, and archeology from a Caddo perspective. Carter also wrote the "Caddo Voices" section of the Tejas online exhibit. Now available in paperback from the University of Oklahoma Press.
Cover of The Caddo Nation by Timothy Pertula Timothy Pertula's 1992 book summarizes archeological and ethnohistorical data on the period from about A.D. 1520 to 1800. Now available in paperback from the University of Texas Press.
Photo of Clarence B. Moore Clarence B. Moore as a young man at Harvard College. Years later, under the sponsorship of the Philadelphia Academy of Science, Moore undertook the first systematic archeological exploration of Caddo sites along the Red and Ouachita rivers. His observations are all that will ever be known of several mound sites that were subsequently destroyed by the meandering Red River.
A. T. Jackson
Rare photo of A. T. Jackson, a former newspaper reporter who became James Pearce's chief field archeologist. It was Jackson who directed most of the excavations at Caddo sites in northeast Texas that the University of Texas undertook in the 1930s. Jackson is rarely seen in archival photos, in part because it was he that usually took the photos. This photo was taken in 1931 at the J. E. Galt farm in Franklin County. TARL archives.
1949 Newell-Krieger report
This 1949 report brought national attention to the Caddo area. The Society for American Archeology issued a new paperback edition in 2000 with an introduction by Dee Ann Story.
A.C. Saunders site
Workers clean out the postholes of a large building at the A.C. Saunders site in 1935 under the direction of A.T. Jackson of the University of Texas. TARL archives.
archeologists at the Davis site
Archeologists at work at the George C. Davis site in Cherokee County, Texas, 1969. The complex layers of earth are clearly visible in the walls of Mound C. TARL Archives.
UT-WPA project
Workers from the University of Texas-WPA project uncovering structural remains within the Hatchel Mound near Texarkana in 1938. This archeological excavation was among the largest ever undertaken at a Caddo site. Photograph from TARL archives.
Hatchel-Mitchell site
Test excavations in 2003 at the Hatchel-Mitchell site under the direction of Tim Perttula. The team is exploring the village area, instead of the mound and graves targeted by the 1930s WPA work. Photo by Mark Walters.