The St. Francis Basin appears to have been at center of a large prehistoric population. The core of this settlement in Missouri seems to embrace the alluvial district of Pemiscot, New Madrid, Dunklin, Scott, Stoddard, Mississippi, and the Lowland of Cape Girardeau counties. Starting at the Ozark and running toward the Arkansas state line is a collection of mounds assembled in a six to five mile strip. Pemiscot County containing the largest Number of these prehistoric mounds; these mounds ranged from a few feet in height to the largest in the state at 400 feet long, 250 feet wide and 35 feet tall with a southern approach.

The Cairo Lowland, west across the Mississippi from where the Ohio joint to create the Lower Mississippi River Valley, during prehistoric time, was one the most heavily occupied area of the Central Valley. Lilbourn (New Madrid County) and Towosahgy (Mississippi County) are two of the largest civic ceremonial sites in the Cairo Lowland.

Native Americans lived in the Mississippi River Valley for at least 12,000 years. Much of their historical record has been buried or destroyed due to flooding, earthquakes, and modern farming methods. Between the movement of the Ohio and Mississippi River, modern farming methods, and the seismic active, their record is scarce. These early people were nomads subsisting on hunting and foraging. Some 10,000 years ago, these wanderers started establishing more stable communities and developing the characteristics recognized by archaeologists.

        Tchula Period

During the Tchula period, 100 years before the birth of Christ, was larger early-woodland culture. The Pascola Phase started in the foothills of the Ozarks, covered the Western Lowland and Crowley’s entire Ridge in Missouri, along with over half of the Morehouse and Little River Lowland. The Burkett Phase included the Cairo the Matthews or East Prairie Lowland, and a tiny part of Sikeston Ridge.


Marksville-Hopewellian (Middle Woodland) cultures had been one of the most studied Native American cultures in the Mississippi River Valley. This Woodland Era culture started developing around 100 A.D. and was the forerunner of the Hoecake phase In the Bootheel, its present was a small areas east of Sikeston Ridge north of New Madrid.

        Coles Creek Period

About 1000 A.D., the Coles Creek Period started. This phase was a late Woodland development. Largely, this phase was mainly in the Western Lowland west of Crowley’s Ridge. Another group of settlement was west of Sikeston Ridge.  However, the most intent settlements were in the Little River Lowland south of New Madrid. Several years later, the Mississippian Period developed from this society.

        Hoecake Phase

Hoecake villages were sedentary agricultural communities of four of five acres. Food supplies were more readily available. Forest was generously and more dependent in supplying food. Maize (corn), persimmons, acorns, pecans, wild grapes, and tubers; houses were rectangular, single-set post with few interior features.

The Hoecake phase was only one of several stages of people coming together to organize for mutual protection, to preserve family structure, and mutual aid. It was one of the largest to be centered in the Morehouse Lowland Sikeston, the Matthews or East Prairie Lowland, and Little River Lowland This development is considered Early Woodland Era.

Archaeologist, when talking about the Hoecake phase of the Baytown period of Native American settlements, in the area, during the Late Woodland era between 400 and 600 AD, called it the Morehouse Lowland. The phase is defined by the use of shell embedded clay-tempered ceramics temper by fire. During this period, the bow and arrow became in general use. With this development, inter-tribal warfare became more common.  After 1500 years absents, mound building was again started.

        Cairo Lowland

During pre-historic times, the Cairo Lowland just west of where the Ohio meets the Mississippi River was one of the most heavily occupied areas of the Central Mississippi Valley. Lilbourn and Towosahgy are two to the largest civic-ceremonial sited in these lowlands

Major early studies by Stephen Williams’ at Crosno (1955 with no radiocarbon dates), Lilbourn and Towosahgy by Chapman in 1977, and various land-leveling projects in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. These investigation prompted several sets of phases maned, each slightly different, are used to describe the prehistoric sequence. In general, early Burkett and La Plant phases were followed by widespread Late Woodland and Mississippian settlements. So intense has recent site destruction of these prehistoric occupations been that satisfactory subdivisions of these later periods may never be established.

