Looking At History:
Indiana's Hoosier National Forest Region, 1600 to 1950


Cultures in Transition: Native Americans, 1600-1800

It is common to date the beginning of the historic era in the Hoosier National Forest region to the late 17th century, with the arrival in the area of the first European traders and explorers. In fact, dramatic changes had already taken place in the entire Great Lakes region before these traders and the later settlers arrived.

When Europeans began colonizing the Eastern coastal areas of the North American continent, Indian populations were displaced from that region. Many of these groups moved westward, and in turn displaced other Native Americans who had been living in our area. The Iroquois and allied groups also raided or threatened the villages of other tribes, causing Indians in the areas that later became Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio to seek refuge elsewhere. [10]

Thus, the Native American groups encountered by the first European American settlers in Indiana were not those groups, or "tribes", which had originally inhabited the area. Information about the original native inhabitants comes primarily from archaeological study of prehistoric sites.

It is difficult to determine which tribal groups were present in the 1600s, for several reasons. Very little historic (that is, written) evidence for the area exists from this period. Also, archaeological evidence is of only limited use in answering questions about tribal identity. The Native American material culture of that era changed rapidly, as soon as Indian peoples had access to European trade goods. And many Indians stopped only briefly in our region, before moving farther west. Despite our gaps in knowledge, Native American groups present in southern Indiana and adjacent areas in the decades just before the arrival of European American settlers include the Miami and Piankeshaw, and possibly the Shawnee and groups speaking Muskogean and Dhegiha Siouan languages.

Some scholars think that at least some of the Miami Indians can be traced back to certain late prehistoric (Upper Mississippian) archaeological cultures. Upper Mississippian groups are known from the archaeological record to have lived in northwestern Indiana and northern Illinois during the 1400s through the 1600s. [11] Similarly, the Shawnee may have been linked with the Fort Ancient culture, an archaeologically known culture of the 1600s in Ohio. However, not all Fort Ancient culture sites of that period are necessarily Shawnee, and various bands of the Shawnee may be archaeologically linked to other prehistoric cultures. [12]

Figure 9: "Open Door" (Ten-squat-a-way), known as the Shawnee Prophet (brother of Tecumseh); 1830 painting by George Catlin.

Figure 10: Drawing of a Delaware Indian, about 1800.

In southwestern Indiana and adjoining portions of Illinois and Kentucky, European trade goods have been found at prehistoric Mississippian villages known on the basis of radiocarbon dates to have been occupied in the 1600s. No historic records mention this regional population, and thus its ethnic identity is unknown. Neither the Miami nor the Shawnee are likely candidates. Of the more distant Native American groups recorded by early European travelers, this unknown group's identity might be linked to some of the Muskogean-speakers south of our region or some of the Dhegiha Siouan-speakers to the west. [13]

The information for the 1700s is more definite, but still sketchy. Three related groups, the Miami, Wea, and Piankeshaw, were present in northern and west central Indiana after 1680. Apparently, the Miami claimed they held all lands from northern Indiana and central Ohio to the Ohio River. Around 1770, the Miami and Piankeshaw allowed Delaware from Ohio to occupy southern and central Indiana between the White and the Ohio rivers. There are said to have been a few Delaware towns in this area after that date, though most Delaware and related Munsee settled farther north.

Some groups of Shawnee were briefly in southern Indiana, though their homeland is to the east and south of Indiana. By 1788 this group is reported to have settled temporarily at the confluence of the White and Wabash rivers south of Vincennes, and possibly passed through the Hoosier National Forest region. The Delaware, like some Shawnee groups, originated farther east. The Wyandotte, a Huron-speaking group from the Great Lakes area, also migrated into our region at about the same time. The Kickapoo, also from the north, came to the central Wabash Valley and established villages in the 1740s in the vicinity of a trading center at Ouiatenon, and moved in the 1780s to the Vincennes area. As further indication of large-scale population shifts, some of the Miami, Piankeshaw, Delaware, Shawnee, and Kickapoo had settled along the Mississippi River by 1790; about the same time some of the Potawatomi moved from the Lake Michigan area to the central Wabash. [14]

Figure 11: Painting of Potawatomi chief Kaw-kaw-kay, by George Winter, ca. 1837-39.

