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Pre-contact distribution of Natchez peoples
The Natchez are a Native American people who originally lived in the Natchez Bluffs area, near the present-day city of Natchez, Mississippimarker. Around 1730, after several wars with the Frenchmarker, the Natchez were defeated and dispersed. Most survivors were sold by the French into slavery in the West Indies; others took refuge with other tribes such as the Chickasaw, Creek and Cherokee. Today, most Natchez families and communities are found in Oklahomamarker, mainly within the Cherokee and Creek nations.

The Natchez are noted for having maintained a Mississippian culture with complex chiefdom characteristics long after the European colonization of America began. They are also noted for having had an unusual social system of nobility classes and exogamous marriage practices, although ethnologists do not agree on exactly how the Natchez social system originally functioned. The topic is somewhat controversial.



A photo of Emerald Mound

The prehistoric Natchez were part of what archaeologists call the Plaquemine culture, part of the larger Mississippian culture, noted for platform mound architecture and intensive cultivation of maize. Archaeological evidence indicates that the prehistoric Plaquemine culture, an elaboration of the Coles Creek culture, had lived in the Natchez Bluffs region since at least as long ago as 700 AD. The Natchez Bluffs are located along the east side of the Mississippi River in present-day Mississippimarker. During the late prehistoric era, around 1500, Plaquemine culture/Natchez territory extended from about the Homochitto River in the south to the Big Black River in the north.

By 1700, Natchez territory had decreased to the area roughly between St. Catherines Creek in the south to Fairchilds Creek and South Fork Coles Creek in the north. This area is approximately that of the northern half of present-day Adams County, Mississippimarker.

The Natchez built many platform mounds, including Emerald Moundmarker, the second largest precolumbian structure in North America north of Mexico. Emerald Mound was an important ceremonial center but was abandoned during the 17th century as the center of power shifted to the Grand Village of the Natchezmarker. The Grand Village has three platform mounds.


The earliest European account of the Natchez comes from the Spanish expedition of Hernando de Soto. In 1542 de Soto's expedition encountered a powerful nation they called the "province of Quigualtam", an Emerald-phase precursor of the historically known Natchez chiefdom. The encounter was brief and violent, and the Spanish barely escaped with their lives. There was no further European contact with the Natchez for more than 140 years.

French contact era

The French explored the lower Mississippi River in the late 17th century. Initial French-Natchez encounters were mixed. In 1682 René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle led an expedition down the Mississippi River. The Natchez received the party well, but when the French returned upriver they were met by a hostile force of about 1,500 Natchez warriors and hurried away. By the time of the next French visit, in the 1690s, the Natchez were welcoming and friendly once again. And when Iberville visited the Natchez in 1700, he was given a three-day-long calumet peace ceremony and feast.

French missionaries from Canada began to settle among the Natchez in 1698. On the coast of the Gulf of Mexicomarker, the French established Biloximarker in 1699 and Mobilemarker in 1702. Early French Louisiana was governed by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and his brother Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, among others. Both brothers played a major role in French-Natchez relations.

During the early 18th century, according to French sources, the Natchez lived in six to nine village districts with a population, estimated by the French, of 4,000-6,000 people, and with the ability to muster 1,500 warriors. There were three village districts in the lower St. Catherines Creek area, called Tioux, Flour, and the Grand Village of the Natchez. Three other villages districts were located to the northeast, along upper St. Catherines Creek and Fairchilds Creek, called White Apple (or White Earth), Grigra, and Jenzenaque (or Hickories).

The Natchez chiefs were called Suns, and the paramount chief was called the Great Sun (Natchez: uwahšiL li∙kip). When the French arrived, the Natchez were ruled by the Great Sun and his brother, the Tattooed Serpent. The Great Sun had supreme authority over civil affairs, and the Tattooed Serpent oversaw political issues of war and peace and diplomacy with other nations. Both lived at the Grand Village of the Natchez. Lesser chiefs, mostly from the Sun royal family, presided at other Natchez villages.

