History of the Caddo Indians
Tribal Origin: Caddo Confederacy
Native Name: Hasínai, means 'our own folk'
Home Territories: Colorado, Kansas, East Texas, northern Louisiana, portions of southern Arkansas and eventually Oklahoma
Tribal Alliance: Hasinai, Kadohadacho, and the Natchitoches
The Caddo Nation is a confederacy made up of several Southeastern Native American tribes who traditionally inhabited much of what is now East Texas, northern Louisiana and portions of southern Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Caddo are thought to be an extension of Woodland period peoples, the Fourche Maline culture and Mossy Grove cultures who were living in the area of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas between 200 BCE to 800 CE. The Wichita and Pawnee are related to the Caddo, as shown by their speaking Caddoan languages. By 800 CE this society had begun to coalesce into the Caddoan Mississippian culture.
Caddo Indians enter written history in chronicles of the Hernando de Soto expedition, which describe encounters during the Spanish passage through southwest Arkansas. When the Spaniards crossed the threshold to Caddo country on June 20, 1542, they entered a nation uniquely distinguished by language, social structure, tradition, and way of life.
Prehistoric Caddo culture
Prehistoric Caddo culture developed as a regional variant of the Mississippian tradition in southwest Arkansas and in parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas between AD 800 and 1100. The characteristics that archaeologists use to identify this prehistoric culture include pottery containers with new shapes and decorations, flat-topped mounds used as platforms for buildings, conical mounds erected over dismantled buildings that occasionally were used as burial sites, new burial practices, new settlement practices, and new subsistence practices.
Parallels between some of these features and European descriptions of the historic Caddo who lived in the same large region in the 1600s and 1700s indicate that the prehistoric Caddo were ancestors of the modern Caddo Nation.
In Arkansas, Caddo culture developed among local Woodland tradition people known as Fourche Maline. Some changes undoubtedly were inspired by innovative cultural practices in the Plum Bayou culture of central Arkansas and cultural changes in the lower Mississippi River Valley.
How and why Caddo culture developed is imperfectly understood and a matter of debate among archaeologists. These changes occurred throughout a large region, the western extent of the deciduous forest ecosystem, ranging from the Arkansas River Valley and adjoining uplands to the oak and grass savanna of east Texas.
The earliest signs of culture change are mound centers where elaborate funeral activities for select members of society and other religious and social activities took place. The largest of these centers include the Crenshaw, Bowman, and Mounds Plantation sites in the Red River valley, the George C. Davis Site in east Texas, and the Spiro Site in the Arkansas River Valley near Fort Smith (Sebastian County).
Funeral Practices of the Caddo Indians
From AD 900 to 1200, important people were interred, sometimes in mounds, with objects that included personal possessions, rare and exotic gifts, and symbols of religious and political authority.
At the Crenshaw Site, funeral activities included a variety of programs. Some people were buried in mounds, others were buried in large communal graves, and still others underwent extended treatment that led to the specialized burial of skulls and mandibles.
Different funeral practices took place at early Caddo mound centers elsewhere in the region, although the skull and mandible burials are unique. These elaborate practices demonstrate that social differences marked special privileges and roles for some members of early Caddo society. Funeral rites are displays of new religious beliefs and rituals that continue as core elements of the Caddo culture.
Transition from a hunter-gatherer society to farmers
During this time, the Caddo were making a transition to a farming lifestyle based on corn and other domesticated plants. In 1000, subsistence was based on hunting, gathering wild plants, and probably small-scale gardening of a few crops that included squashes and a few seed-producing native annuals. By 1200, corn was an integral part of the diet and, in combination with domesticated beans, sunflowers, and other plants, remained the foundation of Caddo subsistence into the historic period.
Wild plants and animals also continued to be important to a diverse and healthy diet. The Caddo grew tobacco and probably other plants for medicine and rituals.
The transition to farming coincided with a dispersal of people into residential settlements by 1200.
Caddo home styles varied
Year-round settlements had sturdy houses, outdoor work areas and storage facilities, small family cemetery plots, and gardens. One common house form was a large, circular dwelling, typically about thirty feet in diameter, made of saplings and thatched with grass.
The Caddo also built square and rectangular buildings that had steeply pitched, thatched roofs supported by ridgepoles. Both kinds of buildings were furnished with raised beds or benches around the walls and probably with storage lofts or shelves. Central fireplaces provided some heat and light.
Each dwelling had a single door and evidently no windows, and most daytime activities took place outside. Thousands of these small settlements were dispersed among all the stream valleys in southwest Arkansas, with no concentrated center.
