William Bartram, “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians” (1789)

This posthumously published questionnaire was written in 1789 by William Bartram in response to another naturalist’s questions about the Southern Indian groups.  It primarily considers the Creeks (Muscogulges).  Bartram found much to admire in Creek society and we can look at his observations for some inspiration for forming communities and social organization.  I tend to be skeptical about efforts to emulate any people, past or present, as a model for the future.  This is not to say that the efforts of ethnographers are irrelevant.  For instance, one can learn about alternative ways of constructing customs regulating sexual behavior by reading Margaret Mead, without directly copying the societies she describes.  What ethnography teaches us is that societies that seem free, egalitarian, or communal tend to construct systems of belief that reinforce these values.  Another concern I have is about idealization of Indian life.  On the one hand, Indian people may have played a role in cultivating images for themselves to satisfy certain political goals.  Even more troubling has been the tendency of white America to thrust onto American Indians whatever positive aspect that they feel they lack, e.g. the ecological Indian lived in harmony with nature while we abuse it, the noble savage lived free and equal while we have been corrupted by “civilization,” Indians are sexually free while we are repressed.  The tendency to idealize an “other” leads to misrepresentations.  But for our purposes, the very act of imagining alternatives (whether they existed in reality or not) is powerful.  Thus, I not concerned if Bartram’s descriptions are accurate but rather propose potential alternative methods of constructing our communities.


The first question considered the origin myths of various Southeastern Indians.  Bartram replies with some shared traditions about migration.  When these mythical migrations took place is vague but the historical arrival of the Spanish is shared among the Indians, as is the arrival of horses.  Nation-states tend to imagine a static origin, rooted in the land and soil.  Are migratory founding myths more suitable to pluralism and liberty?  They certainly do not seem to necessarily bind us to one place or identity.

The second question looked into their historical origins, particularly if they were descended from the Aztecs of Inca.  Bartram rejects this but makes the interesting point that their modern identity was a product of the European arrival.   Another anathema to land and soil-based nationalism.

Next, the questionnaire asked about their writing system.  Bartram discusses the hieroglyphs signs used by these groups.

Fourth, he points out that the Cherokee are the most “civilized” if contrasted with Europeans but that the Muscogulges was the most sophisticated in their religious believes and suggested their monotheism.

Fifth, Bartram uses a question on government to praise their government as “the most simple, natural, and rational that can be imagined or desired.  The same spirit that dictated to Montesquieu the idea of a rational government, seems to superintend and guide the Indians.” (536)  He is particularly interested in the Muscogulge king, which dresses like the “common man”, talks with all members of the community as equals, and shares in the work and hunting.  It it, of course, a model that would be quite foreign to Europeans.  He also points out that the right of resistance is assumed.  Any king who threatens the liberty of the people “must be a very cunning man if the tomahawk or rifle do not cut him short.” (538)  Ah, if only our bosses had to fear that instead of a class-action law suit for stealing our overtime.

The sixth question takes a closer look at their religious beliefs.  He points out the collective nature of worship and their belief in a soul and punishment or reward in an afterlife.  Dreams can predict the future and inform their actions.

The next question asked for a physical description of the Southeastern Indians.

With the eighth question we start to get to some more interesting themes, Social relations.  Coming from Europe, anything that was not a brutal patriarchy must have been deemed a paradise for women.  Bartram here describes a state of relative equality between men and women and a lack of violence.  He also discusses the memory among some people of past “Semiramis, Zenobia, and Cleopatra.”

As to the tradition of a “Chunky-Yard” among the Cherokee, Bartram expresses doubts that these were used but in the deep past.  These were the “slave posts” that held captives before they were burned and tortured to death.  At best they were a memorial to previous tyrannies. I suspect that this is more fear-mongering among whites who slandered successful alternative communities.  The chucky-Yard was actually the center of their public space.

Question ten explores land and property ownership.  First, labor was the origin of ownership.  This is an important concept for us.  It was promoted by Locke and is still the best economic critique of capitalism, it seems to me.  A few people have become rich through trade with whites.  Agriculture and land are more collectively owned and operated, but small private vegetable gardens are commonly held  near homes.  “Now, although it appears that these people enjoy all the advantages of freedom and private property, and have laws, usages, and customs, which secure each one of his rights according to reason, justice, and equality, the whole tribe seems as one family or community, and, in fact, all their possessions are in common.”  (552)  A description of their gift economy follows.  Bartram’s description of this natural mixture of the commons and individual labor and property is useful, particularly for fools who think that the defense of the commons requires the ending of individual liberty or property.

The final three questions examine their medicine, food, and fossil remains.

In a final postscript, Bartram describes the construction of Creek communities.  It seems that these communities were planned around public space.  Private dwellings are the afterthought.  This is the exact opposite of how settlements are planned in our time, with the private dwelling established first and public space fit it later, if at all.  Having lived for some time in South Florida, I can speak to the horror of communities without public space.




5 responses to “William Bartram, “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians” (1789)

  1. Thank you. I am a student at the local community college and writing a paper about naturalists. Even though there are so many famous ones to choose from, I wanted to find someone that non-partisan and not culturally biased when it came answering questions about the native Americans. More books should be written about him but that would probably contradict our American way of thinking, or at least to those who continue to steer us, society, in the direction they deem fit….

    • Thanks for visiting my (pretty much dead) blog. I have been thinking of converting it to a vblog.

      Anyway, I am not sure Bartram was not culturally bias in any way. He does give a perspective that was not very common in late colonial America. It may be useful to you to compare Jefferson’s comments in “Notes” to Bartram.

      I agree, that more people should pay attention to him. The LOA collection of his writings is a great place to start.

      • I can’t comment on this one.What’s a vblog?I know that Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula LeGuin have been added to the LOA.I wondered if you might review them in the future.

        Hope you’re doing alright with any projects you’re doing.

      • video blog.

        Anyway, since i came to Taiwan, the cost of getting new volumes has increase greatly. And libraries are not much help. There are a handful that I have not reviewed but are in my own collection. In any case, I think I need a new approach to fit my life here.

      • Yes,I looked it up.I can’t imagine how it works though.I’d lke to see it preserved though,as I’ve contributed so many comments to it on Philp K. Dick and some others.

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