WHEELING, W.Va. — To the average motorist hurtling through the City of Wheeling on Interstate 70, nothing about the place might seem particularly nefarious.
An old rust-belt city, one might suppose its name, "Wheeling," is associated with the wheel. The city is inextricably tied to the history of American travel and has always been a city of wheels. Untold millions passed over the Ohio River at Wheeling, mostly on wheels.
However, the story behind the name "Wheeling" is rooted in darkness.
A city of wheels
The first major improved highway built by the federal government, the National Road, headed west through the city, crossing the Ohio River by way of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, the oldest vehicular suspension bridge in the nation.
Fueled by Manifest Destiny, westward-bound Conestoga wagons wheeled their way over the road, and many stopped here to acquire a last sure bit of tobacco in the form of cigars rolled by M. Marsh & Son. These were known as "stogies" on account of the bonneted wagons.
In 1851 the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which was the first common-carrier railroad and the oldest railroad in the U.S., drove its mainline through Wheeling and across the Ohio. Its passage eclipsed the age of the sternwheelers, which had been paddled up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Wheeling and Pittsburgh to New Orleans since 1811.
Wagon wheels, paddle wheels, locomotive wheels—yet none are associated with the word Wheeling. Its origins, instead, date back to the mid-1700s when the region was one of the central theaters of the American Indian Wars of the colonial period.
The place of the skull
However, according to most of the few early historical sources that exist, Wheeling, or Weeling, means "place of the head" or "place of the skull," and the story behind the name has everything to do with the horrors of the period
In the book "American Pioneer," printed in the early 1800s, author John White proposed that a colonist named John Brittle had been taken prisoner by the Delawares and lived among them for about five years, during which time he learned some of their speech.
According to White, Brittle proposed that "in the earliest period of the settlement of Pennsylvania some white settlers descended the Ohio River in a boat and, stopping at the mouth of Wheeling Creek, were killed by the Delawares. The savages cut off the head off one of their victims and, placing it on a pole with the face toward the river, called the spot Weeling.
"The Indians informed Mr. Brittle that the head was placed there to guard the river—I presume to guard the camp from the incursions of the whites. Mr. Brittle said that if an Indian were asked after shooting a deer or a bear where he had hit the animal, if in the head it would be weeling."
Another account of the naming, which appeared in "Bowen's Directory of Wheeling," published in 1839, supposed that the name was a derivation of the surname "Wheelan," a missionary Catholic priest who settled near the mouth of Wheeling Creek before disappearing downriver.
The late historian George W. Summers was among the detractors of the latter supposition, pointing out that a priest of that name, certainly Irish, would have pronounced it "Whaylan," and thus the name of the city should have been "Whaling."
In any case, historians and linguists who have since unraveled the Native American speech of the period confirm that the name likely means something akin to "place of the head."
Doug Wood, among the foremost interpreters of prehistoric and protohistoric culture in West Virginia, agrees with that proposition.
"Absolutely," Wood says, "and in the speech of that period it appears the suffix might have been pronounced -ing or -ink or -unk, meaning something like place."
Many words for "head" derived from the Algonquian languages feature the "ee" sound, as in the Delaware word for head, "nil," and the Shawnee "niiši." But speech can vary greatly, especially in cases in which no written characters were employed, as in North America.
Wheeling is, of course, only one of the hundreds of U.S. cities that derive their names from a Native American origin. In the case of Tuscaloosa, Milwaukee, or Kissimmee, the association might be obvious. In the case of Wheeling, however, its similarity to the English "wheel" has overshadowed the obvious and a remarkable-if-dark history.
Today Wheeling is renowned as a welcoming city with a historic landscape that boasts a casino and innumerable retail centers and cultural landmarks. For more information on its history or about visiting the city, contact the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau.
When pioneers and other explorers first ventured into what would become West Virginia, they encountered artifacts of a much earlier age — carvings, burial mounds, and stone walls, the origins of which natives could not explain with certainty. Petroglyphs inscribed in rock and featuring human and animal figures were perhaps the most striking and inexplicable finds. Read the full story here.
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