The land south of the Great Lakes, and bordered west of the Alleghenies by the Ohio River has a rich and deep past, reaching back to times before ‘Europe’ even existed, save as the tribal border areas north and west of the Roman Empire.
Today the remnants of the Ohio-centered ‘Ancient peoples,’ as the anthropologists and historians called them, are still visible in the series of massive mounds and earthworks, some with sophisticated designs of serpents and other animals, that can be discerned from aerial viewpoints. There was a time when many of these structures were destroyed by European settlers, out of both ignorance and anti-Native hostility. But now they are finally protected.
One of the earliest peoples in the area were called the ‘Adena’ and later the ‘Hopewell culture.’ The latter name came from an Ohio farm owned by Mordecai Hopewell, where one of their larger mounds has been preserved. No one know what they called themselves, only that they drifted into the area, and finally peaked from 200 BCE to 500 CE. The mounds were created over burial grounds, with the various shapes and figures having a religious significance. The larger complexes were also structured to predict the Equinoxes, the change of seasons, from astronomical observations. There tools and artwork were highly developed, using copper, mica, flint and obsidian. They were hunter-gatherers for the most part. Their class structure was egalitarian, with only a small degree of hierarchy. Most of the buried were cremated, with more traditional burials with grave goods apparently reserved for a few leading families. They were also traders, with routes, largely making use of rivers and lakes, extending throughout what was later called the ‘Northwest Territories’ reaching to the Mississippi to the West, and Canada to the north, but also southward to Florida at times. But the center what is now the city of Chillicothe, Ohio.
The Mississippian culture eclipsed the Hopewell culture, 800 CE to 1600 CE. The Mississippians, as the name suggests, reached farther than the Hopewell, encompassing the entire Southeast. Their main difference from the Hopewell was the development of a maize, beans and squash-centered agriculture. Their main center was Cahokia, a city near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. With a large pyramid and other mounds and a circular ‘Woodhenge’ observatory, it numbered about 20,000 at its peak around 1200 CE, rivaling the city of Paris in Europe at the same time.
The Mississippians were mainly Siouan language speakers. They encountered Europeans during the genocidal explorations of Hernando DeSoto, who wandered about the southeast of Turtle Island in the early 1500s, looking for the imaginary City of Gold.’ After slaughtering tribes and stealing their food, survivors always directed him to the north or west, anywhere to get him to leave. Finally, he was killed on the Mississippi River near what is now Louisiana in 1542. But even with DeSoto and his marauders gone, his ‘invisible bullets’ of smallpox and other deadly disease continued taking a toll, weakening and dividing the Mississippians.
The Shawnee, an Algonquin-speaking people, migrated southward and eastward. In their own story, they were following their ‘grandfathers,’ the Leni Lenape, toward the Atlantic shore but were pushed back into the ‘Ohio Country’ by Iroquois and settler expansion and the French and Indian War. While more mobile than other Native peoples, the Shawnee were mostly centered in what is now Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. In the early 1700s, several Shawnee villages migrated from Western Pennsylvania into Ohio to escape French traders plying them with alcohol, which many Shawnee saw as poisonous and self-destructive. With the buildup to the 1776 War of Independence, the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois) sided with the Americans and the French. The Shawnee tried to remain neutral but soon saw that their interests were better served by working with the British. They knew the Americans were land-hungry, and with the prospect of independence, they were most likely to slaughter them or push them further westward.
Just before winning their ‘Thirty Year’s War’ with France, the British brushed aside the French fur trappers and soldiers around the Great Lakes, and worked on resetting boundaries and other agreements with the Haudenosaunee, the Lenape, the Seneca, the Shawnee, and others. Their first effort was the Treaty of Eastland in 1759, while the war was still on. Here the UK had 13 tribes agree not to side with the French in any remaining conflicts. In return, the Haudenosaunee had land rights returned to them in New York and Pennsylvania, and all tribes were told British settlers would stay on the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains.
But whatever the agreements on paper, they were readily ignored in practice. The peoples of the Ohio Country suffered from the ongoing increase in settlers, the ravages of alcohol, and the harsh practices of the British military, including the spread of disease by smallpox-infected blankets. The Shawnee were not the only tribes stressed by warfare and settler-induced pain. Their sufferings found tribal spiritual leaders expressing urgent prophecies. The suffering gave rise to several spiritual leaders expressing dire predictions. Most well-known was Neolin, a prophet of the Lenni Lenape living in Muskingum in southeastern Ohio. According to Wikipedia:
“Inspired by a religious vision in 1761, Neolin went through a period of fasting, incantation and dreaming, during which he claimed to have been visited by the Master of Life (Keesh-she’-la-mil’-lang-up, or ‘being that thought us into being’)…Neolin he was told that the master was displeased with his people for ‘addiction to the white man’s alcohol, and deplored Indian polygamy, sexual promiscuity, witchcraft, and strife.’ The greatest offense was the fact that the Indians were tolerating the Europeans in their lands. The Master promised to restore the lands with game and prosperity if the Indians were to resist ‘further European incursions.’ The Master of Life told him that the path to Heaven was to reject the ways of the Europeans and to return to the traditional ways of their ancestors.”
At the close of the war, these agreements were restated and underscored by the ‘Royal Proclamation of 1763,’ which defined an ‘Indian Reserve’ by drawing a line along the ridge of the Appalachians from Maine to Georgia. European settlers were to be excluded from lands to the west of the ‘Proclamation Line.’ All lands with waters flowing to the east were open to settlement. All those with waters flowing into the Mississippi were reserved for Native peoples.
The ink was hardly dry before changes were made unfavorable to the Native peoples. Inspired by their prophets, dozens of tribes united around an Ottawa chieftain, Pontiac. Together with the Seneca leader Guyasuta, he led them in an armed rebellion that started in Detroit, and destroyed eight British Forts across the Ohio Country. It was stopped at Fort Pitt in the east and in the Illinois Country in the west. Thousands perished on both sides, and a truce was finally agreed to in 1765, the terms of which had not changed from earlier agreements. In short, it was a stalemate. Politically, however, things had changed in the dominant viewpoint among settlers: distinctions no longer mattered. All Natives were ‘Red’ Indians worthy of slaughter, and all settlers were ‘whites’ entitled to whatever land they could seize. On the Native side, if was seen that confederation for resistance, however tenuous, was possible. Moreover, the also saw a rising difference between the British, who could be bargained with, and the new land-hungry Americans, who made agreements that were worthless. The stage had been set for larger conflicts to come.