ALTO, Texas — This week we checked out some particular hills in East Texas, but these hills are more like mounds and they celebrate a culture that lived in our state long ago.
Before Texas became the Lone Star State, it was the homeland to a people that spent much more time in the territory than we have. Back when surviving off the land was the way of life, the native people thrived in Texas. In East Texas, the Caddo cultivated a culture that can still be seen today.
Phil Cross is a descendant of the people who once populated this part of the state. He makes an annual pilgrimage to the Caddo Indian Mounds State Historic Site to pass along his knowledge of his family tribe.
“It reaffirms deep in me that it’s a special culture and set of traditions that relates as far back as we know. It strengthens me and my group and then vice versa,” Phil said.
Situated near Alto and a mile from the Neches River, the mounds rise up from a field between the pines along highway 21.
“The Caddo were here from about 750 AD to the late 1200s early 1300s when they abandoned this site,” said Anthony Souther with the Texas Historical Commission.
Anthony says at one time, this village was home to nearly one thousand Caddo Indians. The three mounds are easily visible. One served as a temple, another a ceremonial slope, and finally a burial ground.
“We no longer let people go to the top of the mound because it is a cemetery,” Anthony said. “The temple mound had no burials, only buildings on it and the ceremonial mound between the two larger mounds had neither buildings or burials in it.”
Known for pottery, bow making, and agriculture the Caddo traded with tribes as far away as New Mexico and Illinois. They even created El Camino Real, the trade route that’s been crucial to Texas history.
Artifacts from those exchanges all those generations ago have been found here over the years but coming back and connecting with the piece of earth his predecessors lived on is what means most to Phil.
“People say, ‘Where do we come from? Did I come from Ireland or Germany or Yugoslavia?’ And that sets something up in people’s mind that ‘I’m a part of something in the past that happened somewhere and if I know about that it makes my life more complete,” Phil said. “And it gives me strength to know that I didn’t just come out of thin air but that I have people who proceeded. Struggle, struggle, struggle. Success. Whatever their experiences were and the activities. That’s important to each us.”
To celebrate that Caddo Culture, the historical site holds an annual gathering that goes back to basics. Surrounded by the mounds, the native people reflect and remember.
“That just makes a really special bond for me to this site and the people, our ancestors, who were here,” Phil said. “I go away from them stronger in who I am and knowing that I have touched someone with their similar feelings and that we’re stronger together. Makes us stronger people and better people.”
To celebrate Texas is to proclaim all her people. From the heroes of the Texas revelation to the tribes who made the Lone Star State terrain their home long.
“We will always be a steward of this Caddo history and we’ll safeguard the mounds to the best of our ability so that future generations of Texans can come and see this part of our history,” Anthony said.