The Legend of the Tunica Treasure
In the blistering summer heat of 1968, an astounding archeological discovery was made on the Old Trudeau Plantation in Tunica, a rural central Louisiana community on the east bank of the Mississippi River about 15 miles northwest of St. Francisville.
What was discovered on that fateful day in 1968 would eventually come to be known to archeologists as “the greatest archeological find in the lower Mississippi valley,” and “one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century.”
But just a few years after its discovery it would be described as “the curse of the Tunica Treasure” by Leonard Charrier (sharie-ay), an untrained pothunter who unearthed this great archeological find - a secluded Tunica mausoleum that held over 100 Tunica Indian graves.
Through extensive study of 18th century maps and early colonial period documents Charrier figured out the exact location of something that had been jealously guarded by history for 240 years, something archeologists had been actively searching for since the 1930s.
Armed with a metal detector, and the casual permission of the plantation’s caretaker to poke around on the property, Charrier went in search of his treasure hunter’s dream: the long-hidden grave of the wealthy 18th century Tunica Indian, Cahura-Joligo (Ka-HUE-ra Jo-LEE-go). Legend had it that this great Tunica chief was buried with a cache of gold and silver coins given to him by French monarch Louis XV in gratitude for his tribe’s military assistance to French settlers in colonial Louisiana.
When Charrier first stood on the land where his research had guided him, it didn’t take long before his metal detector started to react strongly, indicating buried metal, and lots of it.
Buried underground was evidence of the unique relationship the Tunica Indians shared with French and Spanish settlers during the early colonization of Louisiana: European glazed earthenware pieces, Rhine valley stoneware, blue and white Dutch delftware, brass and iron pots, pan and kettles, musket parts, ceremonial pipes, iron tools, pewter bowls, shell ear pins, jugs, bowls and jars, brass bells, glass beads, cooking utensils, iron knives and brass buttons.
According to archeologists, what makes the Tunica Treasure unique is the sheer quantity and variety of European items, which is unparalleled at any other known contemporary native site of the mid-eighteenth century in the Southeast. The Tunica’s entrepreneurial shrewdness as traders of horses and salt, and their value as military allies with French and Spanish colonists, earned them the rewards of European contact and friendship. And as the material wealth of the Tunica increased, they became ever more changed by, and dependent upon, the colonial European lifestyle.
In December of 1721, the Tunica were visited by the official historian of New France [Canada], Father Charlevoix, who met the great chief, Cahura-Joligo, and recorded the following description of the Tunica’s now-famous Grand Mingo whose tribe was living at what is now known as Angola, Louisiana, just a few miles north of the Tunica Treasure mausoleum at the Old Trudeau Plantation:
“The chief received us very politely; he was dressed in the French fashion, and seemed to be not at all uneasy in that habit. Of all the savages of Canada there is none so much depended on by our commandants as this chief. He loves our nation, and has no cause to repent of the services he has rendered it. He trades with the French, whom he supplies with horses and fowls, and he understands his trade very well. He has learned of us to hoard up money, and he is reckoned very rich.”
Ten years after this meeting, in June of 1731, members of the Natchez tribe who were exacting their revenge on the Tunica for their military assistance to the French, killed Cahura-Joligo during a surprise early morning raid. Immediately after the death of the great Tunica chief, the tribe relocated south to the Trudeau site where they lived and prospered for the next sixty years.
Without the Old Trudeau Plantation owner’s knowledge or permission, and without any archeological training, Charrier began what has since been described as a haphazard mutilation of the Tunica mausoleum, unearthing the contents of more than 100 Indian graves between 1968 and 1970.
On weekends and after working hours at Angola Prison where he worked as a prison guard, Charrier repeatedly visited the burial site just two miles south of Angola, still searching for Cahura-Joligo's grave. The artifacts he found were removed surreptitiously from the site, and carried away in his car across the Mississippi River on the Saint Francisville ferry, then piled and stuffed into every nook and cranny of his small residence in Bunkie, LA.
