Origin and History
The Shawnee people (literally “southerners”) are an Algonquian-speaking group of Native Americans. Their national territory in 1630 encompassed what is now southern Ohio, West Virginia, northern Kentucky and southern Indiana – the middle Ohio valley. There were five divisions: the Chillicothe; Thawekila; Mikoches; Pekowis; and Kispokos.
The Shawnee were trading to the east with the Susquehannock and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) but by 1650 these trade goods dried up following conflict between these peoples. They also traded with the Spanish on the Mississippi to the west. However, even by 1630, Shawnee started to abandon the villages that had been inhabited for over 20 generations. Disease, such as smallpox, entered the Ohio valley decimating the Shawnee population.
From 1669 to 1672, during the Beaver / Mourning Wars, raids by the Iroquois Confederacywere considered one cause for this migration. However, there is little evidence of warfare present in the archaeological record; the Iroquois ‘conquest’ was an English invention. In the second half of the 17th century Virginia traders encouraged slavers such as the Occaneechees and ‘Tomahitans’ to collaborate with them and these tribes wreaked havoc on the people. By 1674 only four villages out of 23 remained and by 1680 no Shawnee villages were left for a number of reasons.
Displaced from their homeland, the Shawnee migrated to South Carolina, western Virginia, the Tallapoosa River in Alabama, and southern Illinois. They established a large village on the Delaware River in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1690s. Some moving from the Savannah River to the Delaware River in 1707, another band followed after the Yamasee War and more from Illinois following that.
After the death of William Penn in 1717, as relations with British traders and settlers deteriorated and to escape the influence of the Iroquois (who never ‘conquered’ them), the Shawnee began to move west of the Allegheny River. In 1739 a delegation of Shawnee came to Philadelphia and agreed to reaffirm their 1701 treaty with William Penn and promised not to join any nation hostile to the British. However, the Shawnee continued to move outside of British Influence and continued to talk to the French.
By 1750 the Shawnee had re-established themselves in their Ohio valley homeland although some bands remained in what is now Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky. A major village of c. 140 houses was established on the Ohio, near the mouth of the Scioto River, before 1739 and became known as Lower Shawnee Town, their centre for dealing with other nations and Europeans. Other Shawnee established villages on land given to them by the Wyandot. Another group moved to the west of the Cumberland Mountains centered around the valley of the Cumberland River in present-day Tennessee.
Some of the Wyoming Shawnee moved west about 1743 and founded Logstown, jointly with the Ohio Iroquois and Lenape people, which became a trading centre. However, trading abuses particularly by unlicensed traders selling rum left the Shawnee impoverished after providing credit. The Shawnee asked the Pennsylvania government to regulate the trade and enforce anti-rum laws. The requests were ignored and in 1745 several unlicensed traders were pillaged. These Shawnee then went to Lower Shawnee Town whilst some remained, others returned to Logstown whilst others founded a settlement in their homelands in northern Kentucky. Later after a clash with the Chickasaw, a large number of this latter group returned to Lower Shawnee Town in 1752.
In 1749 Captain Pierre Joseph Céleron de Blainville led a French force through the Upper Ohio intended to impress the Native Americans and burying lead plates blatantly claiming the region for the French, land which was not theirs. An old Shawnee councillor, who was bedridden and blind, was reported as saying ‘Shoot him.’ In 1750 a force of French and their native allies attacked a Shawnee village, killing one man and taking three captives. The Shawnee pursued the raiders and captured 5 French and several of their native allies. The Shawnee sent a message to the governor of Pennsylvania declaring they ‘will not suffer ourselves to be insulted anymore’ and asked for British support to strike the French. The British did nothing.
Between 1750 and 1752 the Ohio Company of Virginia dispatched Christopher Gist on two journeys to survey lands as far as the falls of the Ohio, land the company deemed to have been ceded to the British by the Iroquois based on the fiction of ‘conquest’ by them and Virginia’s false claim that its land extended to the Pacific, land that was not theirs. The Shawnee were aware of what Gist was up to. In 1753 South Carolina imprisoned 6 Shawnee warriors captured on a raid on the Catawbas. This caused further ill will amongst the Shawnee towards the British.
In the same year, the Ohio Shawnee on the Scioto River sent messengers to those still in the Shenandoah Valley, suggesting that they join the people at Lower Shawnee Town, which they did the following year.
