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Who are the Caddo?

painting of Caddo origin story
Caddo origin story as depicted by the famous Creek-Pawnee artist, Acee Blue Eagle. Carol Dorman Collection, Watson Library, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, Louisiana. The flanking Caddo pottery design elements have been added.
Summer dance
Summer dance at Caddo tribal dance grounds, Binger, Oklahoma. Photograph courtesy Donna Smith Spaulding.

Click images to enlarge  

Caddo dance, 1892
Caddo dance, 1892. Courtesy Marilyn Murrow. Photograph from Archives and Manuscripts Division, Oklahoma Historical Society.
Caddo drummers
Caddo drummers seated at a dance. This painting by Caddo artist Thompson Williams is based on an 1892 photograph. Courtesy Senior Citizen Center, Caddo Tribal Headquarters, Binger, Oklahoma.

Caddo communities were protected by the large size of the Caddo territory, the Caddo's reputation as fierce and skillful warriors, and their ability to band together in times of crisis. Their neighbors near and far knew not to enter Caddo territory without permission unless they were looking for a fight.

Map of Upper Nasoni
Map of Upper Nasoni settlement on the Red River, produced by the Spanish expedition of 1691-1692, led by Terán del Rio. This village was part of the Cadohadacho alliance. The map shows that the community consisted of small farmsteads or extended family compounds, each depicted as being surrounded by rows of trees or bushes. On the left is a mound with a "templo" on top. The settlement shown is believed to have stretched along several miles of the Red River. Original (uncolored) map in the Archivo General de Indias, Seville.
Ancient Caddo pots
Ancient Caddo potters created an extraordinary variety of pottery vessels from huge storage jars over three feet high to tiny bowls probably made for children. These examples are from the TARL collections. Photograph by Sharon Mitchell.
Whitebread, Caddo chief (caddi) from 1902-1913. Chief Whitebread, whose Caddo name translates literally as "bread white," was a major source of information on Caddo traditions for ethnographers George Dorsey and John Swanton.
Jose Maria
José Maria, famous chief of the Anadarko (Nadaco), who rose to become principal chief of all Caddo groups during the turbulent years of the mid-1800s. José Maria, whose Caddo name was Iesh (Aasch), was famed both as a warrior and statesman. It was he who led the Caddo from the short-lived Brazos Reserve in Texas to the Indian Territory in 1859. This bronze bust by sculptor Leonard McMurry is on display at the National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
Billy Thomas
Sho-We-Tit (Billy Thomas), a Caddo man photographed by Joseph Dixon on June 21, 1913 at Anadarko, Oklahoma. This extraordinary portrait was taken on an expedition funded by Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist Rodman Wanamaker. Dixon and his assistants presented American flags to Indian tribes across the country. The expedition was intended to promote loyalty to the United States and document the "vanishing Indian race." Courtesy William Mathers Museum, Indiana University.

Today the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma has some 4,000 members on its official tribal roll. The tribal headquarters is in Binger, Oklahoma, about 45 miles west of Oklahoma City. It was here, in and around the towns of Anadarko, Binger, and Fort Cobb, that the Caddo settled during and after the Civil War. This final relocation was preceded by over a century of turmoil during which Caddo groups were forced to give up their home territories in northeast Texas, northwest Louisiana, southwest Arkansas, and southeast Oklahoma.

Today's Caddo are the descendants of many distinct communities of people who shared much of a common culture. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, Spanish and French chroniclers familiar with the Caddo homeland recorded the names of at least 25 separate groups who spoke dialects of the language known today as Caddo. Beyond speaking the same basic language, these groups were linked by many shared customs, a similar way of life, and by intermarriage.

Because of population loss and enemy encroachment, most Caddo groups eventually organized themselves into the Hasinai, Cadohadacho (also spelled Kadohadacho), and Natchitoches alliances (often called "confederacies"). Group consolidation took place in the Neches and Angelina river valleys in east Texas (the Hasinai, comprised of the Hainia and other groups), the Great Bend area of the Red River (the Cadohadacho), and in the vicinity of the French post of Natchitoches, Louisiana. The Hasinai Caddo continued to live through the 1830s in their traditional east Texas homeland, while the Natchitoches did the same in western Louisiana. But the Cadohadacho were forced to move west and south of the Red River in the late 1780s, to the Caddo Lake area, along the boundary between the U.S. territory of Louisiana and the Mexican province of Texas. Some Cadohadacho stayed there until about 1842, at the village of Sha'chahdinnih or Timber Hill and several other poorly known villages.

