Published on October 26, 2010 by John
Shawnee, pronounced shaw-NEE or SHAW-nee, is derived from the Algonquian word chawunagi, meaning “southerners” in the Algonquian language, a name resulting from the fact that for most of their history the Shawnee lived south of other ALGONQUIANS. The Shawnee split up into different groups and migrated often. The Cumberland River in what is now Tennessee is given as their original homeland, but perhaps it is more accurate to think of their territory as lying to the west of the Cumberland Mountains of the Appalachian chain, with the Cumberland River at the center. At one time or another, the Shawnee had villages along many other rivers of that region, including the Ohio and the Tennessee, an area now comprising parts of the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio.
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When non-Indians first crossed the Appalachians, they found very few Indian villages in Kentucky and West Virginia. It is known that early Native Americans spent time there from archaeological evidence. Farmers still plow up spear points and arrowheads, and both amateur and professional archaeologists have found grave sites. Scholars theorize that perhaps this territory of forested mountains, hills, and valleys, plus rolling bluegrass prairies, served not so much as a homeland for the Shawnee and other tribes of the region, such as the CHEROKEE, but as sacred hunting grounds. But the Shawnee also ranged far to the north, south, and east of this core area, on both sides of the great Appalachian Divide—especially as non-Indians started entering the Indians’ domain. In the course of their history, in addition to the states mentioned above, the Shawnee had temporary villages in northern parts of present-day South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; western parts of present-day Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York; and southern parts of present-day Indiana and Illinois. And then in the 1800s, Shawnee bands also lived in present-day Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, most of them ending up in Oklahoma.
As wanderers, the Shawnee had a unique place in Native American history and culture, introducing cultural traits of the northern tribes to the southern tribes and vice versa. The Shawnee are generally classiﬁed as NORTHEAST INDIANS, since they hunted, ﬁshed, gathered, and farmed in ways similar to the more northern Algonquians. But they picked up lifeways of SOUTHEAST INDIANS too. They are sometimes referred to as PRAIRIE INDIANS because they ranged as far west as the prairies of the Mississippi River valley.
The Shawnee not only changed territory but also their allegiances among different colonial powers. Like most other Algonquians, they usually sided with the French against the British during the many conﬂicts from 1689 to 1763 known as the French and Indian wars. But some Shawnee bands considered British trade goods better than French goods. Pickawillany, in Shawnee territory in Ohio, became a major British trading post. Moreover, some Shawnee groups were conquered by the IROQUOIS (HAU-DENOSAUNEE), and, as their subjects, fought alongside them and the British against the French. Yet the majority of Shawnee joined the OTTAWA and other tribes in Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763 against the British. Then in 1774, one year before the start of the American Revolution, the Shawnee fought Virginians in Lord Dunmore’s War.
Lord Dunmore’s War
The Shawnee rebelled when the governor of Virginia, the earl of Dunmore, ignored the Proclamation of 1763, signed by the king of England, promising an Indian Country west of the Appalachians. Dunmore gave veterans of the French and Indian War who had fought under him land that belonged to the Shawnee. When the settlers came to stake their claims, the Shawnee, led by Chief Cornstalk, attacked them. Dunmore sent in a force of volunteers, but it was routed by a Shawnee ambush on the Kentucky River.
Next Dunmore organized a much larger army of 1,500 militia. Cornstalk asked the Iroquois for help. Most refused to ﬁght their former allies, the British. But Logan, the chief of the Mingo (an Iroquois subtribe) , and some of his warriors joined the Shawnee cause. The decisive battle occurred on October 6, 1774, at Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The Indians suffered many casualties in the bitter ﬁghting. Cornstalk signed a peace treaty with Dunmore in which the Shawnee agreed to give up some lands.
