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Native Americans of the Shenandoah Valley

An Exclusive to AccessGenealogy: The following series of articles takes a look at the early Native Americans of the Shenandoah Valley region. Who peopled the area before European contact? How did these Native American’s influence the early events of American history? What archeological evidence remains of these people’s? Part one looks at a couple of unusual clues to the identity of early Shenandoah Valley residents. In part two the history of the Shenandoah Valley after the arrival of Europeans is summarized in order to understand why the Native American history has been largely forgotten. Part three explores the pre-European past of the Shenandoah Valley. Part four looks at many of the early European eyewitness accounts of the Shenandoah Valley and it’s peoples. Part five reviews the professional archaeological studies carried out in the Shenandoah Valley in recent years.

The Archaeological Evidence in Shenandoah Valley

Native American artifacts are frequently found in the Seven Bends area of the Shenandoah River between Woodstock and Strasburg, VA.  However, mounds and earthworks are mostly concentrated in the bends near the outlet of Toms Brook at Maurertown, VA.  The mounds were fairly prominent when settlers first arrived, but after 250 years of plowing, they generally can only be found in aerial photographs. Paleo-Indian Period Warren County During the 1990s, the Thunderbird Archaeological District was surveyed and partially excavated. Thunderbird consists of three sites that were occupied or utilized during the Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic Periods. It was the first archaeological site in Virginia that showed evidence of a Clovis Culture occupation. High quality jasper was mined and worked to produce tools and weapons. Thunderbird is now a residential subdivision. Clarke County Archaeologist Jack Hranicky is leading the study of a Paleolithic or Early Archaic Period site which contains a stone circle that apparently functioned as a calendar. He recently discovered petroglyphs on boulders near the stone circle. At this time, it is not known if the petroglyphs are contemporary with the stone circle. Archaic Period Page County In Skeleton’s Gorge at Luray Caverns, bone fragments (among other artifacts) were found embedded in calcite. Other traces of previous human occupation included pieces of charcoal, flint, and human bone fragments embedded in stalagmite. A skeleton, thought to be that of a Native American girl, found in one of the chasms. Woodland Period Shenandoah County Archaeologists employed by the National Park Service surveyed northern Shenandoah County, VA between 1989 and 1991 in preparation for nominating the Toms Brook Battlefield (October 9,...

Eyewitness Accounts to Early Indian Settlements in Shenandoah Valley

According to English maps and books of the late 1500s, Sir Francis Drake landed on the coast of Virginia, near the mouth of the James River in 1577. He named the region Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth I then explored the Chesapeake Bay for a few weeks. He then led a part of his fleet’s crewmen on horseback and foot along the James River for 10 days until they reached the summit of a mountain, where they could see a vast valley, covered in grasslands and fields. Drake’s memoir states that this valley was densely populated by agricultural Indians, who were peaceful and culturally advanced. A book published by John Smith in 1612, Proceedings of the English Colony of Virginia, provides detailed descriptions of the Native American inhabitants of eastern and northern Virginia. The Manahoacs occupied the region of northern Virginia east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Smith stated that valley beyond the mountains was densely populated by agricultural peoples, but did not provide detailed descriptions of the inhabitants. Beginning around 1645, Governor William Berkeley sponsored small parties of Indian traders to make contact with Native American tribes living outside the Chesapeake Region to obtain furs, skins and Native American slaves. Initial contacts were with Occanechi Indians in south-central Virginia and the Rickohocken Indians, whose principal town, Otari, was near present day Bedford, VA. Now forgotten traders brought back descriptions of large agricultural villages in the Valley along with vast grasslands, they called savanna’s that teemed with bison and deer. The name of the principal ethnic group that occupied this large valley was written as Senantoa, Cenuntua, Shanantoa,...