Role during the War
At the beginning of the French and Indian war the Shawnee were most interested in preserving their independence and controlling the terms of dealing with all outsiders than in maintaining an alliance with a European nation. However, after the defeat of General Braddock at the Monongahela in July 1755 – there were 3 Shawnee warriors present – the Shawnee considered the French more likely to secure their lands and independence and to provide trade goods and guns.
Even before the British defeat on the Monongahela the Shawnee had been raiding settlements in what is now the Carolinas following the 1753 incident. They now commenced raids on settlements in what is now Virginia particularly and Pennsylvania. Many of these settlers fled back east from the west of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Hundreds of men, women and children were taken prisoner and brought back to Shawnee villages where most were either traded or adopted – ‘dispers’d them amongst themselves and treated them very kindly.’ Most areas between the Ohio and Susquehanna were affected by the raids.
In February 1756, 250 Virginians and 100 Cherokees were to march down the Big Sandy and move against the Shawnees on the Ohio River. But heavy rains, supplies lost crossing swollen streams, and large-scale desertion by Virginian soldiers prevented the expedition from ever reaching its destination.
In 1756 those Shawnees remaining at Wyoming, Pennsylvania moved to join their relatives on the Ohio. In the same year, the Shawnee living on the Cumberland River were driven out by the Chickasaws and moved to the Ohio.
On September 8, 1756, Shawnee warriors were present when a force of 300 Pennsylvania militia (mostly Scots-Irish) under Lieutenant-Colonel John Armstrong struck the large Lenape village of Kittanning on the Allegheny River.
In the spring of 1757, British allied Cherokee warriors from the south appeared in the Ohio country. At some point 60 Cherokee intercepted a Lenape and Shawnee war party leaving Fort Duquesne and killed 4. A prisoner told the Cherokee that they were becoming weary of the French who could no furnish them ‘with the necessaries.’
In October the Shawnee were present for the Treaty of Easton by which Pennsylvania relinquished its claims on the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Shawnee agreed to withdraw from French influence and not assist in the defence of Fort Duquesne. The Shawnee were now seen as an independent nation.
In November Fort Duquesne was occupied by the British.
The Shawnee at Logstown moved to join their kin in the Scioto valley. They were now all reunited except for those living in Alabama. The towns of Chillicothe, Piqua, Kispoko and Masqueechalk had been established on the Scioto River. In November Lower Shawnee Town was abandoned.
In mid-1760, George Croghan outfitted a party of a hundred Indians, mostly Shawnees, to fight against the Cherokees. While it appeared to be a show of good faith on the part of the Shawnees, Croghan had outfitted the Indians at the expense of the British government, but without any orders except those of the Fort Pitt commandant. This was only the first instance in which the actions of the Indian Department would conflict with the wishes of the British military.
The Shawnee were particularly uncooperative with the British, especially when giving up adopted captives. In 1761 the British now encouraged the Shawnee to raid the Cherokee but they delayed any decisions until, George Croghan stated, they ‘could be assured of our Friendship and Support’, assistance that Indian agents and garrison commanders at Fort Pitt were only too happy to provide at that time.
By May 1762, Croghan was reporting great distress: every British post registered complaints from Native American of the shortages of powder and other supplies. In the spring of 1762 Henry Bouquet warned Amherst that the Shawnee – ‘that inconsiderable & proud Tribe’ – would not give up their prisoners and seemed more inclined to war than peace. Other reports stated that they were resolved to carry on the war against the British ‘while one of them remained’. There was an outbreak of disease in the fall – 100 dead at the lower towns in September, 180 in October – which may have tempered Shawnee hostility.
In December, Alexander McKee returning to Fort Pitt reported that the Shawnee would deliver up the captives in the spring. They had not intended to make war on the British, ‘but say it is full time for them to Defend themselves & their Country from us, who they are Convinced Design to make War upon them.’
Early in 1763 McKee arrived in Shawnee town announcing that a peace treaty between Britain and France had been signed in Paris and that the French had given the Ohio country to the British. Ignored, the Shawnee were furious at such arrogant nonsense. The French had no right to give their sovereign country to anyone.
The Reverend David Jones described Shawnee appearance in 1773, some 20 years after the French and Indian War, wrote that ‘some description of their apparel should be given... In this respect they differ nothing from most of other Indians...’ Edmund Atkin noted in 1755, the Shawnee were ’the greatest Travellers in America’.