The Natchez performed ritual human sacrifice upon the death of a Sun. When a male Sun died, his wives were expected to accompany him by performing ritual suicide. Great honor was associated with such sacrifice, and sometimes many Natchez chose to follow a Sun into death. For example, at the death of the Tattooed Serpent in 1725, two of his wives, one of his sisters (nicknamed La Glorieuse by the French), his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant's wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs all chose to die with him.

Infants were sometimes sacrificed by their mothers, an act which conferred honor and special status to the mother. Relatives of people sacrificed were likewise honored and rose in status. The practice of ritual suicide and infanticide upon the death of a chief existed among other Native Americans living along the lower Mississippi River, such as the Taensa.

During the 18th century, there was a power struggle between English and French colonies in the American southeast. The English colony of South Carolinamarker had established a large trading network among the southeastern Native Americans. By 1700 it stretched west as far as the Mississippi River. The Chickasaw Indians, who lived north of the Natchez, were regularly visited by English traders and were well supplied with English trade goods. The most lucrative trade with the English involved Indian slaves. For decades the Chickasaw conducted slave raids over a wide region. Chickasaw raiders were often joined by Natchez and Yazoo warriors. These slave raids could range over great distances. For example, in 1713 a party of Chickasaw, Natchez, and Yazoo raiders attacked the Chaoüachas living near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The grand chief of the Chaoüachas was killed; his wife and ten others were carried off as slaves to be sold to the English.

English traders in the southeast had been operating for decades before the French arrived, but the French rapidly developed a rival trading network. Most Indian groups sought trade with as many Europeans as possible, encouraging competition and price reductions. Many tribes developed internal pro-English and pro-French factions. The Natchez appear to have become factionalized in this manner. By the 1710s the Natchez had a steady trade with the French and at least some contact with English traders.

The pro-French faction was led by the Grand Village of the Natchez and included the villages of Flour and Tioux. These villages were in the southwestern part of Natchez territory near the Mississippi River and French contact. The pro-English faction's villages lay to the northeast, farther from the Mississippi River, and closer to the Chickasaw and English contact. The pro-English villages included White Apple, Jenzenaque, and Grigra. The Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent leaders lived in the Grand Village of the Natchez and were generally friendly toward the French. When violence broke out between the Natchez and the French, the village of White Apple was usually the main source of hostility.

The French regularly described the Natchez as ruled with absolute, even despotic authority by the Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent. But the existence of two opposed factions was also well known and documented. The Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent repeatedly pointed out their difficulty in controlling the hostile Natchez. It is likely that the White Apple faction functioned at least semi-independently. Whatever power the Great Sun and Tattooed Serpent did have over outlying villages was reduced in the late 1720s when both died. They were succeeded by relatively young, inexperienced leaders. And while the new Great Sun was technically the paramount chief of the Natchez, the chief of White Apple became the eldest Sun chief and had more political clout than the Great Sun. The French, however, held the Great Sun liable for the conduct of all Natchez villages and insisted on dealing with the Natchez as a unified nation ruled from its capital, the Grand Village of the Natchez.

During the 1710s and 1720s, French presence and settlement in Natchez territory increased from a handful of traders and missionaries to nearly 1,000 settlers (mostly French colonists and African slaves), several large tobacco plantations, and the military post of Fort Rosalie. At first the Natchez welcomed the French settlers and assigned land grants.

Conflicts with the French

In the 1710s and 1720s there were four outbreaks of war between the French and the Natchez. The French called these the First Natchez War (1716), the Second Natchez War (1722), the Third Natchez War (1723), and the Natchez Rebellion of 1729. The last of these was the largest and led to the demise of the French settlements in Natchez territory as well as most of the Natchez people themselves. Overshadowing the first three in scale and importance, the 1729 rebellion is sometimes simply called the Natchez War. All four conflicts involved the two opposing factions within the Natchez nation. The Great Sun's faction was genereally friendly toward the French. Violence usually began in or was triggered by events in the village of White Apple, while in all but the last war peace was regained largely due to the efforts of Tattoed Serpent of the Grand Village of the Natchez.

