The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia . . . its Secret Native American History
Part Three of the Series
The Horse Manure in History Books
Twentieth century historians, anthropologists, writers and bureaucrats completely erased the memory of advanced indigenous cultures in the Shenandoah Valley, which were first described by Virginia historian, Samuel Kercheval, in 1833. They were mound builders and sophisticated farmers with very different cultural traits that the Native Peoples, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This concealment in professional literature is so complete that very few Virginia archaeologists, if any, know that they even existed. Neither the National Park Service nor the Commonwealth of Virginia even recognize that “Mississippian Culture” mound builders ever lived in Virginia.
It is one of the most historic regions in North America, yet there has never been a comprehensive archaeological or architectural survey of the Shenandoah Valley! Despite being only 25 miles from the University of Virginia’s Department of Anthropology, very few Native American sites have been excavated by professional archaeologists in the Valley, other than in the vicinity of Winchester and Front Royal. For those academicians, it is a terra incognita.
The Shenandoah Valley is at the northern end of the Great Appalachian Valley, which extends southward from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia about 550 miles to Cartersville, GA . . . where Etowah Mounds is located. The North and South Forks of the Shenandoah flow northward for about 80 miles, before they join near Front Royal, VA. The much broader river then flows northward for about 40 miles until it joins the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry, WV.
The Valley is defined on the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the west by Allegheny Mountains. However, the climate of the northern Shenandoah Valley is quite different than that of the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The annual precipitation in the Shenandoah Valley is about 55% of that in the Georgia Mountains, and unfortunately most of that precipitation comes in the winter months, not the growing season. Most of the precipitation between early November and mid-April is in the form of snow or sleet. During the summer, the Shenandoah Valley has a climate like Western Kansas or Oklahoma, so crops like wheat, barley and alfalfa do well there. Traditional Native American crops such as corn, beans, squash and sunflowers only grow well in the damp, black soil of the river and creek bottomlands.
When Dutch, Swiss and German settlers first arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in the mid-18th century, the uplands of the valley were dominated by Southern Long Leaf Pines! This tree today only grows in the Southeastern Coastal Plain and is extinct in the Shenandoah Valley. This species is somewhat dependent on fires to sprout its seeds. It is possible that Native Americans regularly burned out the undergrowth, allowing a sub-tropical pine to adapt to a much colder climate. The lower elevations of the mountainsides were then dominated by Eastern Hemlocks. These trees are rare in the valley floor, but do still grow in shaded, damp areas at the feet of mountains.
The first floor joists of my mid-18th century farmhouse in the Shenandoah Valley were virgin Long Leaf pine logs that still had the bark on them. Although over 240 years old, they were in perfect condition and showed no evidence of termite infestation.
The official history of the Shenandoah Valley
For many generations, Virginia’s students have been taught that the beautiful Shenandoah Valley was uninhabited when the white man arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. It had been used in the past as hunting lands by several Indian tribes, but no one was living there, except for a small, recently arrived, band of Shawnee living where Winchester now is located. So the white settlers didn’t steal the valley from the Indians.
In 1927, local historian John Walter Wayland wrote A History of Shenandoah County. He said that since ancient times, the valley had been the hunting lands of the Iroquois Confederacy. It contained a few small villages of the Shanantoa or Senandoa Indians, who were either Tuscarora Indians or allies of the Iroquois. The Senandoa Indians were very alarmed by the Tuscarora War between 1711 and 1715.
Wayland stated that probably in 1715 the Iroquois attacked the Catawba in South Carolina and the Cherokees in northeastern Tennessee, because they had assisted the British colonists against the Tuscarora. He postulated that in revenge, the Catawba massacred most of the Senandoa. The Shenandoah Valley remained Iroquois hunting lands until 1744, when Governor William Gooch of Virginia purchased Iroquois claims to the valley for £200.
The Shawnee, living in the vicinity of Winchester, VA, vacated the Valley in 1754, when the French and Indian War began. Most Shawnee became allies of the French. However, the former chief of the Winchester band, Cornstalk, tried to keep his people neutral. Hostile Shawnee warriors launched hundreds of raids into the Shenandoah Valley between 1654 and 1667, which virtually depopulated the region. The Valley today is dotted with historical makers that memorialize the massacres committed by the hostile bands of Shawnees. Many of the settlers were tied to pine trees and burned alive.
