Coosa (sometimes spelled Coça) was a thriving and powerful Native American polity in 1540, when it encountered Hernando de Soto's Spanish expedition to North America. Coosa was one of the largest polities visited by the Spanish explorer during de Soto's three year journey through what is today the southeastern United States, and according to the de Soto chronicles, Coosa had a political structure with a paramount chief ruling over several subsidiary chiefdoms.
The Coosa polity lay in the southern part of the Tennessee Valley in what is today eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia and northeastern Alabama. This included a stretch of the Coosa River drainage from northeastern Tennessee to central Alabama, for a length of some 500 kilometers (~300 miles). Coosa was one of several Mississippian chiefdoms in existence in the region when the Spanish expeditions were undertaken in the sixteenth century AD.
The Coosa region included arable land on several large islands in the French Broad and Tennessee Rivers, as well as the river terraces alongside the streams and rivers. The region had several clear running streams, and stands of chestnut and other nut-bearing trees and a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial food sources. It also held sources of several minerals important to Mississippian polities: salt, mica, metallic copper, flint and chert, groundstone, and soapstone for pipes and ornaments.
Archaeologically speaking, the Coosa polity is roughly coeval to several different Mississippian archaeological phases recognized in the American southeast, including Barnett, Lamar, Mouse Creek, Dallas and Kymulga: phase is an archaeological term referring roughly to "places with similar artifacts within a given region and time". Each of these phases has slight differences in terms of a particular set of pottery styles and copper and shell design elements, styles which certainly held meaning for the people who made them, but are difficult to pick apart at depth today.
Most scholars believe the Coosa capital was Little Egypt, which was first occupied during the Late Woodland. Beginning as early as the 10th century, political power over some or all of the region was centered at the nearby Etowah Mounds. Etowah collapsed about 1350, leaving a power vacuum; Little Egypt's first platform mound was built about 1400. By 1540 Coosa had reached what would be the peak of its prominence. Unfortunately, the effect of the Spanish visit was deleterious to the continuing growth of the Coosa polity, and Little Egypt was abandoned no more than sixty years later.
- Read more about Little Egypt
According to historical records, the capital of Coosa was a paramount town, with smaller chiefdoms within its domain all paying tribute. Scholars agree that in 1540, between seven to ten chiefdoms owed allegiance to Coosa.
Each Coosa-allied chiefdom was centered in a town with at least one platform mound, and each of them had up to eight villages within the control of the sub-chief. Thus, the Coosa paramount chief had (some) power over as many as 50-80 villages and towns. Coosa itself, the largest of the villages, held three mounds and 500 residences; an average town between 350-650 residents. Total population estimates range from 18,000-50,000 people in the paramount chiefdom.
What we know of the paramount chief in 1540, is that he was young, "26 or 27 years of age, of very elegant bearing, as are most of those in that country, and of good understanding... he appeared to have been brought up in a most enlightened and polished court", according to de la Vega's second-hand reporting. Clearly, the Coosa chief was a diplomat. When de Soto first got a glimpse of him, the chief was carried in on a litter and followed by more than a thousand nobles, all adorned with mantles and feather plumed hats. Coosa's chief was kidnapped by the Spanish, who took them with him until they reached the farthest reaches of his polity, when they let him go.
Living in Coosa
Based on archaeological data from the King and Little Egypt sites (as reported by Hally 1986), the Coosa, like other Mississippian societies of the southeastern United States, were farmers who grew the three sisters of corn, maize and beans, and hunters who hunted deer and other woodland animals.
Winter houses were square to rectangular in form, had semi-subterranean house floors, earthen embanked walls plastered with clay daub, a peaked roof, interior walls and a central hearth. A narrow entry into the winter house kept it insulated and warm. Summer houses were built on the surface of the ground with a few posts. Storage of grain was in above ground granaries (called barbacoas by the Spanish).
- For more details about how Mississippian cultures lived, read The Mississippians
Towns of the Coosa
Major settlements of the Coosa polity were small pallisaded mound centers: we know their names because they were visited by de Soto on his way down the river. Names in parentheses are what most scholars believe are the related archaeological ruins, although there is some lingering controversy over the assignments.
- Tennessee: Chiaha (Zimmerman's Island), Coste (Bussell Island), Tali (Toqua), Chalahume, Satapo (Citico), Tasqui (Taskigi, ancestors of Poarch Band of Creeks), Napochies
- Georgia: Coosa (Little Egypt), Talimachusi, Itaba (Etowah), Ulibahili (Coosa Country Club?), Apica (possibly the King Site)
- Alabama: Talisi (near Childersberg), Tuasi
Blakely RL, and Mathews DS. 1990. Bioarchaeological evidence for a Spanish-Native American conflict in the Sixteenth century southeast. American Antiquity 55(4):718-744.
de la Vega G. 1995. Third Book of the History of La Florida by the Inca. In: Clayton LA, Knight Jr. VJ, and Moore EC, editors. The De Soto Chronicles: The expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. p 256-376.
Hally DJ. 1986. The identification of vessel function: A case study from Northwest Georgia. American Antiquity 51(2):267-295.
Harle MS. 2010. Biological Affinities and the Construction of Cultural Identity for the Proposed Coosa Chiefdom. Knoxville: University of Tennessee.
Hudson C. 1997. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.
Hudson C, Smith MT, Hally DJ, Polhemus RR, and DePratter CB. 1985. Coosa: A chiefdom in the sixteenth century southeastern United States. American Antiquity 50(4):723-737.
Smith MT. 2000. Coosa: The Rise and Fall of a Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdom. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Wesson C. 2012. de Soto (Probably) Never Slept Here: Archaeology, Memory, Myth, and Social Identity. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 16(2):418-435.