By Joan Baxter
When the Shawnee came to Ohio they preferred to settle near a river for transportation and food. The Shawanos, as they called themselves, were divided into septs. Each village was named for the particular sept which was occupying the village at the time and since the Chalagatha sept lived in Greene County, the name of the village was Chillicothe. Because this was one of the older villages – it was most often known as Old Chillicothe. The early settlers changed the name to Old Town.
One of the most noted figures in Shawnee history is Tecumseh, who was born not far from the village. His parents were journeying to attend a major conference at old Chillicothe when his mother was very near the time she was to deliver a child. They were close to the village when they stopped and made a temporary shelter for her as they awaited the birth of a son.
At the moment that the babe’s first cry was heard, a shooting star passed across the sky and so, contrary to the usual Shawnee tradition of giving a name when a boy was 10 days old, or a girl was 12 days old, his father, Pucksinwa decided immediately that the child would be known as Tecumseh –“Panther in the sky.”
It was customary for a child to be strapped securely to a board, sometimes ornately carved and then placed on his mother’s back rather like a back pack. In this manner, she had her hands free to work, but the child was nearby. If a child was laid on a blanket while she worked, there was danger from wild animals, but this ensured that the mother would have the child in close proximity. It was considered desirable for an Indian to have a flat head and a straight spine, securing the child in the fashion would achieve the desired effect.
Shawnee women worked hard all day. It was the job of the women to plant the fields and harvest the crop. They made baskets from the natural materials at hand and produced some pottery as well. The women had knowledge of herbs and other medicines which would be used medically.
Corn was one of the staples of the diet. It could be shucked and placed over the coals. After it cooked 10 or 15 minutes, a knife was run lengthwise between the rows of kernels and then the kernels were sun dried. This was one method of preservation. Later the kernels would be cooked with grease or boiled with meat.
Corn was also grated from the cob, placed in as iron pot with a lid and when it was baked it became a solid cake known as production bread. Corn bread was also popular. The product was made into dough and baked in a Dutch oven. Hominy was another popular use for the corn.
Another use for the harvested corn was to make a product known as “bread water.” Using corn which had dried on the stalk, the kernels were processed with a grinding stone until the skin covering the grin was broken and separated from the kernels. The mixture was boiled in water until the kernels were thoroughly cooked. More water was added then the mixture was poured into a large wooden vessel covered and put away until it fermented. It was said it had a pleasing taste “something like a sweet pickle.”
In addition to corn, the Shawnee grew pumpkins, squash, beans and berries. The men would hunt buffalo and other game which the women would prepare. They also loved honey and maple syrup.
When the traders came into the area, furs were exchanged for sharp knives and iron pots.
Women usually wore a cloth skirt and shirt along with moccasins. Sometimes the clothing was decorated with beads. Beaded necklaces were worn for ceremonial events.
The men wore cloth shirts and buckskin or woolen leggings with their moccasins. For everyday use, the moccasins were unadorned, but for ceremonial purposes, they could be heavily beaded. Kneebands were worn just below the knees, usually made of yarn which had been braided. A wide broadcloth breechcloth, often blue or red in color would be hung between the legs, fastened in the front and back with a belt which also served as a belt for the breeches.
A cloth shirt, made in the same manner which the early settlers made their garments was worn. This was held in place by a yarn sash. The earliest method was to finger weave the yarn in a belt which could be as much as five inches in width. The belt, when tied would reach to the wearer’s right knee. Silver bracelets and arm bands were popular from the earliest times for ceremonial purposes. This was not practical for hunting, however.
Cloth turbans were popular head gear, often with a feather attached. Usually the Shawnee wore only one feather, perhaps as many as three, but never the large headdresses worn by the Plains Indians.
Teaching games included rolling a hoop which the boys would shoot arrows through as it passed. Sometimes the hoop was laid on the ground, and the boy who could put the largest number of arrows inside the hoop was considered the winner. Lessons were learned by word of mouth, passed from one generation to the next, and each generation was to learn to repeat the lessons exactly, lest some of the history become lost.
The Shawnee did not live in teepees. They constructed what they called a wegiwa. Timbers formed the sides which were covered with bark. A roof was made in similar fashion. These structures were not movable and were waterproof as well as proving adequate warmth in the winter.
If you would like more information about the local Indians you might read “Old Chillicothe” by W. A. Galloway.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.