Native Americans of
the Shenandoah Valley
Native American archaeological sites in the Shenandoah Valley are seldom
studied. However, historical documents and archaeological evidence show
surprising cultural connections in the Shenandoah Valley at various periods
to the Ohio Valley, northern Georgia and southern Canada. It appears
to have been a place where Native Americans from the north and south
generally traded, but sometimes fought. That tradition continued to several
major battles in the American Civil War.
The following series of articles, written by Richard Thornton, takes a
look at the early indigenous people 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?
It is very difficult to go anywhere in the northern part of the valley or
along the North Fork of the river and not find history of national or
regional importance. This is where George Washington spent much of his
early manhood as either a surveyor or commander of the Virginia Militia.
Historical markers denoting Indian massacres or Civil War battles can be
seen everywhere. There are several rural hamlets that have not changed
significantly in appearance since 1860. Several of those villages are
composed primarily of houses built before 1820. More remote locations
such as around Liberty Furnace on Cedar Creek contain log houses dating from
the 1730s and 1740s. Furthermore, the lineage of most, if not all of
America's champion thoroughbred race horses can be traced to ancestors in
the Shenandoah Valley.
With such a rich broth of history pertaining to the European occupation
being so visible in the Shenandoah Valley, its, almost invisible Native
American heritage is not part of the public consciousness. As will be
discussed later in this series, the earliest settlers were quite aware of
their predecessors, because the ruins of many Native American settlements
and mounds were still visible. However, most of the structures created
by Native Americans were leveled over two centuries ago, while houses
literally stained with the blood of Civil War soldiers are still quite
There is a major obstacle to examining the Colonial Era history of
western Virginia. No maps were made of the region until all the Native
Americans were gone in the mid-1700s. This particularly astonishing
since, in contrast, there are maps showing the Native American ethnic groups
of the 13th colony, Georgia, as early as 1566 . . . 51 years prior to when
Jamestown, VA was founded.
The pre-European past of the Shenandoah Valley has long been a tierra
incognita for Virginians. However, a map accompanying the published journal
of explorer Johann Lederer's 1671 expedition along the Blue Ridge Mountains,
does show the Rickohocken Tribe occupying the same territory in southwest
Virginia that after 1718, was labeled "Cherokees."
Virginia's historians and anthropologists have assigned the same cultural
periods to Native Americans on both sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The
standard descriptions of these cultural periods usually do not mention the
construction of mounds and stone cairns, or the development of large
A closer examination of the archaeological evidence reveals that the
indigenous peoples of the Shenandoah Valley apparently were far more similar
to their contemporaries in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia than to
those living east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, there were distinct
differences from the regions on either side that reflect influence from the
Lower Southeast. The unique natural environment of the Valley of Virginia
also made possible the existence of large herds of bison, deer and elk.
This asset made possible lifestyles for some ethnic groups there, more
similar to the Midwestern prairies. Therefore, the following
descriptions represent a synthesis of Virginia's, West Virginia's, eastern
Tennessee's and northern Georgia's Native American cultural periods.
Much about the Pre-European history of the Shenandoah Valley is still not
fully understood by anthropologists and historians. What factual
information that is available is typically omitted from the books and web
sites readily available for public consumption. In the public's
perspective, several the myths still remain constant. One is that the
Shenandoah Valley was uninhabited when Virginia was settled. Official
documents describe the inhabitants of the Shenandoah as being primitive
hunters and gatherers, who were massacred by a mysterious tribe of "Southern
Indians." In fact, until the late 1600s the Shenandoah Valley was the
most densely populated region in the Colony of Virginia. Western Virginia
contains the majority of Virginia's mounds, large indigenous town sites and
visible Pre-European ruins.
There has been relatively little professional study of Native American
archaeological sites in the Shenandoah Valley. The most comprehensive
studies occurred in the first decade of the 21st century and the last decade
of the 20th century. These recent studies provide physical evidence of
the rich Native American heritage in the Shenandoah Valley that was observed
by explorers and early settlers.
The Archaeological Evidence in Shenandoah Valley
Part five will review the professional archaeological studies carried
out in the Shenandoah Valley in recent years. There have not been many,
but they do tend to confirm the rich Native American heritage suggested
by early settlers.
Source: Native Americans of the Shenandoah Valley , by Richard Thornton,
People of One Fire, Blairsville Georgia, © 2012 by AccessGenealogy.