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About Chucalissa

Early Chucalissa

Although projectile points dating back some 3000 years have been found at the site, most evidence indicates that the first town was founded around 1000 C.E. Although brief, this occupation, known as the Ensley Phase, paved the way for more stable communities in the following centuries. Little has survived of this first occupation, the site appears to have been a satellite of a larger community located near Downtown Memphis.

Around 1200 C.E. the village was again brought to life during what is referred to as the Mitchell Phase. Daily life and customs appear to have changed little, but this phase marked the initiation of the mound building phase with the construction of the first small mound. There is also evidence of contact with people to the south; yet again the village was short lived.

After being abandoned for some two hundred years, the site was again settled around 1400 C.E. During the Boxtown Phase of occupation, perhaps the most important evidence suggests a broad trading network extending from the Natchez area of Mississippi to Western Kentucky and Illinois. The most impressive evidence for these contacts is seen by the presence of potsherds.

Around 1500 C.E. the last, and most powerful settlement of the area occurred. The village constructed during this, the Walls Phase, is the one represented at the site today. During this phase, large mounds were constructed around the central plaza. Society and technology had evolved and produced a rather advanced chiefdom of both stratification and order?social and civil.

During this occupation farming, supplemented by hunting and fishing were the mainstays of daily life. Meanwhile a substantial artisan class practiced their trades, and extended the economic network of the village. Additionally the residents enjoyed sufficient free time to warrant the construction of a ball field/ceremonial ground. Although it is unclear exactly why, these inhabitants too abandoned the site before the arrival of DeSoto in the Mid-south.

In 1541 Spanish colonial explorer Hernando DeSoto "discovered" the Mississippi River somewhere south of Memphis. Over the course of the next 500 years, many nations would lay claim to the land that Chucalissa is on and by 1800 it was considered the property of the expanding United States.

The bottom-lands between the bluff and the river were turned to farming early in the 19th century. This improved land was bought in 1854 and run as a cotton plantation. 19 enslaved African Americans were purchased as laborers along with the land, its buildings and some animals. These and other slaves were freed during the course of the Civil War. Though we do not know what became of these individuals, many local African Americans remained in this area and farmed under the sharecropping and tenant farming systems.

Following the Civil War, this land traded hands a number of times until 1936, when it was purchased by the state to create the Shelby County Negro Park. This park was to be the Jim Crow-era analogy to the whites-only Shelby Forest north of Memphis. The archaeological site was discovered in 1938 by Civilian Conservation Corps workers preparing the new park. The University of Tennessee began archaeological excavations at the site in 1940, but soon halted them in response to World War II. In 1955 work resumed at Chucalissa and the first public museum at the site was opened in 1956.

Chucalissa Today

In January 1962, Memphis State University assumed administrative responsibility for Chucalissa and the site quickly became a central focus of the Archaeology program in the Department of Anthropology. Chucalissa supported a continuous series of field schools and was the subject of numerous MA theses and practicums. In 1974 Chucalissa was listed on the National Register of Historic Place and in 1994 was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Today, Chucalissa continues to provide educational experiences for the general public and elementary and secondary students, and visitors to the Memphis through its exhibitions, tour programs and special events. Our goal is to provide a range of educational programs to promote greater awareness and appreciation of the accomplishments of the Native American people of the mid-south, both past and present.

The C.H. Nash Museum and Chucalissa support diverse undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Memphis. The museum and its associated educational programs provide training opportunities for students in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program. 

We continue to work toward an expanded and enhanced visitor experience at Chucalissa and continued service to the educational mission of the University of Memphis.

Chucalissa offers guided tours, traveling exhibits, and a variety of special events for students and the general public.  Events include our Annual Relic Run in March, family days, and various demonstrations of crafts and early technologies. For more information consult the event calendar page or contact the museum at (901)-785-3160 or write chucalissa@memphis.edu

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Last Updated: 2/24/14