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The Caddo Grass Thatched House
by Phil Cross

One of the primary dwellings of the Caddo people in ancient times were houses that resembled large beehives. These dwellings were covered with grass, or thatch, that provided a waterproof and windproof shelter. The shingled installation and insulating quality of the thatch served to keep the interior warm in winter and cool in summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Caddo Village

Photograph courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

 

Caddos also constructed rectangular and square houses that were made up of outer straight walls of a grass and clay mixture (wattle and daub) placed between posts installed vertically shoulder to shoulder in the ground. The walls were about four feet high. A pitched roof was then built onto these walls by placing long poles from the walls to a top beam with grass thatching then covering these poles.

 

 

 

Cut-away houses I built for the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Ok in the spring of 2000.

Photographs by Yvonne Tsotigh Summerlin 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beehive Style House

 

Early explorers in the Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas region described the beehive shaped houses of the Caddo Indians living in that area. These structures, commonly 30 feet in diameter for one family and up to 60 feet in diameter for some ceremonial structures, were permanent buildings that can last for decades. A shallow firepit, located in the center of the structure, was the focal point of life in the house. Beds and living spaces were built around the interior walls and storage areas were sometimes built on second and third story levels in the upper parts of the house. The beds, made of poles lashed together and covered with grass and tanned hides, were raised a few feet off the ground. Shelves were arranged in the upper areas to store baskets of nuts, corn, beans, pottery vessels and other items such as corn grinding stoneware.

 

European explorers wrote that a grass thatched beehive style house would be constructed in one day by some 30 to 40 families in a communal effort. In preparation for the event, a climbing pole with hand and foot hold notches or knots was placed in the center of the footprint of the house. Post holes were dug for each of the frame poles. On the chosen construction day, each family that had been assigned to build the house would arrive at daylight at the site with one pole and the bundles of grass harvested by women needed to cover the segment of the house between two bent poles from the ground to the top. Each family would also have brought enough saplings for attaching grass to the bent poles. Each family would install and tamp in their pole vertically into the pre-dug holes. Two men would climb the center pole and with a long pole with a noose attached to the end, would in concert each snag the top of a pole in opposite directions from the center and would pull the pole to a wooden ring and attach it with bark string. Repeating this action, each of the poles would then be attached to the center ring, forming the frame for the house. Then each family sponsor of a pole in concert with the adjacent families would lash on one inch saplings horizontally spaced at about 18 inches from the ground to the top of the segment. These saplings form the backing for attaching the grass. The grass would then be attached by women standing on the backing saplings and sandwiching bundles of grass onto the backings with another sapling. Working up to the top, each family completed the thatching for its segment. This entire construction would be completed by early afternoon and would be accompanied by ample food for all attending. Photograph of excavation at Caddo Mounds, Alto, Tx, and construction of frame courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph of a Caddo Village in the 1870's Courtesy of University of Oklahoma Press, University of Oklahoma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Caddo Grass Thatched House Built in Modern Times

 

Although the beehive type of traditional Caddo dwelling has not been built for at least 50 years, recent efforts by modern day Caddos have resulted in several houses being built in Oklahoma and in preserving the construction methods of this traditional house.

 

 

Photographs of a house and arbor built by the author in eastern Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, in 1991.

 

 

This method of construction is as follows:

After a particular size of house is chosen, e.g. a 20 foot diameter house, 20 slender poles will need to be harvested to form the framework. Some 5 to 10 extra poles would collected for backup to replace unsuitable poles. Each pole should be about 20 feet long and have a constant taper from bottom to top so that the arc formed in the final frame is uniform. A rule of thumb is that the number of feet in diameter of the house represents the same number of poles that must be collected and also generally represents the number of holes to be dug.

 

The level site prepared for the house would then have post holes dug some 24 to 30 inches apart on the circumference of circle drawn on the ground and some 30 inches deep. A notched pole is placed in the center of the circle. A cedar pole is often very useful as a center pole since cedar often has many limbs along the trunk that make good climbing steps when clipped some 4 or 5 inches from the main trunk. The frame poles are stripped of bark. Photograph of the author and daughter Alison at the Caddo Nation Complex, 1997.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The framing poles are placed upright in the ground and tamped into the pre-dug holes around the circumference of the house. As with the ancient descriptions, two people at the top of the center using long poles with nooses tied to the end reach out and snag poles in opposite points on the circle of poles, pull the poles to the center, and then tie the top of the poles to a center ring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No interior braces are used during the bending and tying of this style house. This is different from the Wichita Indian’s method of employing an interior ring of support poles placed some two or three feet within the outer poles and are approximately 1/3rd the height of the structure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saplings are then attached horizontally to the shell approximately every 18 inches from top to bottom of the frame forming a grid. A second set of saplings is used to sandwich bundles of grass to the framework.

 

 

 

 

Photographs of construction at Caddo Nation Complex in 1997.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph  of grass house partially completed at Caddo Nation Complex in 1997.

 

 

Attaching the grass is done by a team of two people, one on the inside and one on the outside, with a 2-foot long wooden needle used by the person inside to pass ends of the fastening cord to the person on the outside, the tie person, who accomplishes the bundle placement and tying. Grass bundles are handed to the tie person on the outside, who then flattens then and arranges the bundles between the saplings into a layer about three inches thick. This forms an approximately 2 to 4 inch layer of grass uniformly placed in layers on the frame. Photographs of an arbor being built by the author and students at Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence Ks.

 

Rather than each segment being thatched from top to bottom by many families at once as was done in ancient times, modern Caddos create thatching at one level (spaced about 18 inches) at a time because a few workers can effectively build in this way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bottom edge of each layer is evened with the use of a paddle. Photograph (right) of arbor built in 2006 at Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, Ks.

 

 

 

 

About 300 bundles (one foot in diameter, closely packed) of grass are needed for thatching a house of a diameter 20 to 25 feet. Each bundle when sewn on the house will cover about one and a half square feet.

 

The grass used in the construction is called "Caddo swamp grass" by Caddo people. Formally named panicum virgatum and often called switch grass, it grows in clumps in wetlands and in areas where a constant flow of water is seen. Often the grass will grow over seven feet tall. The durability, insulation, and size of the grass are eminently suitable for this type of dwelling. Photograph of grass attachment method demonstration at Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, KS, 2006. The top of the bundle of grass in the photograph is approximately 8 feet high.