Little Turtle’s War
The peace did not last long. The American Revolution erupted the following year, in 1775. Now the Shawnee sided with the British against the American rebels. It was after all the British government that had originally proclaimed an Indian Country; and it was the American settlers who had ignored the proclamation. During the Revolutionary War, the Shawnee fought the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone, the man who had cut a path through the Cumberland Gap. They even captured him in 1778 and held him prisoner at the village of Chillicothe in Ohio, but he managed to escape. After having won the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. government turned its attention to clearing the path for white settlement. The Shawnee, many of whom were now living north of the Ohio River in the Old Northwest, joined other tribes of the region under the MIAMI Little Turtle to resist the incoming settlers. When army after army came at them, the Indians ﬁnally yielded in 1794.Another war was lost, and more territory signed away.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the young United States was just beginning to ﬂex its muscles and expand to its present shape, two Shawnee brothers rose to prominence. One was the medicine man Tenskwatawa, but called Shawnee Prophet by non-Indians. Like Delaware Prophet before him of the LENNI LENAPE (DELAWARE), he preached to Indians of many tribes, telling them to return to traditional ways and abandon all customs that came from whites, such as the Christian religion and liquor. He claimed to have special “magic” in the ﬁght against whites. His probably older brother Tecumseh was a great orator and a man of energy and action. Also a visionary, he dreamed of a great Indian country from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, made up of allied tribes. He believed that no single Indian or tribe had the right to give up lands because the lands belonged to all Indians and all tribes. For that reason, he refused to sign the Treaty of Fort Greenville in 1795 after Little Turtle’s War. Tecumseh considered himself an Indian ﬁrst and a Shawnee second. To carry out his dream, he believed a united military stand would be necessary. Tecumseh did not hate whites, even though they had killed his father and brother in previous wars. He is said to have admired them for their many accomplishments. He studied world history and literature in order to better understand them. He might have had a romance with a white schoolteacher, Rebecca Galloway. And he believed that one should treat prisoners fairly, whatever their nature or nationality, without degradation and torture. For his wisdom, compassion, and, as he later proved, his military genius, many consider him the greatest man of his age, a man who would have made the perfect leader for the Indian country that might have been, a man to rival in capabilities any president the United States has ever produced. Tecumseh worked hard to accomplish his goal. He traveled from the Old Northwest to the Deep South to urge unity among the Indians. He spoke to many tribes. Some resisted the idea of allying with former enemies. But Tecumseh persisted. Unity was everything, he claimed. If the tribes didn’t unite, they would go the way of the tribes of the Atlantic seaboard who were now extinct or dispersed.
“Where today are the Pequots?” he asked his fellow Indians. “Where are the Narragansetts, the Mohawks, the Pocanets, and many other once-powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun. . . . Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without making an effort worthy of our race?” Tecumseh was such a persuasive speaker and a magnetic personality that even stubborn chiefs started to come around to his way of thinking. With trip after trip, speech after speech, council after council, Tecumseh’s dream was becoming a reality.
All his work became unraveled in 1811 by bad luck and by his brother’s misjudgment. While Tecumseh was in the South, William Henry Harrison, then the governor of Indiana Territory, ordered an attack on Tenskwatawa’s village of Prophetstown on the Tippecanoe River. Harrison’s excuse for the expedition was that Indians had stolen army horses. Rather than avoid ﬁghting at all costs and wait until the Indian military alliance was in place, Tenskwatawa followed the advice of some young militants and ordered an ambush. The Indians were repelled. Harrison’s army marched on Prophetstown and burned the village to the ground. Most of the warriors escaped, however.It was not a major victory in a military sense, although Harrison later claimed so in his presidential campaign. But it broke the momentum of Tecumseh’s Rebellion. Tenskwatawa’s magic had been proven ineffective. Many of the tribes decided to make raids prematurely in their own territories, rather than wait for a united stand under Tecumseh.
The War of 1812 soon broke out between the United States and Great Britain, at that time in ﬁrm control of Canada. Tecumseh, hoping for British help in organizing an Indian homeland, joined the ﬁght against the Americans. The British recognized his leadership abilities and made him a brigadier general in their army. Because of his participation, some Indians joined the British cause.But others held off their support, waiting for the out-
Tecumseh proved himself a great general. His skill often made up for the incompetency of the other British generals. He helped take Detroit. He slowed the victorious advance of an American force under William Henry Harrison. When most of the British ﬂed in panic back to Canada, Tecumseh and his men covered the retreat.Unlike other generals, he stayed on the front lines, urging his men on. But on October 5, 1813, at the Battle of the Thames, Tecumseh took bullet after bullet from soldiers in the larger American force and ﬁnally fell dead. Although a group of Kentuckians skinned a body they thought to be Tecumseh’s for souvenirs, they never found his actual corpse. Fellow warriors must have hidden it from the enemy. Rumors persisted among the tribes that Tecumseh would one day return. But of course he never did. Tenkswatawa lived about another 20 years and continued to preach to the tribes of the region. Other Indian rebellions would occur, such as that of the SAC and MESKWAKI (FOX) in the Black Hawk War of 1832. But without Tecumseh’s organizational abilities, there was no hope for an Indian rebellion on the huge scale he had envisioned. Eventually, most of the Indians of the Old Northwest and the Southeast were pushed west of the Mississippi.
Three Shawnee entities maintain tribal identity in Oklahoma and have federal recognition: the Loyal Shawnee (the main body of the tribe who lived in Indiana for a time, then Kansas, and then, after having supported the Union in the Civil War, moved to the part of the Indian Territory that later became Oklahoma, settling near the Cherokee); the Absentee Shawnee (who broke off from the main body of the tribe in Kansas, then lived in Arkansas and Texas for a time before being relocated to the Indian Territory); and the Eastern Shawnee (who were associated historically with the Seneca, moving with them from Ohio to the Indian Territory). The Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band, made up of descendants who managed to stay in the Ohio valley in Ohio and Indiana following Tecumseh’s defeat, received recognition from the state of Ohio in 1980. They are based in Dayton. Another Shawnee group is the Piqua Sect of Ohio Shawnee Indians.
Source: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES by CARL WALDMAN