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.



William Bartram, “Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida” (Parts 2-4)

“Solemnly and slowly move onward, to the river’s shore, the rustling clouds of the Ephemera.  How awful the procession! innumerable millions of winged beings, voluntarily verging on to destruction, to the brink of the grave, where they behold bands of their enemies with wide open jaws, ready to receive them.  But as if insensible of their danger, gay and tranquil each meets his beloved mate in the still air, inimitably bedecked in their new nuptial robes.  What eye can trace them, in their varied wanton amorous chances, bounding and fluttering on the odoriferous air!  With what peace, love, and joy, do they end their last moments of their existence?” (87)

Florida Mayfly (Ephemera)

Florida Mayfly (Ephemera)

In my last post, I suggested that one way that William Bartram speaks to us is that he provides a model for solidarity with nature.  For him, nature was a window into creation (he was a clear theist) and a reflection of our own habits, customs, morals, and sympathies.  One troubling aspect of Bartram is that he spills much ink in describing the lives of Southeastern Indians, sometimes in the same chapter as his discussions of plant and animal life.  I am reminded of Jefferson placing his discussion of blacks in between passages on Virginia’s flora and fauna.  Does Bartram suggest Indians are part of nature?  Something that one experiences while adventuring in the back country?  I do not think so.  Perhaps we can blame a naturalist for putting on the ethnographers hat a bit too much, but he is very clear throughout the work that Indians are part of civilization.  For Bartram this civilization is not a euphemism for European culture, but a diverse set of potentialities.  Traveling in the mid-1770s and writing in the 1780s (published in 1791), Bartram even suggests that white America can learn much from the Cherokee, Muscogulgues, and Creek (just to mention a few he discusses) as they begin affecting their revolution.  I resubmit my claim from the last post.  Bartram was a thinker of the American Revolution and his intense interest in Indians was not because he confused them for nature – his main subject – but that he was searching for alternatives to monarchy and a model for the proper defense of human freedom.  This was all being done at a time when the new republic was playfully experimenting with the same questions.  It is with this in mind that I read the rest of Bartram’s Travels.

bartram drawing

In all fairness, he often does discuss Indians in the same language with which he describes others.  Most notably when he described Creek violence.   But, at the same time, if they are animals so are we all. “The Indians make war against, kill, and destroy their own species, and their motives spring from the same erroneous source as they do in all other nations of mankind. . . . But I cannot find, upon the strictest inquiry, that their bloody contests at this day are marked with deeper stains of inhumanity or savage cruely, than what may be observed amongst the most civilized nations. . . . all their slaves have freedom when they marry, which is permitted and encouraged, when they and  their offspring are every way upon an equality with their conquerors.  They are given to adultery and fornication, but, I supposed, in no greater excess than other nations of men.” (186)  Even their violence against nature is familiar.  “They wage eternal war against deer and bear, to procure food and clothing, and other necessities and conveniences, which is indeed carried to an unreasonable and perhaps criminal excess.” (186)

The final part of Bartram’s Travels brackets out Indian cultures in four short chapters.  It is here that Bartram is at his most revolutionary, seeing the potential for universal human solidarity and rights.  He sees the potential for peace, social stability, and “civil government” without authority or violence.  “How are we to account for their excellent policy in civil government; it cannot derive its influence from coercive laws, for they have no such artificial system.  Divine wisdom dictates and they obey.  We see and know full well the direful effects of this torrent of evil, which has its source in hell; and we know surely, as well as these savages, how to divert its course and suppress its inundations.  Do we want wisdom and virtue?  let our youth then repair to the venerable councils of the Muscogulges.” (393)  He praises their simple constitution, their democratic institutions, and their efforts to secure “mutual happiness.”

Bartram was also not unaware that he was traveling through a slave society and the brutality of slavery may have shaped his quite favorable and sympathetic view of Indians, even to the degree of suggesting them as a potential model of governance.    He saw signs of an institution in decay and crisis.  In Georgia almost half of the slaves ran away at some time during the Revolutionary War.  We are reminded how of slaves were willing and able to take advantage of these crises to secure or attempt to secure their freedom.  “Observed a number of persons coming up a head, whom I soon perceived to be a party of Negroes.  I had every reason to dread the consequence; for this being a desolate place, I was by this time several miles from any house of plantation, and had reason to apprehend this to be a predatory band of Negroes; people being frequently attacked, robbed, and sometimes murdered by them at this place.”  (379)  We do not know for sure if these were runaway slaves, but it seems likely given that his context of his travels – a revolutionary society.

In conclude:  William Bartram is a beautiful naturalist writer, who effectively shares his awe of the natural world with his reader.  The Library of America volume contains many of his beautiful drawings and paintings, which add to this otherwise slim volume (by LOA standards – 700 w/ notes).  It also provides a basis for discussion of looking to our own traditions (this time indigenous) for libertarian models of social organization, without the idealization that we sometimes get with the “ecological Indian” narratives.


The volume also contains his report to John Fothergill, which is more of his journals.  It is very technical and contains mostly scientific descriptions with little of his beautiful and fascinating commentary.  I skimmed this (a forgivable sin I hope considering the scope of this project).  It also contains seven shorts scientific essays, which have little to add to what I have already said.  His “Observations of the Creek and Cherokee Indians” does give us a little more meat and will be the subject of a short post, next time.