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The Tobacco Indians

The Tobacco Indians of the Northern Shenandoah Valley

Not all Southeastern Indians lived in subsistence economies. Most history texts teach students that indigenous societies north of Mexico only grew, hunted or gathered enough food for their own needs. Regional trade involved only the limited exchange of prestige goods such as copper and shell ornaments. In contrast, the memoir of Captain René de Laudonnière, commander of Fort Caroline between 1564  & 1565 described large scale trade of utilitarian goods along the Altamaha-Oconee River system between the mountains and the Georgia coast. There is also an example of an indigenous non-subsistence economy in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

Little known in the world of anthropology, the Tobacco Indians of the northern Shenandoah Valley developed an export-based economy. They were called the Petún Indians by the Dutch and French. This was also the name sometimes given to the Wendat People in the Canawha Valley of West Virginia and also the Tionontate People in Canada. Petún is the Tupi-Guarani (South American) word for tobacco.

Current archeological orthodoxy states that the Tobacco Indians in the Shenandoah Valley were one and the same as the Wendat in the Kanawha Valley and the Tionontate in the Great Lakes Basin. The reason is that all three groups were sometimes known to the English as the Tobacco Indians. The Wendat and the Tionontate were definitely related linguistically and were almost simultaneously attacked by the Iroquois Confederacy during the Beaver Wars of the late 1600s.The Shenandoah Tobacco Indians were not attacked then.

During the Beaver Wars of the late 1600s, the Canadian Tionontate merged with the survivors of the Hurons to create one Wyandot tribe in Canada. The Wendat of West Virginia moved westward in stages to become two federally recognized “Wyandot” tribes in Kansas and Oklahoma.

For reasons that will be explained below, I am not so sure that the Tobacco Indians in the northern Shenandoah Valley were one and the same as the other peoples. If one delves into the background of the assumption, it is pure speculation. There is no archive that says that the Shenandoah natives joined with the Wendat Indians after they took refuge from the Iroquois near the West Virginia-Kentucky border. One day, the Shenandoah Petún People were there – the next explorer found them gone.

The same scholarly book that made the assumption that all three tribes were the same people, also stated that the Iroquois established villages as far south as the North Carolina Mountains. The reasoning for this “fact” was that there is a town today named Seneca, SC and South Carolina is near North Carolina.

The real name of the Native American village in South Carolina was Sene-ke, which is a Creek word meaning “People Spread Out.” It is not an ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost. The Iroquois Seneca Tribe in New York never called itself “Seneca” until the Bureau of Indian Affairs told its leaders that Seneca was their new name. The real name was too hard for Gringos to pronounce!

The Tobacco Indians of Virginia

At the time that English settlers at Jamestown began to explore the interior of Virginia, the Tobacco Indians occupied the fertile bottomlands of the Shenandoah River from Front Royal, northward to the Shenandoah’s confluence with the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, WV. They also had villages in the bottomlands of the Potomac River extending westward a few miles to the Allegheny Mountains. The locations of the Virginia’s Indians and the West Virginia’s Wendat Indians may look close in a university anthropology department office in Ontario, but they were actually over 200 miles apart and separated by a series of rugged mountain ranges.

There is something very special about the Shenandoah Valley location. It was the crossroads of the Eastern United States.

The Shenandoah Valley is part of the Great Appalachian Valley, which is immediately west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The northern edge is in southern New York, immediately west of New York City. The southern tip is literally Etowah Mounds in Georgia. Northward from Etowah Mounds in earlier times, one would have passed Kusa, the great capital visited by de Soto, Fort Mountain, Hiwassee Island, Bussell Island and the cluster of towns along the Little Tennessee River. The Great Appalachian Valley provided Native American traders a direct route between Hudson Bay and the head of navigation for the Etowah River, which eventually led to Mobile Bay.

The location of Virginia’s Petún People was also crossed by a major east-west trade route. Following the Potomac River southeastward would lead to the Chesapeake Bay. Going west was one of the few passes through the Allegheny Mountains. It was a prime marketing location.

Immediately to the south of the Petún People, in what is now Shenandoah County, was an advanced province of mound builders. At least one of their pyramidal platform mounds was 25 feet high until the Civil War. These people farmed the fertile bottomlands of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and its tributaries. The famous Seven Bends of the Shenandoah. Little is known about the Shenandoah Mound Builders because their village sites have never been studied by archaeologists.

Virginia’s densest indigenous populations and most advanced indigenous cultures were located in the Shenandoah Valley. Captain John Smith noted the fact in his journals, but there is no evidence that he ever crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains into the region. The Native American population was concentrated in the northern and central portions of the valley, which had lower elevations, and a longer growing season than the southern valley and highlands of southwestern Virginia and North Carolina. Shenandoah County, VA has an average of 182 frost free days. The French Broad River Valley, north of Asheville, NC, averages 156 frost free days.