The First Natchez War of 1716 was precipitated by the murder of four French traders by Natchez raiders from White Apple. Bienville, seeking to resolve the conflict, called a meeting of Natchez chiefs at the Grand Village of the Natchez. The assembled chiefs proclaimed their innocence and implicated the war chiefs of White Apple. The Choctaw assisted the French in fighting the 1716 Natchez War. After the 1716 Natchez War the French built Fort Rosalie near the Grand Village of the Natchez. The present-day city of Natchez, Mississippimarker dates its founding to the 1716 establishment of Fort Rosalie.

War broke out again in 1722 and 1723. Called the Second and Third Natchez wars by the French, they were essentially two phases of a single conflict. It began in the village of White Apple, where an argument over a debt resulted in the death of one of the Natchez villagers at the hands of a French trader. The French commander of Fort Rosalie merely reprimanded the murderer. Natchez warriors of White Apple, unsatisfied, responded by attacking nearby French settlements. Tattooed Serpent's diplomatic efforts helped restore peace. But within a year a French army under Bienville entered Natchez territory, intent on punishing White Apple. Bienville demanded the surrender of a White Apple chief as recompense for the earlier Natchez attacks. Under pressure from the French and other Natchez villages, White Apple turned the chief over to the French.

Natchez Rebellion of 1729

In November of 1729 the French commander Sieur de Chépart ordered the Natchez to vacate the village of White Apple so that he could use its land for a new tobacco plantation. This turned out to be the last affront the Natchez were willing to take peacefully. The chiefs of White Apple sent emissaries to potential allies, including the Yazoo, Koroa, Illinois, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. They also sent messages to the African slaves of nearby French plantations, inviting them to join the Natchez in rising up against the French.

On November 28 1729, the Natchez attacked. Before the day was over, the entire French colony at Natchez was wiped out, including Fort Rosalie. Over 200 colonists, mostly French men, were killed and over 300 women, children, and slaves were taken captive.

In January of 1730 the French attempted to besiege the main fort of the Natchez but were driven off. Two days later a force of about 500 Choctaw attacked and captured the fort, killed at least 100 Natchez, and recovered about 50 French captives and 50-100 African slaves. French leaders were delighted, then surprised when the Choctaw demanded ransoms for the captives.

War continued until January of 1731, when the French captured a Natchez fort on the west side of the Mississippi River. Between 75 and 250 Natchez warriors escaped and found refuge among the Chickasaw. The young Great Sun and about 100 of his followers were captured, subsequently enslaved, and shipped to work French plantations in the Caribbeanmarker.

The Natchez Rebellion expanded into a larger regional conflict with many repercussions. The Yazoo and Koroa Indians allied with the Natchez and suffered the same fate. The Tunica were initially reluctant to fight on either side. In the summer of 1730 a large group of Natchez requested refuge with the Tunica, which was given. The Natchez turned on their hosts during the night, killing 20 and plundering the town. After this the Tunica launched attacks against Natchez refugees throughout the 1730s and into the 1740s.

The Chickasaw tried to remain relatively neutral, but when groups of Natchez began seeking refuge in 1730, the Chickasaw decided to side with them against the French. By 1731 the Chickasaw had accepted many refugees. When in 1731 the French demanded the surrender of Natchez living among them, the Chickasaw firmly refused. French-Chickasaw relations rapidly deteriorated, resulted in the Chickasaw Wars. Some of the Natchez warriors who had found refuge among the Chickasaw joined them in fighting the French. The Natchez Wars and the Chickasaw Wars were in part attempts by the French to gain free passage along the Mississippi River. During the 1736 campaign against the Chickasaw, the French demanded once again that the Natchez among them be turned over. The Chickasaw, compromising, turned over several Natchez, along with some French prisoners of war.

During the 1730s and 1740s, as the French-Natchez conflict developed into a French-Chickasaw war, the Choctaw fell into internal discord. The rift between pro-French and pro-English factions within the Choctaw nation reached the point of violence and civil war.

Another result of the Natchez War involved Louisiana's Africans, both slave and free. The Natchez had encouraged African slaves to join them in rebellion. Most did not, but some did. In January of 1730 a group of African slaves fought off a Choctaw attack, giving the Natchez time to regroup in their forts. More slaves fought for the French however, as did some free blacks or people of color (gens de couleur libres). One of the results of the Natchez War was that free blacks had permanent participation in Louisiana's militias, which gave them more connections into the colonial society.

