Friday, August 30, 2019

The Shawnees Come to the Carolinas

Let’s examine the migrations of the Shawnee Indians through the American Southeast in the 17th century and consider their impact on this region.


The Ohio Valley is considered the ancestral homeland of the Shawnee, but in the centuries prior to their removal to Kansas (in the 1830s), various divisions of the Algonquian-speaking ethnic group inhabited a wide range of territory, from Pennsylvania to Georgia. 

The prehistory of the Ohio Valley is extraordinarily rich, notably the extensive earthworks and artwork associated with the Hopewell Culture beginning approximately 2000 years ago.  The culture arising 1000 years ago, typified by advances in agriculture and the construction of effigy mounds is called the Fort Ancient culture.  Fort Ancient shared some characteristics of the Mississippian culture that flourished to the west and the south of the Ohio Valley, but the linkages (if any) in the development of those two cultures are unclear.

Also unclear are connections between the native groups encountered by early European explorers in the mid-16th century and the so-called “tribes” that colonists interacted with in the late 17th to early 18th centuries and thereafter.  The Spaniard Hernando de Soto was exploring the Southeast ca. 1540, simultaneous with the Frenchman Jacques Cartier’s exploration of the St. Lawrence River.  De Soto encountered numerous “chiefdoms” in the course of his travels, and there is no neatly delineated, one-to-one correspondence between those chiefdoms and the tribes known to early colonists 150 years later.   Although the De Soto expedition crossed the Southern Appalachians, there is no definite evidence that any of the people he encountered were distinctly “Cherokee” (an appellation that did not come into use until the 18th century).

Similarly, the first known use of the word “Shawnee” was in 1728.  The people we now identify as Shawnee had a word in their language - ša·wano·ki – that (might have) meant “southerners.”  And we are told that is the basis for the term Shawnee.  However, at least 50, and perhaps 75 different words have been applied to the Shawnee or to the smaller bands of the Shawnee people.  Various Shawnee groups that traveled south were identified as Shawano and Savannah, just to mention two.

The list of unanswered (and very likely, unanswerable) questions about ethnogenesis, etymology and other aforementioned issues only gets longer and longer.  Coming across little clues makes the quest for answers more tantalizing, and also more frustrating.  Here’s just one example relating to the origins of the Shawnee:  The story is told that Chief Opechancanough (who led the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans in a massacre of Jamestown, Virginia settlers on March 22, 1622) had a son named Sheewa-a-nee, who resettled a Powhatan party to the Shenandoah Valley where their descendants became a part of the Shawnee tribe.

Maybe.  Maybe not.

Early in the 17th century, the French traders were orchestrating the fur trade in the Great Lakes region and dealing with native people for pelts.  The French tended to insinuate themselves into native culture (more so than their Spanish or English counterparts) and this helped to extend their range of business dealings.  Before long, the fur trade became a complex web of interactions among the French and the native groups of the Great Lakes region and beyond.


Beginning in the 1630s, the Iroquois set out to displace other native groups (particularly Algonquians).  Game in the original Iroquois domain had been depleted by overhunting, and so they sought to overtake the richer hunting grounds of the Algonquians.  The so-called Beaver Wars, or French and Iroquois Wars, dragged along from 1642 – 1698.  Pressure from the Iroquois prompted the Shawnee to start abandoning the Ohio Valley in the 1660s.  At least four groups of Shawnee dispersed to other locations: two of these groups moved southward toward the Cherokee, with one group (Chillicothe and Kispoko Shawnee) settling on the Cumberland in the Cumberland Basin and another (Hathawekela Shawnee) moving to the upper Savannah River.  These groups had the blessing of the Cherokee (or were at least tolerated) because they served as a buffer against Cherokee enemies (the Chichasaws and Cartawbas, respectively).

Meanwhile, the Piqua Shawnee moved east and found refuge with the Delaware people in southern Pennsylvania and another group moved west towards the Illinois country, where they became known to the French as the Chaouesnon.

The Shawnee arrived on the Savannah River at about the same the British establish Charleston, South Carolina as a center of trade with the back country.  As did most other tribes, the Shawnee (or “Savannah” Indians) were active in trading deerskins and slaves captured from rival tribes for whiskey and guns. The Westo, also recently arrived in South Carolina, were fierce trade partners and posed a threat to the frontier colonists, so in 1680 the British armed the Savannahs for a successful attack on the Westo.  But then, relations between the Savannahs and the British unraveled.


