The Ohio Indians in Fact and Fancy


Volume III, Number 3
Spring, 1981


Driving along a back country Ohio road on a beautiful Indian Summer afternoon, one's imagination is apt to soar. Could Indian warriors be watching from those forested hills? Will canoes carrying a war party sweep around the river bend? Old images come alive, and for a moment one is captured in a romantic aura made up of impressions drawn from childhood story books, from half-forgotten history texts, from movies, television and many other sources.

As with this hypothetical flight of fancy, we all too often encounter competent people whose knowledge of the American Indian has never outgrown childhood imagery. Such people remain oblivious to the outpouring of scholarly writing which has flooded the market in recent decades. When we who teach about the Indian try to replace stereotypes with solid information, students often respond by saying, in effect, "don't confuse me with the facts, I like my Indians the way they are;" the stereotype is emotionally more satisfying than the reality. I sometimes get the impression that students, and their elders as well, prefer the Ohio Indians nearly naked, dressed in breechclout or skimpy skirt, wearing feathered headdresses as they step into their tepees. Such misrepresentation affronts those who believe that an accurate knowledge of character and culture is important in forming attitudes about people who played a key role in our history and with whom we live today. To distort the Indian and his role is to distort an enormous part of our early history. This essay, then, is an attempt to distinguish from popular misconceptions some of what the scholar knows about the Indians who inhabited the Ohio country in the eighteenth century.

Obviously there is no coherent public view of the Ohio Indians. It is likely that most people seldom think about them at all. Therefore, I have constructed my own public image. It is a composite drawn from a number of sources - from movies and television, from fiction, from the questions and observations of adults to whom I have lectured, and from what thousands of students have revealed in my courses in American and Ohio history. This construct is highly impressionistic and probably defies empirical testing. However, it is true to my experience, or at least to my memory of that experience. Perhaps it matches your experience as well. Let me say a word, then, about the sources from which my composite public image of the Ohio Indian is drawn.

A problem that immediately confronts the person teaching about Ohio or eastern forest Indians is that movies, television, and fiction writers during the past 30 years have concentrated on the Indians of the trans-Mississippi West nearly to the exclusion of the eastern Indians. Since the western frontier experience is closer to us in time, today's public identifies with it more readily than with the earlier pioneer experience in the East. Movie directors and cameramen revel in the wide open spaces and dramatic geographic formations of the West. Mounted warriors racing across the plains transmit more visual excitement than warriors cautiously stalking their enemies within the constricted eastern forests. And where the movies broke trail, television followed, attracted by the same visual and dramatic imperatives.

Writers, too, have favored western themes of late. In the last few years alone, western Indians have been portrayed in impressive works by Ruth Beebe Hill, James Michener and Del Barton, among others, and this is but the high-quality tip of a large literary iceberg.1 There is no counterpart to this outpouring in the recent literature of the eastern forest Indians.

From what sources, then, have people drawn their ideas about the eastern Indians, and specifically about the Ohio Indians? I would suggest that one of the main sources are second rate movie and television dramas that show Indians only as savage impediments to American pioneer progress. The Indian has also been treated thus in the works of popular writers.2 But probably the main contributors are those elementary and secondary level textbooks which have not, until very recent times, kept abreast of scholarship.

In her provocative book America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century, Frances Fitzgerald reminds us that in the 1830s and 40s, school texts presented the American Indians as interesting, important people.3 Much attention was paid to their customs, tools, origins, and tribal characteristics. This rather high level of concern began to decline in the 1840s until post-Civil War writers appeared to have forgotten what their predecessors knew about Indians. "Ignorant now of ethnography, they referred to the Indian nations as 'savage,' 'barbarous,' and 'half-civilized,' and left it at that." Things continued to deteriorate. In the 1920s texts characterized the Indian as lazy, childlike and cruel. Even David Muzzey whose texts influenced generations of American school children in the early twentieth century allowed that although the North American Indians "had some noble qualities . . . at bottom they were a treacherous, cruel people."4

If Americans have a distorted image of the Ohio Indians, in what particulars is that image distorted? What is wrong that should and could be made right through better teaching, more knowledgeable writing, more honest film making and television programming? I can only suggest a few of the most basic misconceptions in this brief presentation. A full bill of particulars would fill a volume.

