Native Tribes of the Ohio River

Native Tribes of the Ohio River
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

Long before European settlers made their way westward the Native American tribes had been living near the Ohio River for thousands of years. In fact, the Ohio River gets its name from a Native American word meaning “great river.” Making use of the land and local resources, these tribes built self-sustaining settlements, farming the land and hunting local wildlife, resourcefully using the animals for food, tools, and clothing. Many different tribes lived in the area, with each one leaving its own unique impression on the land.

The First Tribes

The route Paleoindians took during the Ice Age to migrate to North America.

Crossing over the frozen Bering Strait from Siberia, tribes of hunter-gatherers followed mammoths and other game at the end of the last Ice Age. Settling in Ohio around 13,000 B.C. and flourishing until roughly 7000 B.C., Paleoindian tribes, like the Clovis Culture, hunted wild

animals, fish, and gathered berries while traveling and living in homes constructed out of wood and bark or animal hides. As the Ice Age thawed, tribes began establishing more permanent settlements.

Around 8000 B.C. the Archaic culture emerged in Ohio. Like Paleoindians, the Archaic peoples were a hunter-gatherer society, but unlike nomadic Paleoindians, they established settlements with permanent housing and began practicing food storage. They also developed sophisticated trade methods, exchanging highly valued shells and copper.

Evidence of mound building cultures can still be seen today. The largest remaining mound, seen here, is in Miamisburg, OH.

By 800 B.C. tribes began forming permanent settlements, farming and cultivating crops in addition to continuing to hunt for food. Tribes like the Hopewell and the Adena grew beans, squash, which later tribes continued to cultivate. Additionally, tribes developed ways of making pottery out of nearby natural resources, providing them with food stores for cold winter months.

As settlements grew, tribes began building larger and more elaborate earthen works. Initially beginning as defensive structures for villages, they soon became elaborate ceremonial and burial mounds, which can still be seen today. Although the Hopewell and Adena cultures began declining around 500 A.D. the practice of ceremonial mound building would be continued by the Fort Ancient peoples.

The Fort Ancient Peoples

Appearing around 1000 A.D., the Fort Ancient peoples initially inhabited small villages, including an old Hopewell mound site that gives themtheir name. But as time passed, the size of the villages continued to grow from 40 to 50 people in 1000 A.D., to around 300 people 200 years later. By 1450 A.D., some villages were as large as 500 people. Like the Hopewell and the Adena, their diet centered on hunting and agriculture, with farming centered on the “Three Sisters.” While the Fort Ancient peoples thrived in 1450, by the time European explorers came to the region in 1650, they had all but disappeared.

The Shawnee and Miami

Miami chief Little Turtle successfully fought against westward expansion by early settlers.

With the decline and disappearance of the Fort Ancient culture, new tribes moved into southern Ohio. Both settling in the area in the early1700s, the Miami moved south from Wisconsin and Michigan while the Shawnee were pushed westward from South Carolina by encroaching settlers. Hoping to protect their lands from further European expansion, both the Miami and the Shawnee allied with the French during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), but the resulting British victory further increased conflicts with settlers.

Following the Revolutionary War, Native Americans continued to fight against westward expansion from the east. Miami chief Little Turtle organized an alliance of local tribes, including the Shawnee, in an attempt to protect their land. Famously defeating American general ArthurSt. Clair at the Battle of Wabash in 1792, Little Turtle was unable to convince tribal leaders to negotiate for peace, ultimately stepping down as war chief. Without Little Turtle’s leadership the Native American alliance was soon defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, surrendering to General Anthony Wayne a year later and signing the Treaty of Greenville.

A final attempt to fight back against westward expansion was organized by Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa in the early 1800s. But their defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 marked the end of the last Native American alliance. By 1820, both the Miami and the Shawnee had been forced off their land and relocated to reservations.