Muskogean Mound Builders

Along the North Fork of the Shenandoah are the fertile bottomlands that made the valley famous. Between Strasburg, Woodstock and New Market, VA the river snakes its way through rich alluvial soils. Here, there is archival and unstudied archaeological evidence that an advanced Native American culture once existed in the Shenandoah Valley. Because of the lack of archaeological studies of Mississippian type sites in the Shenandoah Valley, the discussion on this period must remain highly speculative. Native American platform mounds still exist in Virginia. They will be discussed within Part Four. It should be noted that the Shenandoah Valley is between the two remaining platform mound sites and would have been the travel route between the two towns. It is a definite fact that Muskogean mound builders lived in southwestern Virginia until the 1730s, when they returned to Georgia and joined the Creek Indian Confederacy. They were the Tamahiti, known to Virginia anthropologists by the name used by Algonquians, the Tomahitans. Tamahiti means “Merchant People” in the Itsate Creek language. The word for maize in several Shawnee dialects is “tama.” Tama means trade in the Totonac language of Mexico. The Creek Indian languages contain many Totonac and Itza Maya loan...

Archaic Period

Archaic Period (7,000 BC – 1000 BC) The early part of this cultural period was characterized by warm, dry conditions. Sandy deserts existing in the coastal plain of the Carolinas, but probably, the landscape in the Shenandoah Valley would have been similar to that of eastern Colorado today. Ocean levels were continually rising because of melting glaciers and ice caps in the northern latitudes. By around 5000 BC, western Virginia’s climate was fairly close to what occurs today. After the concurrent die-off of many large mammals and warming of western Virginia, herds of three ruminant species, deer, bison and elk, dominated the valley. Large herds moved up and down the valley. Much of the lower elevations were grasslands. The herds consumed most trees and shrubs that tried to sprout. During the Archaic Period, the Shenandoah Valley must have been a prime location for hunting. Four hundred generations of humans in the Shenandoah Valley depended on the large herds of game animals for their primary sources of animal protein. Undoubtedly, there were ethnic groups whose cultures resembled those of the peoples of the Lower Missouri River Basin in the 1700s, who mixed agriculture with big-game hunting. Bison and elk disappeared from throughout the Southeast around 1740 to 1750. Suddenly, around 1740, the bison and elk throughout the Southeast disappeared. The extinction of bison and elk may have been caused by excessive hunting, but is more likely to have been caused by a cattle disease imported from England, such as brucellosis. Deer populations were decimated by excessive hunting in the early 1700s, but continued to survive in remote locations. Deer came...

Woodland Period

Early Woodland Period (1000 BC – 200 BC) In the Mid-Atlantic region, the Early Woodland Period is believed to have been a continuation of Late Archaic traditions. Native peoples slowly became more sophisticated in adapting to their environment. Population slowly increased. There were steadily more trade contacts between regions. An important trade route connecting the North Georgia Mountains and Tennessee River Valley with the Potomac River Valley passed through the Shenandoah Valley. It intersected major east-west trade routes at Harpers Ferry, WV and Roanoke, VA, where the James River passes through the Blue Ridge Mountains. At least as early as around 600 BC the Adena Culture reached the northern Shenandoah Valley from the Ohio Valley. None of the Adena sites in Virginia have been radiocarbon dated. Official Commonwealth of Virginia Native American histories do not even mention the Adena Culture. However, as stated earlier, the Native Americans of the Ridge and Valley Province in Virginia were often more similar culturally to contemporaries in West Virginia than Virginia. Of course, West Virginia was part of Virginia until the Civil War. The archaeological evidence for the Adena Culture will be discussed in Part 4. There are petroglyphs scattered throughout the Massanutten Mountains, east of Strasburg and Woodstock, VA. Even though most are within the Shenandoah National Forest, few have been either cataloged or studied. They probably date from the Woodland Period, but they have never been studied by specialists on petroglyphs Middle Woodland Period (200 BC – 900 AD?) The bow and arrow first appeared in Virginia during the Middle Woodland Period. Archaeologists today believe that it only had limited usage...

