Protohistoric Period

The protohistoric period in southeastern North America is defined by less than a two-hundred-year span from the beginning of European contact in the early sixteenth century to the beginning of European colonization at the end of the seventeenth. This period can be divided into three subperiods: the early protohistoric (1513–43), the middle protohistoric (1543–1682), and the late protohistoric (1682–1700). This period was one of upheaval for American Indian tribal groups across the Southeast as a consequence of European contact through warfare, trade, and disease. Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and influenza may have reduced Indian populations by as much as 80 percent by the end of the protohistoric period.

The main sources of evidence about the protohistoric period are ethnohistoric accounts by Spanish, French, and British explorers, traders, and missionaries as well as archaeological remains. Both lines of evidence about this tumultuous period document patterns of depopulation, migration, and settlement shifts. While the European accounts from the protohistoric period represent the first documentary evidence for the immediate ancestors of many of the historically known Indian tribes of Mississippi, they provide only brief glimpses of native lifeways. The material remains from this period likewise provide limited evidence about lifeways.

As documented in the ethnohistoric accounts, the first subperiod is characterized by the first contact of Indian tribes with Europeans when Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors entered Mississippi in 1540. His chroniclers described town locations, town layouts, and political relationships between towns and villages. According to these accounts, some Indian populations were organized into large territorial chiefdoms led by paramount chiefs residing on top of earthen platform mounds in large walled towns, with lesser tribute-paying chiefs residing in smaller mound and nonmound towns and villages. In contrast, other Indian populations were significantly less centralized and lived in small, dispersed autonomous villages. Population estimates range from the thousands for the large chiefdoms to only a few hundred for the smaller tribes. Most tribal groups shared in a mixed maize-bean-squash horticulture coupled with nut gathering, hunting of riverine-forest-adapted game, and fishing in the area’s rivers, streams, and oxbow lakes. The Spanish accounts mention only four town names that correspond to historic tribal groups in Mississippi: Chicasa (Chickasaw), Sacchuma (Chakchiuma), Alibamo (Alabama), and Quizquiz (Tunica).

Although no written accounts exist for the 140-year span of the middle protohistoric period, we know from the late protohistoric accounts that this era witnessed massive regional depopulation, site abandonment, and a continuation of the decentralization that had begun in the early protohistoric period. In 1670 the British colony of Carolina was founded, and trade in human slaves led the Chickasaw to become notorious slave raiders of their enemy tribes for profit. Smaller, less-powerful tribes were victims of the new economic climate fostered by the British and their Indian allies.

The late protohistoric period began with the French exploration of the Mississippi River Valley under the guidance of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and his lieutenant, Henri de Tonti. By this time, mound construction had ceased and only the Natchez (southwestern Mississippi) and Taensa (northeastern Louisiana) were recorded as still participating in ceremonies on top of the mounds. In addition to those tribes mentioned in the de Soto chronicles, smaller autonomous tribes enter the record toward the end of the protohistoric period. The French accounts provide brief descriptions for the Muskhogean-speaking Pascagoula, Acolapissa, Houma, and Ibitoupa. Two Siouan-speaking tribes, the Ofo and the Biloxi, are recorded in their dealings with the French. By 1700 the Tunica no longer were located in northwestern Mississippi, where they had encountered de Soto, but instead had moved into the lower Yazoo Basin near other smaller Tunican-speaking tribes, the Koroa, Tiou, and Yazoo.

Using radiocarbon dating and ceramic analysis, archaeological excavations in Mississippi have identified several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century protohistoric Chickasaw sites located just west of the Tombigbee River in the Black Prairie physiographic region of northeastern Mississippi. These sites correspond to the general location of de Soto’s first entry point into Mississippi. The protohistoric settlement pattern is distinctive in that settlements are rarely associated with mounds. Rather, they are dispersed on thin upland prairie soils on bluffs overlooking small streams. Most of these sites have no earlier late prehistoric occupation, suggesting a recent population shift to the upland prairie that was part of a political decentralization that began before de Soto.

By contrast, de Soto likely encountered the ancestors of the Choctaw tribe, which still has a major presence in east-central Mississippi and western Alabama. The distinctive decorated combed pottery identifying their settlements does not appear in Mississippi until the early historic period. Archaeologists have identified de Soto’s named province of Quizquiz in northwestern Mississippi as ancestral to the Tunica tribe. Protohistoric period sites in this region contain distinctive Tunica ceramic styles. To the south, the chiefly province de Soto’s chroniclers called Quigualtam is believed to have been located in the lower Yazoo Basin, perhaps with its paramount town at the Holly Bluff mound center near Vicksburg. Further to the south in the Natchez Bluffs region, the Emerald Mound site, the third-largest earthen mound in North America, appears to represent the paramount center for the protohistoric ancestors of the Natchez. Some scholars have suggested that the protohistoric Natchez may have been part of the Quigualtam chiefdom and participated in the pursuit of de Soto’s army down the Mississippi River in 1543.

Shortly after La Salle and Tonti’s explorations, the historic period began in Mississippi with the establishment of the French colony of Biloxi in 1699. The historic period is characterized by prolonged and sustained contact between Indian and European populations, resulting in far more detailed descriptions of American Indian lifeways.

Further Reading

  • Raymond Fogelson and William Sturtevant, eds., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 14, Southeast (2004)
  • Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1997)
  • Bonnie G. McEwan, ed., Indians of the Greater Southeast: Historical Archaeology and Ethnohistory (2000)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Protohistoric Period
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date February 25, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018