Historian Samuel Kercheval, who wrote A History of the Valley of Virginia in the 1830s, stated that when settlers arrived in what is now Shenandoah County, VA, virtually every farm in the bottomlands of contained either Indian mounds, the ruins of substantial villages or stone box grave cemeteries. Some mounds survived to be field fortifications during the Civil War, but soon afterward were leveled. There was a small dome shaped Hopewell Culture mound in the rear section of my farm that had been altered to be an artillery redan during the Battle of Toms Brook.

Many of the stone box graves contained extremely tall skeletons, up to seven feet in length. Colonel George Washington found an entire stone box grave cemetery with seven feet tall skeletons while directing the construction of Fort Loudon in Winchester. He wouldn’t lie. In almost all cases, the skeletons were burned and the slate sarcophagi were used to veneer fireplaces.

After analyzing the surviving reports of explorers, Kercheval estimated that the mound builders were exterminated by a tribe from the south between 1660 and 1676. That is exactly when the Rickohockens were most active in the Native American slave trade. The most likely year of their destruction was the year 1667. The Tobacco villages near Winchester, VA, Charlestown, WV and Shepherdstown, WV survived a couple of decades longer.

What makes this tribe unique is that the people concentrated their energies on the growing of an especially high quality tobacco, not food crops. They had an export-based economy. Apparently, the men were involved along with women in tobacco cultivation, but the men also functioned as vendors and regional traders. The undoubtedly did some hunting and fishing in their spare time.

The tobacco was traded to neighboring provinces for meat, dried fish, grains, vegetables and fruits. In the 1600s, at least, it was also exported long distances to New England, Quebec, Ontario and the Great Lakes Region. The women also grew kitchen gardens, but these efforts represented a supplementary source of food. This economic specialization enabled the Tobacco Indians to have a higher standard of living and probably, greater population density, than was possible with subsistence farming and hunting.

A new perspective on Early Colonial History

Our recent translation of 17th century Dutch books has given a new perspective on the Early Colonial History of the Southern Appalachians. Sephardic Jewish traders based in New Amsterdam and the Netherlands ranged up and down the Great Appalachian Valley during the first 2/3 of the 17th century. They had formerly lived in Dutch Brazil where they taught the Guarani Indians there how to grow tobacco on a commercial scale. The Brazilian tobacco growing region was one of the reasons that Dutch merchants were able to control the world tobacco market.

It is quite possible that these Dutch-Jewish traders introduced commercial production of high quality “sweet” tobacco from the tropics to the Shenandoah Valley. It is absolutely certain that the Dutch Jewish traders gave these Indians the name of tobacco used in Brazil. It is also quite possible that long distance distribution of their tobacco was enhanced by the presence of Dutch traders.

In the mid-1650s during the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois attacked the Tionante Villages in the Kanawha Valley and drove the survivors southwestward. A British flotilla captured New Amsterdam in 1664, while Great Britain and the Netherlands were at peace. The following year the Colony of Virginia signed a contract with the Rickohockens to furnish them with firearms, if they would furnish Virginia with unlimited numbers of Native American slaves. Rickohocken is derived from a Dutch word. You will learn about that soon in a special report in Access Genealogy.

After 1665, in quick succession, the Iroquois supposedly wiped out the Siouan peoples living in northern Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge. This region was the Northern Neck, which had been given to the Culpepper Family. Then, apparently, the Rickohockens wiped out the mound builders along the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. However, the Tobacco Indians and Shawnee continued to live in the northern tip of the valley for several more decades. The Susquehannock Indians formed a defensive shield against Iroquois raids. They were still occupying village sites near Front Royal in 1674 when some explorers came through Manassas Gap. By the time that Winchester, VA was settled in 1729, some Shawnee remained, but the Tobacco Indians were gone.

Linguistics and ethnicity

The only Native American word in the valley is Shenandoah. As many of you in the Middle Atlantic States know, Shenandoah is one of those “pretty” Native American words that have been interpreted a dozen different ways. My favorite is “Daughter of the Stars.” However, the word cannot be translated by any common indigenous languages of the region. Its original form was Shanantoa.

In recent years, I have been increasingly inclined to think that the Tamahiti (Tamahitan in Algonquin) were in the North Fork of the Shenandoah Valley. They were still a powerful tribe to the south in the Valley up until the early 1700s. About the time that the Creek-Cherokee War got going, the Tamahiti skedaddled to southeast Georgia in a region where the Yamasee had formerly lived. Their name means “Merchant People” in Archaic Itza Maya. Where else would merchants be but in the crossroads of the Middle Atlantic Region? Further evidence is that the word for corn among the Shawnee Indians living in the Allegheny Mountains was “Tama.”

