See how the Native Americans of East Texas lived at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site (2024)

See how the Native Americans of East Texas lived at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site (1)

ALTO, TEXAS— I dream about Caddo Mounds.

As a youth, I visited the remains of the Puye Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico during festival season. Later, I clambered around the even more dramatic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Other such adventures followed.

These places left a deep impression, in part because the visitor is surrounded by the domestic world of Native Americans of the Southwest. You better understood, not only where they ate, slept and interacted, but how they procured food, practiced rituals, played games, and protected themselves from intruders.

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Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, located about 30 miles west of Nacogdoches, is one of the few places in Texas where one can conjure those sorts of visions about Native Americans.

While I'm no longer a dreamy-eyed kid with a weakness for historically informed fantasy, certain places can still stir my imagination.

To be clear, I don't require "living history" to achieve this visionary state, although as I age, I have become more indulgent of folks who do dress up in costumes at historical sites to perform the daily lives of people from the past. There's something to be learned by that, too.

More interesting to me are the ways that descendants of the people who lived in a particular place interact with the interpreted environment, like the members of the Caddo tribe who gather here near Alto, Texas, to learn and teach their culture in such a charismatic setting.

Among the things that this Caddo village has going for it is its simplicity: Three mounds, a garden, a conical grass replica dwelling, paths through an open prairie, some indications of later human activity, and, no small thing, a glorious interpretive center, which rose from a 2019 tornado that destroyed almost everything standing at the site.

See how the Native Americans of East Texas lived at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site (2)

Books to consult before visiting Caddo Mounds

This wouldn't be a "Think Texas" column without some sort of short reading list. Only the first of these books is essential for learning the basics about Caddo life, but I recommend all six in tandem.

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  • "Caddo Mounds: State Historic Site" by Timothy Pertula, Eric Singleton and staff (Texas Historical Commission). This slick, accessible 60-page booklet can be read while you are at the site, if you have time to sit and relax indoors or outdoors. It covers both the early migratory Woodland people and the more sedentary prehistoric and historic Caddo peoples, as well as detailed accounts of this mound site and its archaeology.
  • "Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands" by Juliana Barr (University of North Carolina Press). Breathtaking history and anthropology that begins with the crucial fact that, for hundreds of years, Native Americans controlled the land that Europeans and Americans claimed, and that they were organized by kinship groups, not the caste and class that organized the newcomers. Essential in matrilinear Caddo culture was the presence of women as exemplars of peace, despite the lead of men in ceremonial and political realms. (The French figured this out; the Spanish did not.)
  • "Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America" by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright Publishing). The great living historian of Indigenous North America buckles down on the fact that European and American propaganda, and especially, maps, depict a "Colonial Period" which, given how much land they controlled, it should be considered instead an "Indigenous Period" well into the 19th century. The more you read Hämäläinen, the better.
  • "Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory" by Claudio Saunt (Norton). This book does not tell the story of the Caddo directly, but rather documents the expulsion of the eastern Native Americans from the United States, even those who lived alongside the incoming settlers. It reflects on the Caddo experience, however, since the Cherokees and others migrated to traditional Caddo lands, and the Caddo, too, were ultimately consigned to Indian Territory.
  • "The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875" by Gary Clayton Anderson (University of Oklahoma Press). I was pleased to see this older book displayed prominently at the Caddo Mounds gift shop. It has not lost an ounce of its gut punch since it came out in 2005. Anderson tells the long, sorry story of the Texan project to exterminate or expel virtually all Indigenous tribes from their republic, then their state. Among the best books about Texas.
  • "Indian Place-Names" by John Rydjord (University of Oklahoma Press). I picked up this volume on a lark in the Caddo Mounds gift shop, but it has provided me with endless insight. Rydjord writes about Kansas, not Texas, and a completely different set of Native Americans. Yet the naming customs — along with their origins and meanings — tell the reader a lot about what to examine, for instance, why there are dozens of ways to transliterate even common Indigenous place names. Good thing that Rydjord was a tireless researcher.
See how the Native Americans of East Texas lived at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site (3)

