The original homelands of the Caddos, as recorded in the earliest documented histories, consist of the Red River Valley from southeastern Oklahoma to Natchitoches, Louisiana. The territory included the Great Bend of the Red River in Arkansas, the Sabine and Sulphur Rivers in today's Texas, and the Kiamichi and Blue Rivers in today's Oklahoma.
The Caddos' geography will be different, of course. I am simply going by the historical record, which is colonial and doesn't reflect all truths.
Caddoans stem from the Hopewell/ Mississippian Cultures of the ceremonial complex period. The Hopwell Culture lived along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and built massive fortified cities with earthen pyramid mounds. Through trade, religion, manufacturing, and traditions, these cities influenced, the people living along the tributaries of these major rivers. In Louisiana, the Marksville Culture was a part of the Hopewell Culture - prominent sites like the Marksville Complex and Poverty Point Complex were the ancestral homes for the Caddos. Spiro (near Heavener, Oklahoma) along the Arkansas River and Belcher (near Belcher, Louisiana) on the Red River were major cities for the Caddoans before de-centralization occurred. De-centralization refers to the period when many Native American tribes separated from the bigger civilizations to live individually in clan-centric villages. There is currently no consensus on why the people, like the Caddos, de-centralized.
One of the most important pre-historic sites in the U.S., Spiro has been plundered by grave thieves but its burial mounds still offer an incredible window into the lives of native Americans before de-centralization: underground burial preparation chambers, trade goods that ranged from the Caribbean and Mexico and Canada, copper and bronze decorative plating, baskets of pearls, and pottery and totems from around North America.
After de-centralization in the 13th and 14th centuries, power rested within villages comprised of familial clans. They still maintained their traditions, such as mound burials, but these were no longer inside the cities but concentrated within their villages.
The Caddo homelands featured mainly pine forests punctuated by open prairies. They were an agricultural people who relied on the Red River for irrigating their corn, squash, and bean crops, which they planted surrounding their familial mound compounds along the river. Deer, bear, turkey, turtles, and the occasional bison constituted their main sources of meat. Oddly, fish was not a staple in their diets, even though they lived in a well-watered region.
Their culture was matrilineal —all families traced through the mother's line —but for the most part, their leadership was male. Each village had a Xinsei, a revered religious man and keeper of the fire, and this role was handed down through family lines. The village leader was called the Caddi, and a small but powerful noble class made up the rest of the village councils. Men's work was mainly warfare, hunting, bow making, and trading expeditions; older men who could no longer participate in these activities may have held advisory roles or worked alongside the women. Women could also occupy leadership and advisory roles, and a number of European chroniclers mentioned female Caddi. Women of child-bearing age organized village life in the form of building houses, rearing children, and manufacturing export trade items, including tanned hides, pottery and tools. The women held a lot of power inside their families. They were responsible for all points of food production including the dissemination of foods. They also manufactured trade items, conducted trade and practiced religious rituals, such as burial traditions. Women also participated in warfare as the "second line:" they meted out torture and punishments to captives.
Many villages that the Spanish and French documented begin with "Na" = Natchitoches, Nasoni, Nacadogches. This is not a sound from the Caddo language but refers to their salt production. The Caddos were employed in recovering and preparing salt from lagoons and creeks surrounding the Red River for trade with other nations, and the "Na" designation refers to the latin word for salt, "natron."
The Caddos were also known as bow makers, and other nations came from many distances to trade for their bows, which were made from Bois d'Arc wood. The French named the tree after its use; the tree is also known as Osage Orange. Bois d'Arc is a hardwood that predominantly grows in the Cross Timbers along the Red, Canadian, and Arkansas rivers.
Women manufactured bowls, beads, and other vessels from the Red River clay. The bowls tended to be simply decorated and were more useful than decorative, but the beads were colorful. The crown jewel of their trade, however, were deer hides. Caddo women (and their slaves) became expert tanners who could make suede and produce a leather "as soft as cotton."
The Caddoans didn't practice any rites that are associated with patriarchal cultures, such as wedding ceremonies. The nobility held arranged marriages, but average men and women were free to choose the partner they desired, and free to leave them, too. Marriage was not considered binding because the children, inherently, belonged to the mother. European observers would use their own bias to determine that Indian women were thus loose on morals, much to the detriment of women held captive by the Caddos. When the French began trading guns with Caddo men, captive women were trafficked as trading commodities.
Like their distant cousins, the Wichitas, the people of the Caddoan language tribes tattooed their bodies by rubbing charcoals into the decorative gashes carved into their skins. Both men and women engaged in this beautification practice; they also exhibited piercings through their septum. Men's hair styles consisted of a modified "mohawk," whereas women's hair was long, parted in the center, and tied at the nape.
The tribes affiliated with the Caddo language are often labeled as a "confederation." Scholars have identified three confederations of people who had the Caddo language in common: the Kaddahadacho along the Great Bend Region of the Red River; the Hasinais between the Sabine and the Trinity rivers; and the Natchitoches along the Red River in central Louisiana. Every once in a while, these kinship groups held multi-tribal councils on important issues that affected their well-being, not unlike the Iroquois in the Great Lakes region. This points to the apt term "confederacy" in that the villages acted independently to a point, but found common ground in larger issues. For example, Caddoan villages tended to not conduct warfare against each other but led concerted efforts against the invading Osages and went on trading expeditions together.