Reference to goods traded to the Shawnee made in the 1750s include:
- In 1752 the Virginia House of Burgesses gave ‘...Goods fit for a Present for the Six United Nations together with the Shawanse, Delawares, Twigtwees, Picts and Windotts – Strouds... Duffils.... Halfthicks.... Garlix (to be made into plain shirts for men...to be made into shirts for men, ruffled with Muslin... flints... Gartering and Bedlace, the gartering scarlet and Star...Ribbon, deep red, blew, and green...Striped Callimancoe lively colours, Mens’s large worsted caps... cuttoe knives... 100 Guns, small bored, and 25 pr pistols... 5 doz. Cutlasses... square Indian Awl Blades, Brass kettles...wire.. Beads small white... 50 Meddals with His Majesty’s picture on one side and the British Coat of Arms on the other...with a loop to put a ribbon through...’
- William Johnson wrote at Fort Johnson in January 1757. ‘Another Belt to the Shawanese King returning him thanks for the early Intelligence he sent me... a fine Scarlet Blanket with several Rows of Ribband on it, a fine Ruffled Shirt, a Silver Arm Band for the Kings Son — Pipes, Tobacco, Powder & Ball & a pair of Snow Shoes — so parted
In his description, Reverend David Jones also mentioned: ‘The men wear shirts, match-coats [blankets], leggings and mockesons, called by them mockeetha.’
As described above, hair was all cut off except for a round patch of long hair on the crown left, the scalplock. Feathers such as swan, turkey, hawk feathers could be attached to this lock, likely to be according to the wearer’s spiritual association. Other silver or ribbon ornamentation may also be attached which may also have meaning or not. The Reverend David Jones described Shawnee appearance in 1773, some 20 years after the French and Indian War, as: ‘Their head is dressed in the best mode, with a black silk handkerchief about it; or else the head is all shaved only the crown, which is left for the scalp. The hair in it has a swan’s plume, or some trinket of silver tied in it. Nicholas Creswell recorded on Wednesday, December 7, 1774. Went to Winchester... Saw four Indian Chiefs of the Shawnee Nation... the hair, which is all cut off except a long lock on the top of the head.’
Patkitawe (diadems) were worn by Shawnee ‘people who speak’. They would be worn and used by elected war chiefs in kimaawaskaawepe (council), or when going out to meet with other people, symbols of their office. They were made of a decorated headband with a standing row of dyed red deer hair around the circumference and, for warriors, could be decorated with bird feathers associated with war, for example hawks and woodpeckers.
A circular roach could have been worn and perhaps only by Kispokos men. This was constructed of red dyed deer hair and black turkey beard and secured with a bone spreader. It could be worn by passing a scalp braid through the spreader and secured with a wooden pin to the head. Mounted in on the spreader was a socket made of turkey leg bone into which a single eagle feather was fixed so that it could revolve with the wearer’s movement.
Tattooing of the face and body may have been practiced by Shawnee men as an alternative to painting, although there is no written record of such that the author has come across. Tattoos in the form of some animal, such as an eagle, a snake or other figure were ingrained with powdered charcoal. Linear patterns were also used extensively.
Paint would have been used for special occasions or before combat, where colours are likely to include red, black, green and blue. Nicholas Creswell stated that: ’All the hair is pulled from their eyebrows and eyelashes and their faces painted in different parts with Vermilion.‘
Ears and Nose
In 1773 Reverend David Jones stated that: ‘Nose jewels are quite common. They... cut the rim of their ears, so as to stretch them very large.’ A year later Nicholas Creswell recorded: ‘They have rings of silver in their nose and bobs to them which hang over their upper lip. Their ears are cut from the tips two thirds of the way round and the piece extended with brass wire till it touches their shoulders, in this part they hang a thin silver plate, wrought in flourishes about three inches diameter.’
Ornamentation, Necklaces and Neck Pouches
It is likely that Shawnee men wore, ‘... breast plates [officer’s gorgets], and a belt or two of wampum hanging to their necks’ as Heckewelder described for the Lenape and with whom they often associated. Some men are also likely to have worn a tobacco pouch hanging from the neck, which contained a pipe, tobacco and tweezers made from wire for plucking the hair.
David Jones states that: ‘Their ornaments are silver plates about the arms, above and below their elbows.’ Creswell mentions, ‘... plates of silver round their arms.’
Note: the Shawnee territory is south of the range of the porcupine (except for those who moved to the Susquehanna) and, therefore at the time of the French and Indian War, quill decoration is likely to have been rare, and as a result of either through trade of quills, of then obtained by gifts from Lenape, Iroquoian or other friends and acquaintances. It is more like that Shawnee items were decorated with traded wampum and glass beads.
