The land along the Atlantic Coast was inhabited long before the first English settlers set foot in North America. There were more than two dozen Native American groups living in the southeast region, loosely defined as spreading from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico. These groups included the Chickasaw (CHIK-uh-saw), Choctaw (CHAWK-taw), Creek (CREEK), Cherokee (CHAIR-oh-kee), and Seminole (SEH-min-ohl).
By the time of European contact, most of these Native American groups had settled in villages of 500 people or fewer, and grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, greens, tobacco, and other crops. The southeast Native Americans also gathered berries, nuts, wild plants, and roots from the surrounding forests. For the most part, women tended the fields while men hunted, fished, and engaged in trade with one another, as well as with other groups to the north and west.
Life for the southeastern groups, as for Native Americans throughout the Americas, changed with European exploration and colonization. The Native Americans had no immunity to smallpox or other diseases Europeans carried, and the spread of these diseases killed thousands of native people. Others were killed or enslaved by the Spanish explorers who led 16th-century expeditions through the southeast. These factors weakened the remaining tribes. Many joined with larger or stronger groups, such as the Cherokee and the Creek.
With colonization came a desire to convert Native Americans to Christianity and to encourage (or force) them to adopt European cultures and traditions. These efforts were more successful in the Southeast than most parts of North America; indeed, five southeastern nations (the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) later became known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.” Europeans viewed even the most “civilized” tribes as inferior, however, and waves of European immigrants encroached on the Native Americans’ land. The southeastern groups signed treaties to cede land to the colonies and moved, only to be followed by new settlers looking for new land. Conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers often erupted into violence. The southeastern Native Americans could not defend themselves against the colonists’ seemingly never-ending demand for land. Like other Native Americans, they were pushed farther west and, eventually, onto reservation land.