The fertile land, abundantly available aquatic life and milder climate of Florida’s panhandle have been drawing humans to this area for thousands of years. In our previous blog on the History of the Fort Walton Beach & Destin Area, we took a look at the first cultures we know to have occupied northwest Florida during what’s referred to as the Woodland Period, which occurred between approximately 500 BC – 1000 AD. This 1500-year-long prehistoric period in the southeastern US is defined by its social and technological developments, which bridged the gap between the archaic period that came before, when the Native Americans were nomadic hunter-gatherers, and the Mississippian culture that followed.
Today, we’ll look at the prosperous Mississippian culture, considered the last great cultural evolution in North America before European colonization in the 16th century.
When did the Mississippian culture exist?
It’s impossible to know exactly the timeline, but we estimate the Native American civilization we now refer to as the Mississippian culture began towards the end of the first millennium, around 700 or 800 AD. The Mississippian culture evolved from the cultures of the late Woodland Period, which we looked at in our previous blog, along with the influence of cultures from surrounding areas. Many Native American groups were still living a nomadic lifestyle to some degree, so what we call the Mississipian culture was likely born from a mix of many different tribes and groups from around North America moving, interacting and evolving with each other. Though it varied from region to region and is believed to have peaked around the 13th century, the Mississippian culture continued to be prevalent in parts of the country through to the early 17th century, when Europeans settlers began to arrive in North America.
Where did the Mississippian culture live?
The Mississippian culture was born from settlements established along the Mississippi River Valley, where people began to farm crops and move away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the previous years. The Mississippi River Valley runs a 2,348 mile stretch, starting in northern Minnesota and extending all the way down through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It ends in southern Louisiana where the Mississippi river flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Though Mississippian culture is named after this particular river valley where many villages formed, similar settlements built alongside rivers and creeks were popping up around the same time throughout the Midwest and Southeast, including our favorite part of Florida on the Emerald Coast. The temperate climate and abundant water and resources of this land lay the groundwork for the population growth, technological and societal developments that defined the Mississippian culture.
The largest Mississippian settlement to have been discovered is the Cahokia Mounds in what is now southern Illinois. Archaeological research at the site of the Cahokia Mounds leads us to believe this was a Native American metropolis during the era of the Mississippian culture. With more than 100 ‘mounds’ or man-made earthen structures (of which only 80 are preserved today) and evidence of complex infrastructure as well as migration to the area, this could be considered one of North America’s very first cities.
What defined the Mississippian culture?
One of the most important features of the Mississippian culture was their advances in agriculture. Although they still made use of hunting and gathering to a degree, what set the Mississippian culture apart from those that came before them was their ability to domesticate and cultivate maize (corn), beans, and squash, which became the staple of their diet. This move towards farming and away from hunting and gathering meant that people began to live together in concentrated areas, which required the creation of infrastructure, trading systems, and more complex societal structures.
Another feature of the Mississippian culture, which we touched on above, was the construction of hundreds of earthen structures we refer to as mounds. Cahokia is home to the largest known mound in North America, Monks Mound. This impressive earthen structure covers around 15 acres and stands at about 100 feet in height.
Though the site of the Cahokia Mounds is perhaps the most impressive due to their size and multiplicity, similar structures are found throughout the land where the Mississippian culture flourished. Right here in Fort Walton Beach, just a short distance from Crab Island Watersports, is home to such a structure – the Fort Walton Temple Mound, also known as the Indian Temple Mound. According to the manager of the Indian Temple Mound Museum, Gail Lynn Meyer, this 1000-year old structure was actually the heart of a collection of mounds, most of which have sadly been destroyed. These days, to avoid looting, many mound sites in Fort Walton Beach aren’t disclosed to the public. Nonetheless, it can’t be denied that the Native American history in Northwest Florida runs deep.
But what was the purpose of these earthen structures, you may wonder. Archaeologists believe these mounds served different purposes and have divided them into categories based on their shape. There are generally three types of mound constructions – ridge top, round top and flat top mounds. Ridge top mounds are believed to have been directional and used to mark an area. Round top mounds were for burials, where flat tops were built to hold some type of construction or building on top. It is believed that mounds were used for everything, from practical and political to religious purposes. Much mystery still surrounds these fascinating millenia-old structures, but thankfully, interest in the history of Native Americans in Florida and beyond seems to grow each day. We still have so much to learn about this ancient culture, who they were and how they lived.
If you’ve enjoyed learning a little about the Native American history of the Fort Walton and Destin area, you will love a visit to the Indian Temple Mound Museum, which houses one of the top collections of ancient ceramics in the Southeastern US. The museum portrays 12,000 years of Native American history and has hundreds of artifacts on display. It is a must see for anyone interested in the Native American history of Florida’s northwest region, or any American history lover in general!
The Indian Temple Mound Museum
Address: 139 Miracle Strip Parkway SE | Fort Walton Beach, Florida