Legend of “Painted Trees” and Indian warpath based on truth

1873
The late archaeologist Sigfus Olafson confirmed that tales of painted trees in West Virginia were more than legend.

Most folk who live in the winding valley of Paint Creek in West Virginia have heard the legend — that the valley had been the route of an ancient warpath, and that warriors had celebrated their battles by painting trees along the route a bloody red.

According to one archaeologist, the late Sigfus Olafson, the tales were true. Olafson contended that the route was among the most important in the Appalachian wilderness and that warriors painted the trees and held war dances there.

Olafson's map showing tree sites near Pax and Cirtsville
Map of tree sites near Pax, Cirtsville

“Local tradition as recorded by local historians of the last century says that the Indians gathered here prior to their raids on the New River settlements… and painted these trees to represent their enemies, or those whom they intended to attack, and held their war dances around them,” he wrote.

“Since similar practices were not uncommon among the Indians of the eastern woodlands this tradition in all likelihood is true.”

He surmised that the “Paint Creek Trail,” as it became known, may have first been used as a warpath by the Iroquois, who followed it south during their wars against the Catawba and other tribes in Virginia and North Carolina. The trail in the 1770s was used by the Shawnee of the Ohio Country in their raids against Europeans in the valleys of the New and Greenbrier rivers.

George Washington while exploring the Ohio River near Wheeling in 1770 wrote in his journal that 60 warriors of the Six Nations (the Iroquois) were journeying south to battle the Catawba in the Cherokee country.

Downstream, above Letart Island, he had noted the beginning of a “Warrior’s Path” that traveled across a neck of land between the Ohio and the Kanawha and which must have then followed the Kanawha southward.

Further south, however, travel along the river became difficult as the river neared a narrow rugged canyon, now known as the New River Gorge. Here the trail split into two routes.

The northern or eastern route around the gorge left the river and wandered through the hills eastward, following the courses of Kelley’s Creek, Bell Creek, Twenty-mile Creek, the Gauley River, and Rich Creek to present-day Ansted, where it then set out across the level uplands toward the Greenbrier Valley. Militia were led by Andrew Lewis along this route in 1774 to the Battle of Point Pleasant.

W.Va. Turnpike in valley of Paint Creek
W.Va. Turnpike in valley of Paint Creek

The southern or western route turned south into the valley of Paint Creek, which it ascended toward the level uplands at present-day Beckley. South of Beckley it crossed Flat Top Mountain and descended by Jumping Branch into the valley of the Bluestone River where it met the Kanawha again. It was along the route that Mary Draper Ingles was led as a Shawnee captive.

Olafson point to the peculiarity of the Paint Creek route, which he notes is oddly suited for such a route: “This stream, about thirty miles long, runs through a very rough and mountainous region, but in spite of this type of terrain it is quite straight and has an unusually regular grade.”

The valley of Paint Creek is so handy as a passage through the mountains that the W.Va. Turnpike was built along the course of the valley during the 1950s. The pike was later expanded to accommodate Interstate expressways 77 and 64, and despite the relative ease of the passage, many motorists are still thrilled by or apprehensive about its winding route.

Though little was left of the trail by the mid-1800s, Olafson wrote that he was satisfied as to the location near Pax of the famous painted trees for which the trail was named based on the number of early records that used them as landmarks.

“Surprisingly, it was found that there were two painted tree sites on Paint Creek. One of these, sometimes called the “Big Painted Trees,” was in a fair-sized bottom on the west side of Paint Creek immediately below the little village of Long Branch,” he speculated.

“The bottom is well suited for Indian encampment and is the point where the Coal River path, a more direct but more difficult route to the Indian towns on the Scioto joined the main path on Paint Creek, which suggests that war parties from different areas may have met here by prearrangement.

“The other side, referred to in surveys as ‘the Upper Painted Trees,” was some three-and-a half miles air-line farther up Paint Creek at the mouth of Sand Fork [Sand Branch] and about a mile above the community of Cirtsville.

“It appears to have been of lesser importance as it was infrequently referred to in the surveys.”

The Paint Creek Scenic Trail now follows the Paint Creek from Beckley to its mouth on the Kanawha at Pratt.

Olafson’s four-page work, “The Painted Trees and The War Road,” is contained in the West Virginia Archaeologist issue of September 1958, the only copy of which is in public circulation is kept in the Mason County Public Library at Point Pleasant.