However, several of the artifacts I have seen from the Shenandoah Mound Builders looked like they belonged on a Caribbean Island or maybe in Mexico or Brazil. That makes me wonder if at least some of the people in the valley originated from far to the south. They brought the high quality tobacco seeds with them. No one has yet to explain how the Wendot, 200 miles to the west got hold of Central American type tobacco, when it wasn’t grown anywhere else in the Middle Atlantic Region. Perhaps the real name of Virginia’s Tobacco Indians WAS Petún and it was not just a name given them by Dutch traders.

It is also a possibility that the commoners in these Shenandoah villages were Shawnee, but their elite were from somewhere else. Many of the Siouan tribes in South Carolina apparently had Muskogean elites. Juan Pardo’s chronicler recorded Siouan names for several villages in South Carolina, whose leaders had Muskogean titles like orata (oratv in Mvskoke.)


No comprehensive anthropological studies of the advanced peoples in the Shenandoah Valley have ever been carried out. The professional literature is virtually devoid of any information on them or their artifacts. The artifacts that I have seen that were associated with the Shenandoah Mound Builders were quite different and much more sophisticated than the Native American artifacts found east of the Blue Ridge in Virginia.

In the early 1990s, while I was guiding the restoration and expansion of James Carville and Mary Matalin’s house compound near Maurertown, VA it was necessary to install another septic field. The ditch digger cut into a village site on the edge of the Shenandoah River bottomland. We started seeing lots of potshards, flint blades and charcoal. There were two types of pottery. Most potsherds were plain redware; a gritty, gray core with a polished red clay finish. The others had parallel incised designs on them. The only Virginia pottery I had seen that was remotely similar were potsherds from near a platform mound in Loudon County near the Potomac and in extreme southwestern Virginia in Tamahiti country near three platform mounds.

The Hopewell Culture pottery in the Shenandoah has plain finishes. Virtually all the pottery, east of the Blue Ridge is also rather plain.

The most interesting the artifact that the Ditch Witch dug up was a semi-rectangular sheet of soapstone. The bottom was crusted with carbon. The top was polished smooth. It appeared to be a griddle for making hoe cakes. I have never seen anything like it in the Lower Southeast, but did see Mexican Indians cooking tortillas on such devices.

The septic tank crew was totally indifferent to the Native American artifacts. Anytime that they worked near the river, the odds were good that potsherds and flint tools would be spit out by the Ditch Witch. This may seem odd to others, but the reader has to consider the long history of intensive occupation in Shenandoah County. The odds were virtually 100% that anytime we put a hand spade into the flower garden of my farmhouse that a Minnie ball, an artillery shell fragment or early 19th century patent medicine bottle would be revealed. Most of the county was one big archaeological site. Of course, most houses didn’t have George Armstrong Custer leading a charge past their house like mine!

Jay Monahan and Katie Couric lived around the corner from the Carville-Matalin house. Jay and I would walk Civil War battlefields on weekends, so he knew that I was one of the 12 people in Virginia interested in Native American artifacts. A few days after I found the stone griddle, he brought over some much larger pieces of pottery than had not been chewed up by a Ditch Witch. I think that they came from their flower garden or a neighbor’s garden. For lack of a precise Virginia pottery style classification, I will have to call them Napier Diamond Incised. Archaeologists will know what I am talking about. I never saw any Native pottery like that in a Virginia museum.

A few months later I was working on the restoration of a Colonial Era farm in one of the Seven Bends near Woodstock, VA. The entire bend was a Woodland Period Ceremonial Enclosure like the Old Stone Fort in Manchester, TN. Most of the artifacts that the family had collected during the previous 240 years appeared to be Woodland Period – Hopewell Culture things. However, the owner did have some intact diamond incised jars and bowls, plus a quadruped metate made out of some really hard stone.

The Mexican type metate was not a fluke. Samuel Kercheval mentioned in his book that many early settlers had found stone metates. Even in the 1830s Kercheval speculated that Indians from Mexico (or somewhere in the tropics) had once lived in the Shenandoah Valley. Kercheval said that from the Colonial Period to his era, farmers had constantly plowed up beautiful Indian pottery, ceramic & stone statues, long flint blades, copper ornaments and Indian burials. Some families kept the best pieces in collections and threw away the rest.