One fundamental misconception is revealed in that old slander, "If you've seen one Indian, you've seen them all." An Indian is an Indian. There is no difference physiologically, culturally or historically among the tribes. A Seneca (or Mingo in the Ohio country) is perceived as being just like a Miami. The same student who readily acknowledges that European or African peoples differ from one another has apparently missed the point that Indian peoples differ also.

And how did these different tribes get to the Ohio country? Most students have not a clue. One common assumption seems to be that Indians never moved from place to place unless they were pushed by rapacious whites. Since many assume that the historic Ohio tribes had lived on their Ohio lands from time immemorial, they are surprised to find that most were relative newcomers to Ohio who drifted into a virtual social vacuum, seeking out new hunting lands where they might flourish or trying to escape pressures brought upon them by other tribes. It is confusing, of course, even for the expert to keep track of who was where at any given moment. Although the Ohio Indians were semi-sedentary, maintaining agricultural fields and orchards, few of their villages were permanent. They wandered far afield to hunt, to make salt and to trade. Fighting in the Ohio country during the mid-eighteenth century wars accelerated locational shifts. Thus the Shawnees drifted westward from the Pickaway Plains to the upper reaches of the Great and Little Miami rivers, while the Wolf division of the Delawares followed their leader Hopocan (Captain Pipe) from the lakes of Summit County to the Walhonding, the Sandusky and beyond. After the Revolution, relocation became endemic as a series of treaties and wars forced many Indian groups off their former lands.5

The Indian population of Ohio was not large in historic times. There is an extensive literature directed at determining North American Indian populations at various periods and places, but there seems little reason to doubt that the Ohio Indians were few in number.6 The Pennsylvania interpreter, Conrad Weiser, reported about 1748, that only 789 fighting men were "settled on the waters of the Ohio," by which he presumably meant the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania. In 1765 George Croghan, perhaps as knowledgeable about the Ohio Indians as any colonial of his day, estimated that the Ohio tribes could muster some 2,400 warriors.7 At the height of their strength during the Revolutionary period, it seems unlikely that the Ohio Indians numbered more than 20,000 men, women and children. Their villages were small compared to some found elsewhere in the Great Lakes region. There was nothing to compare, for example, with the great Ottawa village of Arbre Croche which reputedly stretched for 15 miles in a narrow band along Lake Michigan just north of modern Petoskey.8 Since frontier literature conveys the impression that white settlers, traders and hunters encountered Indians everywhere they went in the Ohio country, how could this have happened given such a small number of Indians spread out over such a considerable area? Ask students for an explanation. I can assure you that this question will confound them.

Another basic misconception common to the public image is that the Ohio Indians were still essentially in their "native state." Most students have no clear idea that the Ohio tribes were all at a substantial level of acculturation to the white man's ways, and that the level of acculturation varied considerably from one tribe or sub group to another. For generations the Senecas, Delawares and certain Shawnee bands had interacted with, and been influenced by Dutch and British colonials, while the Miamis, Ottawas and Wyandots (a branch of the Huron peoples) had been dependent upon the French for firearms and a full range of trade goods. Inevitably these Indians took on many of the white man's ways.

