Shawnee had large settlement in Greene County


I am not sure what the Shawnee called this season of the year, but around here after the first frost it is known as “Indian Summer.”

I don’t know how that name was chosen, but I certainly am enjoying the beautiful trees and shrubs which provide such brilliant colors.

Many years before Daniel Boone or Simon Kenton ventured north from Kentucky to explore the Ohio country, the Shawnee Indians had one of their largest settlements right here in Greene County.

Cha-Lah-Gaw-Tha, better known as Chillicothe, was the name given to many of the Shawnee villages, with Old Chillicothe (now Oldtown) one of the oldest of the occupied villages. This was the place where a great number of councils took place with the Indians traveling many miles to discuss the important issues of their time.

The village was located near the Little Miami River which provided a means of transportation as well as fishing for the residents. The Shawnee who lived in the village were not very different from today’s Greene County residents. They worked during the daylight hours and slept at night, though of course there were those who kept watch during the night. They ate the food which was readily available including deer and other animals along with the crops they grew for their families.

One hundred plus years have passed since the Shawnee lived and worked at Old Chillicothe, but the-day to-day life has been recalled by Thomas Wildcat Alford, who was keeper of historical Shawnee documents and was the great-grandson of the noted warrior Tecumseh.

The Shawnee did not live in teepees as their western cousins but in log structures which they called wegiwas. These were structures made in square form or oblong. The poles were saplings stripped of bark and placed at equal distances. Each pole had a fork which provided support for the roof. The roof sloped downward in order for the rain or snow to fall off the roof. Additional poles were placed on the sides and roof as needed and then the structure was covered with bark from the many trees available. When constructed, the wegiwa was virtually water-proof and retained warmth. All this was accomplished without hammer or nails, only tomahawks and thin strips of bark used to bind it all together.

A tradition for the Shawnee was the naming of a new baby. Today the parents select a name for their child well in advance of the birth. The Shawnee parents did not select a name. One of the elders of the tribe would choose a name for a boy when he was 10 days old. It the baby was a girl, the name was not given until the child was 12 days old.

Shawnee mothers carried their babies on their backs. A board called a tkithoway was carved ornamentally to the desire of the parents and to this board, the baby was securely strapped. There were some advantages to this procedure, one the mother’s arms were free to carry other things she might need during the day, and an infant could not be left in a wegiwa in case a wolf or other creature might find the child. The stiff board which held the baby ensured that the child would develop a strong and straight back and for boys, the head was fastened to the board so that there would be a flat place on the back of the head which in later years would have a single eagle feather attached. This was considered appropriate for a Shawnee warrior.

From an early age, the children were taught respect for their elders. Since there were no books to study the history of the Shawnee, fathers passed down the history verbally and the children were expected to memorize the history word for word. The boys learned what plants were safe to touch and eat and those which were not. They learned the arts of hunting and fishing in order that their families could be well provided. They learned about the weather and how to determine what the oncoming seasons might bring.

The children were encouraged to run, swim, and jump, and the boys were encouraged to learn to shoot an arrow from a bow. A game the boys loved was to make a large hoop from grape vines. They would choose sides facing one another and then roll the hoop toward the opposing party. The team would shoot their arrows and the boy whose arrow stuck in the hoop was considered the winner.

The women and girls were the principal gardeners. They grew a variety of corn, some used for grilling (as we do today), while some kinds were best for making bread or corn meal. They even grew corn to make into hominy. Although in time, many of the men took over some of the more difficult chores when it came to planting.

Although the Shawnee women usually let their hair grow long and braided, the men rarely let the hair grow longer than the shoulder.

On four separate occasions the Army drove the Shawnee away from Old Chillicothe from 1779 to 1790. Each of the first three times, they came back and rebuilt their town. The fourth time, the village was abandoned when the Treaty of Greenville was signed.

If you have time one day, stop to read the monuments at Oldtown. They tell a great story.

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is a Greene County historian and resident.

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