Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park: “A Site Of Utmost Significance”

Author: News Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, July 5, 2022 12:00 AM
Categories: Faculty/Staff | Pressroom | School of Arts and Letters

Macon, GA

Dr. Matt Jennings in the visitor center of Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. Image: John Legg

Located on the east bank of the Ocmulgee River in Macon, Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park is one of the region’s greatest historical treasures - a Native ancestral land shaped by “17 millennia of continuous human habitation.” Earlier this year, the park doubled in size through the acquisition of adjacent land – the “Ocmulgee Old Fields” - that was under threat of industrial development.

Dr. Matt Jennings, professor of history at Middle Georgia State University, is a leading scholar of the park’s history. In this Q&A, he discusses the cultural significance of the park to the region and why this is an exciting time for Ocmulgee.  

Tell us the backstory of how Ocmulgee National Historical Park became one of your areas of scholarly interest. 

Thanks for asking! I first visited Ocmulgee, which was then a national monument, in 2000. I was in graduate school, and had traveled to Macon for an archaeology conference. I was instantly mesmerized by the site, and this visit, among other things, inspired me to include some Ocmulgee material in my first book (New Worlds of Violence), and then to focus on American antiquity more in the years ahead. Some of this work has appeared in a picture history I compiled of Ocmulgee and in a book I co-authored with the poet Gordon Johnston (Ocmulgee National Monument: A Brief History with Field Notes), and in a few other places too.  

What are some of the characteristics of the area that you find the most fascinating? 

I could go on all day about Ocmulgee, but I’ll spare your readers. The two most important features of Ocmulgee, to my mind, are its longevity as a site of utmost significance, and its unbroken connection to the Muskogee (Creek) Nation. On the first score, as soon as there were people in the Southeast, more than 10,000 years ago, there were people at Ocmulgee. Over the ensuing millennia, Ocmulgee was home to dozens of cultures (the most celebrated today are the Mississippians, who built the site’s most recognizable features, the mounds). It was a site of trade between Europeans and Native nations, of violence, of African enslavement, of white economic development and colonialism, and, most recently, of rebirth and renewal. I’m obviously biased, but few places in North America can boast so many layers of history in such a concentrated area. The Muskogee people who were forced to part with their ancestral homelands in the Southeast never forgot, and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have begun to remind outsiders of their ancient presence at this place. 

On March 12, 2019, Ocmulgee National Monument became Ocmulgee National Historical Park. What does that mean for the park in practical terms and how significant a development is it for the Middle Georgia region, economically and culturally? 

I’m far from expert in the legislative process, or in the internal workings of the National Park Service, but my understanding is that the status change is one step in a multi-stage process that will eventually lead to the creation of a large national park in Middle Georgia. It opens up new sources of funding, study, and interpretation. You can’t overstate the importance of the current and future park to Middle Georgia. My main concern here is history, cultural preservation, and supporting Muskogee institutions as they re-forge connections to Middle Georgia, but it would be naïve not to recognize that a large, protected area would also be a boon to tourism, outdoor sports, and many kinds of revenue-generating activities. Some of the projections are eye-popping, but even on the low end, we’re talking about millions of dollars. 

Do you think Macon and the surrounding region fully appreciate what we have in ONHP? If not, do you expect that to change in the coming years as the significance of Macon gaining Georgia's only national historical park becomes more clear? 

You know you’ve asked an academic a good question when the answer’s “yes and no.” Yes and no. Maconites were ignorant and disrespectful enough in the nineteenth century to do great damage to the site, but prescient enough in the early twentieth century to purchase the initial lands for the park and turn them over to the stewardship of the National Park Service. The regional recognition of Ocmulgee waxed and waned in the decades since. Today, thousands of Macon residents appreciate the natural beauty and cultural significance of the park and make great use of it (and visitors arrive from all of the states and overseas regularly). Those associated with the park have done well to draw attention to it, but there’s always room to grow. One somewhat recent development that I’d like to draw attention to is the fact that in addition to the scores of Muskogee delegations that have returned to Ocmulgee since the 1950s, and with increasing regularity since the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration began and a new federal law mandated cooperation between the NPS and Native nations in the 1990s, the Muscogee Creek Nation has recently sent an emissary, Tracie Revis (Yuchi/Muskogee) to live in Macon and work with the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative. The ONPPI, together with the Ocmulgee Mounds Association (born in the 1940s), as well as Muskogee and Georgia governmental entities, are all acting in concert to bring a full-on national park to Middle Georgia, and to ensure the site’s protection, preservation, and interpretation for generations to come. This is an exciting time for Ocmulgee, and I’m honored to be a very small part of this wide-ranging effort. 


Dr. Matt Jennings, MGA history professor, was born in a suburb outside of Atlanta, and raised in a suburb outside of Chicago, to paraphrase his deservedly forgotten song "What It's Like to Be Me, Pt. II." He earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois in 2007. Macon State College (today's MGA) rescued him from the academic job market that same year, and he's taught here ever since. His specialty is Native American history, but he teaches a variety of classes. Jennings's books include New Worlds of Violence, a pictorial history of Macon (co-authored with historian Stephen Taylor), The Flower Hunter and the People, and Ocmulgee National Monument: A Brief History with Field Notes (co-authored with poet Gordon Johnston). He lives in Macon with his wife, sons, cats, and a disturbing number of books and guitars.