The forgotten history of the Shenandoah Valley
In 1649, 11 years prior to his Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II of England gave 5.2 million acres in Northern Virginia to the Culpepper Family in return for their financial and political support. Thomas Lord Fairfax, would eventually inherent this grand estate through his mother, who was a Culpepper. This is ironic since his grandfather was Thomas Fairfax, Lord General of the New Model Army, which overthrew King Charles I in the English Civil War. This Fairfax avoided being hanged, drawn and quartered by Charles II because he refused to sign Charles the First’s execution warrant.
In 1665, Governor William Berkeley of Virginia signed a contract with the Rickohocken Indians in the southwestern part of that colony, in which the provincial government would furnish the tribe with large amounts of firearms and munitions, if the Rickohockens would provide the colony with large numbers of Native American slaves. Within a year, the Manahoac Indians, living on the new Culpepper estate were devastated by a series of slave raids. By 1669, there were only about 50 Manahoac men still alive.
Historian Samuel Kercheval wrote A History of the Valley of Virginia in 1833. He was born in the Valley in 1767, when many of the earliest settlers were still alive. Kercheval, who was a French Huguenot, became a decorated US Army officer, a highly respected attorney and historian, plus a friend of Thomas Jefferson. It was Kercheval, who suggested that the US Constitution be kept flexible by allowing future amendments to be passed by a majority of states.
Kercheval studied the evidence of when Shanandoa Indians were almost exterminated. Without even knowing of the Rickohocken Indians existence, he estimated that the holocaust occurred between the time of King Charles II’s restoration (1660) and Bacon’s Rebellion (1676.) That is exactly when the Rickohockens were most active in the Native American slave trade. However, it is not known how long the Shanantoa had lived in the Shenandoah Valley before being massacred. It is quite possible that they arrived in the valley from somewhere else in the 1600s.
Despite the statements made in Virginia history text books and local tourist brochures today, there WERE Native Americans living in the Shenandoah Valley when white men arrived in Virginia and even after British explorers and traders began visiting the valley. It was never an uninhabited grassland, shared by many different tribes for hunting only.
Petún or Tobacco Indians
At the time when Europeans were first exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the lands beyond, the northern tip of the valley was occupied by the Petún People. They were known to local settlers as the “Tobacco Indians” because they grew large quantities a tropical type of tobacco that was vastly superior to the nicotina rustica, grown by most Native American tribes in North America. Their tobacco was so superior that the Petún didn’t bother with cultivating other crops or spending much time hunting. They obtained most of their food by trading their valuable tobacco. Their leaves were exported to all parts of Eastern North America, even into the semi-boreal parts of Quebec.
The name of Petún Indians is quite significant. It was one of the forms for the name of Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala – the heartland of the Mayas, where tobacco was first domesticated. It is also one of the forms of the name of the Putún or Potún . . . the Maya merchant class, who originated at Lake Petén. The Potano of Northern Florida are another indigenous people in the Southeast, whose name seems to be derived from generic name of Maya transient merchants.
Postscript: One of POOF’s readers have just written us with an article that states Petún is the Tupi word for tobacco in Brazil! It may be derived from the name of Petún or Potun merchants, but the fact that it means tobacco in a major South American language is 100% evidence of a South American connection.
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. They supplied the Iroquois with premium quality tobacco.
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.
It is unlikely that the Tobacco Indians in the northern Shenandoah Valley were the same ethnic group as the other two peoples. If one delves into the background of this assumption, it is pure speculation by anthropologists, based on ignorance of linguistics, plus the cultural traits of indigenous peoples in the lower Southeast. There is no colonial archive that provides an eyewitness account 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 were there . . . the next explorer found them gone.
