Looking Back On A Buried Past

Most of us know that Native Americans were here long before so many others claimed the land for themselves. We are somewhat familiar with the traditions of the American Indian, which played an important and fascinating part in the history of the New World. Unless you have studied Native American heritage in depth, however, you may not have heard of the Pee Dee, an unusual, well-organized culture that existed around the 12th century A.D. These people of the woodlands lived in the Southern Appalachian region of Georgia, South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and the Piedmont area of western and southern North Carolina.

The Pee Dee tribes, closely related to the Creek Indians, were successful farmers of a variety of crops, excellent traders, and skillful artisans of clay and stone. Here, food was plentiful and fishing and hunting provided the other necessities, enabling them to establish a complex society, the extent of which is not fully known. The extensive religious rituals practiced by the Pee Dee were manifested in temples built on large ceremonial earthen mounds. The major temple served as the Pee Dee’s principal place of worship and the council of tribal leaders, who discussed and planned the important matters of the community. Within the temple, which held the sacred fire, the interior walls were painted with animal drawings, representing the various clans of the tribe. A minor temple, also made of mud and straw, was built across the plaza from the main temple to house the four ceremonial priests.

These “people of the one fire” celebrated the “busk,” in an 8-day ceremonial rebirth of the mind and spirit, by repairing the temple and grounds, and the cleaning of houses. During this “Poskito,” members of the tribe and their visitors purified their bodies through bathing, fasting, and drinking a black tea made from the yaupon shrub. Old grievances were resolved, debts were repaid, and ongoing disputes were settled. An offering of corn was made to the spirits, young men became warriors, and the remaining embers of the fire were carried back to individual homes, symbolizing the unity of the Pee Dee people. After the various clans returned to their villages, a new sacred fire was built in the ceremonial mound each year, and the cycle began again.

Archaeological digs at Town Creek on the land owned by a Mr Frutchey were led by Dr Joffre Coe of the University of North Carolina in 1937, as a part of the WPA of the Great Depression. His comprehensive research continued for some 50 years, with considerable reconstruction in the 1950’s and 60’s. Through his efforts, the significance of Town Creek and the Pee Dee culture resulted in its registration as a national landmark in 1955. As the site was slowly uncovered, the mound appeared to have been built over a lodge-type structure from earth carried in baskets and piled against the walls and over the roof. In time, this collapsed and a second mound was built on top, forming a new platform for the religious temple. Public gatherings, religious ceremonies, and feasts were held in the square around the mound, which was accessible by a ramp built to face the rising sun. Outside the ceremonial grounds and the temples were the dome shaped houses of straw and mud, as well as other structures apparently serving as mortuaries assigned to various clans. An estimated 500 burials were uncovered through excavation; most of these were not unusual, except for the burial urns that contained the tightly wrapped remains of the very young. The self-contained complex where people were born, lived, and died was enclosed and fortified with tall pine posts and two guard towers at each end. This stockade protected the Pee Dee from the neighboring Sioux Indians, who were a constant threat and eventually the conquerors of the Pee Dee tribes.

Today, Town Creek, the only national historic site in Mt Gilead, North Carolina dedicated to Native American heritage, is of considerable interest to historians and scholars as the best representation of pre-white civilization in the U.S. Travelers can get a glimpse of the Pee Dee way of life by visiting the site and viewing the guard tower, the 3rd and final temple, a burial house, and the stockade. The 2009 calendar of events includes various programs such as Astronomy Days and Nights, the Heritage Festival, the Woodlands Program describing life in the 11th century, bird watching, and legends of the American Indian — available to the public for a small admission fee.

Visitors Center: The museum contains interesting artifacts of clay pottery, spears, and stone pipes, as well as audiovisual exhibits and hands-on activities. Guided and self-guided tours can be arranged, and hiking/walking trails, picnic tables, monuments, and a gift shop are on the grounds.

Hours: Open year round, Tuesday — Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm, Sunday — 1 pm to 5 pm. Closed Mondays and Major Holidays. Admission is free.

Sharon Slayton

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