Relations between the Savannahs and the Cherokees also soured.  One item keeps showing up in numerous books and other sources, stating that during the winter of 1692, the Shawnee raided a Cherokee village while its warriors had gone on a hunting trip and sold the women and children into slavery.   

This factoid, and the references to the welcome mat rolled out by the people we know today as “Cherokee” caught my attention.  Where is the documentation to support the claim that Cherokees welcomed the Shawnee refugees from the Ohio Valley?  Where, precisely, was the village attacked by the Shawnee in 1692?  Where is the evidence for this incident?

Here is a start.  “An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, Volume 1” was published in 1779 and it contained this passage:

In the year 1693, twenty Cherokee chiefs waited on Governor Smith [in Charleston], with presents and proposals of friendship, craving the protection of government against the Esaw [Catawba] and Congaree Indians, who had destroyed several of their towns, and taken a number of their people prisoners. They complained also of the outrages of the Savanna [Shawnee] Indians for selling their countrymen, contrary to former regulations established among the different tribes; and begged the governor to restore their relations, and protect them against such insidious enemies. Governor Smith declared to them, that there was nothing he wished for more than friendship and peace with the Cherokee warriors, and would do everything in his power for their defence: that the prisoners were already gone, and could not be recalled; but that he would for the future take care that a stop should be put to the custom of sending them off the country.

Likely, if one would dig deep enough into the colonial records, details of this meeting could be recovered.  Chances are, you would not find “Cherokee” mentioned in the minutes of that meeting.  As is so often the case, “Cherokee” was adopted in accounts published long after the events described. 

One example of this is the so-called “Treaty of 1684.” As a recent history text puts it: “In 1684 the Cherokee chiefs made their first treaty with the English of Carolina…”

Well, sort of.

Actually, the agreement involved representatives from two Indian villages, Keowee and Toxaway.  One of the older sources describing this treaty was a 1901 book, “Indian Territory, Descriptive, Biographical and Genealogical” by D. C. Gideon:

The colonial records of South Carolina show that a treaty was entered into with the Cherokees as early as 1684. The names affixed to this treaty appear below, and each, instead of the usual cross-mark, signed with a hieroglyphic peculiarly his own, or that of his clan. This treaty was made when the Cherokees were supposed to hold as hunting grounds almost the whole of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky. The names attached to this treaty are: Corani, the Raven of Toxawa; Canacaught, the great conjurer of Keowa; Sinnawa, the Hawk, head warrior of Toxawa; Nellogitihi, of Toxawa; Gohom-a, of Keowa; Gorheleka, of Toxawa.

Again, it would help to find the actual documentation from the colonial records, which almost 
certainly did NOT contain the term “Cherokee.” The exact terms of this treaty would be an interesting read.

James Mooney, in “Myths of the Cherokee” [1900] described one of the first mentions of the Shawnee newcomers in the colonial records:

In 1693 some Cherokee chiefs went to Charleston with presents for the governor and offers of friendship, to ask the protection of South Carolina against their enemies, the Esaw [Catawba], Savanna [Shawnee/Shawano], and Congaree, all of that colony, who had made war upon them and sold a number of their tribesmen into slavery. They were told that their kinsmen could not now be recovered, but that the English desired friendship with their tribe, and that the Government would see that there would be no future ground for such complaint. The promise was apparently not kept, for in 1705 we find a bitter accusation brought against Governor Moore, of South Carolina, that he had granted commissions to a number of persons "to set upon, assault, kill, destroy, and take captive as many Indians as they possible [sic] could," the prisoners being sold into slavery for his and their private profit. By this course, it was asserted, he had "already almost utterly ruined the trade for skins and furs, whereby we held our chief correspondence with England, and turned it into a trade of Indians or slave making, whereby the Indians to the south and west of us are already involved in blood and confusion."

Later, we will look at the ongoing strife between the Shawnee and the Cherokee.


…long before there is an Asheville, of course.

