The Shawnees, the most southerly located of all the Algonquian tribes, are one of several tribes who speak the Central Algonquian dialect. In most Algonquian languages they are called Shawunogi, which literally translates as “Southerners.” Legends indicate that they were originally situated in Eastern Canada and migrated south prior to the arrival of Europeans. Many archaeologists associate the Shawnees with the late prehistoric Fort Ancient culture which was located in the Ohio Valley. The mixed hunting and horticultural subsistence system of the Fort Ancient culture and the presence of stone-box graves at their sites prefigure similar historic Shawnee cultural practices. The fact that the earliest historic contacts with the Shawnees occurred in the Ohio Valley also lends support to such an identification.
Historically the Shawnees were a highly nomadic people, and during the colonial period various groups of them could be found in nearly every region east of the Mississippi River. The earliest historical references locate them along the upper Ohio River. This location in Pennsylvania placed them into close contact with the Iroquois, who became long-standing enemies of the Shawnees. It is believed that the Iroquois drove the main body of Shawnees from the east, scattering them as far west as the Mississippi River and south to Alabama, where they were closely allied with the Creeks.
The Shawnees were organized into five divisions: Chillicothe, Hathawekela, Kispogogi, Mequachake, and Piqua. Each village tended to be affiliated with one or another of these divisions and the village name itself often reflected the division. It is speculated that these divisions may have been the principal villages at a time when all the Shawnees lived together as a single group. A patrilineal clan structure with totemic names likely existed early in Shawnee history. However, descriptions of these totemic name groups in historic accounts seem to indicate that children were assigned to one of these groups by a name giver, and that it could be changed later if it did not seem to match his or her personality.
In historic times the village was the most important social unit for the Shawnees. Probably because they were so highly nomadic throughout the colonial period, it was difficult to maintain the clan structure. The members of a village were a highly autonomous group and made their own political and economic decisions. Thus, members of villages would often ally themselves with other tribes or with European colonists during conflicts independently from other Shawnee groups.
The Shawnees were known to be fierce fighters. Their conservatism in attempting to retain their own culture and preserve the land they occupied often placed them into conflict with Europeans and other Indian tribes. In spite of their conservatism they became dependent upon trade goods provided by the Europeans. In order to obtain furs to trade for these goods they often were forced into conflict with other tribes who laid claim to the same hunting grounds they were using.
As early as the 1670s the Shawnees were hunting and trading along the Cumberland River in what is today Tennessee. They had several villages along the Cumberland which was identified as “la riviere des Chaouesnons” or the “River of the Shawnees” on early French maps. Their primary village was near the present site of Nashville. This location placed them into direct conflict with the Cherokees on the east and the Chickasaws to the west. Both continually harassed the Shawnees located there, and in 1714 the Cherokees and Chickasaws united to drive the Shawnees out of the region.
The Shawnees continued to hunt in this area, however, and in 1745 the same two tribes united once again to do battle with the Shawnees. One band of Shawnees led by Peter Chartier, a half-breed son of a French trader, settled with the Creeks in Alabama. They moved to the Cumberland in 1756 but were also expelled. In the later part of the eighteenth century the Shawnee warrior Cheeseekau joined with the Chickamaugas, a band of Creek, Cherokee, and white Tories, to raid white settlements in the Cumberland Valley. Tecumseh, who was attempting to recruit other tribes to join his northern confederacy, joined Cheeseekau in the fight against the Cumberland Valley settlers. In 1792 Cheeseekau was killed in a raid and Tecumseh buried him, vowing to return.
Tecumseh’s efforts to recruit tribes to his cause did not fare well in Tennessee. His death at the battle of the Thames in Canada virtually ended the Indian resistance in the east.
Jerry E. Clark, The Shawnee (1993); James H. Howard, Shawnee! The Ceremonialism of a Native Tribe and its Cultural Background (1981)