Early Explorers of the Ohio River

Early Explorers of the Ohio River
by Ben Morrill, Visitor Center Site Manager

While Native American tribes had lived along the Ohio River for thousands of years, Europeans saw the Ohio River and the lands west of the eastern seaboard as unexplored and unknown territory. As European began opening up the New World, explorers embarked on journeys to chart this new land. These trips into the heart of the North American continent were often dangerous, with disease and starvation plaguing many expeditions. But the efforts of these explorers ultimately opened up the west for settlement, forever changing the landscape of what would become the United States.

The French and Robert De La Salle

Much of early European exploration was driven by finding new trade routes with Asia. Silk and spices were extremely valuable in Europe, but the only known route to Asia was a long, dangerous journey around southern Africa. As a result a result, Europeans began looking for faster, safer trade routes in the east.

French explorer Robert de La Salle.

Born in France in 1643 and immigrating to Montreal in 1666, French nobleman Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle hoped to discover new trade routes through the unexplored American frontier, connecting French colonies in the east with Pacific Ocean, for greater access to valuable Asian silks and spices. In the winter of 1668, local tribes told La Salle of a great river that flowed into the sea. Believing this to be the wester passage to Asia he was looking for, La Salle put together an expedition in 1669.

35 days after leaving Montreal La Salle and his expedition reached the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Travelling over land, La Salle and his men spent time with local Native American tribes before continuing to Lake Erie. While La Salle has long been credited as the first European to see the Ohio River, with some claiming his expedition traveled as far as modern day Louisville, KY, historians have found it difficult to find historical records confirming these claims. Regardless, La Salle’s expedition paved the way for further exploration of the lands of the Ohio River.


British Expeditions

Like the French, the British sought a direct route to the Pacific Ocean. In 1673 Major General Abraham Wood sent his friend James Needham and Gabriel Arthur on an expedition westward, with the goals of

An early map of Virginia from the 1600s.

establishing trade relations with the Cherokee and finding a water route to the southwest. Two years before in 1671, General Wood sent Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam westward with the expedition reaching as far as modern West Virginia. While Needham and Arthur successfully secured a treaty with the Cherokee, Needham was killed by a member of a rival tribe returning to Virginia.

Meanwhile, Arthur remained with the Native Americans, traveling with them south to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico before returning up the Ohio River to Kentuck, making him one of the first Europeans to travel a significant length of the river. After being gone for nearly a year, Arthur returned to Virginia in 1674, providing General Wood with an account of his travels which General Wood later described in a letter to a friend in London.

Arnout Viele

Considered by many to be the first European to travel the full length of the Ohio River, Dutch explorer and Native American interpreter Arnout Viele’s experience negotiating with Native American tribes on behalf of Dutch interests made him the ideal person to lead a 1692 trading expedition into the Ohio River Valley.

Early European explorers interact with local Native American tribes.

Accompanied by native Delaware and Shawnee tribesmen, Viele left Albany, travelling south through New Jersey, Viele and his expedition travelled along the Allegheny and down the Ohio River as far as southern Kentucky where the Ohio River meets the Wabash. Becoming the first European to travel the majority of the Ohio River, Viele returned in 1694 to a hero’s welcome.

The work of early explorers opened up much the American continent for expansion and settlement. By the mid-1700s Britain and France were fighting over the valuable Ohio River Valley, culminating in the French and Indian War and an ultimate British victory.

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.