Wild, Wondering West Virginia: Exploring West Virginia's Native American History

Feb 7, 2019

Along the banks of the Ohio River and other waterways, there are several places where -- after a heavy rain -- Native American artifacts still crop up today. Despite these clues, archeologists and historians haven’t been able to paint a clear picture of the people who lived here before white settlers.

Artifacts have led archeologists to believe people first came to the region about 14,000 years ago, hunting woolly mammoths and dodging sabertooth cats. There were also people here 2,500 years ago building mounds. But most of what is known outside of that revolves around tribes that lived in the region around the late 1600’s -- tribes  forced to relocate in the mid 1800’s. And there’s a lot of speculation about that, too.

Tracing Tribal Territorial Footprint

One thing we can confirm: there was a Native American presence during that time. This may seem obvious, but Wayne Appleton with the Appalachian American Indian Association says it’s worth pointing out.

“The official state position is that there were no indians here when the white settlers arrived. Nobody knows why, but they weren’t. And the fact is, that’s nonsense,” Appleton said.

According to Wheeling Heritage museum coordinator Travis Henline, one tribe that had a particularly commanding presence along the Ohio River were the Shawnee.

“When we’re talking about late 17th and through the 18th century, this is Shawnee territory,” Henline explained. “The first Europeans to colonize this area were the French. They encountered what we call the Shawnee.” 

The Shawnee lived in the upper Ohio Valley and could be found as far south as the Kanawha River. They fought with a group of tribes from the northeast known as the Iroquois Nation.

The Delaware tribe also lived here, but were pushed out of the Eastern Panhandle by the late 1700s. Seneca and Mohawk tribes lived in north-central West Virginia, near Morgantown.

The early history of southern West Virginia is less understood.

Many experts, like Travis Henline in Wheeling, say land there was connected to the Cherokee tribe, but only tangentially.

“From the south bank of the Kanawha to the southern part of the state is ceded in the treaty of hard labor by the Cherokee. Did they control it? Not really. Were they there? Well, not really. They were willing to sell it.”

Bonnie Brown, the head of Native American Studies at West Virginia University, speculates that there could have been a stronger connection.

“From my understanding the Cherokee did not consider West Virginia homeland, but instead hunting land, and hunting land might mean they were there six months out of the year or more,” Brown said.

What did they leave behind?

So it's unclear which tribe of how many people, where, when, and for how long lived in West Virginia, the Native American presence in the state lingers. Native American names can be found throughout Appalachia, like the Kanawha River, Seneca Rocks, Wheeling.

Credit Shayla Klein / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

But Bonnie Brown says aside from scattered artifacts and names, there’s something that remains that is more tangible: people.

“Certainly descendents are still here,” she said. “There are people here who identify with a tribe that was here at an earlier point in history.”

“Hungry for their history.”

Some experts estimate that about 11,000 Native American descendents live in West Virginia. One of those is Wayne Appleton, the member of the Appalachian American Indian Association. Appleton, also known today as Chief Grey Owl, has Cherokee roots on his father’s side and Mohawk on his mother’s side. He moved from West Virginia with his family when he was three.

Appleton remembers discovering his native heritage a few years later, in Utah, after hearing tales from Native American elders who lived around him.

“I was about five years old,” he recalled. “I marched in and informed my mom I was going to be an Indian when I grew up. She told me I already was one. And I still remember how incredible that feeling was. I just pumped my fist and said, ‘Yeah!’ That was an important part of my emotional development.” 

Appleton went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry. But he’s just as passionate about the role he plays with the Appalachian American Indian Association, trying to help people like himself find their Native American roots. 

“You bring together people, you try to help people make contact with their history, with their heritage, and you try to help them fill in the gaps. They’re hungry for their history.”

Ohio River in Wheeling, W.Va.
Credit Cory Knollinger

Jamie Withcherman, who wanted us to look into this question, told us a great-grandmother was of Cherokee descent. Kayaking on the Ohio River makes Jamie think about her. But you don’t need a specific person, or specific attachment to the place you’re at to think about those who came before us. Next time you’re near the Kanawha River, or in Mingo County, or kayaking down the Ohio, take a second and try to imagine where that name came from, and more importantly, who came up with it.

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