Many Ohio Indians were Christians. Moravian influence was strong among certain Delawares, while Catholic teachings had made substantial inroads among the Miamis, Ottawas and Wyandots. In Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten - those famous Moravian mission villages along the Tuscarawas - Christian Indians sent their children to the schoolhouse, served as deacons in the church, cultivated fields in the manner of their white teachers, lived in log houses and, we are told, even drank tea.9 What Indian brave could resist wearing the white man's hat or military jacket, or displaying gorgets and medals fashioned by whites? Some spoke English, many rode horses, all coveted guns, and, to their ultimate sorrow, nearly all drank brandy, rum or whiskey which poisoned their minds and their bodies. Indeed, among the most attractive of Ohio Indians were leaders like Neolin, the Delaware Prophet, who preached a return to the native ways before dependence on the white man and his liquor further debased the Indians. Students identify with that kind of idealism, but I cannot gauge how they react to its inevitable failure.

One additional blow to those who fancy their Indians in some romantic native state is the reality of miscegenation and racial mixing. While a few prominent white men were widely known to have Indian wives and children, there were frequent mixed marriages and sexual liaisons that assured racial mixing.10 The Indian custom of adoption guaranteed a substantial number of mixed bloods within the Ohio tribes. How many of us know that some of the best known Indian leaders were mixed bloods or whites who had lived from childhood in Indian society? Perhaps the best known example is Blue Jacket, the great Shawnee war chief, who was an adopted white boy named Marmaduke Van Swearingen.11

Some Indian cultural traits need to be placed in perspective. If scalping, for instance, is seen in the context of trophy taking - a somewhat universal human propensity - it loses some of its uniqueness. As for torture, when I remind students that Europeans of the early modern period mutilated, tortured, burned and otherwise debased their own kind, they can better understand that Indians were not unique when, on occasion, they meted out horrid cruelties to those who threatened their societies. Then the discovery that certain individual Indians - Tecumseh, for example - and certain tribes eschewed torture of helpless prisoners completes the student's reorientation.

Another unexpected revelation concerns the important role played by women in the Iroquoian tradition, especially their role as councillors. Few know that women like Queen Esther, Aliquippa, and the Grenadier Squaw dominated their own villages.

This account of public ignorance or misinformation concerning the Ohio Indians and their eastern forest cousins merely hints at the scope of the task facing the teacher who would clarify the culture and the historic role of the Ohio Indians. Is there any hope that the task can be accomplished? Are the supporting materials available?

I am confident that our understanding of the eastern forest Indians will improve if teachers have the time they need. But teachers are already required to give adequate attention to Blacks, Chicanos, Orientals, women and every other neglected group that deserves its place in the sun. There are not hours enough for all that needs to be done!

One basis for optimism, as reported by Frances Fitzgerald, is that "history books are [now] more contemporary than any other form of history" because publishers revise texts every three of four years to keep abreast of current scholarship (and, one might add, current educational fads.)12 Much new material clarifying the culture and role of Indian peoples has made its way into recent texts. Indians are now neither bad guys or good; they are multi-faceted human beings. In addition to improved texts, Ohio teachers are fortunate to have an outstanding resource guide entitled Indian Cultures of Ohio prepared by Byron Walker in 1973 and available at low cost from the Ohio Historical Society.13

For adults whose school days are behind them there is some hope. The small percentage who read high quality magazines - Smithsonian, National Geographic, and various scientific journals for example - often encounter interesting and reliable information in their pages. Although it is still rare, one can occasionally find a television show that strives for authenticity. I remember in particular a public broadcasting performance some years ago of Cooper's Last of the Mohicans which at least placed its Indians in a believable forest.

There is another bright spot. Some literature of the past generation dealing with the forest Indians and frontier Ohio presents a much more realistic portrayal of Indian character that one finds in most older books. In The Loon Feather and The Shining Trail, Iola Fuller gives the reader a sympathetic insider's view of the Indians of the Great Lakes region. Conrad Richter creates sympathy for Indian culture and dramatizes the tragedy of cultural clash in a number of books and stories, especially his ever-popular The Light in the Forest. Indians are not the main focus of William Donohue Ellis' splendid novels of pioneer Ohio, but those he introduces are believable human beings of diverse character. Silver Pigeon's native shrewdness makes him more than a match for designing whites who covet Indian lands. The work of Alan Eckert, especially The Frontiersmen - a history with fictional overtones - depicts Indians in their diversity - some noble, some mean, some honest, some not.14

