The oval house on the left of this composite photo was typical of the branches of the Shawnee living in the Carolina Mountains and along the Savannah River in Georgia and South Carolina. It was not typical of all Shawnee branches. On the right is a detail of an official French map from 1701, which shows the Shawnees living in the heart of the North Carolina Mountains.
Who are the Shawnee People and where did they originally live? The answers to those questions vary considerably between the “authoritative sources” that one consults. In fact, many of the answers conflict with each other. If you ask the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, their official map shows that the Shawnees originally lived in a six county area of eastern Ohio. Today the “official” Shawnees in the eyes of the federal government are citizens of three, relatively small, federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma. According to the National Park Service, there are only 14,000 Shawnee descendants in the nation, with slightly over 7,000 in federally recognized tribes.
During the European Colonial Period (1526-1776) the branches of the Shawnee went by several names. These included Shaawanwaki, Ša˙wano˙ki, Savano, Suale, Xuale, Sawanooki, Shawano, Shanantoa, Shanando, Suwanee, Shanake and Shaawanowi lenaweeki. The “Shawano” type sound is generally interpreted as meaning “southerners.” Suale means “Buzzard People.” Individual divisions went by such names as Chilicothe, Hathawekela, Kispokotha, Mequochake and Piqua. It is intriguing that many of the original names for the Shawnee contain the Mvskoke (Muskogee-Creek) suffix, ki, which means “people” or “nation.”
At least 17 states have place names of Shawnee origin. Most typical are the words Shawnee, Savannah, Suwannee, Tecumseh, Sewanee, Saunee, Shenandoah and Saluda. Local histories typically acknowledge the presence of a Shawnee community, but often their state histories do not even mention the Shawnee being indigenous to their state.
Early Shawnee history
Shawnee historians tell a very different story than one sees on Department of Interior maps. Don Greene, Principal Chief of the Appalachian Shawnee Tribe, has studied his ancestors’ origins intensely. He has concluded that the Shawnee were originally part of the Lenape (Delaware) on the Mid-Atlantic Coast, not in Ohio as the Department of Interior states. He believes that over time, individual bands spread westward and southward over a broad swath of eastern North America. As they migrated, they picked up traditions and DNA from other ethnic groups. He also has significant evidence that the core group of the Hopewell Culture was an ancestral people of the Shawnees. By the 1700s these individual divisions recognized their ancestral relationship to the others and perhaps the Lenape, but their languages and traditions were as distinct as a separate tribe might be.
The Creek Indians of the Southeast consider the Shawnees to have always been their friends, even though they spoke very different languages. Creek tradition states that in ancient times, the Creeks would travel to great ceremonial centers in the Ohio Valley to socialize, worship and trade with the Shawnee. In return, the Shawnee would travel south to the ceremonial centers of the Creek’s ancestors to do likewise. This tradition supports Don Greene’s interpretation of Shawnee history.
Hernando de Soto first encountered Shawnee villages as he entered the North Carolina Mountains in the spring of 1540. The first one was Suale (Buzzard People.) This village was a branch of the Xuale People of northern West Virginia and western edge of Virginia. The Hopewell Culture peoples held the buzzard to be sacred. That is more evidence of Greene’s suspicion that the “core” Hopewell’s were Shawnee.
In the next valley, de Soto visited the town of Guaxale (Wahale in English phonetics.) The word means “Southerners” in Creek. Interpretation is problematic. It is a direct translation of the Shawnee’s name for themselves. However, it is also what the Creeks called immigrants from Yucatan and the Caribbean Basin. Shawnees WERE living in that region of the Carolinas, though, when English colonists first arrived.
During the late 1600s, French engineers, marines and traders explored and mapped all of the Tennessee and Alabama River Basins. This was done in order to claim the region for the King of France. The explorers also went up the tributaries of the Tennessee and Alabama Rivers. In no location did they encounter an indigenous people named Cherokee or a word similar to Cherokee. What they did find is Shawnee bands occupying the eastern 2/3 of Kentucky, plus much of Tennessee and western North Carolina. Muskogean mound builders occupied the wide river flood plains of the North Carolina Mountains, while the Shawnees occupied stream valleys less suitable for large scale cultivation.
Modern versions of Shawnee history
According to the famous Smithsonian Institute ethnologist, John Swanton, Shawnee villages were located in the following future states in the 1700s: West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. The Suwannee River in Georgia and Florida obviously got its name from the Shawnee, but Swanton did not mention Florida. How these states treat their Shawnee heritage varies considerably.
Ohio, Indian West Virginia and Kentucky: All four states maintain official indigenous ethnic maps that show a substantial original presence of Shawnees in their region. Archaeologists currently believe that the Shawnees composed the Fort Ancient Culture in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. That may or may not be the case. They are forgetting that Chickasaw territory once extended to near Cincinnati and that Chickasaw villages were identical in plan to Fort Ancient villages. It may be that a band of Shawnees were participants in the Fort Ancient Culture in southern Ohio, while Fort Ancient villages in Kentucky and Indiana were ancestral to the Chickasaws. West Virginia maps place the Xuale Shawnee in the Kanawha Valley and northeastern counties, while the Shawano Shawnee occupied much of the remainder of the state.