Beginning in the 1970s, some Virginia archaeologists, who thought “outside the box,” began excavating jasper and flint quarries along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, southwest of Front Royal. These sites were called Flint Run, Fifty Site, Fifty Bog and Thunderbird. Radio-carbon dating revealed that these sites dated from the warming period of the last Ice Age and extended into the Early Archaic Period or about 11,000 BC to 6,500 BC. Most of the weapons and tools found on site were typical of the Clovis and Dalton Cultures.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, highly respected archaeologist William M. Gardner of Thunderbird Associates in Woodstock, VA discovered something phenomenal that should have “turned the history books upside down,” but has been largely ignored by mainstream academicians and school textbooks. His team identified several LARGE, PERMANENT villages near shoals on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and downstream from where the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River join together. Some of these villages might have had as many as 1,000 residents!
All high school and university students are taught that Native Americans lived in small, family bands that migrated across the landscape in search of food until around 1000 BC. Obviously, at least in the Shenandoah Valley, mankind began living in permanent settlements around 9,000 BC. This is about the same time that the first permanent settlements appeared in Middle East.
Stone Cairns and Circles
During the past two decades, archaeologists have identified numerous stone cairn cemeteries in the northern tip of the Shenandoah Valley and in northeastern West Virginia. The also can be found along the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northern Virginia. There are also some ceremonial rings built out of stones in this region. They are not nearly as numerous as those in the northern Piedmont of Georgia, but conversely have been studied much more scientifically. The cairns have been determined to be cremation biers that date from the Middle Woodland Period up to the early Mississippian Period . . . except that officially Virginia does not have a Woodland Period mound-building culture or Mississippian Mound-builder Period in its archaeological lexicon. Therefore, Mid-Atlantic archaeologists have given this culture the name, Stone Cairn Burial Culture.
In contrast, Georgia’s archaeologists fought so bitterly about the interpretation of its many more Pre-European stone structures during the late 20th century that very few were seriously studied. Nowadays, its anthropology professors refuse to even look at them or have their names associated with publicity about them. In many locations, local elected officials in Georgia have unilaterally taken actions to preserve stone cairn cemeteries or stone walled terrace complexes, because Georgia’s archaeologists have refused to declare them “historic structures.”
Virginia Terrace Complexes
Perhaps the most intriguing connection between the northern and southern ends of the Southern Appalachians are the stone walled terrace complexes. In 2012, at the same time that some Georgia archaeologists were trying to create a controversy over the long time claim by Creek Indians that they were part Maya, a curious archaeologist in Virginia obtained radiocarbon dates for a terrace complex overlooking the portion of the Shenandoah Valley, where the Petún lived.
Only one agricultural terrace has been radiocarbon dated in Georgia. It was begun around 1018 AD. The oldest radiocarbon date for the terrace complex near Front Royal and Winchester, VA was around 1120 AD. That is evidence that the terrace builders in Georgia, for unknown reasons, sent bands of colonists northward to the other end of the Southern Appalachians.
The archaeologists, involved in this project were concerned that they might become sucked into the then virulent “Mayas in Georgia” controversy and so did not publicize their work nationally. As it turned out, however, scientists at the University of Minnesota later that year proved without a shadow of a doubt that Maya traders came to Georgia for many centuries to mine attapulgite, the main ingredient in Maya Blue pigment.
While hiking along the mountain ridges at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I noticed old stone walls, but gave them scant attention. My presumption, like everyone else at that time, was that they were the ruins of 18th century vineyards or orchards.
A Lost Civilization
Despite their complete absence from the professional literature, it is clear that Virginia’s densest indigenous population 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. It is odd that Virginia historians and anthropologists did not note that statement long in the past and start looking for those towns.
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. Etowah Mounds in Georgia averages 215 frost free days.
Kercheval stated that when settlers arrived in what is now Shenandoah County, VA, virtually every farm in the bottomlands of the river and creeks, contained pyramidal ceremonial mounds, dome-shaped burial mounds, low, cobblestone covered mounds, the ruins of large villages or stone box crypt cemeteries.
Even today, the Highland Maya often bury their dead in stone box crypts, near their houses. Stone box crypts are endemic in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley, where the Native town of Itsate (Itza Maya’s name for themselves) was located. The same Itsate, who first settled in Northeast Georgia and built many of its stone-walled terrace complexes apparently spread northward to the Shenandoah Valley.
