The Shawnee are an Algonquian-speaking Native American tribe whose original origins are unclear. But, by 1600, they were living in the Ohio River Valley in the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana. At this time, they were estimated to have numbered about 10,000 people. Their name comes from the word “shawun” meaning “southerner.”
The Shawnee are traditionally considered the Lenape (or Delaware) of the East Coast mid-Atlantic region, as their “grandfathers” and the source of all Algonquian tribes. They shared an oral tradition with the Kickapoo that they were once members of the same tribe. The identical language of the two tribes supports this oral history as well as the fact that they were both living in northeast Ohio prior to European contact. They also had a special friendship with the Wyandot, who they referred to as their “uncles.”
The Shawnee divided themselves into different clans and their principal leaders could only come from the “Chillicothe” clan. When a village was called Chillicothe, it meant that it was home to the principal chief, the “capital city” of the Shawnee. Their chiefships were hereditary and held for life. The tribe was patrilineal with descent and inheritance traced through the father. War chiefs were selected on the basis of merit and skill.
During the summer the Shawnee gathered into villages of bark-covered longhouses, with each village usually having a large council house for meetings and religious ceremonies. In the fall they separated to small hunting camps of extended families and lived in wigwams. Men were warriors and did the hunting and fishing, while the women were responsible for farming and gathering nuts, fruits, and edible roots.
Beginning in about 1630, the Iroquois Confederacy started to raid the tribes of the Ohio Valley and pushed many of the tribes westward. The Shawnee broke into numerous bands and scattered in all directions to South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia. Ironically, the Iroquois never occupied the valley but maintained it as a hunting ground. At this time, the Shawnee gained a reputation of being wanderers, but this was by necessity, not by choice.
In 1682, the Shawnee in Ohio and Pennsylvania made a peace treaty with William Penn, an English nobleman, Quaker, and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania. This was the first treaty with the whites to which the Shawnee participated. When Thomas Chalkley, a minister of the London society of Quakers, visited the tribe in 1706, he mentioned that among the peculiarities of the Shawnee was its custom of admitting women to its councils, stating:
“In the council was a woman who took a part in the deliberations of this council, as well as upon all important occasions. On the interpreter being questioned why they permitted a woman to take so responsible a part in their councils, he replied that some women were wiser than some men and that they had not done anything for years without the council of this ancient, grave woman, who spoke much in this council.”
Through the years, the Quakers established schools, flour mills, and sawmills amongst the Shawnee.
As the power of the Iroquois weakened, many of the Shawnee who had fled to other parts had moved back to the Ohio Valley by 1730. By this time, both the French and English trading and military forces attempted to make allies of the various tribes and develop trade with them.
By the late 1730s pressure from colonial expansion produced repeated conflicts and the Shawnee communities were affected by the fur trade, in which furs were often traded to European traders for rum or brandy, leading to serious social problems related to alcohol abuse. Several Shawnee communities in Pennsylvania opposed the sale of alcohol in their communities, and as a result, some 400 Shawnee migrated from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama and Illinois 1745.
Prior to 1754, the Shawnee had a headquarters at in Virginia but moved across the Alleghenies to join the people further west. The Shawnee first became allies of the French in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) until 1758, when they switched sides and supported the British in 1758. At that time, the British entered into the Treaty of Easton with 13 tribes, including the Shawnee, which promised them rights to their hunting grounds in the Ohio River Valley and to refrain from establishing colonial settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains.
However, this peace lasted only until Pontiac’s War erupted in 1763. Dissatisfied with the British postwar policies warriors from numerous tribes joined in the uprising in an effort to drive British soldiers and settlers out of the region Later that year, the English issued the Proclamation of 1763, which legally confirmed the 1758 border as the limits of British colonization, with the land beyond reserved for Native Americans. Though colonists were prohibited the colonists from crossing the border, they continued to move westward and the rebellion lasted until 1766. Afterward, relations between British colonists and Native Americans, which had been severely strained during the French and Indian War, reached a new low.
In 1768, the Treaty of Fort Stanwix extended the boundary westward, giving the British colonists claims to West Virginia and Kentucky. Afterward, Anglo-Americans began to settle in the Ohio River Valley in great numbers. As a result, several the area tribes who held treaty rights to hunt there began to attack the settlers. At this time, the Governor of Virginia was John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore who declared war on the Indians in May 1774. A Shawnee leader named Cornstalk led his tribe against British colonists in the war. Lord Dunmore’s War ended soon after Virginia’s victory in the Battle of Point Pleasant in October 1774. Afterward, Lord Dunmore signed agreements with the Iroquois which ceded the “hunting grounds” across the Ohio River, which included Kentucky and West Virginia, to the British.