Natchez after 1730

After the war of 1729-1731 Natchez society was in flux and the people scattered. Most survivors eventually settled among the Creek (Muscogee), Chickasaw, or with English colonists. Most of the latter two Natchez groups ended up with the Cherokee due to subsequent conflicts.

The Cherokee Natchez settled mostly along the Hiwassee Rivermarker. The main Natchez town, dating to about 1755, was located near present-day Murphy, North Carolinamarker. Around 1740 a group of Natchez refugees settled along a creek near the confluence of the Tellico Rivermarker and the Little Tennessee Rivermarker. The creek became known as Notchy Creek after the Natchez. The settlement was called Natchey Town or Natsi-yi (Cherokee for "Natchez Place"). It was the birthplace of the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe, whose mother was Natchez. In later years Dragging Canoe's Cherokee father, Attacullaculla, lived in Natchey Town. Most of the Natchez living with the Cherokee accompanied them on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. A few remained in North Carolina with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Natchez who lived among the Upper Creeks fled after the Red Stick War ended in 1814, taking refuge with the Cherokee.

Natchez today

The current leadership of the Natchez Nation consists of a Peace Chief (called the "Great Sun"), a War Chief and four primary Clan Mothers. Other Natchez Sun leaders have included K.T. "Hutke" Fields (Principal Peace Chief / Great Sun, 1996), Eliza Sumpka (Primary Clan Mother), William Harjo LoneFight, Robert M. Riviera (Principal War Chief, 1997), Watt Sam, Archie Sam, White Tobacco Sam and others.


The Natchez language is a language isolate. Its two last fluent speakers were Watt Sam and Nancy Raven. Mary Haas studied the language with Sam and Raven in the 1930s, and posited that Natchez was distantly related to the Muskogean languages. She also proposed grouping Natchez with the Atakapa, Chitimacha, and Tunica languages in a language family called Gulf. Neither of these theories are widely accepted by linguists today, although the Gulf proposal has not been entirely rejected. A modern sketch of the Natchez language, written by Geoffrey Kimball and based on Haas's notes, was published in 2005.

Descent system

The Natchez are noted for having an unusual social system of noble classes and exogamous marriage. Members of the highest ranking class, called Suns, are thought to have been required to marry only members of the lowest commoner class, called Stinkards or commoners. The Natchez descent system has received a great deal of attention. There is ongoing debate about exactly how the system functioned before the 1730 diaspora. The topic is somewhat controversial.

Primary source documentation on the pre-1730 Natchez kinship and descent system come from a relatively small number of French colonists who recorded information about Natchez social life between about 1700 and 1730. The French accounts are somewhat fragmentary and ambiguous but provide the only historic documents of Natchez society before 1730. There are also Natchez oral traditions. The first modern ethnographic study was done by John R. Swanton in 1911. Swanton's interpretations and conclusions are still generally accepted and widely cited, but later researchers have addressed various problems with Swanton's interpretation. Some researchers have proposed modifications of Swanton's model, while others have rejected most of it.

In Swanton's interpretation, social status among the Natchez was divided into two major categories, commoners and nobility. The nobility was further divided into three classes (or castes) called Suns, Nobles, and Honored People. Noble exogamy was practiced, meaning that members of the noble classes could only marry commoners. A person's social status and class were determined matrilineally. That is, the children of female Suns, Nobles, or Honoreds kept the status of their mothers. However, the children of male Suns and Nobles did not become commoners as noble exogamy and matrilineal descent would dictate, but rather inherited one class below their fathers. In other words, children of male Suns became Nobles, while children of male Nobles became Honored, according to Swanton.

Many later researchers have focused on the so-called "Natchez Paradox" that Swanton's model is said to engender. The paradox is that if the rules described were followed strictly, over time the commoner class would become depleted, while the lower nobility classes would grow ever larger. Three general changes to Swanton's interpretation have been proposed to address the Natchez Paradox.

First, a type of asymmetrical descent may have been practiced in which only male children of male nobility inherited the social class one step below their fathers, while female children of male nobles inherited their mother's commoner status in matrilineal fashion. Related to this is the idea that the Honored category was not a social class but rather an honorific title given to commoner men and was not hereditary.