When Europeans first arrived, the Caddo were settled, farming people who grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and other crops and lived in farmsteads, hamlets, and villages dispersed along streams and rivers that mainly flow to the east and south through their homeland. Within this area the forested Eastern Woodlands met the grasslands and savannas that fringed the Great Plains farther to the west. Culturally, the Caddo were the westernmost of the Indian societies of the Southeastern United States, but their closest linguistic and blood relatives were the Caddoan-speaking tribes of the Southern and Central Plains: the Wichita, Kitsai, Pawnee, and Arikara.

During the period from about 340 to 1000 years ago (A.D. 1000-1680), the Caddo, like other Southeastern cultures, had "ranked" societies with at least two social classes topped by the kin of the hereditary religious and political leaders. Ethnologists sometimes call such societies "theocratic chiefdoms" and recognize that politics and religion were not separate domains but interwoven parts of an intricate way of life. Although most Caddo communities were scattered, and stretched out along river and stream valleys, their most important leaders usually lived in or near the larger villages and ritual centers where towering temples built of poles and grass thatch stood atop earthen mounds (see Teran map on left). At sacred and festive times such as First Harvest and in times of crisis, the scattered Caddo gathered where their society's leaders lived.

The sprawling communities of the Caddo were quite different from the compact fortified towns of other societies along the central and lower Mississippi Valley, a few days walk to the east. In 1541, the De Soto entrada (intrusion) found fortified towns along the Mississippi River and societies engaged in violent and habitual warfare. The Spanish army sometimes attacked towns defended by well-organized warriors and surrounded by stout log palisades and ditch works. But as the Spanish moved farther west into the Caddo Homeland, they came across open villages that were not fortified. Caddo communities were protected by the large size of the Caddo territory, the Caddo's reputation as fierce and skillful warriors, and their ability to band together in times of crisis. Their neighbors near and far knew not to enter Caddo territory without permission unless they were looking for a fight.

Another thing that set the Caddo apart from their neighbors was their extraordinary skill and creativity as potters. Caddo women (and perhaps some men) made all kinds of pottery from huge storage jars over three feet high to tiny bowls smaller than a tea cup made for their children as well as a variety of other objects including smoking pipes and earspools. While much of the pottery was made for everyday use in cooking, storage, and serving, the Caddo fine wares also served other purposes (ritual and funerary) and are renown for their artistic craftsmanship. Caddo potters were adept at combining flowing vessel forms with polished surfaces that were characteristically decorated with engraved designs. Other vessels had appliquéd, brushed, incised, incisted-punctated or punctated designs, or were left plain. We know that Caddo pots were valued by neighboring groups because archeologists have found trade pieces hundreds of miles away from the Caddo Homeland. In fact, it is the distinctiveness of Caddo pottery that allows archeologists to trace, if imperfectly, much of their early history.

The Caddo were also known as traders, famed for their marvelous bows made of the wood of a tree the French named bois d'arc ("bow wood," Osage orange) and, their trade in salt. This trading was an important part of Caddo life in the historic era, as well as hundreds of years before European contact. The Caddo role as traders and, as information brokers, was partly a consequence of the strategic position of their territory between the Plains and the lower Mississippi Valley. In the 17th century, the Spanish in northern Mexico learned of the populous and prosperous Tejas Nation from the Jumano Indians decades before Spanish expeditions reached the Caddo homeland from the west in the 1680s. In the early 18th century French traders were reportedly living in each of the major Caddo villages along the Red River to take advantage of the Caddos' strategic position and reputation as traders and middlemen. Soon large quantities of deer and buffalo hides, horses and Apache slaves from the Caddo and their trading partners to the west were being exchanged for French guns and trade goods.