More radiocarbon dates have been produced in the Cairo Lowlands than any other major area in Southeast Missouri. Many of these radiocarbon dates came from studies at Towosahgy and in the New Madrid Floodway. Of the 67 recent dates available about 97 percent came from Lilbourn, 21 dates, and 11 from Towosahgy, with 14 from the New Madrid Floodway project and with another 20 coming from land-leveling. Of these, one date pertained to the Archaic period, with 16 related to Woodland culture and the remainder was from Mississippian settlements.

        Mississippian Culture

The earliest widespread early Mississippian complexes occurred primarily east of Crowley's Ridge. This complex was first isolated in the Upper St. Francis River drainage area at the Old Varmey River site in Missouri. It was placed it on the Malden Plain. The Varney River, before the Earthquake of 1811-1812 connected Little River and the St. Francis River near the Missouri-Arkansas state line. Yet, many sites have been found northward through the Little River Lowland and up both sides of Sikeston Ridge in to the Morehouse Lowland on the west and Cairo Lowland on the east.

The Shawnee, an Algonquian word corrupted into Shawnee to mean “southerners,” had a history of migration. The Ohio River Valley may have been their original home. Forced out by the Iroquois, the Shawnees traveled eastward through the area now called South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. During the 17th century, still on the move they entered Tennessee, the Delaware County, then on to Kentucky and back into the Ohio Valley. After becoming British allies during the Revolutionary War, they cross the Mississippi River to settle in the Spanish controlled New Madrid District.

The most sophisticated cultural development was the Mississippian society. They developed after the Plum Bayou people and other groups in the Mississippi Valley combined the domesticated plants of the eastern agricultural complex of North American with corn and other domesticated plants from Mexico (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, yams, cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe, watermelon, pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans, jalapeños peppers, bananas peppers, maple sugar, cranberries, strawberry, pineapple, chocolate, or vanilla. No one outside of American had ever smoked tobacco before Columbus trip to the New World. And no one but certain Indian tribes had ever worn cotton clothing).

            De Soto

In 1997, in Charles Hudson published, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdom, (pages 285-307) after studying all the archeological material available and following, as close has he could to the path the Spanish took across the Southeast United States, professor of Anthropology at the University of Georgia offered a theory that is generally accepted by Archeologist.

Hudson had de Soto crossing the Mississippi River in southern Crittenden County, Arkansas, at Horseshoe Lake. He crossed the river early morning, June 18, 1541with the river in full flood. He concluded that Casqui on Parkin, Cross County, Arkansas, on the St. Francis River.

As parts of their belief system the people at Parkin were expecting a warrior God, thus the Spanish were welcomed as the son of the Sun. When de Soto was presented two blind men to heal, he put off doing that by explaining about the death of Jesus and his resurrection. Still the chief of the Casqui press for a sign from de Soto. Specifically he asks for help against his enemies and relief from the drought so the children could have food. De Soto promised a sign the next day June 3rd. Next day, the chief still was complaining about the delay in receiving a sign he wanted. The Spanish were touched when the chief began weeping.

Droughts were one of the greatest hazards faced by Mississippian agriculturalist. Between 1565 and 1575, some part of southeast United States went through a dry period. Even in the decades before this the residents at Parkin suffered from lack of rainfall. Suffering in 1541 was evident.

After constructing a large cross, the Spanish placed in on the summit of the largest mound. A procession was formed including the Spanish as well as Indians. A crowd estimated at over a thousand watched as an emotional religious service followed.

Before sunrise the following day, the area was drenched by hard rain. After that the Native Americans declared themselves the Europeans’ vassals. De Soto told them to worship the God in heaven and ask what they needed. Before long, it was confirmed that Casqui and Pacaha were and had been enemies for a long time. The chief at Parkin wanted help destroying his enemy on Wappanocca Bayou.

Pacaha was on the Bradley site connected to Wappanocca Bayou in Crittenden County, Arkansas. This was to the east of Parkin on the Mississippi River. The villagers at Pacaha escaped the invasion to an island in the river. After being captured and returned to their village, de Soto played one side against the other.

After hearing of gold to the north from two traders captured at Pacaha, de Soto sent two expeditions northward into Missouri.

For some two weeks in July, a detachment of some 30 horsemen and 50 footmen went to the northeast. After traveling eight day through a wilderness and swamp, they came to a wide expanse of land that had no trees, only grass (Malden-Kennett Prairie?). The grass was so thick and tall that even men on horseback had trouble traveling through it.

