Indian Shell Mounds an 11- Acre Pearl
Dauphin Island, AL
Archive of Historical Data, Books, Maps
And Other Materials
by Emily Horton
USA Vanguard campus paper
November 17, 2003
According to ADCNR, "Several plant species occurring here are representatives
of families found as far inland as the Appalachian Mountains and as far
south as Yucatan State, Mexico. Many were probably transported to the region
by Native-American groups hundreds of years ago for medicinal and culinary
During the spring and fall, the park is a resting habitat for migratory
birds and butterflies on their departure and return flights. Not only has
the site played an important migratory role for birds, but humans as well.
Archaeologist Gregory Waselkov, of the University of South Alabama, has
participated in past excavations of the shell mounds, which date from 1100
to 1550 AD of the Mississippian Period.
Oak trees of Shell Mound
Bottle Creek, the largest Mississippian site, is located in the Mobile-Tensaw
Delta. Waselkov believes Bottle Creek was the major village, but during
the winter the Native Americans would migrate to the beach. "I think the
shell mounds at Dauphin Island were winter counterparts to the villages
of the interior. They would go down to the coast and harvest oysters and
catch fish. They would dry a lot of that food, so in the spring they would
go back, and had a dried food supply as a back up for the delta," Waselkov
said. The oysters served as a tasty form of insurance in case the crops
grown in the delta failed. "It's a real dependable food. Being farmers you
never knew about the outcome of a harvest...you might have a bad year, but
they always knew the oysters were there,"
Waselkov said. If one could observe a Mississippian oyster harvest, it might
look something like this. Along the shoreline, vast oyster reefs would become
exposed with the falling tide. Soon, groups of women and children would
emerge on the beach. After an abundant oyster harvest, they would dig a
large pit and start a fire. When the coals burned down they would place
the oysters on top and steam them by covering the pit with wet seaweed.
Since the Mississippians had no knives, it must have been a relief to see
the roasting oysters naturally crack open. "They would put the oysters on
long strings and hang them up in the eaves of their houses and the smoke
from their fires would naturally smoke them," Waselkov said.
Through the years, the repeated process of shucking oysters created the
large mounds found on Dauphin Island today.
Like many of the Native American stories, the Mississippians' tale ends
tragically with the arrival of Europeans. All too quickly the Mississippians,
once a flourishing chiefdom and matrilineal society, fell victim to newcomers.
"There was a huge mortality, a huge amount of illness because of the Spaniards
coming through in the 16th century. Soon afterwards the chiefdoms collapsed,
and they go back to a kind a tribal type society.
When the French got here in 1699 they saw a much smaller population," Waselkov
said. Many of the Mississippians who were left moved away for various reasons.
"That kind of left a vacuum in this area for Indians and that is when the
Choctaws and Creeks moved into the coastal area. We know up until the 1830s
there were Creeks and Seminoles camping along the beach in this area harvesting
oysters and fishing just as they had done earlier but then in the 1830s most
of the Indians were forcibly removed to Oklahoma," Waselkov said.
Today, visitors to the Dauphin Island Shell Mounds might find it hard
to comprehend past hardships while surrounded in such beauty. But amongst
the fluttering monarchs and dripping Spanish moss, if people listen
carefully enough they might catch a whispering lesson. With the passage
of time and succession of events - perhaps the only trace of existence
will reside in an obscure mound of shells - a testimony to change, an
opportunity for the present to feel a cool breeze of the past.