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Caddo Mounds: Learning from and Supporting the First Farmers in Texas

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A burial mound found at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in Alto, Texas.

Alan Shadow, manager at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's East Texas Plant Materials Center, has been working with personnel at the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site to restore the area back to the native plants community that was there when the Caddo  Tribe occupied the site.

ArcGIS Storymap, photos and article compiled by Adele Swearingen, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist, Bryan, Texas

Caddo Mounds: Learning from and Supporting the First Farmers ArcGIS Storymap

“Caddo Mounds, as far as I’m aware, is the only state property in Texas open to the public that addresses a Native American cultural site,” says Anthony Souther who works for the Texas Historical Commission as the Historic Site Manager at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in Alto, Texas. “This site interprets that Native American history to the Texas public.”

A burial mound found at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in Alto, Texas.

Since the early 1980s, the 397-acre Caddo Mounds complex showcasing the ancient ancestral homeland of the Caddo people, features three mounds, a Burial Mound, Temple Mound, and Ceremonial Mound.

The Caddo people built these grassy earthen mounds where their leaders and priests lived. Some served as platforms for grass-thatched temples. Other mounds were used as places where Caddo people buried their leaders in elaborate tombs. Each mound was made from thousands of basket-loads of soil dug from large quarry pits, carried one by one to mound up the dirt. Some mounds are said to have reached as high as forty feet.

The mounds were built over a 1,000 years ago, so the Caddo mound builders – the early Caddo – constructed those between 750 and 1250 AD,” points out Assistant Site Manager, Rachel Galan.

Souther and Galan are working hard to restore the site to the native prairie lands it once was, working closely with groups like the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), US Forest Service, Stephen F. Austin State University College of Forestry and Agriculture, and volunteer groups like the Texas Master Naturalists and the Texas Master Gardeners.

“This area is an amazingly rich area with water and wildlife and plants. It’s really a wonderful place to be,” offers Galan.

Perhaps their best resource, however, has been members of the Caddo Tribe themselves who have been providing critical insight into how the Caddo people once inhabited the land and its purpose.

Not your typical historical site, which can feel abandoned and hands-off, the lush green Caddo Mounds landscape is an inviting, living, breathing testament to the Caddo Tribe and culture which is still very much alive and well. The remaining Caddo people actively participate in programs and activities on the site to help restore the area and educate the public on the importance of learning more about the ancient civilization and how it fits into our modern-day world.

Caddo Resilience Then and Now

The old Caddo Tribe village site of East Texas, located near the Neches River, offered a great area with plentiful resources. The Caddo Tribe set up their village in 800 AD and dominated life there for about 500 years.

From research and records, there may have been about 900 people living in the Caddo village at the height of things, according to Souther.

Galan says historians are not entirely sure why the Tribe disbanded, but the running theory is that due to agriculture and the arrival of corn, smaller villages and cornfields began to establish in the surrounding area.

Souther adds that hunting may also have played a part in the Caddo people moving to the upper Brazos River area to hunt Buffalo which were more plentiful there. “They’d go out and away for Buffalo, making trips up west of Dallas-Fort Worth. They hunted turkey, deer, and bear, according to Souther.

The Caddo themselves were a complex, developed nation of people, according to Galan.

“Even when the Spanish and French first came through, there were Caddo people in the area even though the mound builders weren’t at this site,” she says.

“The El Camino Real de los Tejas trail, which the Spanish traveled, began as Caddo hunting trails and when they traveled those roads, they said they rivaled the roads in Paris. And so, this was a really amazing civilization that is still strongly connected to Caddo people today.”

While the Caddo Nation is now located in Binger, Oklahoma, the Texas Historical Commission works as hard as it can to include as many of the Caddo as possible in project planning and direction for the site.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been able to grow that trust and those relationships,” says Galan, who explains that all of that was challenged in April 2019 when they took a direct hit from an F3 Tornado, which came through during a Caddo Culture Day event.

