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Dauphin Island, AL
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Indian Shell Mounds an 11- Acre Pearl
by Emily Horton
Photo Editor,
USA Vanguard campus paper
November 17, 2003
DI Shell Mounds butterfly

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 purposes."

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

DI Shell Mounds Oak trees
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 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.
2005 USA Vanguard
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