Part One – The Shawnee
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
Ever taken a close look at the maps of Eastern North America during the 1600s and early 1700s? The maps are dotted with dozens of tribal names that only survive as place names or even have been completely forgotten. They were completely ignored by academicians in the twentieth century, when they were attempting to create the official Native American history of the Southeast. These forgotten tribes are The Americas Revealed’s next focus within the Winter season theme of “The Southeast During the Colonial Period.”
The Mostly Erased Shawnee People
The Shawnees are an Algonquian-speaking people in Eastern North America. There are today three federally-cognized tribes in the United States . . . the Loyal Shawnee of Kansas and Oklahoma, the Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma (and Missouri). The Piqua Shawnee Tribe is recognized by the State of Alabama, but not the federal government.
There are many more people east of the Mississippi river, who are non-federally recognized Shawnee. Some are in tribes, such as the Appalachian Shawnee Tribe, which do not have federal or state recognition, but do have legitimate Shawnee ancestry. Official government maps do not show the Shawnee living anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line during Colonial and Pre-Columbian times, but in reality, that is where most were living when the British North American colonies were being settled.
Shawnee is the Anglicization of the Shawnee words . . . ša:wanwa . . . which mean person or people from the South. Savannah (River), Suwannee (River in Florida), Suwanee (city in Georgia), Sewanee (town in Tennessee) and Saunee (mountain in Metro Atlanta) are also Anglicizations of the Shawnee’s name for themselves.
According to the late Dr. Charles F. Voegelin, Algonquian languages have words similar to the archaic shawano (now: shaawanwa) meaning “south”. However, the stem šawa- does not mean “south” in Shawnee, but “moderate or warm weather.”
It is difficult to make a defining statement about the origin of the Shawnee. Some or all Shawnee tribes may have originally spoken other languages, but became allied with the Lenape and over time, absorbed their language. Some Shawnee tribes such as the Xuale in northern West Virginia were agriculturalists and mound builders, even absorbing some Mississippian traits. Other Shawnee tribes were migratory. They were primarily hunters and gatherers, but did grow plants in gardens or small cultivated fields.
Making sense of the existing body of knowledge concerning the Shawnee is very difficult, because of the provinciality of many of the academicians and authors. For example, professors in Virginia will accurately tell you that the city of Winchester was built on the site of an old Shawnee town . . . probably the birthplace of the famous Shawnee chief, Corn Stalk. Virginians in the Shenandoah Valley will know that between 1754 and 1763, bands of Shawnee warriors came out of what is now the West Virginia mountains to massacre settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. The population of the Valley declined by 90% during that era.
Professors in the Midwest probably will not know that the Shawnee had a substantial presence in western Virginia, present-day West Virginia, Georgia and Alabama. Few, if any, of the professors in Virginia and Midwest will know that the Shawnees had a substantial presence in Alabama and Georgia . . . and that these Shawnee joined the Creek Confederacy, while those in Florida joined the Seminole Alliance.
The Creek Indians traditionally stated that there were always bands of Shawnee living in the Southeast and were always the Creeks allies. One of the Shawnee tribes lived along the Suwannee River in South Georgia and northern Florida . . . hence its name. However, if you look up the etymology of Suwannee, it gives several not-so-convincing explanations, plus states that the Shawnee never lived in Florida. The authors look up words in the Muskogee-Creek dictionary, but most Creeks in Georgia, certainly all of those in southern Georgia, did not speak Muskogee. Suwani is the Itsate Creek word for Shawnee. So . . . who would know best about this river’s name?
The Shawnees are best explained as an indigenous ethnic group (like the Nahua in Mexico) but with multiple tribes, speaking several dialects, but generally cooperating with each other. They considered themselves the descendants of a band that became separated from the Lenape (Delaware) and then evolved into a separate identity. The Shawnee tribes once were scattered across an enormous area within the interior of Eastern North America. They could be found in the future states of Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
You won’t see this in most references, though. The Shawnee are described as a single tribe from Ohio, who moved to Pennsylvania and later northeastern Indiana. In our digital world, one inaccurate statement by a reference, is replicated across the universe, making people think that because these statements are printed, they must be facts. For example, Wikipedia states:
“The Shawnee are an Algonquian-speaking indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands. In the 17th century, they lived in Pennsylvania and in the 18th century, they were in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, with some bands in Kentucky and Alabama.”
The consistent placement of the original Shawnee in northern latitudes by references and academicians does not make any sense at all if their name means, “warm climate” or “southerners.” Could it not be that they originally lived in the Southeast then migrated northward?
Several books, published by the University of North Carolina Press, including the state history text, make this statement or something similar, ”In 1700, the Cherokee controlled about 140,000 square miles across eight states, but were forced westward in the early 1800s. They have been living in western North Carolina for at least 10,000 years. However, most Cherokees today live in Oklahoma, but about 9,000 live in North Carolina.”
Okay . . . where are the Cherokees on the 1700 maps above? The word Cherokee is never mentioned on either map, but western North Carolina . . . where the Cherokee have been living for 10,000 years . . . was labeled, “Pays de Choueonons” . . . Shawnee Nation! French marines and traders had paddled up the Little Tennessee and Hiwasee Rivers then surveyed them. They certainly would have known who lived there.
An example of Shawnee erasure
I told this story in a 2021 article, but it is worth repeating. It is standard to provide a brief history of a community in the opening chapter of a comprehensive plan or urban design plan. Thus, near the beginning of the Asheville Downtown Revitalization Plan, I put in a couple of paragraphs on who lived there prior to the arrival of Anglo-American settlers. I relied on old maps, which were in a file cabinet in City Hall.
The previous inhabitants were Shawnee. They arrived around 1600 AD and were booted out in 1763, because many Shawnee bands had been allies of the French. There was a Shawnee village in the future Downtown Asheville. There was a huge Shawnee town at the confluence of the French Broad River and Swannanoa River. The location is now on the Biltmore Estate and in Biltmore Village. Swannanoa is the Anglicization of Suwani Owa, which are Creek words meaning, “Shawnee River.”
To the north of the French Broad, the land was occupied by a Uchee tribe called the Watare (Wautaga). East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, around Old Fort, Lenoir, Marion and Morganton was another Uchee tribe, the Otare. Both the Watare and Otare are mentioned in the chronicles of the Juan Pardo Expeditions. To the south of the Swannanoa River, down through Hendersonville, Etowah, Brevard, Sapphire Valley and Highlands were Muskogee-Creek villages. To the west were the Cherokees. Their eastern boundary was always Soco Gap in Haywood County, NC. Of course, I now know that even that region was occupied by the Creeks and Shawnee in the 1600s.
Well . . . about three weeks after the Downtown Revitalization Plan was presented to the public, I received a curt memo from City Manager Ken Michelove. I was ordered to immediately remove all references to any Indian tribe other than the Cherokees from the Downtown Asheville Revitalization Plan. Mayor Roy Trantham of Asheville had received letters from the governor, a state senator and some local people about me mentioning other tribes in the Asheville Area.
I was not trying to make any sort of political statement in those two paragraphs, and I certainly was not going to get fired by trying to mention Shawnee, Creek and Uchee territories in North Carolina . . . so I quickly redacted the paragraphs. That didn’t prevent me from thinking that the locals had a really weird approach to history. LOL I have a feeling that the Shawnee have had many other such insults in the past.