As late as 1865 there was a massive 25 feet high, 250 ft. by 250 ft. pyramidal mound near the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and the town of Mount Jackson. .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 on October 9, 1864. The remnants of burials and ceremonial mound survive today on the fringes of the valley and in Fort Valley, which is located between the Massanutten and Blue Ridge Mountains. The surviving mounds probably were burial mounds from the Woodland Period, since they are not located in the prime farming areas of the river bottomlands.
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. In almost all cases, the skeletons found in the Shenandoah Valley were burned, while the slate sarcophagi were used to veneer fireplaces. Seven foot tall skeletons are also found in royal burials in Georgia. George Washington was not exaggerating.
Today, virtually nobody living in the Shenandoah Valley is aware that it once was filled with Native American mounds, earthworks, stone structures and large village sites. When I became the first chairman of the Woodstock Historic Preservation Commission, absolutely no one locally or in state agencies mentioned the region’s Native American heritage. State bureaucrats were only interested in Civil War battlefields and large houses where famous Civil War generals spent the night.
Muskogean (Creek) tribes in Virginia
Maps prepared in the late 20th century showed the ancestors of the Muskogean tribes occupying a region in the lower Southeast no farther north than North Metro Atlanta. Virtually all of Georgia was Creek until 1785, so these maps merely reflect the delusions of Cherokee-files. These same maps show the Cherokees occupying a vast area, most of which never contained Cherokee villages. Most of the traditional Chickasaw and Creek territories in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina are labeled Cherokee.
At least as late as the 1500s, proto-Creek tribes definitely occupied the river bottomlands of northeastern Tennessee. In fact, all town names and political titles listed by the De Soto Chronicles in Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee are either Creek or Mesoamerican words, with the exception of Chiska, which is a Panoan ethnic name from eastern Peru. Cherokee histories list some of these towns as Cherokee, merely because they were in North Carolina or Tennessee, but the Creek names have no meaning in the Cherokee language and their leaders clearly had Creek political titles.
Virginia ethnologists and historians have labeled two Virginia tribes as being Algonquian or Siouan because like their peers farther south, they never bothered to learn the Creek languages. Their ethnic labeling were speculations based on the tribe’s Anglicized names. They were the Tvmvhiti and Okvonesi.
Tamahiti (Tvmvahiti): In the late 1600s, the Tamahiti (Tomahitan in Anglicized Algonquin) was a powerful tribe in Southwest Virginia. Their name is pronounced Täu : mäu : hē : tē. It is an Itza Maya word from Mesoamerica and means “Merchant People.” The Tamahiti spoke a dialect that mixed Itza Maya words with Muskogean words/grammar from NE Mexico and Panoan from eastern Peru.
The pyramidal, platform mounds of the Tamahti can still be seen in Buchannan, Dickenson, Wise and Lee Counties in extreme southwest Virginia. It is highly likely that the Tamahiti once lived in river bottomlands as far north as the Potomac River. There is a large platform mound on the Potomac River near Leesburg in Loudon County, VA. In Georgia, the Tamahiti and Tamati usually constructed multiple mounds that were of modest size. They are not associated with the largest mounds in the Southeast.
After the Creek-Cherokee War erupted in 1715, the Tamahiti skedaddled to southeast Georgia, where their close kin, the Tamati lived. They soon joined the Creek Confederacy and ultimately moved to villages on the Chattahoochee River. Further evidence is that the word for corn among the Shawnee Indians living in the Allegheny Mountains was “Tama.”
Occoneechee or Okaneechi (Okvnesi): Okvnesi is pronounced Ō : käu : nē : jzhē. Both English and Spanish explorers consistently wrote down a Muskogean si or se sound as “chee”. The word means, “Descendants of the Oconee People.” The Oconee are a major branch of the Creek Confederacy, with major concentrations of population formerly being around Okefenokee Swamp in SE Georgia; along the Oconee River in NE Georgia and along the Oconaluftee River in the Great Smoky Mountains, where the Cherokee Reservation is now. Oconaluftee means “Okonee People – massacred” in Creek. The Okonee spoke a dialect that mixed Itza Maya words with Muskogean words/grammar from NE Mexico and Panoan from eastern Peru. Okonee towns typically had one large pyramidal mound and several modest-sized mounds.