Tools of the early Caddo civilization
Caddo farmers used simple digging tools made of wood, bone, or shell to cultivate gardens. Harvests were stored above ground in storehouses, in containers in their dwellings, and in some instances in pits. Bows and arrows—and probably other implements such as nets, snares, fishhooks, lines, and woven fish weirs—were used to capture game.
Cane was split and woven into mats to furnish houses and into baskets to collect and store food. They used animal shells, skins, bones, and sinew to make clothes, blankets, and other items.
The prehistoric Caddo were skilled potters. Containers included jars, bottles, and bowls in many sizes and shapes. Both fine wares (highly polished and elaborately incised and engraved) and utilitarian wares (decorated by punctuation, incising, and brushing) were abundant.
Ceramic designs were often complex and featured geometric patterns. Subtle differences in vessel shape and the selection and arrangement of designs made the vessels produced in each Caddo community different from those produced by its neighbors. Caddo pottery had many uses.
Some vessels were cooking, serving, and storage containers. Others seem to have been made for use in rituals, in public feasts and other gatherings, and as gifts for both the living and the dead.
In addition to farming, foraging, and other domestic activities, the prehistoric Caddo made salt. Salt making began about 1200, coinciding with the dominance of corn in the diet. Many brine seeps in southwest Arkansas were strong enough to provide salt from boiling by using simple technology. Brine was boiled over open fireplaces in large, thick pottery pans and platters.
Large utilitarian jars evidently were used to dry and store the salt at the manufacturing site and later were broken and left scattered around the salt works. The prehistoric Caddo were part-time salt makers; people who lived near the brine locations made salt at family compounds when they were not farming, hunting, and performing household duties.
The best-known salt works are in the Ouachita River valley near Arkadelphia (Clark County) and in the Little River and Rolling Fork River valleys in southwest Arkansas.
There are indications that some commodities, probably including salt, were being traded beyond the Caddo area into the Arkansas River Valley in central and eastern Arkansas around 1540.
Pottery made in the Ouachita River valley Caddo communities has been found along the Arkansas River and near the confluence of Bayou Bartholomew and the Ouachita River in northern Louisiana. These locations appear to trace a river route between the Ouachita valley salt works and the Mississippian communities in the Arkansas River Valley.
Around 1700, French explorers encountered Native American traders similarly moving boatloads of salt to villages in central Louisiana.
From 1400 to 1500, many changes took place in prehistoric Caddo culture.
The most obvious evidence of change is the cessation of elaborate, highly ceremonial burials of certain people with lavish gifts and exotic possessions—including servant sacrifices—in mound centers.
In some river valleys, mound building ceased altogether, and while it continued in other places such as the Red River valley, mound groups typically thereafter consisted of an earthen platform with a modest assortment of associated buildings and one small dome-shaped mound. New pottery designs and vessel shapes were created, and other objects such as arrow points also changed.
Archaeologists speculate that these changes were part of new or different cultural beliefs and practices regarding Caddo social organization and religious practices, but the exact reasons are unknown. Some members of Caddo society were still wealthier and more influential than others, but the differences were not marked by the same level of exaggerated burial ceremonialism as before.
The Spanish members of the Hernando de Soto expedition found vibrant Caddo communities in southwest Arkansas and eastern Texas in the 1540s. The Caddo survived their encounter with the expedition and continued to live in southwest Arkansas with their cultural traditions intact until the next phase of European contact.
In the last century before French settlers established the Louisiana colony, Caddo society was intact. Some communities were still building and using mounds; other traditions such as pottery making were at their most sophisticated and successful.
In the Ouachita River valley, Caddo farmers were making salt up to 1700, when they migrated south out of the valley. The Kadohadacho Caddo and their neighbors along the Red River continued to live in their traditional villages near Texarkana (Miller County) until 1790.
Caddo people were sedentary farmers, salt makers, hunters, traders, craftsmen, and creators of exquisite pottery who buried their dead in mounds and cemeteries with solemn ritual and a belief that the dead traveled to a world beyond this.
Caddo language was unlike any spoken by other groups the Spaniards met as they explored northeast Arkansas and the Southern states east of the Mississippi River. Caddo communities—called villages or towns in the de Soto chronicles and often referred to as tribes or bands by later writers—were actually related farmsteads secluded and separated by gardens and woodland.
Relatives lived together in one or more houses on a farmstead. Their homes, circular constructions with a frame of poles bound at the top to make an oval, were thatched with long grass. Early observers thought the houses resembled beehives.