Some evidence suggests that during this time period, the turn of the 18th century, the Shawnee were residing near the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers in present-day Asheville.  Foster A. Sondley, in his 1922 history, ASHEVILLE AND BUNCOMBE COUNTY, discusses the toponymy bearing on this matter:

The Indians had no name for the Swannanoa River. That by which it is known is due to white men. Numerous origins have been given as those of the word, Swannanoa. Sometimes it is said to be a Cherokee word meaning "beautiful"; sometimes a Cherokee word meaning "nymph of beauty"; sometimes a Cherokee attempt to imitate the sound made by the wings of ravens or vultures flying down the valley; sometimes a Cherokee attempt to imitate the call of the owls seated upon trees on the banks of the stream; and one writer, J. Mooney, says that the word Swannanoa is derived, by contraction, from two Cherokee words, Suwali Nun-nahi, meaning "Suwali Trail," that, is trail to the country of the Suwali, Suala, or Sara Indians, who lived in North Carolina at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge, and that this trail ran through the Swannanoa Gap. None of these is correct.

"Swannanoa" does not mean "beautiful" or "nymph of beauty" and does not resemble the sound made by a raven or vulture in flying or any call of any North Carolina owl, and is not a Cherokee word and could not be produced by any contraction of "Suwali' Nun-nahi." It is merely a form of the word "Shawano," itself a common form of "Shawnee," the name of a well-known tribe of Indians. These Shawanoes were great wanderers and their villages were scattered from Florida to Pennsylvania and Ohio, each village usually standing alone in the country of some other Indian tribe. They had a village in Florida or Southern Georgia on the Swanee or Suanee River, which gets its name from them. Another of their towns was in South Carolina, a few miles below Augusta, on the Savannah River which separates South Carolina from Georgia. This was "Savannah Town," or, as it was afterwards called, "Savanna Old Town." The name of "Savannah," given to that river and town, is a form of the word "Shawano," and those Indians were known to the early white settlers of South Carolina as "Savannas." The Shawanoes had a settlement on Cumberland River near the site of the present city of Nashville, Tennessee, when the French first visited that region. From those Indians these French, who were the first white men who went there, called the Cumberland River the "Chouanon," their form of Shawano. Sewanee in the same State has the same origin.

These Shawano Indians had a town on the Swannanoa River about one-half mile above its mouth and on its southern bank, when the white hunters began to make excursions into those mountain lands. Between 1700 and 1750 all the Shawanoes in the South removed to new homes north of the Ohio River where they soon became very troublesome to the white people and were answerable for most of the massacres in that region perpetrated in that day by Indians, especially in Kentucky, it being their boast that they had killed more white men than had any other tribe of Indians. Their town at the mouth of the Swannanoa River had been abandoned before 1776, but its site was then well known as "Swannano." At that time the river seems not to have been named; but very soon afterwards it was called, for the town and its former inhabitants, Swannano, or later Swannanoa River. One of the earliest grants for land on its banks and covering both sides and including the site of the present Biltmore, calls the stream the "Savanna River."


If you accept this timeline, it means the Shawnee had moved away from the French Broad years before any white pioneers began to settle the area. However, some local histories suggest otherwise.  Joseph Marion Rice came to the Swannanoa Valley in the early 1780s.  We are told that he stayed with Shawnee Indians on a tributary of the Swannanoa River, and subsequently purchased 200 acres of land from them. Details of the transaction are sketchy.  The Swannanoa settlement had been abandoned by the Shawnee, and it seems likely that Rice’s companions were a Shawnee hunting party encamped temporarily up the mountain from the French Broad River.  Unfortunately for Rice, the new state government would not recognize an Indian land grant, and Rice had to purchase the land a second time, from the state.  He became a well-known farmer, hunter, trapper and operator of a stock stand, and was the namesake for a Buncombe County community called Riceville.
His notoriety is preserved on a marker at the Bull Creek Overlook of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Rice was known as the man who, in 1799, killed the last buffalo seen in the area.


In John Swanton’s standard reference book on the Indian tribes of North America [1953], he discusses the Saluda Indians, likely a band of the Shawnee who lived in central South Carolina during the latter part of the 17th century:

Saluda. Meaning unknown.  Connections.- These are uncertain but circumstantial evidence indicates strongly that the Saluda were a band of Shawnee, and therefore of the Algonquian stock.  Location.- On Saluda River.

