By William Bruce
Deep in the heart of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta lies a mysterious island, studied for centuries by explorers, archeologists and historians.
As the crow flies, the island is only 24 miles north of downtown Mobile, Alabama. But by other measures, it’s eons away. The site is accessible only by boat.
The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers. Below where the two rivers join, a vast area of wetlands consisting of winding rivers, creeks, bayous, cut-offs, lakes and islands spread out over an area approximately 40 miles long and 10 miles wide. It’s the second largest river delta in the U.S. Ultimately all of this opens into the head of Mobile Bay.
This mysterious place in the heart of the wetlands wonderland is Mound Island. On a recent Sunday, our boat pulled out of a landing on the eastern edge of the Delta near Stockton heading for the island.
Captain Steve Day maneuvered the boat north up the Tensaw River and then into Bottle Creek. Mound Island is so deep in the Delta, that even departing from the closest landing, the boat trip is an hour-long ride to reach the site. The trip was organized by Blakeley State Park and included 50 adventurers on their boat, the Delta Explorer.
Mound Island on Bottle Creek is intriguing because of its prehistoric inhabitants. Humans lived there, as dated by archeologists, from about 1200 to 1450 AD. Archeological digs during the 1930s and 1990s suggest that the ancient inhabitants were Indians who migrated south from the mound building tribe at Moundville, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa to establish a new colony near the Gulf Coast.
On the island are 18 earthen mounds, the tallest being roughly 45 feet high. Five of the eighteen mounds are arranged around a central plaza.
Once the large pontoon boat was beached on Mound Island, Dr. Greg Waselkov, director of the Center for Archeological Studies at the University of South Alabama led the group of explorers by foot into the interior of the island. The island is dense with vegetation and there are no signposts, making it very easy to get lost. You want to hang tight with the group. Signs of wild hog rootings are everywhere. And Alabama’s remnant population of Black Bears lives in the Delta.
Dr. Waselkov said it’s not entirely clear what purpose the mounds served in the Indian culture, but indicated that living arrangements and ceremonial functions are the consensus of professional archeologists. He said the ruling families would probably have lived on the highest mounds, with the same mounds possibly playing a role in the religious and ceremonial life of the community. The lower classes of Indian society would have lived on the lesser mounds.
Excavations show that the mounds were well engineered and according to Dr. Wsaelkov, took years to construct, one basket of dirt at a time.
Why did the Moundville Indians want to establish a southern community in the middle of the Delta? “Possibly they wanted to take advantage of the east-west trade that was developing along the Gulf Coast,” said Dr. Waselkov. “And they may have considered the location protected but also accessible to the entire Gulf Coast area.”
During the community’s time of prominence, Dr. Waselkov says that Mound Island was probably the cultural, political and religious center of a large area of the Northern Gulf Coast. He says the mound builders were the genealogical antecedents of the “modern” tribes that we know as the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and others.
For whatever reasons, the Mound Island culture was in decline by 1500. By the time Bienville established the City of Mobile in 1702, there were few if any Indians living on Mound Island. However, the local Mobilian Tribe of Indians knew of the island and considered it sacred.
They offered to take Bienville into the Delta to show him the site. Once on the island, Bienville entered the temple which was located on one of the mounds. The Mobilian Indians, with fear and reverence for the temple, would not go in with him, and in fact averted their gaze so as to not look inside.
Once inside the temple, Bienville found five statues: a man, a woman, a child, a bear and an owl. He immediately seized the statues and took them back to Mobile. The Indians were horrified.
Bienville later shipped the five statues to France where they have been lost.
Other than Bienville’s plundering and a few vandals digging for relics over the past decades, the site has been well protected by its remote location and also by the McMillan family which owned thousands of acres in the Delta including Mound Island. The site is now owned by the State of Alabama and protected by the Alabama Historical Commission.
Further information on Mound Island can be found at the Encyclopedia of Alabama by clicking here.
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For other intriguing local historical lore, you may be interested in this article: “Were There Welsh Explorers on the Shores of Mobile Bay 300 Years Before Columbus ‘Discovered’ America.“