An outdoor work platform or arbor, a drying rack, and an elevated, thatched domed structure used for storing corn usually stood near the houses. In some compounds, the houses were rectangular, made of vertical timbers stuck into the ground, daubed with mud, and covered by roofs of bark or grass. The social settlement pattern of dispersed Caddo farmsteads formed communities that often stretched for miles around a mound or a group of mounds that marked the ceremonial center.
Caddo political hierarchy and religious centers
Each Caddo community had a principal leader generally named "chief" by English speakers, cacique by the Spanish, and caddi by the Caddo. The caddi position was hereditary.
A boy in line for the title had years of tutoring. By the time he was deemed mature enough to be caddi, he was well schooled for his duty to keep order in his community settlement and contribute to the peace of the Caddo Nation.
The Caddi set the time for the building of a new house, approved marriages, called assemblies of the elders for major decisions, hosted feasts, organized official welcomes for visitors, was a sponsor and officiant at planting and harvest ceremonies, conducted peacemaking ceremonies, supervised the division of gifts from foreign emissaries, conducted councils for raising a war party, and hosted victory celebrations.
Only a few spiritual leaders lived at the mound centers. One called the chenesi (xeneci in Spanish documents) held power and prestige superior to that of a caddi. No Caddo dared cause his displeasure.
Except for special visits or a brief walk, the chenesi remained in his house built on a flat-top mound while the people provided for all his needs. The grand chenesi communicated with Ayo-Caddi-Amay, “Great Leader Above,” and advised the people whether their conduct was good or bad. He was guardian of the sacred fire, which was sheltered in a special house near the one occupied by the chenesi. When a chenesi died, his nearest male blood kin succeeded him.
“There are at least twenty ceremonial centers, each with from one to eleven mounds, distributed in a forty-mile-wide band along the general route that the Spaniards must have taken from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, towards Texarkana and the Red River Valley,” notes Frank E. Schambach of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
“Many of them were in use during the sixteenth century, so the Spanish were probably always within twenty miles of an active temple mound, whether they knew it or not, and they must have seen farmsteads and other types of compounds everywhere.”
Hernando de Soto died a month before his army, then led by Luís de Moscoso, entered Caddo country with about half of the army’s original force of 600 soldiers and only forty of the 200 horses it once had. The entourage still had 500 captive Indians, a herd of hogs, and a pack of hounds trained to attack and kill Indians. Depleted and disillusioned, they no longer sought riches; they were instead looking for food and supplies for survival and for guides to direct them overland to New Spain (Mexico).
A reconstruction of the route described in de Soto chronicles locates the army’s entrance to Caddo country on the Ouachita River between Malvern (Hot Spring County) and Arkadelphia (Clark County). Near a small town, they stopped to make salt from briny water that state archaeologist Ann Early identifies as a site on the Saline Bayou.
The highly productive salt springs at Bayou Sel became the site of the earliest salt works established by Europeans in Arkansas. Southwest Arkansas has many salt sites, and the Spaniards likely followed a trail used by generations of Caddo salt makers.
The Caddo closely watched paths leading to their communities and customarily sent a small group of men to welcome, or determine the intent of, approaching visitors.
Somewhere near Nashville (Howard County), fifteen Caddo carrying gifts of skins, fish, and roasted venison waited for the Spaniards, although the people of the community had already moved out of harms way. The Spaniards camped in an empty town but found another major salt site and a plentiful supply of corn while making forays into the neighborhood, taking captives, and plundering farmstead granaries.
Moscoso continued to follow an overland salt trail and led the army into the Red River valley north of Texarkana (Miller County) near Ogden (Little River County). Traveling the north side of the Red River, they approached a province they recorded as Naguatex.
Archaeological evidence and later historical documents define a dense population extending along both sides of the Red River near Fulton (Hempstead County) to Shreveport, Louisiana. The largest surviving Caddo mound in Arkansas (670' long, 320' wide, and 34' high) and many smaller mounds are in that area.
The Naguatex caddi was powerful enough to direct three other caddis and many warriors in an attack on the Spaniards. Caddo bows and arrows, made of local bois d’arc wood, were renowned for their superiority. It was said that Caddo could easily send an arrow through a bison, but bows, arrows, and expert marksmanship could not equal muskets and soldiers on horses.
The warriors did not stop the army but temporary halted it so their families could move to safety. Crossing the Red River, the army looped through Caddo Hasinai territory in northeast Texas before giving up on finding an overland route to Mexico. Finally, it retraced its trail through Arkansas to the Mississippi River and built boats that carried them to their destination.
The province named Naguatex in de Soto documents is the homeland of the historically dominant Cadohadacho (Kadohadacho). That name combines two Caddo words. The first syllable, kadu, has lost its exact meaning; it may be a derivative of caddi. Hadacho means “keen” or “sharp,” in the sense of a pain. Caddo, an abbreviation of Cadohadacho, eventually was used to identify all Caddo people.