In late 1969 Charrier was in the market to sell the artifacts he had unearthed to date. He brought into his confidence Louisiana archeologist Stu Neitzel who, after his initial shock at seeing such marvelous artifacts piled up in the closets of Charrier’s house, immediately contacted archeologist Dr. Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Museum in Essex, Massachusetts, the leading authority on Tunica Indian history. When Dr. Brain finally arrived in Bunkie with Neitzel to see the items for himself, he offered $4,000 to Charrier for the entire collection.
Declining Brain's offer, Charrier said he wanted $40,000 for "his" collection, even though proof of ownership could not be presented at this meeting. Charrier assured Brain he could prove he had clear title to the artifacts. Brain countered with an offer of $8,000, but Charrier again declined.
A deal was eventually made, however. Charrier agreed to sell the collection to the Peabody Museum, where it would be restored, studied and displayed. The money to buy the collection was to come from a consortium made up of the Peabody Museum, the Corning Museum, and the Smithsonian.
So, on September 10, 1970, the remarkable collection left the little town of Bunkie, which is located just a short 10-minute drive away from Marksville, home of the Tunica Indian tribe for the past 200 years.
Four years later, on October 26, 1974, when the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana incorporated and again resumed the Tunica's 55-year effort to obtain federal recognition as a tribe, they were still unaware that the remains of their ancestors had been unearthed, and that the grave goods were being housed at the Peabody Museum. Nor could they have imagined that during the previous four years Brain and Charrier had been at great odds over finalizing the sale of the collection. The sticking point continued to be Charrier's lack of any legal proof of ownership.
In the summer of 1972, Charrier finally revealed to Brain where the artifacts had been found, saying that a Mississippi widow named Louise Bell was the owner of the Old Trudeau Plantation property. After meeting with the widow Bell and her initially uncooperative family members, Brain was eventually given permission by the family to view, and eventually to continue excavation of, the Tunica Indian graveyard.
During the next two years Charrier waited anxiously to discover the wishes of the Bell family concerning ownership of the artifacts he had unearthed on their property.
When no decision had been made by the Bells to either give or sell the rights to the artifacts to him, Charrier filed suit against the Bell family on July 17, 1974 in the West Feliciana Parish District Court of Louisiana. In his petition Charrier claimed:
"During the years 1968 through 1970 the Plaintiff herein, with the permission of the Defendants or their agent or agents, discovered a quantity of precious old relics on the Defendant's land which belonged to the Tunica Indians and which had many, many years ago been abandoned by these Indians."
Late in 1975, before the Charrier v. Bell court case began, a newly established agency of the State of Louisiana called the Louisiana Archeological Survey and Antiquities Commission (LASAC) entered the case as a third party, claiming Louisiana had a fiduciary responsibility to protect Indian burial sites. The state agency asserted:
"There are no lawful heirs to the Tunica Indians who originally buried the artifacts and, under State law, the succession of persons who die without heirs or which are not claimed by those having a right to them, belong to the State."
Because of the state's response to Charrier's lawsuit it soon became public knowledge that up for grabs was an incredible collection of artifacts known as "The Tunica Treasure."
And it was because of the state's publicized intervention that the Tunica tribe finally heard of the discovery of their ancestor's mausoleum by Charrier, and in time, the disturbing story of its excavation.
A Litigious Roller Coaster
On June 14, 1976 the first chapter of the "Charrier vs. Bell" court battle for ownership of The Tunica Treasure began. The next three and a half years would create a litigious roller coaster of perplexing decisions and appeals so exhausting that, by the winter of 1979 Dr. Brain would describe the contentious legal maneuvers as an unimaginable waste of emotional and intellectual effort.
As for the Tunica Indian tribe's role in the ongoing court process, until the federal government would formally recognize them as a tribe, all they could do was watch the unfolding legal battle as a minor player. But the Tunica Indians’ legal status was about to change dramatically.