They finally came to the province of Caluza; a small grouping of six or seven huts made of reeds or rushes sews together then stretched of a framework of poles. When it is time to move, the family simply rolls up is mats, take the pole framework down and carry them to the new location. These small settlements moved frequently.

These groups lived, they told the Spanish, by hunting and fishing instead of staying stationary long enough to plant crops. In the area several other groups lived a similar life style. They move frequently to follow the wild game, especially the deer.

The Indians of the Caluza did not thank the land further north had many settlements because the weather was too cold and because of the large number of buffalo, agricultural fields could not be protected from them, thus those people lived by hunting buffalo.

The returning Spanish upon reaching Pacaha were famished. During their exploration, they had to live on green persimmons and ears of immature corn.

A second expedition sent by de Soto was sent north. This expedition was prompted by information gained from Indians captured at Pacaha. They were traders of salt and other materials. They told the Spanish that a mountain range 40 leagues north was where the salt came from. Also that area, they claimed, was rich in a yellow metal. This caught the attention of de Soto. These were probably the Ste. Francois Mountain where deposits of salt, copper and other minerals could be found.

Hernando de Silvera and Pedro Moreno volunteered to go verify what the Indians are taking them to view. The Spanish carried pearls, deerskins and beans acquired at Pacaha along with some European trade items as well to appease the native they meet. Two of the traders went along to act as guides.

 Eleven days later, probably somewhere in Southeast Missouri they returned bringing crystalline rock that was mined, not the results of evaporation. They also carried a quantity of very good grade copper. Like the other de Soto expedition, they reported the land did not have much population.

It is possible that Silvera and Moreno had reached the northernmost towns with inhabitants in the central Mississippi Valley. Archaeological sites have been found on the Little River in northeast Arkansas and Pemiscot Bayou in Southeast Missouri. Like the lowlands of Arkansas, the Southeast Missouri lowland had mostly been abandoned around A.D 1400-1450. Five sites are clustered on the levee ridge of Pemiscot Bayou. At least one flat-topped mound was on four of these sites. Before they could be professionally excavated, most of these sites were destroyed by farmers and looters.

At one of these sites, the Campbell or Cooter location, a substantial number of early Europeans artifacts have been recovered by collectors.  A  Clarksdale bell (about 1 5/8 inches in diameter to hang from leather strip) and at least 24 glass chevron beads. No more such 16th century artifacts of Spanish manufacture have been found north of this.

        Indian Mound Builders

Between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1200, the people in this area (settlements from Memphis to St. Louis) went from being part-time gardeners that still depended on the old reliable wild foods – nuts, seeds, meat, and fish – to becoming almost full-time farmers balancing their vegetable diet with some wild game. And their population exploded.

Fifteen miles northeast of New Madrid is the Towosaghy Indian Mound, a Mississippian city. They flourished there between 100 and 1400 A.D. The “Lilbourn Site,” a mile west of New Madrid, is another large Indian Mound believed to be from the Kent phase. Scattered throughout the Little River Valley are a Numbers of smaller Mississippian mounds.

Another enormous Middle-Mississippian site, known as the Langdon Site is five miles north of the Arkansas state line in Dunklin County. It lies on a sandy ridge between Little River and the St. Francis River. Within in this complex are at least 32 mounds and the site of an enclosure village without mounds. In the 1830’s, the site was bisected by the main north-south road connecting Kennett and Hornesville.

Keshotte Island was in Little River near the Missouri-Arkansas state line. According to legend, the island was named for an Indian who was murdered there by another Indian, Chuckalee.

The Mississippian Culture lasted until shortly after the first European (De Soto) brought their diseases to the natives in the mid-1600. Their immune systems were not tuned to handle them. Thus common European childhood diseases ended the highest developed Native American culture in the southeast and Lower Mississippi River Valley. Another theory has the decline in population due to a prolonged drought that affected the corn crops. It may be possible that both conditions contributed to end the Mississippian Period in the Mississippi River Valley.

First Settlers

Tchula Period


Cole-Creek Period

Hoecake Phase

Mississippian Culture

De Soto

Indian Mound Builders



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Leave a Reply

    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


    January 2015
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    Little River's Geographic Past