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Caddo Country

Unearthing Native American Heritage in East Texas
Written by Dale Weisman.

Although most Caddo were forced out of their East Texas homeland by the late 1830s, a series of earthen mounds at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site near Alto bears witness to the Caddo presence here more than 1,200 years ago. The mound in the foreground is a burial mound. (Photos by Kevin Stillman)

Long burined beneath mysterious earthen mounds and lost within dense forests and hidden glades, remnants of an ancient mound-building civilization have slowly come to light in the Piney Woods of East Texas. In recent decades, archeologists, historians, and the descendants of this Native American culture have unearthed, chronicled, and retold the centuries-old story of the Caddo tribes.

Before Europeans set foot in the region, the Caddo lived in stratified societies ruled by theocratic elites. The most highly developed culture in prehistoric Texas, the Caddo established elaborate civic and ceremonial centers, building imposing mounds capped with thatched-grass temples. They were also industrious farmers, superb potters, shrewd traders, respected warriors, and canny diplomats.

Texas owes its very name to the friendly, welcoming nature of the Caddo. When Spanish explorers encountered Caddo tribes in East Texas in the late 1600s, the Caddo called them “Tayshas,” meaning friends or allies. Pronouncing the word Tejas, the Spanish named the territory “the kingdom of Tejas,” giving birth to the name “Texas” and the state motto, “Friendship.”

Intrigued by the Caddo legacy in East Texas, I explore the Caddo territory, traveling from Caddo Mounds State Historic Site and Mission Tejas State Park to Nacogdoches, “the oldest town in Texas,” which is replete with Caddo sites, and finally to Caddo Lake State Park.

Caddo folklore refers repeatedly to Caddo Lake, an area of great spiritual significance. Today, Caddo Lake State Park, located on Big Cypress Bayou, which feeds into the sprawling, 27,000-acre lake, offers a wealth of outdoor recreation.My journey into Caddo country follows Texas 21, which in turn follows the route of El Camino Real de los Tejas. Designated a National Historic Trail, El Camino Real meanders across Texas from western Louisiana to Mexico. Historians describe this “King’s Highway” as a braided trail with branching tributaries that once connected missions and presidios of the Spanish Empire. Much of El Camino Real traces Native American trails, including a Caddo trail established in East Texas before the Spanish arrived.

As I approach Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, six miles southwest of Alto and near the Neches River, dense pine forest gives way to a pocket of prairie dominated by three grassy mounds that once served as ceremonial and burial sites. Known to archeologists as the George C. Davis Site, Caddo Mounds is one of the most thoroughly studied Native American sites in Texas.

“This is the only preserved Caddo mound site in Texas that is open to the public,” says site manager Jennifer Price. The Texas Historical Commission acquired the 93-acre former state park in 2008 and quadrupled its size to 393 acres two years later.

“The Caddo were part of the mound-building tradition of Native Americans who lived in the Southeast and Midwest more than a thousand years ago,” adds Price. Caddo Mounds was the southwesternmost ceremonial center of early Caddo mound builders who settled here around A.D. 800 and then left the area for unknown reasons some 500 years later. When Europeans arrived in the area in the late-17th Century, mound building had ceased, and the local Caddo, known as the Hasinai, lived in dispersed villages, hamlets, and farmsteads.

The Hasinai of the Neches and Angelina River valleys comprised one of three allied Caddo groups linked by language, culture, and kinship. The largest group, the Kadohadacho, lived along the Great Bend of the Red River. The third group, the Natchitoches (NAH-ka-tish), dwelled along the Red River in western Louisiana. European and American chroniclers eventually referred to all the various groups as simply “Caddo.”

At the Caddo Mounds visitor center, I view interpretive exhibits, dioramas, a film clip in which members of the Caddo Nation discuss their culture, and artifacts unearthed at the site, including ceramic vessels, effigy pipes, ear spools, necklaces, beads, stone tools, projectile points, and a magnificent, 19-inch ceremonial blade. Decorative objects made from Gulf Coast seashells and copper from the Great Lakes region suggest the Caddo developed far-reaching trade networks.

Eager to see the mounds—the only visible remnants of a once-flourishing community of several hundred Caddo who lived in beehive-shaped, thatched-grass houses—I hop on Price’s four-wheeler for a ride along the site’s self-guided trail. Our first stop is a burial mound containing the funereal remains of Caddo elite. Continuing along the trail, we pause to view a depression, or “borrow pit,” from which Caddo villagers hauled countless basket loads of soil to build ceremonial mounds such as the nearby Low Temple Mound.

More on Caddo history and culture

"A massive, squared mound, quite unlike the surrounding hills, rose from a level valley; it had been the central element in a Caddoan Indian village a thousand years ago….The aura of time the mound gave off seemed to mock any comprehension of its change and process—how it had grown from baskets of shoveled soil to the high center of Caddoan affairs to a hilly patch of blackberries.”

—William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways (1982)

Caddoan mounds caught the attention of William Least Heat-Moon as he was traveling through Texas several decades ago. Like this well-loved backroads travelogue, the mounds continue to inspire travelers today.

To learn more about Caddo history and culture, start by visiting the Caddo Nation website, and explore the online resource Texas Beyond History. Informative books on the Caddo include Caddo Indians: Where We Come From (1995) by Cecile Elkins Carter; The Caddo Indians: Tribes at the Convergence of Empires, 1542-1854 (1995) by F. Todd Smith; and Source Material on the History and Ethnology of the Caddo Indians (1996, first published in 1942) by John R. Swanton.

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