Three major Native American tribes called the Red River Valley of the Southwest home long before Europeans staked their claims. The Comanches lived along the western most reaches – their primary economy consisted of hunting and the horse trade (some would say horse taking, or theft). The Comanches, who stemmed from the northern plains but worked their way down into the southern prairies, built an empire at the same time the Spanish, French, and English built theirs, and became formidable enemies of the Texans (both American and Mexican).
The Wichitas inhabited the Cross Timbers region of the middle section of the river. Their domain reached from central Texas all the way to southern Kansas, with large cities and small villages, multiple languages, and an economy based on both agriculture and bison hunting, and later, French trade – they didn’t interact much with the Spanish except to raid them every once in a while.
I’ll write about those tribes soon in much more detail on Red River Historian. This blog post in particular focuses on the people of the lower portions of the Red River Valley, where the water flowed wider and deeper. Here, the Caddos lived. Some historians label their government as a “confederacy,” tightly knitted in kinship but loosely tied in mutual alliances. Like the Wichitas, theirs was a well-developed society of the Mississippian people, with large villages and a well-developed social class system. Unlike the Wichtias, however, archeologists have documented their society in much more detail than the other two Red River Valley tribes.
This photograph from the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory depicts crews employed by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), who in 1938 excavated a Caddoan ceremonial mound that may have been the first mound depicted by Europeans (via the Teran del Rio expedition, 1691).
The mound was a major site (religious, commercial) for the Nasonis, a powerful tribe of the Caddo confederacy. Throughout the years, archeological excavations of this site uncovered almost 100 burials, large circular structures, and plenty of whole pottery pieces that indicate ceremonial burials. Carbon dating and historical records from the Spanish and French indicate that the site was occupied from 1200 to the 18th century. By the early 19th century, the Caddos had been pushed west by American settlers until ultimately, they found a new home in central Oklahoma.
The site is on private property, and I’m unsure of the exact location. I did some aerial survey using Google Maps, and believe I found mound remnants. In any case, it’s in northern Bowie County, Texas, northwest of Texarkana.
This vessel, found at a Nasoni (Caddoan) settlement in Bowie County (Texas) by archeologists T. Perttula, B. Nelson, R. Cast and B. Gonzalez (principle investigators), was made by the Tunica tribe that lived near today’s Natchez (MS). Other items found in the dig included glass trade beads, most likely traded with the French, that were predominantly blue in color. The dig occurred over several years, but its findings were published in 2010 – making me conclude that there is a lot of history yet to be found along the Red River.
These frog effigies bowls were found in Lafayette County in southwestern Arkansas by AC Looney in 1962 and are now housed at the Arkansas Historical Commission (where the photo comes from). They were most likely from the Kadahadacho tribe, which resided on the east side of the river across from the Nasonites. The bowls aren’t very elaborate, but they’re whole – it seems they may have been used for ceremonies, but most likely in a household, not in a communal setting.
There haven’t been many newer archeological digs along the Red River in recent years, and economic activities (pipe line building, for example) is damaging a lot of the potential sites.
One of the reasons for the lack of exploration in the lower Red River Valley in recent years is that farms have occupied some major sites – for example, the 1,000 year old Belcher Mounds site in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. One of the mounds can be seen in this photograph. Because the site is on private property, one can surmise that it is being preserved. A danger can be that the site is mined for artifact collections (specifically, arrowhead). If you collect arrowheads, please make sure to document the location (co-ordinates, photographs, and journal) to help provide context!