After five years of hard work that began in October of 1974, once again yet another petition was submitted - by the now incorporated Tunica-Biloxi tribe - to the Secretary of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., titled "Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe of Louisiana, Petition for Recognition of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe in Compliance with CFR Part 54 (1979).” One can only imagine the tribe's feelings of guarded optimism.
While the Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted its investigation of the Tunica-Biloxi petition, two more significant events occurred. The Peabody Museum returned The Tunica Treasure to Louisiana, where it was housed by the Cabildo Museum in New Orleans, although the ownership issue was still unsettled. And in July of 1981, an article appeared in The New Yorker magazine that was favorable to Charrier, describing the Tunica Indians' interest in the artifacts as merely "a potential source of employment." This latest insult made the Indians even more eager to join the court battle as a major player.
Up to this point in early July of 1981 the court battle was being contested by three interested parties: the plaintiff "pothunter" Leonard Charrier, the defendant Bell family landowners, and the state intervener the LASAC, which had earlier purchased Louise Bell's Trudeau Plantation property and the rights to the artifacts on behalf of the State of Louisiana for $175,000.
Louisiana Assistant Attorney General, Fred Benton, Jr., believed that the state could never agree to a settlement that rewarded a treasure hunter for destroying the archeological heritage of some of its citizens. When asked about Charrier's actions Benton said, "The [Trudeau] site was pillaged. Are we to give a guy money for destroying all of this archeology?"
On July 27, 1981, an announcement appeared in the Federal Register, putting an end to the Tunica tribe's 60-year quest for official recognition:
"Notice is hereby given that the Assistant Secretary acknowledges that the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe exists as an Indian tribe."
Federal recognition of the tribe added a new twist to the Tunica Treasure court case drama.
When the Tunica finally joined the "Charrier vs. Bell" lawsuit in the fall of 1981, Fred Benton, Jr. agreed to merge the state's claim with the Tunica Indian’s claim in order to help them obtain possession and control of their ancestor’s grave goods. With Benton on their side, the Tunica gained a powerful ally in their battle to reclaim what they felt rightfully belonged to them.
The Tunica Triumph
March 18, 1985. What had begun nine years ago in the crowded second-floor courtroom of the West Feliciana Parish Court House in Saint Francisville had now arrived at its remarkable conclusion.
Appeals Court Judge C. Lenton Sartain issued a 15-page decision concerning the true ownership of the now-famous "Tunica Treasure." He said, in part:
"While the relinquishment of immediate possession may have been proved, an objective viewing of the circumstances and intent of the relinquishment does not result in a finding of abandonment... The relinquishment of possession normally serves some spiritual, moral, or religious purpose of the descendant/owner, but it is not intended as a means of relinquishing ownership to a stranger."
Plainly speaking, the judge ruled that the common law doctrine of abandonment does not apply to burial materials. When a body is buried, the survivors do not intend to abandon that body as if it were an acre of land. Therefore, Judge Sartain reasoned, the bones and grave goods remain the property of the descendants, who in this case are the Tunica-Biloxi Indians.
Charrier continued to appeal all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but Judge Sartain's common sense ruling stuck. The message to all pothunters was clear: those who hope to be rewarded for plundering Indian graves for profit in Louisiana are in for a big disappointment.
Five years later, Judge Sartain’s 15-page decision determining ownership of the Tunica Treasure laid the foundation for federal legislation known as NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act of 1990, signed into law by President George Bush.
A Two Million Dollar Restoration
In the summer of 1989, the Tunica Treasure was finally returned by the Cabildo Museum in New Orleans to the Tunica-Biloxi reservation in Marksville. By now all of Charrier’s court claims of ownership had ended in failure. And the Tunica tribe believed they were ready to properly care for the delicate artifacts that had remained in the care of the Cabildo Museum for nearly ten years.