Caddo Culture Days are events where the Texas Historical Commission invites the Caddo people back to their native area with the intention of not only supporting them being back, but also as an opportunity to share their rich culture with the local community.

“That day, we had the heart of the Caddo community, the elders, the land preservers, the artists, the singers, the drummers, the youth here with us and without warning, we were hit by that tornado and the building came down,” recalls Galan, referencing the Visitor Center, which was lost during the storm. The newly constructed grass house, which was only finished less than a year prior, was also wiped out by the tornado.

Many of the attendees, including the Caddo, were critically wounded and there was one fatality recorded. The incident offered many challenges, one of which how to rebuild – not only the actual grounds but also the community.

“We were a year out when COVID hit, so it was sort of a stacked trauma process that we’re all working through,” Galan says.

Some of the toughest questions Souther and Galan faced after the tornado included “’How can we make the space safe? How will we welcome people back? Will they want to come back? What does rebuilding look like?’”

The July after the tornado, a community healing event was held. “Fortunately, several of the people who had just given us quite a bit of funding let us keep that and repurpose it to help do whatever we needed to move forward,” stated Galan.

Wasting no time, she says they chartered a bus and brought the Caddo back. “We had at least 25 people return for that workshop, and it was a time for sharing art, learning, it was time in the garden—it was a really healing time.”

Since then, Galan says they’ve been working toward what that next chapter looks like for Caddo Mounds.

Importance of the Caddo Land and Other Native American Historical Sites

According to Souther, although the Texas Historical Commission already provides a lot of educational programs including stargazing, and medicinal and edible plant offerings, they are looking to expand the site to offer much more. They are also working with the NRCS to restore the prairie back to their natural state when the Caddo people maintained the land.

“When the prairie restoration is fully opened and growing, it will be part of some additional walking trails that we’re putting in. So, it will allow us to do programming associated with natural prairie grasses, carbon sequestration, and pollinators,” Souther says excitedly.

“Land restoration is important to all of us here at Caddo and it’s becoming increasingly more important to me because the Caddo have expressed more and more interest and excitement about those projects, and it is completely outside my area of expertise,” says Galan, adding that’s why their partnerships with NRCS and other organizations have been so important.

“Prairie restoration is one of the places we started, in the hopes of being able to talk about what things might have looked like more around the time of the Caddo, but also to bring back some wildlife,” she says.

Alan Shadow and Anthony Souther check on the native vegetation growing at the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site.

Alan Shadow, manager at the USDA NRCS East Texas Plant Materials Center, recalls being contacted about 6 or 7 years ago by Anthony Souther looking for switch grass to build one of the Caddo grass houses from. “That’s where our relationship started. Growing up these grasses for them to build these traditional houses on site and participating in some of the activities on the site,” says Shadow.

During this time, Shadow recalls both Souther and Galan bringing their goals to the NRCS and the Plant Materials Center regarding their efforts to restore the area back to a native plants community that was there when the Caddo had occupied the site.

“We agreed to partner and provide some technical assistance in terms of helping them manage the weeds, giving them directions on how to apply the herbicides, what rates to put out, which plants to choose, the seeding rates, how to plant them, and when to plant them,” Shadow says.

They were very successful in an original planting across Highway 21, where they established a complete stand of native grasses in a single growing season after a year of site prep.

“It takes a lot of time to site prep an area to get invasives under control before restoring an area back to the native plant community that was here.”

Shadow indicates that they’ve worked together on additional projects, including a testing plot for a wildflower seeding rate study along a hiking trail in the back of the property.

“Caddo Mounds is important, not only because it provides a visual impact to the public and a learning opportunity for the public, but it also allows us to conduct experiments in a real-world setting where we actually have weed pressure available to us to test the NRCS practice standards.”

In doing this restoration work, Galan points out they’ve been careful to keep in mind how the Caddo would have managed the land.

“The Caddo wouldn’t just have had gardens that they tended. They would’ve tended plants in the wild and foraged for those,” she says. “So, all along our edges, we have grapes and things that the Caddo would’ve cared for. And we’re learning how they would’ve cared for the space and maybe implementing some of those indigenous ways to care for the space.”