Breechclout and Apron
Nicholas Creswell recorded, ‘... they have a girdle round them with a piece of cloth drawn through their legs and turned over the girdle, and appears like a short apron before and behind.’ Pierre Pouchot, writing between 1755 and 1760, generically, recorded men wearing, ‘... a breech-cloth, which is a quarter of an ell [about 45”] of cloth, which they pass under their thighs, crossing before and behind upon a belt around the waist. Sometime the cloth is embroidered. When they travel, to avoid being chafed by the cloth, they put it simply as an apron before them.’ The Shawnee are likely to have embroidered it with white seed bends in geometric linear patterns.
The Shawnee wore tight fitting leggings with the seam down the outside of the leg. These were generally of less expensive blue or black cloth or red for better wear. For best wear the outer lap could be decorated with ribbonwork or gathering of several colours and white linear beadwork. These were tied to the waist belt supporting the breechclout and held below the knee with garters. It is likely that skin leggings continued to be worn when hunting or at war, although in wet weather these would take longer to dry and hence uncomfortable. Sometimes skin leggings were worn over cloth ones. Skin leggings are likely to have been fringed on the outer seam. Full leggings were likely to have been worn in cold weather. In 1788 Thomas Ridout gave an account of his capture by the Shawnee Indians on the River Ohio. He described, ‘... a pair of good buckskin leggings, which covered almost the thighs.’
Garters were used to secure the leggings below the knee. Garters were also made of woven woollen fibres typically dyed red or black possibly with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave.
Shawnee moccasins were made of skin smoked with basswood to produce a dark brown colour. The moccasin was made of single skin with a puckered seam up the instep. The cuff of the men’s moccasin was separated at the heel so that the two sides spread apart, whereas the cuff on women’s moccasins was a continuous band.
A European shirt, cut in contemporary European fashion, was also popular and could be daubed with grease and paint to waterproof it. These were made of cheaper fabric for the Indian trade. Some of the most requested fabrics included cotton, calico and chintz. Plain and ruffled shirts were reported by Heckewelder and listed on the Fort Pitt inventory of 1761. He also noted the use of clean, presumably undaubed, shirts for occasions.
Broaches of silver, replacing those of copper or brass, became increasingly abundant through the 18th century in adorning clothing and also came to be used as money. There several designs of broach. The simplest and most numerous was a ring across which a tongue extended like a buckle. This is affixed to cloth by pinching the material up so that the tongue penetrates it twice and when drawn back holds it firmly in place. Smaller ones can often line the edges of breechclouts, etc. whilst those of larger diameter decorated the upper body of shirts. Another very common broach fixed in the same manner is a circular ornate disc perforated with punched out or embossed regular patterns which can have embossed or crenulated edges sometimes known as a round buckle.
Blankets and Coats
Trade blankets, usually of blue, red or white woollen cloth, and sometimes skin robes were worn for warmth; furs were more likely to have been traded for goods. Harvey writing of 1810 observed: ‘A Shawnee is seldom without a blanket. It is used as a cover at night and a wrapper by day. They use them when out hunting and as ceremonial dress. Blankets are cleaned before ceremonies if not spotless. The blanket is also used to wrap provisions.’
Coats were listed on the Fort Pitt for men and children inventory of 1761. These are likely to have been a sleeved waistcoat rather than a frock coat. Nicholas Creswell recorded in 1774, ‘... four Indian Chiefs of the Shawnee Nation... They are in white men’s dress, except breeches which they refuse to wear, instead of which they have a girdle round them with a piece of cloth drawn through their legs and turned over the girdle, and appears like a short apron before and behind. European dress was worn by councillors and diplomats when dealing with their colonial counterparts.
There is a 1753 reference to a Shawnee black buffalo hair ‘string for tying of slaves’, a possible 1790 reference to a Shawnee quilled tumpline or hoppis from ‘Incidents attending the capture, detention, and ransom of Charles Johnston of Virginia’ (the war party in question was ‘fifty-four Indians, consisting chiefly of Shawanese and Cherokees’) is discussed in R. S. Stephenson's ‘The Decorative Art of Securing Captives in the Eastern Woodlands’.