Paleo-Indian Period

Most of the Shenandoah Valley is part of the Ridge and Valley Province that extends from southeastern New York to northwest of Atlanta, GA. The eastern flank of the valley is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains that extend from eastern Pennsylvania to northern suburbs of Atlanta, GA. The Blue Ridge Mountains are composed of igneous and metamorphic rocks. The southern end of the Shenandoah Valley contains also igneous rock outcrops, known as “mow hills” that are the remnants of ancient volcanoes. Most of the valley is underlain by sedimentary or metamorphic rocks that were originally sedimentary. Early Paleo-Indian Period (15,500 BC? – 10,000 BC) During the maximum extent of North America’s glaciers during the Pleistocene Geological Period, the Shenandoah Valley would have been similar in appearance to Lapland in northern Scandinavia today. Stunted conifers and birches were clustered around rivers and streams. The bottom of the valley was covered with mosses, grass and hardy shrubs. The mountains were snow-capped for much or all of the year. However, to date no evidence has been found of glaciers. The mountain slopes would have been permanently frozen, rocky and partially covered with moss. At the peak of glacial expanse, sea level was about 360 feet (120 meters) lower than today. Virginia might have extended another 100 miles to the east during that period. Animals typical of the arctic tundra, such as the musk ox and caribou, inhabited the region during the coldest part of the Ice Age. There were probably small bands of hunters in the Shenandoah Valley at this time, but no evidence has been found. For almost a century...

Exploration and Settlement of the Shenandoah Valley

The first recorded exploration of the Shenandoah Valley was by German immigrant, Johann Lederer, and several associates in 1670. They went as far west as present day Strasburg, VA, then turned around. His journey came on the heels of a decade of ethnic cleansing by the Rickohockens. Colonel Cadwallader Jones explored the central part of the valley in 1673. Colonial records do not document any more expeditions until 1705, when George Ritter, from Bern, Switzerland, led a party into the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, then decide to settle east of the valley. In 1719, Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord of Cameron, inherited the 5,282,000 acre Northern Neck proprietary estate in what is now Northern Virginia. Unlike most portions of the British North American colonies, it was operated as feudal manor in which tenants paid land rents, rather than owning their farms fee simple. However, some tracts were sold outright to purchasers from prominent families in England, and later in Fairfax’s life, to anyone with the money. Between 1719 and 1732, Robert “King” Carter became extremely wealthy working as Lord Fairfax’s agent. Carter focused sales and rentals on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There were few settlers in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley until after 1732. That was when Lord Fairfax moved to Virginia and began developing his plantation. He sent agents to Europe to recruit tenants, who were skilled yeoman farmers. The Shenandoah Valley’s unique man-made landscape is a result of its mid-and-late 18th century settlement patterns. The Germanic settlers were accustomed to intensive farming of tracts ranging between 50 and 60 acres in size....

The Rickohockens’ Role in Native American Slavery

During the Third Powhatan War (1644-1646) warriors of the Rickohocken tribe, living near the headwaters of the James River, formed an alliance with Powhatan. They massacred all whites that they encountered as they marched down the James Valley. Over 500 white settlers were killed by the Native alliance. The Rickohockens probably would have destroyed the capital in Jamestown had not they run out of arrows. The colonists counter-attacked with firearms and steel weapons. The Rickohockens sued for peace. In order to keep the Rickohockens from attacking the English colonists again, Royal Governor William Berkeley, began making trade contracts with them that included the purchase of Native American slaves and the sales of firearms. The Rickohockens initially raided Shawnee villages in what is now West Virginia to obtain slaves. Their territory steadily spread southwestward into northeastern Tennessee. French maps of the late 1600s and early 1700s document the movement of Muskogean and Yuchi villages southwestward along the Tennessee River in response to repeated Rickohocken attacks. The Rickohockens’ location near the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley meant that tribes living in the Valley were highly vulnerable to these raids. Unfortunately, there are no corresponding British maps that document ethnic changes in western Virginia. What is documented, though, is that the Native population outside the Rickohocken domain began to drop starkly. Around 1658, when Charles Stuart, the son of the decapitated King Charles I was still in exile, he granted a massive tract land to the Culpepper family in return for their financial and political assistance in regaining the throne of England. No one knew the exact size of the feudal...

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