Virginia and Maryland: The history books of Virginia barely mention the Shawnee presence in the western part of their state. They describe a cluster of Shawnee villages around Winchester in the northern Shenandoah Valley as if they were transient squatters. The Shenandoah Valley is dotted with state historic markers that describe a series of Shawnee massacres during the French and Indian War. Bands of Shawnees from the Ohio River WERE responsible for these horrific events. They almost depopulated the Shenandoah Valley. However, the indigenous Shawnees, who then lived farther south were not allies of the French and did not attack their European neighbors.
Tennessee: The Volunteer State barely acknowledges the presence of the Shawnee although European maps show the Shawnee occupying a broad swath of north central Tennessee. In fact, Tennessee has also erased the presence of Yuchi and Chickasaw communities across much of their original territory in the state. In contrast, the city of Sewanee, between Chattanooga and Nashville does acknowledge that it is named after the Shawnee people, who once lived in their area. The local history says that they were wiped out by a small pox epidemic. Tennessee histories also do not mention that in the mid-1700s there were Savano (Shawnee) villages on the Tennessee River between Dayton and Chattanooga.
North Carolina: “North Carolina’s Native American Tribes,” a booklet published by the State of North Carolina does not mention the Shawnee Indians. A few books on the history of the North Carolina Mountains briefly mention that the Cherokees graciously allowed a few Shawnees to settle in their mountains, but after a couple of decades they were driven out because they misbehaved. Wilma Dykeman’s landmark book on the French Broad River states that there were no Indians living where Asheville was located, but there were a couple of small Cherokee villages downstream on the river until 1763.
Apparently, the articles on West Virginia’s Indians in Wikipedia are not available in North Carolina. Anthropology, archaeology and history students at the University of North Carolina are taught that de Soto first made contact with Cherokees at the Cherokee village of Xuale (Suale). The Spaniards then went on to the Cherokee town of Guaxale.
Archaeologist Charles Hudson received all of his training in archaeology at the University of North Carolina even though his entire teaching career was at the University of Georgia. When writing about the de Soto Expedition he expanded the history taught him at UNC to a belief that Guaxale was the capital town of the Cherokees in the 1500s and that it was located on the Biltmore Estate where there was a small Middle Woodland Period mound.
North Carolina Colonial archives tell a very different story. They describe a very large Shawnee town at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers in present day Asheville. It existed until 1763, when the Shawnees were forced out of the Province of North Carolina. Shawnee territory included all of the Swannanoa Basin and the lower 2/3 of the French Broad River Basin. Swannanoa is the Anglicization of the Creek words Suwani Owa, which mean Shawnee River. Creeks occupied the headwaters of the French Broad in Henderson and Transylvania Counties until1763. By 1763, the region southwest of the French Broad River Valley was fully occupied by the Cherokees.
Alabama: Many Alabama histories mention that large numbers of Shawnees immigrated to Alabama during the mid-1700s then became associated with the Creeks. It is difficult to find information on where the Alabama Shawnee villages were located. There is a state-recognized Shawnee tribe in Alabama.
Georgia: Contemporary Georgia ethnic maps do not mention the Shawnee, but the state histories do say that the Savannah River is named after a branch of the Shawnee Indians. All maps during the Colonial Period show Savano (Shawnee) villages along the Savannah River until the eve of the American Revolution. They then relocated westward across the future state to the Chattahoochee River and became part of the Creek Confederacy.
The city of Suwanee in Gwinnett County (northeast metro Atlanta) states that it was named after the Shawnee Indians, who once lived there. In contrast, adjacent Forsyth County claims that Saunee Mountain is named after a mythical Cherokee chief “who lived on top of the mountain.” Official Georgia maps show both counties to be traditional Cherokee territory, even though the Cherokees only owned that land between 1793 and 1838. Census records show that a maximum of about 250 Indians occupied the area of the two counties during that period. They were probably Shawnees, who the Cherokees allowed to live on the fringes of their territory.
South Carolina: South Carolina history states that a branch of the Shawnees, known as the Savano, temporarily lived on the Savannah River in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The texts generally say that the Savanos were recent immigrants from the north. Like their brethren in North Carolina, South Carolina historians seem to be blissfully unaware that the Xuale (Suale) composed a major tribe in northern West Virginia, who were arch enemies of the Cherokees during the 1700s. They label the village of Xuale, visited by de Soto, as being Cherokee. Contemporary South Carolina maps label the northern section of the state originally occupied by Shawnee as being “traditional Cherokee territory.”
The Simpson Village Archaeological site on the Savannah River in northwestern South Carolina dates from the transition from the Woodland Period to the Mississippian (ceremonial mound) Period. It contained oval houses. This fact suggests that the Savano Shawnee have been around that region for at least 800 years before the English arrived.
Florida: A few Florida histories admit that the longest river in their state, the Suwannee, was named after the Shawnee Indians. No readily available history provides any information on why it got that name.
Historians around eastern United States have very different understandings of the history of Shawnee Indians. At some time in the past, the Shawnees were marginalized by the mapmakers of the Department of Interior. The motivation for this intentional erasure of their original importance is not clear. One thing is clear, however, a tribe that once was spread across eastern North America would now have much more than 14,000 descendants today.