View of the Ohio Valley from Raven Rock
“Lower Shawnee Town was a 'Super Village,' at least twice as big as it protohistoric or prehistoric predecessors and larger than most contemporary Native American settlements in the region. Its inhabitants were a diverse lot, a mixture of indigenous people, Europeans, Africans, and offspring of their unions. Permanent native residents, transient French and English traders on business, native and European captives, relatives visiting from Shawnee towns located up the Ohio or even farther away, and diplomats and spies of all nationalities spent time in the town.”
-- Craig Thompson Friend, The Buzzel about Kentuck: Settling the Promised Land
How many area residents know of the tremendous importance and influence of an 18th century town at the convergence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers? Have they even read of a place called “Sonnontio” and considered how the cultural exchange in that place formed a unique, often uneasy society that crossed national and international boundaries?
Lower Shawnee Town, or Sonnontio, or Sonhioto, or Shannoah or the Bentley Site – many names exist for the settlement located on the second flood terrace of the Ohio at the mouth of the Scioto River. The grounds were home to an ancient culture archaeological site (Fort Ancient Culture) that later became a large network of Native American villages. At one point the population may have been as high as 1500 people, with 100 houses north of the Ohio River and another 40 on the Kentucky side.
Growing European populations on the east coast of North America and in southern Canada had caused Native American populations to concentrate in the Ohio River Valley, and Lower Shawnee Town was situated at a convenient point, accessible to many communities living on tributaries of the Ohio River.
Craig Thompson Friend writes that natives found the Ohio and Scioto valleys fertile places to live …
“Land rich with the resources slash-and-burn farmer-hunters required: fertile soil, a mosaic of mixed hardwood forests, flat grassy plains, canebrakes, salt and freshwater springs, and clear streams. Deer, bear, elk, and bison wandered the countryside; wild plants and nut-bearing trees were abundant. Chert-bearing bedrocks and clay-bearing river banks provided the essential materials for tools and durable containers.”
The opportunity to trade for furs and to broker political alliances also attracted both British and French traders and the town became a key center in dealings with other tribes and with Europeans. Therefore, between about 1735 and 1758, Lower Shawnee Town became a center for commerce and diplomacy, "a sort of republic populated by a diverse array of migratory peoples” (the Iroquois, the Delawares, the Miamis, and the Shawnee) supplied by British traders.
Some historians have described the place as “the most important British trading village NW of the Ohio River” while other, less complimentary sources say it was “a village of mixed ethnicities with a large number of bad characters of various nations.”
Located at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, the village sat astride three important trade, travel, and communication routes of the time:
- The Warriors' Path, the major north-south Indian trail that may have had great antiquity;
- The overland Pennsylvania traders' path to Muskingum and Pickawillany, which led north and northwest from the towns; and
- The Scioto and Ohio river systems, which offered access both access north-south and east-west.
The town also lay near the Seneca Trail, which was used by Cherokees and Catawbas, and it was surrounded by fertile, alluvial flatlands that were ideal for growing corn. The Shawnee were the settlement's largest ethnic contingent, and these people shared origins in village-based tribal farming societies. Care of their corn fields was the responsibility of the women. Many important Shawnee ceremonies were tied to the agricultural cycle: the spring bread dance at planting time; the green corn dance when crops ripened; and the autumn bread dance to celebrate the harvest.
The Shawnee considered the Delaware as their "grandfathers" and the source of all Algonquin tribes. They also shared an oral tradition with the Kickapoo that they were once members of the same tribe. The loss of their homeland has given the Shawnee the reputation of being wanderers, but this was by necessity, not choice.
The Shawnee have always maintained a strong sense of tribal identity, but this produced very little central political organization. During their dispersal, each of their five divisions functioned as an almost autonomous unit. This continued to plague them after they returned to Ohio, and few Shawnee could ever claim to the title of "head chief." Like the Delaware, Shawnee civil chiefships were hereditary and held for life.
The native community a the mouth of the Scioto River was less a village and more of a “district extending along the wide Scioto River and narrower Ohio River floodplains and terraces.” It was a sprawling series of wickiups and longhouses, so expansive that French and British traders regarded Lower Shawneetown as “one of two capitals of the Shawnee tribe" (aka Chalahgawtha meaning "principal place").
Shannoah, on the Kentucky bank, became the first village in Kentucky built by Shawnee Indians and French traders sometime around 1830. But, in time, the village became a formidable threat to French ambitions. The French under Beauharnois pressed the Shawnees to move to Detroit with no success.
English adventurers did eventually make their way to Shannoah. On March 6, 1750, early explorer Christopher Gist wrote that he "killed a fat Bear" nearby. Gist would later guide Major George Washington on missions during the French & Indian War.