The name "Caddo" comes from Cadohadacho, the name of one of the largest and most powerful groups in early historic times, a people who lived mainly along the Red River near its Great Bend. The Cadohadacho and their direct ancestors had probably been living in the Red River valley for a thousand years or more. "Cadohadacho" is often said to mean "true chiefs" with the implication being that these were the original Caddo, but this is a mistaken notion. (According to linguist Wallace Chafe, the Caddo word, kaduhdááachu, is a proper name whose full meaning and origin is lost; the compound word contains a form of the adjective hadááchu, meaning "sharp.") Other major Caddo groups have equally long and distinguished histories, especially the Hasinai groups who lived to the south in the Neches and Angelina rivers basins in what is today east Texas. In fact, the Caddo groups only became one people called the Caddo, after the mid-1800s, when remnants of the many named groups united to save their shared identity. Even today many Caddo people trace their ancestry to one branch of the tribe or another.

Sorting out the various Caddo "branches" is complicated and possible only to a limited degree. Over the centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans, Caddo groups had split apart from one another with "daughter" communities breaking apart from "mother" communities when moving into new territories in search of better farmland and less crowding. The use of the terms mother and daughter communities seems particularly appropriate because Caddo societies traced their ancestry primarily through their mother's family. In times of crisis, such as when enemies attacked, the most closely related (and nearby) groups banded together into temporary alliances identified with the strongest or principal social group, which was often the older, mother community. The Cadohadacho and Hasinai were the main groups who led the largest and most influential alliances encountered by the Spanish and French, while the Anadarko or Nadaco were another such unit. (These are often misleadingly called "confederacies," a term which implies a more formal union than was the case; Caddo alliances were fluid and could be temporary.)

The 1942 map by ethnologist John Swanton shows the approximate locations of some of the named groups/places as recorded by the Spanish and French in the early 1700s. Two principal alliances, the Cadohadacho and the Hasinai, are shown as living in separate territories with a large intervening area that appears to be unoccupied. This is, in part, a gap of information rather than a complete absence of intervening settlements. Swanton's map shows the areas known to the Europeans. There is abundant archeological evidence that Caddo groups were living in most parts of their traditional homeland in the 16th and 17th centuries, but this settlement dispersion diminished after ca. A.D. 1680-1700. But by the time the Europeans became familiar with the Caddo groups, many changes and consolidations had already taken place as the result of the advance spread of Old World diseases and the encroachment from the east and north by opportunistic enemies such as the Osage and Chickasaw. These developments impacted the easternmost Caddo groups first, which explains why Swanton's map shows only the Cahinnio and Ouachita villages to the east of the Red River.

Caddo woman
Artist's depiction of a Caddo woman carrying a basket of freshly picked corn. Corn became the Caddo's mainstay crop about 800 years ago and was considered a sacred plant because of its importance to Caddo life. Courtesy artist Reeda Peel.
Artist's depiction of early Caddo village, about 900 years ago. Painting by Nola Davis on display at Caddo Mounds State Historic Park, Alto, Texas. Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
map of Caddo homeland
This map shows the relationship of the Caddo Homeland to a few of the most important late prehistoric civic and ritual centers that existed during the heyday of the ancient Caddo, about 400-1000 years ago (A.D. 1000-1600).
"Beef Issue at Fort Still"
"Beef Issue at Fort Still" painting by T.C. Cannon, son of a Kiowa father and a Caddo mother. Courtesy of the Tee Cee Cannon Estate and Joyce Cannon Yi, estate executor.
butchering steer
1894 photograph of Caddo family butchering steer probably issued to family at the Anadarko Agency, Oklahoma. Photo by Irwin and Mankins, from Archives and Manuscripts Division, Oklahoma Historical Society.
Dance in 1995
Dance underway at the Caddo Tribal Dance Grounds, Binger, Oklahoma, 1995. Photo by Cecile Carter.
Mrs. Whitebead
Mrs. Whitebread, wife of Caddo chief (caddi), 1902-1913. Date of photograph unknown, probably early 1900s. Courtesy Marilyn Murrow.
heirloom silver broaches
Heirloom silver broaches from Whitebread family. Such pieces, typically made of German silver, were worn around the turn of the century in much the same way that conch shell artifacts were a thousand years earlier. Photograph by Cecile Carter.
John Swanton's map
John Swanton's map showing the approximate locations of some of the named Caddo groups and villages, as recorded by the Spanish and French in the late 1600s and early 1700s. From: Source Material on the History and Ethnology of the Caddo Indians, 1942, Smithsonian Institution.