History.- Almost all that we know regarding the Saluda is contained in a note on George Hunter's map of the Cherokee country drawn in 1730 indicating "Saluda town where a nation settled 35 years ago, removed 18 years to Conestogo, in Pensilvania." As bands of Shawnee were moving into just that         region from time to time during the period indicated, there is reason to think that this was one of them, all the more that a "Savana" creek appears on the same map flowing into Congaree River just below the Saluda settlement. 

Population.- Unknown.  Connection in which they have become noted.- The name Saluda is preserved by Saluda River and settlements in Saluda County, S. C.; Polk County, N. C.; and Middlesex County, Va.


In Myths of the Cherokee, James Mooney has an extensive discussion of the ongoing war between the Cherokee and the Shawnee.  But this is just a very incomplete list of the documented conflicts between the two groups:

Among the most inveterate foes of the Cherokee were the Shawano, known to the Cherokee as Ani'-Sawänu'gï, who in ancient times, probably as early as 1680, removed from Savannah (i.e., Shawano) river, in South Carolina, and occupied the Cumberland river region in middle Tennessee and Kentucky, from which they were afterward driven by the superior force of the southern tribes and compelled to take refuge north of the Ohio. On all old maps we find the Cumberland marked as the "river of the Shawano." Although the two tribes were frequently, and perhaps for long periods, on friendly terms, the ordinary condition was one of chronic warfare, from an early traditional period until the close of the Revolution. This hostile feeling was intensified by the fact that the Shawano were usually the steady allies of the Creeks, the hereditary southern enemies of the Cherokee. In 1749, however, we find a party of Shawano from the north, accompanied by several Cherokee, making an inroad into the Creek country, and afterward taking refuge among the Cherokee, thus involving the latter in a new war with their southern neighbors (Adair, Am. Inds., 276, 1775). The Shawano made themselves respected for their fighting qualities, gaining a reputation for valor which they maintained in their later wars with the whites, while from their sudden attack and fertility of stratagem they came to be regarded as a tribe of magicians. By capture or intermarriage in the old days there is quite an admixture of Shawano blood among the Cherokee.

According to Haywood, an aged Cherokee chief, named the Little Cornplanter (Little Carpenter?), stated in 1772 that the Shawano had removed from the Savannah river a long time before in consequence of disastrous war with several neighboring tribes, and had settled upon the Cumberland, by permission of his people. A quarrel having afterward arisen between the two tribes, a strong body of Cherokee invaded the territory of the Shawano, and, treacherously attacking them, killed a great number. The Shawano fortified themselves and a long war ensued, which continued until the Chickasaw came to the aid of the Cherokee, when the Shawano were gradually forced to withdraw north of the Ohio.

At the time of their final expulsion, about the year 1710, the boy Charleville was employed at a French post, established for the Shawano trade, which occupied a mound on the south side of Cumberland river, where now is the city of Nashville. For a long time the Shawano had been so hard pressed by their enemies that they had been withdrawing to the north in small parties for several years, until only a few remained behind, and these also now determined to leave the country entirely. 

In March the trader sent Charleville ahead with several loads of skins, intending himself to follow with the Shawano a few months later. In the meantime the Chickasaw, learning of the intended move, posted themselves on both sides of Cumberland river, above the mouth of Harpeth, with canoes to cut off escape by water, and suddenly attacked the retreating Shawano, killing a large part of them, together with the trader, and taking all their skins, trading goods, and other property. Charleville lived to tell the story nearly seventy years later. As the war was never terminated by any formal treaty of peace, the hostile warriors continued to attack each other whenever they chanced to meet on the rich hunting grounds of Kentucky, until finally, from mutual dread, the region was abandoned by both parties, and continued thus unoccupied until its settlement by the whites.

According to Cherokee tradition, a body of Creeks was already established near the mouth of Hiwassee while the Cherokee still had their main settlements upon the Little Tennessee. The Creeks, being near neighbors, pretended friendship, while at the same time secretly aiding the Shawano. Having discovered the treachery, the Cherokee took advantage of the presence of the Creeks at a great dance at Itsâ'tï, or Echota, the ancient Cherokee capital, to fall suddenly upon them and kill nearly the whole party. The consequence was a war, with the final result that the Creeks were defeated and forced to abandon all their settlements on the waters of the Tennessee river.