Galan shares they are working together on several projects to educate the public on Caddo tradition, spanning everything from the revival of basketry traditions, to restoring, preserving, and propagating river cane for future use by Caddo people, to reintroducing wild turkeys on the property due to their historical importance to the Caddo.

“The turkey played an important part in their culture. They (Caddo) would build their houses close to where turkeys would roost. The turkey would give out the call if something came into the area that was not supposed to be there, so it was sort of an early warning system,” says Souther.

There are smaller projects, too, that she says she hopes they’ll pull in with the help of interested volunteer groups to help make possible.

A birds-eye view of the Snake Woman's Garden at the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site.

In 2019, the team completed the establishment of Snake Woman’s Garden. The name is based on a Caddo legend or cautionary tale about a snake woman, who in Caddo story, was responsible for bringing seeds of all kinds to the Caddo people. The Snake Woman taught the Caddo people how to farm. The story was meant to teach children to respect the plants and care for them and not to disrespect them.

Galan points out the Caddo were really the first farmers in Texas and cultivated those first crops.

“Our garden is meant to be a timeline of Caddo culture,” says Galan. “As you enter the garden, you see the earliest crops the Caddo would’ve cultivated. A lot of things like goosefoot and Chenopodium that farmers today try to eradicate from their fields, these are things we welcome into our garden. Lots of things that are very medicinal and very good nutritionally for us.”

“We trace those plants around to modern day and so a lot of times, people who think of indigenous farming think of the ‘three sisters’ which is corn, beans, and squash growing together.”

As Galan describes, the garden starts out with the earliest crops grown on the land, then winds around into what is a modern cooking garden.

“We ask advice from the Caddo about what to plant and how to plant, so some really lovely traditions have come out of that,” says Galan.

Shadow says working with Souther and Galan on the project has been an honor that has resulted in bringing the Caddo people back to Caddo Mounds as a result.

“I take great pride and honor that Tony and Rachel have brought me into this and look forward to working on a lot of the projects in the future,” Shadow says. “I think it’s important to restore these areas back to the way they were when the Caddo lived here. They were very resilient people. They lived here for hundreds of years. This land provided everything they needed to survive. The wildlife, the plants, the water. Everything was here for them, and they chose this area,” says Shadow.

Learning from the Past, Looking Toward the Future

“This space out here at Caddo Mounds is the ancestral land of the Caddo people. The Caddo people who gave us the name for Texas – Tejas – which became Texas,” says Galan.

“The Caddo people were the first farmers out here and caretakers of this space. And it’s a sacred responsibility to be here and care for this space. It’s one that everybody who comes through has the opportunity to visit and appreciate and hopefully make connections to this vibrant, resilient, contemporary Caddo community that’s involved as much as possible with the area.”

Although the tornado in 2019 was a traumatic event for so many, and leaving the museum and grass house in ruins, Shadow says the event didn’t dampen the resolve of what we’ve seen, but rather seems to have reinforced their commitment to finishing what they started.

“It hasn’t dampened the activities in terms of developing the practices and the restoration work that’s being done. We’ve already planned on building another grass house,” says Shadow. “They’re very resilient people and we’re not going to let one bad event ruin the efforts that were going on here to restore this site and continue to move forward and put a conservation footprint on the ground.”

The Caddo nation is involved in this and is planning to come back down and celebrate, according to Shadow.

Through this work, the team hopes to properly pay tribute to the first farmers of the area.

“One of the things that I think is valuable that people could take away from this site is that Native Americans were the first conservationists,” says Shadow. They didn’t just use the land, they lived with the land, they never took more than they needed, and they never destroyed the land function.

He believes the Caddo Mounds Historical Site restoration work is a perfect opportunity to display this to the public. “By restoring the function back to the system and using it as an education spot to give the public the information they need on why these areas are important, why these grasslands are important, why these prairies are important, and how they function and how that helped these people live and pass that conservation heritage down to future generations.”