Europeans Invade and Trade
While the Spanish were the first Europeans to record interactions with the Caddos, it was the French that upended Caddoan culture profoundly. Henri Joutel, who led an expedition to the Kaddahadacho on the Red River after Sieur de la Salle was killed, noted that the women held the primary trading power in the villages. Joutel had brought with him a number of glass beads to trade for food; these glass beads became prized by the Caddos, who used them to decorate their dresses —the more elaborate and intricate the design, the more the dress communicated the power the woman and her family wielded. The Caddos were especially fond of blue trade beads.
However, upon establishing the gun trade with the French (the Spanish outlawed gun trade with tribes), trading power shifted to the Caddo men, who also traded furs and hides for commercial rather than locally-made products. This meant that the pottery for which the Caddos were known became a relic of their past in exchange for European-made goods. The trade with the French helped the Caddos to flourish relatively well in the early European period. They continued their traditional practices of mound burials while also establishing trade in French posts at Natchitoches and along the middle Red River at the Nasonite village (Great Bend region or in today's Bowie County, Texas). At the same time, the Spanish built a counterpoint to the Natchitoches village at the Adaes village in 1716. When the Spanish took over control of Louisiana Territory in 1763, the Caddos rebelled; they had recognized that the Spanish forced Indians to remain inside the missions to be put to work as slave labor in agriculture and silver mining. Instead of asserting war, the Spanish sent French envoys, such as Athanase de Mezieres, to seek amenity with the Caddos as well as the Wichitas. The Spanish gave away presents and other tokens to the tribe; this helped to keep the Red River Valley a relatively peaceful place for the time being.
Americans want the Land
When the Americans bought Louisiana in 1803, the Caddos did not initially react with hostility. By this period, tribal populations had been decimated by disease and warfare with the Osages, and they had consolidated into small, scattered villages. This consolidation included people from areas east of the Mississippi River whom the Americans were pushing out, such as the Coushattas —they lived with the Caddos in a village above Natchitoches.
Dehahuit, the Chief of the Natchitoches (and considered the Chief of all of the Caddos by the U.S. government) attempted to forge good relationships by providing guides to the Peter Custis and Thomas Freeman in 1806, when they were charged by Thomas Jefferson to explore the Red River. The Sulphur River Indian Factory, frequented by Indian Agent Dr. John Sibley, was established at the confluence of the Sulphur and Red rivers (today, southwestern Arkansas) to further negotiate peaceful relationships, and Fort Claiborne in Natchitoches, established in 1804, became a gathering point. Though the Caddos had been somewhat placated by grand speeches made by Americans and presents given to them, they also recognized that the influx of settlers to the newly acquired territory was squeezing them out of their own homelands. To avoid war and frontier massacres, the U.S. established Fort Jesup in 1822 and Fort Towson in 1824 — but American settlers, Osages, and tribes that had been pushed out of their own homelands crowded the Red River Valley.
The U.S. urged Caddo removal. Population loss, warfare, and Anglo hostility against Indians convinced the Caddo tribe to do just that. In 1835, the Caddo tribe decided to sell their remaining land to the United States. Mexico enticed them with land grants in Mexican Texas, as it had done with the Cherokees, Shawnees, and Delawares. Because the government realized that the Indians could not pay the fees for the land grants, letters written by envoys suggest that the tribes act as "colonists." This meant that the Mexican land grants were predicated on the idea that the Caddos would be "buffers” between the Anglo Americans, who had been illegally claiming to Mexican lands in northeastern Texas, and the Mexican army. Therefore, all land designated for tribes by Mexico was disputed territory. The land promised to the Caddos lay between the Red and Sabine Rivers. White settlers in Louisiana claimed that this land was theirs. After re-surveys, the Supreme Court held the same view, and the Caddos were expelled. Some members of the tribe found homes along the Great Raft. Others still lived in Texas, but once Texas became a Republic, its government requested that the U.S. prohibit the Caddos from moving to Texas.
Texans believed Caddos were agents for the Mexicans and accused them of committing depredations. Under President Mirabeau Lamar, the Republic waged a war of extermination on the Caddos who lived in Texas, even burning their villages. Texas did not honor any lands claimed by Indians at all except to the Coushattas from Alabama, who had been able to pay their grant fees, held title, and sued to keep their lands near the Big Thicket in Deep East Texas.
Between 1836 and 1844, the Caddos, now homeless and stateless, lived in small pockets along the Red River and endured raids from white settlements, and in return retaliated. "Peace" with the Texans finally came at the Treaty of Bird's Fort in 1844, championed by President Sam Houston, but this peace did not last long. In 1845, Texas became a state in the United States, and the U.S. re-negotiated the treaty to place the Caddos and Wichita tribes in a reservation near Fort Belknap in Young County in 1854. Surrounding the Brazos Indian Reservation were a number of Indian-hating white men, who waged war under false pretenses against the tribes. Ultimately, the United States dissolved the reservation, and the few hundred Caddoans who remained re-settled at Fort Cobb near Anadarko, Indian Territory with their Wichita cousins.
Today, the Caddos are organized as a nation, with their headquarters located in Binger, Oklahoma. Their new homeland is very different from their ancestral territory: a windswept prairie west of Oklahoma City and not along or near any major river. Here, they maintain their language and cultural practices and have increased their census numbers, but it is still a very small tribe compared to their numbers before European invasion. Their rich history and legacy, and the abuses they suffered, are reminders to pay heed (and reparations!) to the forebears of the Red River Valley.