Second, the assimilation of foreign people, such as groups of Timucua Indians, could have at least delayed the Natchez Paradox's effects. Researchers who argue for this idea often couple it with the proposal that the Natchez system of noble exogamy in the early 18th century was a relatively recent development in their society. During the relatively chaotic 16th and 17th centuries the Natchez were able to maintain their old social system by adapting it to new conditions, including the assimilation of foreigners as commoners and a new requirement of noble exogamy, according to this argument.

Third, the social classes described by Swanton were not classes or castes, as the terms are generally used in English, but exogamous ranked clans or moieties, with patterns of descent common to most native peoples of the American southeast. Tribes such as the Chickasaw, Creek, Timucua, Caddo, and Apalachee were organized into ranked clans with the requirement that one cannot marry within one's clan. Related to this theory is the idea that Honored status was not a class or a clan, but a title. Sun status, likewise, may not have been a class but rather a term for the royal family itself. If true, Natchez society would have been a moiety of just two groups, commoners and nobles. The requirement of exogamy may have applied to Suns only, rather than the entire nobility. Some researchers argue that the prohibition against Suns marrying Suns was largely a matter of incest taboo. In the early 18th century, all the Suns of a given generation appear to have been related within three degrees of consanguinity (siblings, first cousins, and second cousins). The custom of Suns marrying commoners rather than Nobles may have been a preference rather than a requirement. Finally, while Swanton's interpretation claims that Nobles were also required to marry commons, later researchers have questioned this idea, pointing in particular to a mistranslation of the primary sources and a misreading by Swanton. In other words, it could be that only Suns were required to marry exogamously, and this requirement may have been mainly a result of the taboo against incest.

Lorenz further reinterprets Swanton's model by proposing that the entire system was not based on classes, castes, or clans, but rather degrees of genealogical separation from the ruling Sun matriline. Lorenz's interpretation does not include asymmetrical descent or noble exogamy. Rather, a person was a Sun if he or she was within three degrees of matrilateral separation from the ruling matriline's eldest female Sun (called the "White Woman"). Nobles were those people who were four, five, or six degrees removed from the White Woman, while people seven degrees or more removed were commoners. In this system the male children of male ruling Suns would naturally descent one "class" per generation, and would be required to marry outside the "class" to avoid incest. The only exception being the case of a male child of a male Noble, who acquired the Honored title by birth.

Many researchers agree that the Honored group was not a noble class but rather a title of prestige given to commoner men for acts of valor in war, or to commoner women who sacrificed their babies upon the death of a Sun. In addition, people of Honored status could be promoted to Nobles for merititous deeds.

See also


  1. White, Natchez Class and Rank Reconsidered, p. 369.
  2. Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, p. 143.
  3. See the National Park Service web pages Emerald Mound Site and Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.
  4. Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, pp. 143-144, 149.
  5. DuVal, Interconnectedness and Diversity in French Louisiana.
  6. For an overview of colonial Louisiana and French-Indian relations, see DuVal, Interconnectedness and Diversity in 'French Louisiana'".
  7. Map of historic Natchez village areas in Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, p. 149
  8. Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, pp. 151, 160-161
  9. White, Natchez Class and Rank Reconsidered.
  10. Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade
  11. Galley, The Indian Slave Trade, pp. 296-297.
  12. An overview of the pro-French and pro-English factions, their role in the wars, and the French misunderstandings of Natchez politics can be found in Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, pp. 158-163.
  13. Lawson, p. 7.
  14. Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, pp. 162-163
  15. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, pp. 520-521.
  16. Brown, Old Frontiers, p. 539.
  17. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, pp. 387-388.
  18. Kimball's chapter "Natchez" in Native languages of the Southeastern United States. See also The Native Languages of the Southeastern United States by Nicholas A. Hopkins
  19. See the section titled "Natchez Descent System" in Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi.
  20. White, Natchez Class and Rank Reconsidered, p. 370.
  21. Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, p. 152.
  22. An overview of these three general modifications of Swanton's system can be found in Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, pp. 152-155.
  23. Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, pp. 157-158.
  24. Lorenz, The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi, p. 156.
  25. White, Natchez Class and Rank Reconsidered, p. 370.


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