The Creek Indians were a confederation of tribes that belonged primarily to the Muskhogean linguistic group, which also included the Choctaws and Chickasaws. The Muskogees were the dominant tribe of the confederacy, but all members eventually came to be known collectively as Creek Indians.
Most of the Creeks descended from groups living in six towns: Cusseta, Coweta, Areka, Coosa, Hoithle Waule, and Tuckabatchee, all within the confines of the future Alabama and Georgia.
These groups most probably formed the confederacy. Later, the Creeks established the practice of adopting conquered tribes and accepting bands fleeing from English, French, and Spanish attacks.
By these methods the Alabama, Coushatta, Hitchitee, Tuskegee, and Natchez Indians eventually became Creeks. The Creek confederacy inhabited a large portion of what later became Alabama and Georgia.
They, like other Muskhogean tribes, apparently migrated to that region from the west in prehistoric times. The confederacy was divided into two districts, the Upper Creeks, centered on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, and the Lower Creeks, residing near the Flint and Chattahoochee.
In early historic times, the Creek population was variously estimated at 11,000 to 24,000, distributed among fifty to eighty towns and outlying villages.
The Creeks divided their towns into White (Peace) or Red (War) classifications. White towns hosted councils for concluding peace, adopted conquered tribes, and enacted most laws and regulations for internal affairs. Red towns declared war, planned military expeditions, and held diplomatic councils.
Although members of white clans were associated with peace, they were expected to fight during wars; indeed, advancement in civil rank was largely dependent upon military achievement.
The entire Creek population was divided into clans that cut across towns and families alike. Members of a particular clan were considered close relatives even though they might have never seen each other before. Clan members had unlimited claims on each other’s services.
Because of the perceived kinship of clan members, marriage within a clan was strictly forbidden. Clans varied in size and stature. The Wind Clan, for example, had members in all of the towns of the confederacy and enjoyed special privileges as an aristocratic caste.
Clan membership was determined by a child’s mother. Although the father’s clan was respected, he had little role in his children’s upbringing. Instead, the men of the mother’s clan saw to a child’s development.
At times the clan would arrange marriages without consulting the principals, but more often the male would initiate the courtship on his own. He would send a female relative to consult with the women of his prospective bride’s family, who would in turn consult her brothers and maternal uncles.
The girl’s father might also be consulted out of courtesy, but he had no authority in the final decision. If the men approved, the prospective husband was informed of the decision and sent gifts to the females of the girl’s family.
If the gifts were accepted, the marriage was considered consummated. There was usually little or no ceremony involved, for the man simply moved into his new wife’s dwelling and lived with her family.
The marriage was not considered permanent, however, until the new husband harvested his first crop, supplied his wife with game, and built her a house.
Polygamy was common among the Creeks, although each wife usually lived in a separate home. If plural wives were sisters they might share a home, and sometimes unrelated wives lived in the same house without apparent jealousy.
In all cases, the first wife had to approve of all subsequent wives, and if a husband attempted to ignore his wife’s advice he might be punished as an adulterer by his wife’s clan.
Divorce could be sought by either spouse but was rare when children were involved. When it did occur, children and property remained with the wife.
Creek families lived in dwellings that consisted of one to four buildings, depending on the size and wealth of the family. Structures were rectangular and framed with sturdy poles. The walls were plastered with mud and straw. The roofs were of cypress-bark shingles.
Generally, one structure was the cooking area and winter quarters, one was the summer lodge, another acted as a granary, and others served other functions. Near each dwelling the Creeks planted a small private garden where the women of the family grew corn, beans, tobacco, and other crops. Outside the town a larger plot of land was used for the communal field in which the main food supply was grown.
Each family possessed its own plot in the common field, but the entire tribe worked the land together, starting at one end and finishing at the other. When the time arrived, each family harvested its own plot and stored the produce in a private granary.