In eager anticipation the Tunica-Biloxi Museum's curator and anthropologist, Bill Day, opened the grave goods boxes one by one only to discover that he had a serious problem on his hands. After a close inspection of the collection Day understood the reason for the grave goods poor condition. Day explains:
"These ceramics were loaded with chlorides from being in the ground for two hundred years. When metallic or ceramic objects absorb salt, anytime you have environmental change, this can cause extensive damage, because with [added] moisture hydrochloric acid forms, which allows moisture to penetrate, which causes salt to crystallize. When a crystal forms [in ceramics] it doesn't stop forming; something has to give. So there is exfoliation, disintegration [of the ceramics]."
Day was eventually informed by an architect who works for the Tunica Tribe that the reason for the deteriorating condition of the collection was that “for some time” during nearly ten years the Tunica Treasure was housed by the Cabildo, it was not properly cared for.
In fact, for an unknown period of time the collection had been stored in grocery store pasteboard boxes in old historic cabins, unprotected from humidity, out behind Madame John's Legacy in the French Quarter, with iron kettles stacked on top of some of the fragile ceramics. It was during this time that the collection was exposed to destructive moisture.
Extremely disappointed by the condition of the grave goods that had finally found their way back to the tribe, Day decided to seek the advice of professional conservators and ask them two questions: "Can these ceramics be saved? If so, how much will it cost?"
After careful inspection of the fragile ceramics the conservators replied, "Yes, some can be saved. It will cost between one-and-a-half million to two million dollars."
So, with the latest obstacle in The Tunica Treasure odyssey clearly defined, the undaunted Day began knocking on doors from Shreveport down to New Orleans, trying to raise money to restore the Tunica's enormous collection of grave goods. Eventually enough funds were raised to buy two refrigerated truck trailers, which would serve as the Tunica Indian conservation laboratory. The tribe eventually put together what Day proudly describes as "one of the most sophisticated conservation laboratories anywhere."
Tunica-Biloxi Success Story
As of August, 2003, the Tunica-Biloxi tribe has restored 78 percent of the fragile grave goods that were unearthed 35 years ago, a stunning 255,000 artifacts. In 2004, the collection is to be housed in a new Cultural Resource Center (photo) on the reservation that will consist of a museum to display the Tunica Treasure, a gift shop, tribal offices, library, restoration/conservation laboratory, computer lab, and exhibit hall.
Their new cultural center is a direct result of the Tunica’s customary entrepreneurial spirit exemplified by the tribe’s continued success in the gaming and hospitality industries, with their Paragon Casino Resort, golf course, Convention Center, and various non-gaming business franchises in central Louisiana.
Tunica-Biloxi Chairman, Earl J. Barbry, Sr., says his tribe is currently “one of largest employers in central Louisiana.” Recently the Louisiana legislature honored Barbry’s tribe with a Tunica-Biloxi Day conference where Barbry spoke to House and Senate members about his plans to attract new business to Louisiana. Barbry says it is important to him to “consider how new business will benefit both the greater community and the tribe.” But more importantly, Barbry insists, “the best investment we’ve ever made, or ever will make, is in our children.”
A Chronology of Tunica History – 1541 to Present
1541 – “Quizquiz” (pron. keys-keys) near Friars Point, MS. Tunica makes contact with Spanish explorer DeSoto.
1682 to 1706 – “Yazoo River” near Vicksburg, MS. The Tunica are farmers, friendly, traded salt and fowl for goods with French missionaries. Introduction to European material culture of worldly goods.
1706 to 1731 – “Portage of the Cross” near Angola, LA. The Tunica trades heavily in salt and horses with French and Spanish colonials, and are trusted military allies of the French.
1731 – Natchez nearly wiped out by French. Grand Mingo, Cahura-Joligo is killed in a Natchez retaliatory raid.
1731 to 1763 - With the death of Cahura-Joligo, tribe moves south to Trudeau, LA. Location of the “Tunica Treasure” mausoleum.
