Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, one of the best known and intensively investigated Indian sites in Texas, is on State Highway 21 about six miles southwest of Alto in southern Cherokee County. It comprises much of what is known to archeologists as the George C. Davis Site, the southwesternmost ceremonial center of the Caddoan peoples who flourished on the western edge of the woodlands of eastern North America between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1550. Caddo Mounds consists of three large earthen mounds, as well as a large portion of a prehistoric village.
The large mounds have long been recognized as an ancient Indian settlement. One of the principal routes of the Old San Antonio Road, which extended diagonally across southern Cherokee County, ran along one edge of the mound site. The earliest mention of the mounds was made by Athanase de Mézières, a Frenchman in the employ of Spain, who traveled from Louisiana to San Antonio in 1779. Numerous amateur archeologists and other travellers visited the area during the nineteenth century. The first professional archeologist to examine the mounds, James Edwin Pearce, recorded the site for the Bureau of Ethnology in 1919. An Arizona archeologist, E. B. Sayles, who collected surface artifacts in 1933, concluded that the mounds had been built by the prehistoric Southern Caddos.
The first systematic excavations at the site were conducted by the Work Projects Administration and the University of Texas archeologist H. Perry Newell from 1939 to 1941. After Newell's death Alex D. Krieger, another UT archeologist, examined Newell's findings and concluded that the site had been a major Caddo community inhabited for several centuries, possibly as early as A.D. 500. Evidence collected in further excavations conducted by a team led by Dee Ann Story in the late 1960s and early 1970s suggested that the mounds had been occupied by the Early Caddos between A.D. 780 and 1260. Additional examination of the excavated material revealed that the site had been occupied by Paleo-Indian (10,000–6,000 B.C.) and Archaic cultures (6,000 B.C.-A.D. 500).
Scholars now believe that Early Caddos, probably from the Red River area to the northeast, founded a permanent settlement at the site sometime between A.D. 850 and 900. The life of these people differed markedly from that of the transient hunters and gathers who had previously used the site. At the same time, the society and material culture of the newcomers reflected a series of cultural developments evident between A.D. 800 and 1000 throughout much of the southeastern United States and central Mississippi valley. Inhabitants of the Davis Site cultivated large quantities of corn, which they supplemented with wild plants and game. They used the bow and arrow and made a decorated pottery that differed from the simpler vessels of earlier people who had camped there. Artifacts suggest that they participated in trade networks that stretched to the Gulf Coast, Central Texas, the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma, and the Appalachians. Their dwellings were beehive-shaped structures of pole and thatch construction, about twenty-five feet in diameter, possibly occupied by extended families. Archeological evidence indicates a hierarchical social and political organization. Two of the mounds represent communal precincts, where special structures served multiple functions. The third mound served as a burial site for elite members of the community. The mounds developed over time, as burials and destroyed buildings were periodically covered over with earth.
The Davis Site served as a regional center for the middle Neches region for almost 500 years. Then, for reasons unknown, the site was abandoned about A.D. 1300. It was used to some extent by later Caddoan people, but the site never regained its former prominence. When Europeans arrived in the area in the eighteenth century, the Caddoan groups they encountered lived in widely dispersed hamlets and small villages. Their social and political organization had become less hierarchical, and they had ceased to build mounds.
In 1974 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired seventy acres at the site and established a historic park. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the department sponsored a series of excavations by archeologists from the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, and private contractor Elton R. Prewitt. The digs revealed large concentrations of artifacts and surface features that indicated the village had been significantly larger than previously thought, extending beyond Weeping Mary Road to the north. As a result, the Parks and Wildlife Department acquired an additional twenty-three acres of adjacent land in 1981. The Parks and Wildlife Department subsequently constructed a visitors' center with interpretive exhibits as well as a three-quarter-mile self-guided trail tour that leads visitors through the mounds and village. Also on exhibit is a reconstruction of an Early Caddo dwelling, built using tools and techniques employed the Caddos. Effective January 1, 2008, operational control of Caddo Mounds State Historic Site was transferred to the Texas Historical Commission.