Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Cropped Ears from Bruised Pride-The Early Law of Adultery among Creek Indians

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Cropped Ears from Bruised Pride-The Early Law of Adultery among Creek Indians

Article excerpt

William Bartram, a naturalist traveling in the Southeastern United States during the eighteenth century, recorded many fascinating observations involving flora and fauna. However, his most gripping narrative involved the birds and the bees. Bartram's friend, "Mr. T_y, trader of Mucclasse," a Creek Indian village in present-day Elmore County, Alabama, landed in a "disagreeable predicament" involving a woman. Bartram returned from a trip to this village to find "a tragical revolution in the family of my friend the trader, his stores shut up, and guarded by a party of Indians . . . . " The trader "had been detected in an amorous intrigue, with the wife of a young chief." The chief returned from a hunt, confirmed the affair, and "with his friends and kindred resolved to exact legal satisfaction . . . . " Satisfaction took die form of "cutting off both ears of the delinquent, close to the head, which is called cropping." The chief "took the most secret and effectual methods to effect [t]his purpose." The "injured husband" and "[a]bout a dozen young Indian fellows" armed themselves "with knotty cudgels of green Hickory, which they concealed under their mandes . . . . " Then, "in the dusk of die evening," they "paid a pretended friendly visit to the trader at his own house." During the visit, die chief "feigning a private matter of business," took the trader aside in the yard. Once aside, the chief gave a signal, whereupon the trader was "instantly surrounded, knocked down, and then stripped to his skin, and beaten" with the "knotty bludgeons" of the chiefs men. Battered, Bartram's friend played dead as the men moved off. Then, as the chief sauntered forward, knife drawn, "with an intention of taking off his ears," Mr. T_y "instantly sprang up, ran off, leaped the fence, and had the good fortune to get to a dark swamp, overgrown with vines and thickets, where he miraculously eluded the earnest researches of his enemies."1

From the perspective of legal and native American history, what is most interesting about this account is neither the fight nor the flight. What fascinates is the nature of the punishment, the beating and disfiguring. These are not historically uncommon punishments for adultery, but they were uncommon for 18th century woodlands Indians.2 Other nearby tribes, with very similar lifeways, punished adultery differently or even not at all. Why was the Creek law of adultery different from that of their neighbors? What can we deduce about the Creeks from the way they punished adulterers? Answering these questions first requires a fuller understanding of Creek culture and law and comparisons with other tribes.

Creek histories, though few in number, do exist and provide insight into Creek culture.3 Prior to the 180Os, the Creek confederation of tribes ranged throughout the Southeast, including much of Georgia and Alabama. Creek myths claimed the tribe originally migrated from the Southwest and were the descendants of the mound-building Mississippian culture that lived in the region centuries before. Approximately twelve tribes comprised the alliance, the largest being the Muskogee. Each tribe had its own customs and languages, but many common customs, a trading language (Muskogean), and an interest in defending their land united them against non-Creeks. Though the Creeks would eventually gain great strength and actually rise above their neighbors to become the most powerful tribe in the region, during the 160Os, Indians in north Georgia fought and displaced the Creeks southward. Since the Creeks later came to concentrate around two Georgia rivers, the Chattahoochee in the north and the Flint in the south, the English referred to the two groups as the Upper and Lower Creeks. The English coined the name "Creek" to describe these natives, whom they first encountered living along Georgia's Ocheese Creek (the Ocumulgee River).

Creeks lived in towns or satellite villages of towns, usually located near rivers, separated by crops and wilderness. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.