1764 to 1790 – After Tunica raid on British troops the tribe moves west across the Mississippi River to Pointe Coupee, LA to be near French settlements.
1790 – The Tunica tribe moves to Marksville, LA where they currently reside.
A Chronology of the Tunica Treasure Court Case
1968 to 1970 - Pothunter, Leonard Cherrier, discovers and mutilates ancient Tunica mausoleum at Tunica, LA. Charrier’s find later comes to be known as “the greatest archeological find in the lower Mississippi valley.”
1969 – Cherrier offers to sell the Tunica collection to Dr. Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Museum in Essex, MA although Cherrier cannot prove ownership.
September 10, 1970 – Tunica Treasure transported from Cherrier’s home near Bunkie, LA to Peabody Museum to be studied and displayed. Cherrier is still unwilling to reveal the location of the mausoleum, and has yet to receive any money for the collection.
1972 – Cherrier reveals the mausoleum’s location to Dr. Brain who begins a scientific study of the site.
July 17, 1974 – Charrier files a lawsuit against the Trudeau property owner, Louise Bell. The Tunica Treasure court case titled Charrier v. Bell begins.
October 26, 1974 – The Tunica and Biloxi tribes incorporate and file for federal recognition. The Tunica still have no knowledge of their mausoleum’s exhumation and the ongoing Peabody study.
1975 – The newly created Louisiana Archeological Survey and Antiquities Commission enters Cherrier v. Bell as a third party claiming that since there are no rightful heirs in existence the grave goods belong to the state. With the LASAC’s publicized intervention into Charrier v. Bell the Tunica tribe learns of the existence of “The Tunica Treasure.”
June 14, 1976 – The first chapter of Charrier v. Bell court battle begins in St. Francisville, LA courthouse. The court case would be appealed repeatedly well into the mid-1980s.
1979 – The LASAC purchases Louise Bell’s property at Trudeau for $175,000.
1980 - The Tunica Treasure is shipped from the Peabody Museum to the Cabildo Museum in New Orleans where it is to be stored until a lawful owner is determined.
July 27, 1981 – The Federal Register announces the Tunica-Biloxi tribe officially exists as an Indian tribe.
1981 – The Tunica enter Charrier v. Bell lawsuit. Louisiana Assistant Attorney General, Fred Benton, Jr., agrees to merge the State’s claim with the Tunica claim to help them regain possession of their ancestor’s grave goods.
March 18, 1985 – Appeals Court Judge, C. Lenton Sartain, issues judgment in favor of the Tunica Indians that is not overturned by any higher court. Charrier appeals Sartain’s ruling all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, to no avail.
1989 – The Tunica receive their ancestors grave goods from the Cabildo and discover the 240-year-old ceramics are severely damaged. The Tunica must raise two million dollars to restore the collection. Initial restoration funds are raised by requests for donations.
1991 – Grand Casino Avoyelles is built by the Sovereign Tunica-Biloxi Nation. Casino profits are used to continue restoration of the Tunica Treasure grave goods.
1994 – Approximately 40% of the Tunica Treasure is restored and enshrined in the new Tunica-Biloxi Museum. Admission is free.
2003 – Approx. 78% of the collection is restored and the old Tunica Treasure Museum is torn down to build a new Cultural Resource Center and Museum to be completed in late 2004.
This Blog post is Dedicated
to the Memory of Bill Day -
Director, Tunica-Biloxi Cultural
and Historic Preservation
Thank you note to Bill Day (1995):
“Mr. Day, I managed to talk to the Hoshman's, owners of the Old Trudeau Plantation, who let me have a five minute look at the site. I took a couple of photos and gave one to Trent to use in the article. The site is not very impressive to look at but very creepy to experience, a very odd sensation comes over you while standing there quietly, soaking it in. Thank you for teaching me about both sides of the "American" nickel, especially about the side with the buffalo on it.”
- Jefferson Hennessy