It is to be hoped that juvenile literature is adapting, like text books, to a less stereotyped image of the Indian. Young readers could profit from stories like Joseph A. Altsheler's marvelous adventure books. First written between 1907 and 1912, this series of eight books was reissued by Appleton-Century-Crofts in the 1930s. The books recount the exciting adventures of two stalwart Kentucky youths and their three adult companions as they scout, hunt and fight through the Ohio country. The language seems stilted today, but Altsheler kept his historical facts straight. His Indian characters were complex and interesting. Many of the Indian chiefs were great men with the minds of generals and statesman, and his great Indian hero - the Wyandot, Timmendiquas - had qualities that would have graced Tecumseh.

Many of us are teachers concerned with what our students and the larger public know and believe about Indian people. It is incumbent upon us to convey the facts of their culture and history. We must try to avoid sentimentalizing or sensationalizing Indian life and experience, but it is a dull teacher who cannot help a student learn through his imagination as well as through his intellect. All honor to the scholarly specialist without whom we remain ignorant of much we should know. But the Indian is no laboratory specimen. To treat him as such is to rob him of his humanness. So equal honor to the artist who absorbs the truths revealed by scholars and then makes them come alive within acceptable limits of artistic license. Sound information, imaginatively presented, will help restore the Ohio Indians to their position of importance as shapers of our state and national heritage.



1Ruth Beebe Hill, Hanta Yo (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1979); James A. Michener, Centennial (New York: Random House, 1974); Del Barton, A Good Day to Die (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1980). 

2Dale Van Every, The Scarlet Feather (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1959) is a case in point. Van Every, when writing serious history, is not unmindful of the Indian's diverse character. In his Disinherited: the Lost Birthright of the American Indian (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1966), Van Every lays much of the blame for their demise on the Indians themselves, especially on their inability to cooperate among themselves. See page 14 for example. 

3Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979), 90-91. 

4Ibid., 65. 

5The details of tribal wanderings can best be traced in tribal histories. See, for example, Bert Anson, The Miami Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press: 1970); C. A. Weslager, The Delaware Indians, A History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972); Jerry E. Clark, The Shawnee (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1977). 

6For a general discussion of early Indian population estimates, see Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1975). Estimates for some 18thcentury Ohio tribes are found in Anson, Miami Indians, 32-33; Weslager, Delaware Indians, 294; Clark, Shawnee, 3. 

7For Weiser's estimate, see his "Journal" in R. G. Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1784-1846, 32 vols. (Cleveland, Ohio: The A. H. Clark Co., 1904-07), I, 31. For Croghan's estimate see ibid.,167-69. 

8Andrew J. Blackbird, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan (Ypsilanti, Mich.: The Ypsilantian Job Printing House, 1887), 10. 

9There is an extensive literature relating to the Moravian missions in Ohio. A convenient summary is James H. and Mary Jane Rodabaugh, Schoenbrunn and the Moravian Missions in Ohio(Columbus, the Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, Division of State Memorials, 1945). 

10Documenting racial mixing poses special problems for students of Indian-White relations. For some general observations see Wilbur R. Jacobs, Dispossessing the American Indian: Indians and Whites on the Colonial Frontier (New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1972), 116-19. 

11Allan W. Eckert, Blue Jacket (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969). 

12Fitzgerald, America Revised, 17. 

13Byron Walker, Indian Cultures of Ohio: A Resource Guide for Teachers (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1973). 

14Iola Fuller, The Loon Feather (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940); Iola Fuller, The Shining Trail (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943); Conrad Richter, The Light in the Forest (New York: Knopf, c.1953); William D. Ellis, The Bounty Lands (Cleveland: World, c.1952); Allan Eckert, The Frontiersmen (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967).