In 1751, Gist noted in his journal:
"Set out...to the Mouth of Sciodoe Creek opposite to the Shannoah Town, here we fired our Guns to alarm the Traders, who soon answered, and came and ferryed Us over to the Town — The Land about the Mouth of Sciodoe Creek is rich but broken fine Bottoms upon the River & Creek. The Shannoah Town is situated upon both Sides the River Ohio, just below the Mouth of Sciodoe Creek, and contains about 300 Men, there are about 40 Houses on the S Side of the River and about 100 on the N Side, with a Kind of State-House of about 90 Feet long, with a light Cover of Bark in which they hold their Councils."
Shannoah was abandoned about November 1758, perhaps because of a 1753 flood, or maybe because of the French and Indian War, which began in 1755 in the Ohio Valley. After Shannoah was abandoned, the Lower Shawnee Town community on the north bank remained for a number of years before it, too, was deserted.
The population relocated to another site further up the Scioto River. Perhaps it was increased contact with whites on the Ohio River that persuaded the Shawnee to abandon the area. Whatever the reason, by 1760, the Shawnee had consolidated near present day Chillicothe, Ohio. Other evidence of these Indian towns are found on John Filson's 1784 map of Kentucky, which notes an "Old Shawnee Town" on the north side of the Ohio River where it and the Scioto River join.
As Native sojourners who moved every generation for more than 250 years, the Shawnees adopted a wide range of identities, and the differences among them accelerated over time. Through migration, the Shawnee and their neighbors adapted to disease, warfare, and dislocation by interacting with colonizers as slavers, mercenaries, guides, and traders. These adaptations enabled them to preserve their cultural identities and resist coalescence without forsaking their linguistic and religious traditions.
Lower Shawnee Town was excavated in the 1930s and was discovered to have had similar structures and building techniques as those found at another nearby Fort Ancient site, the Hardin Village Site located 8.1 miles up the Ohio. Also found during the excavations were distinctive Madisonville horizon pottery, including cordmarked, plain and grooved-paddle jars, as well as a variety of chert points, scrapers and ceremonial pipes.
Many 18th century European trade goods were also found at the site, including guns, gunspalls (manufactured gunflints) and gunflints, gun parts (sideplates, mainsprings, ram pipes, and breech plugs), wire-wound and drawn glass beads, tinkling cones, a button, pendants, an earring, cutlery, kettle ears, a key, nails, chisels, hooks, a buckle, a Jew's harp, and pieces of a pair of iron scissors.
* Historical Note – By the 1600's Native Americans of the Northeast had acquired a wealth of knowledge for working European sheet metals which was no doubt combined with experience in indigenous copper before contact. Both men and women wore tinkling cones for their dancing.
Even the tiniest pieces and scraps of copper and brass were recycled. Native Americans of New England mastered techniques of cutting, drilling, etching, forming, joining, and decorating indigenous and European sheet metal. Because of the skill required to make many of the rolled and riveted items, and because of the similarity between items made by both coastal and interior groups of Natives, there may have been Native metal work specialists who traded their products inland (Wray et. al. 1987).
The next time you cross over the Scioto River that links Portsmouth and its West Side, take a close look at the scenery. Imagine the appeal of the enduring landscape and how these natural resources helped form the vibrant community at the site of Lower Shawnee Town in the 18th century. Let the vivid imagery transport you to this time and consider what it meant to be in this place once inhabited by a truly distinct mixture of population.
Consider the beginnings of America as we know it and the long history that even predated European discovery. No wonder the place called “Lower Shawnee Town, or Sonnontio, or Sonhioto, or Shannoah” was a Super Village. We must acknowledge the heritage afforded by those in a colorful, diverse past and use this understanding to cultivate the same beautiful land we occupy today. How rich the harvest.
Allow me to leave you with a few more words by Craig Thompson Friend about the people in Lower Shawnee Town ...
“The intermarriage and ethnic diversity within these settlements created a multitude of new kinship and social situations, adding layers of ethnic, social, and village relationships. Thus, the potential for factionalism and the development of different European responses may have been even greater in these villages than in traditional single-ethnic villages. As autonomous communities, these republics existed politically beyond the control of the French, British, and even the Six Nations at Onondaga, and their residents were responsible only to themselves. Thus, they had the freedom to make decisions based on their own needs, traditions, and cultural proscriptions, and they could ally themselves with whomever they wished or change their alliances with it suited their needs.”
Scioto, here is history in your own backyard. Please, take it to heart.
David Pollack and A. Gwynn Henderson, "A Preliminary Report on the Contact Period Occupation at Lower Shawneetown (l5GP15), Greenup County, Kentucky.” Paper presented at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society on April 9, 1982.
Craig Thompson Friend, editor. Klotter, James C., and James Klotter. “Foreword.” The Buzzel About Kentuck: Settling the Promised Land. University Press of Kentucky. 1999.
Stephen Warren. Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America. 2016.