After the Civil War, when times got very hard, they would sell their artifacts to Northern tourists for a few pennies. Then in the 20th century, Shenandoah families started the custom of auctioning off all belongings of a deceased grandfather or grandmother. That was to prevent fighting over antiques. Within a few decades, virtually all the artifact collections were auctioned for pittances. A neighbor told me that his grandfather’s arrowhead collection was auctioned off for a dollar.

Where have all the artifacts gone? Gone to tourists and antique dealers, everyone.

Notice that I really didn’t have a conclusion on this one . . . because I really can’t explain it all!

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    I am curious about Seneca. Juan Pardo encountered an Orata or chief will touring the mountains of east tn/western nc (Robin Beck places it near Asheville NC, see Tocae), he called this Orata Xeneca. Charles Hudson documents that in 1788 their was a Cherokee Town by the name of Seneca, near of course the location of the Seneca River in South Carolina. I am curious how you would explain that you have two different European references to “Xeneca” and “Seneca”, separated by quite a long time span (1568-1788) and different geographic locations, coming to the same linguistic pronunciation. The geographic change of the town can easily be explained by population movement but two different sets of Europeans arriving at the same pronunciation is peculiar (and very interesting). Thanks


    I just want to thank you for your thorough and lucid history of the Tobacco Indians. My husband (the historian Kirk Savage) and I are writing a book on William Holland Thomas, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, and the world that made them and that they, in turn, made. Many of the white settlers of western North Carolina were Scotch-Irish immigrants from the Shenandoah Valley around Staunton. In searching for the history of the Native-Americans who’d lived there before, most of what I found was the First-Families-of-Virginia story that the valley was and “unclaimed” hunting ground of many tribes. Which, of course, made no sense at all to me. So I’m delighted to have found your site and will be buying your book.

    • Would you believe, Elizabeth . . . that what tipped me off that there was an advanced Native American culture in the Shenandoah Valley was supervising the historic preservation of two celebrity homes on the Shenandoah River . . . Katie Couric and James Carville. When the excavation crews were digging the ditches for the septic tank lines, they came up with zillions of sophisticated artifacts, including painted pottery that looked like it came from Mexico. The archaeology professors at the University of Virginia could give me no explanations, even though Charlottesville is just over the mountains from the Shenandoah. That is when I began doing my own research and found eyewitness descriptions of a sophisticated mound-building culture in the Shenandoah Valley, which was exterminated by the Rickohocken Indian slave raids.

      Thanks for writing us.

      Richard T.


        Hello Richard,
        My mother and I own some land one bend south of the area you have referenced, namely rittenour ridge. Approx 160 acres. up near the top of the ridge, near where it joins three top mountain, there is an area of stone piles resembling an ancient cemetery. is a collection of several mounds, varying in size from approximately 20×30 to smaller in the area of 10×12. there are about 25 identifiable covering an area of approximately 4 or five acres. Have you ever heard about these and is there any way I can find out more about them?

        • Samuel, I have heard of Rittenour Ridge, but have been gone from Shenandoah County for 22 years. When hiking in the Massanutten Mountains and on North Mountain, I would occasionally see stone structures, but at the time assumed that early settlers built them. However, since that time archaeologists have obtained radiocarbon dates and determined that they long predate the arrival of colonists from Europe. Could you provide me a latitude and longitude for the stone structure complex. I will look at them with my ERSI software.


          Richard T.

        • I found Rittenour Ridge! Adjacent bends have mounds on them, but it is reasonable to assume you do have a cairm complex on your land.


    Hi Richard, I found this article fascinating and compelling. This may sound a little strange, but… I find myself here following an extremely vivid dream some months back, which involved me living intimately within an ancient Native American community that seemed to be in some form of crisis, I remember having a wife and family and waking feeling a terrible sense of loss, with the word “Shenoah” or “Shenandoah” echoing around my head, and the feeling like I had to get back to this place with the greatest of urgency. Sounds strange I know, but I got straight out of bed and google led me to a plaque marking the sight of a Shenoah village (which I can’t for the life of me find again!) and on to some articles regarding the tobacco tribes across the Ohio, Virginia, and Pensilvania etc. I have been fascinated by Mesoamerican ceramics for a number of years and trained as a potter, so find your suggestion that there could have been trade links between these cultures extremely plausible. I would welcome any suggestions about further reading around the People of One Fire, and though I live in the UK, would love to offer whatever limited assistance I could to any further research

    • Paul, since we now have several thousand articles, the best way to find one is to Google People of One Fire and then the topic that you are interested in. Another way is to go down the list of Key words at the top of the first page of the web site. We have been in existence for 11 years, so be prepared for a whole lot of articles. LOL

      Good to hear from you.

      Richard T.


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