The Reverend David Jones described Shawnee women wearing short shifts over their stroud, which serves for a petticoat [skirt]. Sometimes a calico bed-gown. Their hair is parted and tied behind. They paint in spots only in common on their cheeks. Their ears are never cut, but have ten silver rings in them. One [woman] will have near five hundred silver broaches stuck in her shift, stroud and leggings. Men and women are very proud...’
The Shawnee were likely to have principally obtained their firearms from Euro-American traders based in Pennsylvania and Virginia by the mid-18th century. George Croghan, who had established posts on the upper Ohio, and Christopher Gist working for the Ohio Company on behalf of the Virginian commissioners were distributing guns as gifts from the Crown. These trade guns were short, light flintlock muskets of .66 or smaller calibre, called fusils, fuzee or fuke and were approximately similar to the later ‘Northwest gun’.
It is also likely that French fusils were traded for or given as gifts, particularly between 1755 and 1758. Artifacts from the Bentley site in Kentucky, also known as Lower Shawnee town (abandoned in 1758 due to flooding) included a French fusil fin sideplate, an English cuttoe knife fragment and a kettle fragment with a sheet brass ear/bail lug. The fusil sideplate is very similar to the mounts on an intact Thollier fusil fin with a long gilt decorated barrel that is in a private New England collection.
In addition to trade lists with French and English trade guns, Pennsylvania long rifles are likely to have been carried. In 1752 at Bethlehem PA- ‘... Daniel Kliest repaired a rifle for a Shawanoe/Shawnee chief who visited Bethlehem that summer, and Albrecht "stocked a rifle to his complete satisfaction...’ (p21 Moravian Gunmaking 2 Bethlehem to Christian's Spring by Robert Paul Lienemann Kentucky Rifle Foundation). Col. John Bradstreet, wrote in December, 1764, ‘..,from the Governt of Pennsylvania all the Shawnees and Delawar Indians are furnished with rifle barrel Guns, of an excellent kind, and that the upper Nations are getting into them fast..." ( p77, British Military Flintlock Rifles, 1740-1840; De Witt Bailey).
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of woven fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads; bags of deerskin with sewn wampum panels with small white geometric patterns on a dark blue-black field or of black dyed skin, white bead edging with a fringe of metal cones filled with red dyed deer hair. Straps were of woven fibre. A slit belt shot pouch attributed to the Shawnee, now in the National Museum of Canada, is sparsely decorated with curvilinear quillwork on one side and crossed ribbon on the other. A knife was carried in a sheaf, perhaps decorated with red, black, yellow and white quillwork, hung around the neck and a tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt at the back.
Belts were either of skin wrapped twice around the body and tied at the front or of finger woven wool, being enriched by the addition of white beads, which were carried on a special thread in zig-zag or diamond and hexagonal designs V and W designs predominated in narrow sashes. Beads were also worked into the deep yarn fringes (20 inches to a yard long). Sashes were usually red but shades of blue, sage green, old gold and white were also made.
Pierre Pouchot described generically the equipment carried by Native American men. ‘They hung to this belt their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which is the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel. They have also a pocket hanging like a wallet, for carrying their balls and lead for hunting or war. They have an ox horn with a shoulder strap for carrying powder. Their knife is hung in a sheaf from the neck, and falls upon the breast. They also have a crooked knife or a curved sword, and they make great use of this.’ Warclubs, tomahawks would have been worn in the waist belt.
Callander, Charles, Shawnee: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp. 622-635.
Calloway, Colin G. The Shawnees and the War for America, New York: Penguin Group, 2007.
Calloway, Colin G. The Indian World of George Washington, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp.118-119.
Harvey, Henry, History of the Shawnee Indians, from the Year 1681 to 1854, Inclusive, Cincinnati: Ephraim Morgan & Sons, 1855, pp. 146-148.
Howard, James H., Shawnee! The Ceremonialism of a Native Tribe and Its Cultural Background, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981, pp.11-12. 61-74.
McConnell, Michael N. A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and its People, 1724-1774. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, pp. 120, 153, 166.
Pouchot, Pierre, Memoir Upon The Late War In North America, Between The French And English, 1755-60. Volume II, Alpha Editions, 2021, pp. 189-191.
Ridout, Thomas, Ten Years of Upper Canada in Peace and War, 1805-1815: Being the Ridout Letters, Toronto: William Briggs, 1890, pp.358
Warren, Stephen, The Worlds the Shawnee Made: Migration and Violence in Early America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Of Sorts for Provincials – Brief notes on 18th century Shawnee Material Culture
Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of the entire article