A trail of Caddo facts

  • People have lived in East Texas for at least 13,000 years.
  • During most of the 12,000 years before the more sedentary, partly agricultural Caddo formed, bands of hunters and gatherers roamed East Texas. "Stone artifacts, such as projective points, small flake tools, and ground stone manos and metates, are the main evidence of these early people."
  • Around 500 B.C., new practices brought to an end the nomadic ways of life: "Over a span of many centuries the introduction of domesticated pants (especially corn, but then later beans and squash), pottery and the bow and arrow transformed nomadic hunters and gatherers into village dwellers."
  • More than 1,200 years ago, a group of Caddo founded a village at the current Caddo Mounds site on flat land above the Neches River, "the southwestern-most ceremonial center of the great Mound Builder culture."
  • Descended from older Woodland cultures, the Caddo "dominated life in the East Texas forests for almost 1,000 years, until the appearance of Spanish and French explorers, and later, American settlers, which brought epidemic diseases causing severe population losses."
  • The Caddo in East Texas lived similarly to the other Mississippian Native Americans, with stratified societies and complex ceremonials systems. "They had a tradition of mound building that was developed to a high degree through elaborate burial ceremonies and the use of temple platform mounds that had houses used by the political and social elite living in the ceremonial centers."
  • The early Caddo traded with people from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. "Trade goods included foodstuff, raw stone materials, pottery, and finished decorative and ceremonial objects, such as copper, stone earspools and stone effigy pipes."
  • The largest know Mississippian center was at Cahokia, Illinois, on the river across from St. Louis. "Cahokia consisted of approximately 120 mounds and numerous village areas, and may have been occupied by a population estimated at more than 30,000."
  • The position of this Caddo Mounds village was propitious for trade. "The site itself is located at a major river crossing of an important Caddo trail — later to be known as El Camino Real de los Tejas — that connected East Texas Caddo settlements with those on the Red River and beyond."
  • The Caddo, far superior to the French or Spanish in numbers and long established in East Texas, rarely experienced warfare. "Archaeologists believe that war played no significant role at Caddo Mounds. No defensive fortifications, like those that have been found among other Mississippian groups, have been discovered at Caddo Mounds or any other East Texas Caddo site."
  • The Early Caddo lived in round houses, shaped like beehives, of wood and thatch, which "ranged in size from 25 feet to 45 feet in diameter. Warm in winter and cool in summer, the largest thatched dwellings could have provided living quarters for extended families of 10-15 individuals."
  • Fire played a role in Early Caddo rituals. "Analysis of excavated materials strongly suggests that some ceremonial buildings were deliberately destroyed by fire, and once structure near the Low Platform Mound may have housed a 'perpetual fire,' a feature common in temples."
  • Mound soil came from pits around the perimeter of the river terrace. "One of these pits has been found and is located just below the edge of the terrace west of the Low Platform Mound. Basketry impressions found within the mounds indicate that the soil was carried and deposited in 30 to 40 pound basket loads."
  • Why did the Early Caddo abandon this village around the year 1300? Part of the reason can be ascribed to the "Little Ice Age," a period of cooling, sometimes dated from 1300 to the early 19th century, that led to years of drought. "It is generally agreed by archaeologists that the power of the elite class diminished as other groups in the region became more self-sufficient and less dependent on the cultural center in religious and political matters, as well as economically."
  • Later Caddo, whom the French, Spanish and Americans encountered, had continued the Caddo ways of life on a smaller scale. "They still built mounds, mostly in the Red River Valley and adjacent regions, but smaller ceremonial centers became more common."
  • Part of the record of the Caddo during the historic period can be found in the writing of French and Spanish explorers. "In the more than 400 years since they first encountered Europeans, during the 1542 De Soto-Moscoso entrada into East Texas, the Caddo have undergone tremendous change, upheaval and dislocation, being reduced at one time to wards of the U.S. government, but now a sovereign nation, the Caddo Nation based in Oklahoma."
See how the Native Americans of East Texas lived at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site (4)

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at Sign up for the free weekly digital newsletter, Think, Texas, at, or at the newsletter page of your local USA Today Network paper.

See how the Native Americans of East Texas lived at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site (2024)


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