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Mississippi Era (900 – 1541 A.D.)     

Indians in many parts of the Mississippi Valley turned from hunting, gathering, and gardening to a way of life based on agricultural production of corn, beans, and squash in the centuries after 900 A.D. These communities grew rapidly and large, fortified towns were built in many localities, some with platform mounds used for ceremonial purposes. These Mississippian societies were highly organized with powerful leaders, productive agricultural economies, and long-distance trade networks.

One example of a large, well-organized Mississippian society is the Emerald Mound, one of the largest ceremonial mounds in the United States, is a flat-topped earthen structure that rises 35 feet high on eight acres along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Given to the National Park Service in 1950, it became a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

At its zenith, Emerald likely hosted large religious and civic rituals. On either end of the platform are secondary flat-topped mounds, probably the bases of a temple and residence of a priest or ruler. Early drawings suggest that three smaller mounds flanked the sides. Emerald was built and occupied between 1250 and 1600 AD by the ancestors of the Natchez people.

The mound was originally known as the Selzertown site; the current name derives from the pre-Civil War era Emerald Plantation. The first excavations took place in 1838. Measurements were taken, and investigators noted eight secondary mounds and a large encircling trench. Periodic excavations have taken place since, most recently in 1972.

Emerald probably served as a political center and point of distribution for goods. Animal remains, ceramic fragments, tools, and the stratigraphy—all studied by National Park Service archeologists—offer a glimpse of life during Emerald's heyday.

By the mid 20th century, erosion and plowing had destroyed six of Emerald's secondary mounds, and part of the main flat top. Its present-day appearance is due to stabilization by the National Park Service, which restored and sodded the upper slopes of the main platform in 1955.

Spanish explorers led by Hernando de Soto were the first Europeans to meet the native people of the interior Southeast. The Spaniards landed on the Florida peninsula in the spring of 1539 and entered the Mississippi Valley during the winter of 1540. The Spaniards crossed the Great River on June 18, 1541, and entered present-day Arkansas.

The written accounts left by members of De Soto's expedition mark the beginning of what modern scholars call the historic era when written records become an increasingly important source of information on Native American and European encounters.

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