Caddo people now speak of themselves as being Cadohadacho or Hasinai—“Our People.”
Little is known about what happened in Caddo communities during a 144-year period between the de Soto-Moscoso expedition and 1687, when a small group of Frenchmen passed through the Cadohadacho community on the Red River and the Cahinnio Caddo near Camden (Ouachita County).
A journal written by Henri Joutel is the next documented account of Caddo people and places in Arkansas. His journal includes a detailed description of the ill-fated colony that René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle tried to establish on the gulf shore of Texas. It details the travels of survivors as they wandered through Caddo country on their way to French outposts, passage up the Mississippi to an outpost on the Illinois River, and an eventual return to France. With Caddo aid, the survivors reached the outpost now called Arkansas Post (Arkansas County).
By the time the Caddo met Joutel and his survivors, mound building had almost ceased, and smaller communities had begun to merge with larger ones. Joutel’s journal records incidents that confirm the strength of Caddo religious beliefs and gradual changes that affected their way of life. After one of Joutel’s party drowned and was buried in a field, the caddi’s wife carried a small basket of roasted ears of corn to the grave every morning.
At the Cahinnio settlement, the Frenchmen were asked to participate in a ceremony that included singing by men and women accompanied by gourd rattles, and for the first time, the Frenchmen witnessed a calumet (ceremonial pipe) ritual performed by Caddo.
That the Caddo did not yet have guns is shown by hunting incidents. Cahinnio guides killed bison with bow and arrow and, sighting a herd, insisted that it was the Frenchmen’s turn to make the kill. When a single shot from a musket dropped a bison, the Caddo hunter-guides were astounded by the hole and marveled at the shattered bone.
The brief meetings with Frenchmen described in Joutel’s journal were the beginning of increasing contact between Arkansas Caddo and eighteenth-century Europeans. France and Spain, rivals for territory in North America, vied for the allegiance of Caddo leaders, who not only kept peace and order in their communities but wielded influence over neighbors.
Face-to-face contact with the Spanish was negligible, but the French, promoting trade, became allies.
Raids on northern Caddo communities, primarily by the Osage, made guns vital. European fabrics, knives, needles, metal tools, and trinkets were useful. French traders came to live in Caddo communities, and dependence on their wares increased.
By 1790, weakened by European epidemics and raids by enemies—principally Osage—the Caddo who knew Arkansas as home abandoned their ancient territory and moved farther down the Red River, nearer French trade centers. Their old home remained their recognized hunting territory.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 included all of what is now Arkansas; three years later, when President Jefferson sent the Freeman-Custis expedition to explore the Red River, the explorers saw the ruins of Caddo villages and noted a large mound that their Caddo guides said was a place their forefathers worshiped.
The first American agent the Caddo dealt with, like the French and Spanish governors who preceded him, recognized and made use of the extraordinary influence and diplomacy of the grand caddi. But by 1818, Major Stephen H. Long, commander at Fort Smith (Sebastian County), reported that the Caddo who “inhabited a part of the country before the cession of Louisiana to the United States… pretended to claim all the country.”
The next year, when Arkansas Territory was organized, surveyors began measuring lines running through Caddo country. The conclusive loss of Caddo homelands in Arkansas came in 1835, when their headmen were coerced to sign a treaty ceding all Caddo land in the nation, never again to live there as a group.
The Caddo people endured a long journey from their ancient homelands to Caddo County, Oklahoma, where they now have their seat of government, five miles east of the town of Binger. Early in 2006, the official roll of the federally recognized Caddo Nation of Oklahoma listed 4,774 members, all lineal descendants of the ancient Caddo Nation.
The majority live in Oklahoma; others, though living in other states, maintain close ties with the center of the modern Caddo Nation. Still, Caddo names remain on modern maps of Arkansas, and Caddo people remember and revere Arkansas as a place of their ancestors. As one twentieth-century Caddo grandmother wistfully said, “We once had all of Miller County.”
Today’s generation of Caddo frequently visit Arkansas, informally as tourists and formally as representatives responding to invitations to speak to audiences or to perform the traditional songs and dances that have been handed down from time beyond memory.
Contemporary Caddo make such visits with mixed emotions: dismay that sacred ground has sometimes been disturbed by vandals, appreciation that professional research and study by Arkansas archaeologists and ethnologists contribute prehistoric evidence and historic documentation of the heritage that distinguishes them from all other people, and gratitude that the state of Arkansas has enacted laws for the protection and respect of sacred sites where the Old Ones lived and died.