When I moved to West Virginia in 2013, just out of grad school and anxious to learn more about the local archaeology, it didn’t take long to be introduced to the idea that West Virginia was too rugged and remote for Native Americans to live here permanently.
I was told that the state was used as a "hunting ground" for tribes in surrounding states. While the hunting ground concept isn’t completely wrong, the reality of Native American life in West Virginia is more vibrant and complex.
West Virginia was an “Interaction Zone”
The most recent archaeological and linguistic research suggests that West Virginia before European contact was an intersection or “melting pot” of native ethnicities, languages, and technology.
Archaeologists refer to this time period as the “Protohistoric,” which covers the arrival of the first European-American explorers around 1550 AD through the region's colonization, from about 1700-1800 AD. We generally assign Protohistoric archaeological sites to the Monongahela or Fort Ancient cultures, which aren’t easily matched to named tribes of later periods.
According to a cultural affiliation statement authored by archaeologist Bob Maslowski, protohistoric West Virginia included a wide range of Siouian-, Algonquin-, and Iroquoian-speaking groups. These respectively include the Osage and Omaha, the Shawnee and Delaware, and the Seneca and Cherokee, to name just a few.
Artifacts like corncob-impressed pottery and “weeping eye” shell masks, both of which are considered Siouian, in Fort Ancient villages, which are often considered Algonquin, point to communication, trade, and intermarriage.
The Marmet village site near present-day Charleston, for example, includes these intermingled artifacts in addition to animal effigies and a “noded” pipe, both of which are Iroquoian, as well as European trade goods.
According to a book by archaeologist Darla Spencer, the Marmet archaeological site, named 46-KA-9, was occupied as late as 1700, while another Fort Ancient village site in Logan, named 46-LG-4, yielded a date of 1770.
Spencer summarizes that “West Virginia was an interface between Fort Ancient people to the west and Siouan-speaking people to the east” and that people of the Fort Ancient culture were “more likely a regional cultural tradition that includes more than one ethnic or linguistic group of people.”
Primary sources from European-American explorers also support the idea of extensive protohistoric trade and interaction. For example, the 1671 journal of Robert Fallow describes a tribe of “Salt Indians” near Charleston who traded the area’s natural salt deposits and were feared by their neighbors. This Native American chapter in West Virginia’s salt industry is often overlooked.
Protohistoric Fields and Villages
Although school curriculums in recent years have focused on “Moundbuilders,” most people know that Native Americans lived in West Virginia both before and after these famous architects. By the Protohistoric period in 1550–1750, also known as the “Contact Period,” indigenous people lived in villages surrounded by gardens and cornfields.
First-hand accounts describe early explorers such as Gabriel Arthur visiting these villages, and land speculators, including George Washington, described their recent remains in advertisements. It’s even possible that these speculators created the hunting ground myth because abandoned lands would be more attractive to settlers who were worried about Native American violence.
In cases where Native American villages and fields were found empty by settlers, this period of “abandonment” was often very short, likely less than a generation in many cases.
A U.S. Forest Service report lists accounts from the 1670s to the 1770s that describe fields only recently gone fallow and were covered by white clover, broom grass, and even visible corn stalks. Similar overgrowth can be seen on modern farms when pasture or a hayfield is even briefly left unused.
A historic text by amateur archaeologist Lucullus McWhorter describes burial cloth from the protohistoric recovered in 1890 and the remains of a village along Hackers Creek that had been reforested by trees then a mere 12-inch diameter as of 1821.
Other science-based research also supports the idea of only recent reforestation between periods of occupation between Native American and European-American peoples. Dr. Kristen de Graauw of Historic Timbers Dendroarchaeology uses tree-rings to date log buildings and other timbers.
She says that her research cannot alone provide "explicit proof against the hunting myth, but what it demonstrates is that synchronous forest alternation occurred around 1650-1670, i.e. regrowth of trees on land that was likely previously cleared.” She plans to continue exploring this fast-growing, second-growth forest, and her research is further described in this West Virginia Explorer Magazine article.
Not Truly Abandoned
If we assume there were some uninhabited lands, it’s important to note that they were not necessarily empty because Native Americans didn’t want to live there. It was a side-effect of European-American expansion elsewhere, possibly worsened by drought and other factors.
Historic sources describe original native groups being driven out or “conquered” by the Iroquois, who were experiencing their own pressures from the fur trade as well as conflicts between Britain and France and diseases introduced from Europe. Events like Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774 show direct attempts by settlers to drive out Native Americans.
We must also recognize that native use of a hunting ground was different than recreational hunting today. While protohistoric Native Americans did live in permanent settlements, they would have traveled far from their villages for seasonal hunting that was a crucial part of their diet. Visits from Ohio or Pennsylvania tribes were not day-trips or even long weekend trips. Their temporary hunting camps were important and likely involved repeated use of specific locations.
All of these discoveries change our perspective from a story of unwanted or unclaimed West Virginia lands ready for the taking to a story of colonialization and sometimes violent conquest.
It’s easy to think about Native Americans as a generic whole and make broad statements about their settlements, diet, beliefs, stone tools, and other indigenous technology. However, understanding the reality of their displacement creates a personal and empathic connection with the past.
West Virginia folklore gives us stories of indigenous heroes like “Princess” Aracoma, who may be buried in the Logan village site, Chief Cornstalk, Buckongahelas, and Tecumseh, whose histories blend into the very Appalachian struggle for freedom and love of the same wild and wonderful lands we enjoy today.
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