County histories for the Hoosier National Forest region mention several Indian groups present at the time of European American settlement in the early 1800s, or just prior to it. The county histories are not always reliable sources, and we do not know what information their authors used in listing the specific Native American groups. The Piankeshaw and Delaware are named in histories of Jackson, Lawrence, Monroe, and Orange counties; the Shawnee are listed for Jackson, Lawrence, and Orange counties; and the Miami are listed for Monroe and Perry counties. Wyandotte Indians are said to have been present in Jackson, Orange, Crawford, and Perry counties. Sources list Potawatomi among the groups present in Lawrence and Monroe County, though most of this group was situated farther north and west of our region. [15]

Historic Era Native American Lifestyles

There is little direct knowledge of the way of life of the historic Native Americans in southern Indiana. However, anthropological information gathered in northern Indiana and elsewhere gives some clues about the Native American groups which lived in--or passed through--our region. [16]

The Miami Indians had a pattern of alternating between summer villages and winter hunting camps. In the earlier part of the 17th century reports tell of villages comprised of oval lodges, constructed from pole frames. By the late 17th century or earlier, one-room rectangular log houses replaced the traditional house, due to European influence. Villages typically consisted of a number of houses scattered along a river bank; one large village was reported to have been three miles in length. A council house, larger than the dwelling houses, apparently was a feature of each village. The Miami lived along major rivers in northern Indiana and Ohio. Early settlers in our region report meeting Indian hunting parties, but the arrangement of their hunting camps is not recorded.

Figure 12: Reconstructed wig-warn (or wicki-up) typical of the Miami traditional house. The Miami cut saplings of hickory, maple, and willow to build the interior frame of the house. The frame was covered by mats of cattail leaves, which were sewn together by cord made from the bark of basswood trees. The house had an earthen floor and could be large or small, depending on the size of the family.

The Shawnee seem to have had a settlement pattern and house structure similar to those of the Miami. The Shawnee occupied semi-permanent towns in summer. Their traditional houses were bark covered lodges. By the late 18th century the traditional house form was abandoned in favor of one-room log houses. Shawnee villages had a central council meeting house. Some of these settlements were used as forts during wars with the U.S. in the late 18th century.

Figure 13: Deafman's village, a Miami Indian farmstead, ca. 1837-39, painting by George Winter. This picture illustrates log buildings—cabin, barn, and granary—adopted by native inhabitants soon after contact with Europeans.

The Delaware apparently used a different settlement strategy. They reportedly occupied semi-permanent settlements in winter, and were mobile in summer. They built their villages on hilltops, either as concentrations of dwellings surrounded by a stockade or as scattered dwellings. Houses consisted of large, multiple-family long houses, which were pole framed and bark covered.

Figure 14: Historic Indian sites and trails in the Hoosier National Forest region.

Tools and utensils used by the earliest historic Indiana included: clay pots; pipes of clay and stone; arrowheads of stone and antler; shell beads; and ornaments of native copper. These items can survive through time at a site, and thus it may be possible to build our knowledge of the historic Native American presence in the region through identification and study of archaeological sites. Other more perishable items, which would be unlikely to last over time, include wooden mortars, gourd utensils, fiber baskets, wooden canoes, and leather clothing. Also, the Delaware and Miami are said to have dug storage pits to preserve food; these too can be preserved in the archaeological record if they have not been subjected to later disturbance.

Metal and glass items were obtained from European or European American traders, or from other Indians who had acquired these trade goods. Native Americans traded furs and hides for many types of European and American goods, including blankets and whiskey. Eventually, Indian groups adopted a wide array of new material items, as these became more readily available from traders. Brass and copper kettles replaced their earthenware pots, guns replaced bows and arrows, and European pipes and glass beads replaced traditional smoking and decorative items.

A map compiled in the 1930s shows historic Indian villages and trails in Indiana, including several sites in our region. Locating these or other historic Indian sites is difficult, however. The available material culture and settlement information suggests that early historic Native American sites appear very similar to prehistoric sites. Trade items originating in Europe, which would give a clear indication of dates of manufacture, occur rarely and probably were present at only some of the early historic sites. And, after Native American groups adopted the use of European goods and house styles to replace their own traditional material culture, their cultural remains appear much like early European American sites.

Another problem we face in identifying Indian sites from this period is the transitory nature of the historic Indian presence in the region. The scant documentation suggests that their presence spanned decades, not centuries, and was marked by nearly constant movement and adjustment between groups and territories. [17] Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that direct evidence for the early historic Native Americans in south central Indiana is still elusive.

There is one cultural feature dating from the period of historic Native American occupation known for the Hoosier National Forest. This is the segment of the Buffalo Trace, also called the Vincennes Trace, that runs through the Forest boundaries. This trail was sometimes called the "Lananzokimiwi Trace," a name which seems to be derived from a Miami language phrase, combining words translated to mean "cattle" and "road." It was the major land route across southern Indiana in early historic times, running from the Falls of the Ohio (near present-day Louisville) to Vincennes. The trail, created by buffalo during their migrations and used by Indians and later by Europeans and European Americans, was as wide as 20 feet. [18] It may still be possible to find and preserve sections of the trail in areas that have not been too disturbed. Thus far, the necessary research and field work to achieve this has not been done.