Haywood says that "Little Cornplanter" had seen Shawano scalps brought into the Cherokee towns. When he was a boy, his father, who was also a chief, had told him how he had once led a party against the Shawano and was returning with several scalps, when, as they were coming through a pass in the mountains, they ran into another party of Cherokee warriors, who, mistaking them for enemies, fired into them and killed several before they discovered their mistake.

Schoolcraft also gives the Cherokee tradition of the war with the Shawano, as obtained indirectly from white informants, but incorrectly makes it occur while the latter tribe still lived upon the Savannah. "The Cherokees prevailed after a long and sanguinary contest and drove the Shawnees north. This event they cherish as one of their proudest achievements. 'What!' said an aged Cherokee chief to Mr Barnwell, who had suggested the final preservation of the race by intermarriage with the whites. 'What! Shall the Cherokees perish! Shall the conquerors of the Shawnees perish! Never!'"

Tribal warfare as a rule consisted of a desultory succession of petty raids, seldom approaching the dignity of a respectable skirmish and hardly worthy of serious consideration except in the final result. The traditions necessarily partake of the same trivial character, being rather anecdotes than narratives of historical events which had dates and names. Lapse of time renders them also constantly more vague.

On the Carolina side the Shawano approach was usually made up the Pigeon river valley, so as to come upon the Cherokee settlements from behind, and small parties were almost constantly lurking about waiting the favorable opportunity to pick up a stray scalp. On one occasion some Cherokee hunters were stretched around the camp fire at night when they heard the cry of a flying squirrel in the woods--tsu-u! tsu-u! tsu-u! Always on the alert for danger, they suspected it might be the enemy's signal, and all but one hastily left the fire and concealed themselves. That one, however, laughed at their fears and, defiantly throwing some heavy logs on the fire, stretched himself out on his blanket and began to sing. Soon he heard a stealthy step coming through the bushes and gradually approaching the fire, until suddenly an enemy sprang out upon him from the darkness and bore him to the earth. But the Cherokee was watchful, and putting up his hands he seized the other by the arms, and with a mighty effort threw him backward into the fire. The dazed Shawano lay there a moment squirming upon the coals, then bounded to his feet and ran into the woods, howling with pain. There was an answering laugh from his comrades hidden in the bush, but although the Cherokee kept watch for some time the enemy made no further attack, probably led by the very boldness of the hunter to suspect some ambush.

On another occasion a small hunting party in the Smoky mountains heard the gobble of a turkey (in telling the story Swimmer gives a good imitation). Some eager young hunters were for going at once toward the game, but others, more cautious, suspected a ruse and advised a reconnaissance. Accordingly a hunter went around to the back of the ridge, and on coming up from the other side found a man posted in a large tree, making the gobble call to decoy the hunters within reach of a Shawano war party concealed behind some bushes midway between the tree and the camp. Keeping close to the ground, the Cherokee crept up without being discovered until within gunshot, then springing to his feet he shot the man in the tree, and shouting "Kill them all," rushed upon the enemy, who, thinking that a strong force of Cherokee was upon them, fled down the mountain without attempting to make a stand.

Another tradition of these wars is that concerning Tunâ'ï, a great warrior and medicine-man of old Itsâ'tï, on the Tennessee. In one hard fight with the Shawano, near the town, he overpowered his man and stabbed him through both arms. Running cords through the holes he tied his prisoner's arms and brought him thus into Itsâ'tï, where he was put to death by the women with such tortures that his courage broke and he begged them to kill him at once.

After retiring to the upper Ohio the Shawano were received into the protection of the Delawares and their allies, and being thus strengthened felt encouraged to renew the war against the Cherokee with increased vigor. The latter, however, proved themselves more than a match for their enemies, pursuing them even to their towns in western Pennsylvania, and accidentally killing there some Delawares who occupied the country jointly with the Shawano. This involved the Cherokee in a war with the powerful Delawares, which continued until brought to an end in 1768 at the request of the Cherokee, who made terms of friendship at the same time with the Iroquois. The Shawano being thus left alone, and being, moreover, roundly condemned by their friends, the Delawares, as the cause of the whole trouble, had no heart to continue the war and were obliged to make final peace.

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