Surplus crops could be donated to the public store, which was used to feed visitors, supply war parties, or help feed families whose supplies failed. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and melons were grown in abundance. The Lower Creeks also grew rice.
Hickory nuts and acorns were a source of sustenance. Hunting deer and bear and fishing also supplemented the food supplies. Each town had its own hunting range, and the Creeks were careful not to trespass on other towns’ preserves. Each town council carefully regulated hunting to prevent the depletion of game animals.
The Creeks, like other southeastern Indians, wore garments of animal skins, although feathers and natural vegetable products were sometimes used. Breechclouts were the standard dress for Creek men, who often wore skin shirts and were more likely than surrounding tribes to wear leggings. Women wore skirts that extended almost to their knees and often, during the summer months, nothing else.
Children often went naked until they reached puberty. With the advent of European contact, Creek dress became a blend of Indian and European styles. Leggings and breechclouts were often made of red or blue woolen goods, and if the Indian wore a shirt it was usually obtained through trade.
European contact had other profound effects upon the Creeks. Although Hernando De Soto’s expedition in 1540 made the first European contact with the Creeks, it had little impact.
A century and a half later, however, the Creeks became caught in the European struggle for control of the New World. Spaniards in Florida, Frenchmen in Louisiana, and Englishmen in Georgia and South Carolina all attempted to win the allegiance of the Creek confederacy.
Sporadic warfare with Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees added to the Creeks’ problems. By the 1770s the English regarded the Creek confederacy as their most powerful opponent.
The American Revolution brought a new expansionistic nation to the Creeks’ doorstep. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Creeks ceded some of their territory to the land-hungry Americans, but in 1811 the Creek council passed a law forbidding further land sales.
Unfortunately for the Creeks, during the War of 1812 a group known as the Red Sticks attacked and killed several American families.
The American government responded by sending an army under Andrew Jackson to put down the perceived uprising. Jackson and his men decisively defeated the Red Sticks at the battle of Horseshoe Bend and forced the Creeks to cede a vast amount of their territory to the United States in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, signed in 1814.
Over the next two decades, numbers of Creek Indians moved to Indian Territory, after signing treaties exchanging their former homelands for land in Oklahoma. By 1836 the last of the Creeks surrendered their lands and were taken to Indian Territory to join their progressive kinsmen who had moved a decade earlier.
In 1836, 14,609 Creeks journeyed to Oklahoma. Some of them split off to live with the Alabama-Coushatta Indians in Texas, but most eventually moved to join their countrymen in the Indian Territory.
The Standing Committee on Indian Affairs reported “Coushatta, Alabama, Biloxi, and Muskogee” living in Nacogdoches and Liberty counties in 1837. The first three tribes had resided there for fifty years, but the Muskogees had lived there only for three years.
These four groups were estimated to include 150 warriors and were considered to be pacific toward the Texas government. By 1849 an estimated fifty Creek Indians still resided in Texas.
The Creeks in Indian Territory assumed the balance of power in their region. They suffered raids from the wild Plains Indians but soon assumed leadership, defended their borders, and encouraged the Plains tribes to make peace with each other and the Texans.
Both Mexicans and Comanches, apparently impressed with the Creeks’ prosperity, approached the United States to apply for a tract of farmland, but the government never acted on the request.
Apparently not all of the Creeks were so peaceful, however. Citizens of Gainesville reported in 1866 that they were daily suffering raids on their cattle and horse herds. A Chickasaw Indian informed them that he had seen a group of Creek Indians driving 750 cattle, identified as belonging to two Texans, across the Red River.
The same region occasionally suffered a murder or a scalping, although the responsible Indians were not identified and might not have been Creeks.
Currently, most of the Creek Indians, Muskogees in particular, live southwest of the Cherokees and northwest of the Choctaws in central eastern Oklahoma. At the time of removal in 1832-33, the Creek population was 21,733. Of that population, 17,939 were Muskogees.