European American/Native American Interactions

The story of Indian and European American relations during the early historic era is a tale of conflict over territory. The land that now makes up our region is a small portion of a larger territory sought by several peoples: Native American groups, the French, and the British. The process by which the territory ultimately came into British, rather than French, dominion during the colonial period is recounted in a number of places. [19]

By the 1770s, British American settlers were living in present-day Kentucky very near our region, despite the Proclamation of 1763 which prohibited American settlement west of the Appalachians. These "squatter" settlements became vulnerable during the Revolutionary War, when the British supported Indian groups in attacks on American settlers in Kentucky and elsewhere. Attacks and counter-attacks established a pattern for the course of the war in the western territory: British and American forces each used the Indians in their fight against the other. Ultimately, the American side won the war, though the victory was based on battles east of the mountains. In our region and throughout the "west," neither side was able to dominate the other.

After the end of the Revolutionary War direct conflict between the Indians and European Americans increased in the Ohio River Valley region. The cause of the dispute was the land itself. The European Americans believed that they now had title to the territory, while Indian groups did not accept this claim of land ownership any more than they had accepted earlier French or British claims.

Figure 15: Treaties between U.S. Government and various Indian tribes were soon followed by European American settlement. Most of the treaties in the Hoosier National Forest area were signed by William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory and Native American groups which included the Shawnee, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Miami.

The conflict centered on European American expansion north across the Ohio River. Although only a few "squatters" had set up cabins along the north side of the Ohio River, there were already 70,000 settlers in Kentucky by 1790, and many were eager to acquire new lands in southern Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. The Native Americans were just as determined not to relinquish these lands. It took many years of scattered fighting to settle these conflicting claims. The years from 1790 to 1795 and from 1808 to 1814 were particularly marked by Indian/settler conflict in the region, but European Americans forced Indian communities to give up their claims to the land, and eventually most Native Americans signed treaties and moved farther west.

The movement of a European American population into our region was encouraged and organized by two important policy decisions on the part of the U.S. government. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided for the system of government to be used in the area of Indiana and nearby states, then known as the Northwest Territory, including provisions for achieving statehood. The Land Act of 1800 allowed for relatively easy, legal land acquisition by private individuals from the federal government. This was partly accomplished by opening land sale offices within the Northwest Territory. The first office in what is now Indiana was established in 1807 at the former French trading settlement at Vincennes. Land was sold for $1.25 per acre.

An earlier act, the Ordinance of 1785, had provided for the survey of land into six mile square townships, subdivided into 36 sections, each 640 acres in size. These land subdivisions remain the basis for legal description of land ownership. In fact, the grid of land sections is still clearly apparent in flatter areas, where roads often follow north-south and east-west section lines. In much of our region, roads tend to follow ridges and hollows, so the work of the earlier surveyors is not so visible on the landscape.

A monument and small park in the Hoosier National Forest is dedicated to the work of the early surveyors, The site is the "Initial Point" in the surveying system and the center of our scheme of sections and townships. It is located south of Pine Valley off of State Highway 37 in Orange County.

We know very little about the day-to-day relations between the earliest settlers and the Native Americans in our area. There are only a few clues in the county histories. In Dubois County, the first European Americans settled in 1802, some six miles west of the Hoosier National Forest boundary. According to the 19th century county history, the first settlers lived near some Native Americans. It is recorded that when a family of settlers built a second house near their original one, the first house was used by Indians. "Soon" afterward, however, for reasons not recorded, these Indians "became hostile" and the European Americans vacated their homes and retreated south. The settlers returned, though, and built a block house near their homes in order to protect themselves against Indian attack. Crawford County settlers also built a block house described as a two-story log structure. Other accounts confirm that early settlers were indeed subject to raids by Indians who did not accept the legality of the land treaties, particularly during the War of 1812. [20]

Some of the most extensive contact between Indians and European American settlers in our area appears to have taken place in Jackson County. One location, Vallonia, has long been reported to have been the site of a pre-1800 French settlement, based on the discovery of some abandoned dwellings by the first English-descended settlers in the early 1800s. It could be that these old houses were in fact Indian homes. Native Americans were still in the vicinity in the early 1800s, and we have reports of one marriage between a white, European American man and an Indian woman; the seizing and lengthy captivity of a white boy by Indians; and bloodshed on both sides during fighting. The European American settlers built at least two blockhouses or "forts" in the immediate area, where people, livestock, and valuables could be protected. The locale is reported to have been a fort during the War of 1812, and a reconstruction stands today in the town.

Fighting between Indians and whites was known in other counties, too, though there are also mentions of "friendly" Indians in several instances. In Monroe County, for example, a long-lived resident wrote about the period of the 1820s:

When we first moved here Delaware and Pottawattomie were plentiful. They had a trading house within a half mile of where I now live. They were quite friendly and often would come with their squaws and papooses to stay all night with us.

On the whole, though, references to contact between the two groups in our region are scarce, despite the fact our region became settled by European Americans--and counties were first organized--while a sizable population of Indians remained in central and northern Indiana. There are no known cases of prolonged peaceful European American/Native American interactions, such as occurred in east central Indiana and at the trading centers which existed in western and northern Indiana. [21]

Figure 16: The nine counties in our region were part of fewer but larger counties at the time of statehood.

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2008
Forest History SocietyElectronic edition courtesy of the
Forest History Society.