The Occoneechee tribe was located immediately to the south of the Shenandoah Valley in the 1700s. Many of its remnant villages joined with the Saponi. All references state that the Occoneechee Tribe was Siouan. This is based on their later merging with the Siouan-speaking Saponi because very few Occoneechee words survive.
Archaeological discoveries made while preserving historic architecture
In 1988, shortly after we were restoring our colonial farmhouse on Toms Brook in Shenandoah County, VA, representatives of the National Park Service showed up at the door to tell us that our farm was one of the key properties in the proposed Shenandoah Battlefields National Park. The troopers of two former roommates at West Point, Brig. General George Armstrong Custer, USA and Brig. General Tom Lafayette Rosser, CSA had dueled around our house and in our pastures! It was the only battle during the Civil War that Rosser lost. In the process, Custer’s men captured Rosser’s dress uniform . . . but Custer had it shipped to Rosser’s wife.
I showed the NPS historians, the 1753 plat by George Washington and the original deed to Colonel John Tipton, later the co-founder of the State of Tennessee . . . but they called it the Thornton Farm. That name will thoroughly perplex historians in the 22nd century.
You can read about the Battle of Toms Brook at this URL:
Battle of Toms Brook at the Thornton Farm
Yes, the Thornton Farm was my farm. The stone fence where Confederate cavalrymen took shelter was the stone wall next to my house and Spikers Hill was my front pasture.
The National Park Service requested permission to send archaeologists to our farm. It was granted. The ground was saturated with the debris of the third largest cavalry battle of the Civil War. However, the chief archaeologist shocked me when he came to the door one day and announced, “Richard, we have found an Adena Village AND a Hopewell Village on your farm.”
That afternoon, I raced to the Shenandoah County Library to check out books on Virginia’s Native Americans. There was no mention of either the Adena or Hopewell People being in Virginia. I then drove over to the University of Virginia’s Anthropology Department. The professor, who met with me, looked over the NPS report and grinned. He said, “This couldn’t be possible. They must have mistakenly examined artifacts from Ohio. There are no Adena or Hopewell sites in Virginia!”
While practicing in Virginia, I was the architect for the restoration of 47 Colonial and Federal Period houses and farms along the Shenandoah River. It amounted to the only comprehensive archaeological survey in the valley, since I seemed to have been the first and last person, who ever looked for Native American artifacts coming out of Shenandoah Valley construction excavations. When the clients would pay for their services, I brought in the neighbors to my office, Thunderbird Associates, as consulting archaeologists.
One client, who would pay for an archaeologist, owned an entire horseshoe bend of the Shenandoah River near Woodstock. Still visible, were earthen ramps that went up to a level plaza, the remnants of mounds and a stone enclosure around the entire bend. Archaeologist Bill Gardner examined the site and dug several test pits. He reported back that this was a large Late Hopewell village site. My client could not afford to pay for a full-blown archeological study and Gardner got nowhere trying to convince his peers that the Hopewell Culture had moved eastward to the Shenandoah Valley, as it was dying out in Ohio.
Totally inexplicable artifacts came out of the soil, when we were excavating the septic tank field for what would become James Carville’s and Mary Matalin’s Early Federal Period farm. I began seeing polychrome potsherds, similar to the artifacts in Central America and northern South America. Then large stone artifacts began jamming up the ditch-digger attached to a Bobcat tractor. I was astounded to see that they were quadruped (four pedestal) metates for grinding corn and flat, rectangular sheets of slate and flagstone that in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean are used for tortilla or cassava cake griddles.
The owner of the mechanical contracting company cussed and said that these things used be like weeds in the Seven Bends of the Shenandoah. His family had a bunch of them around the house and yard that are used as potted plant stands. He warned me that if he ran into one of them damn Injun stone burials, he wouldn’t tell me, because if you find skeletons in Virginia, you have to call the County Coroner and stop all work.
I called up the University of Virginia’s Department of Anthropology. I couldn’t get past the secretary. I heard a professor in the background laughing as he said, “These crazy people think every rock is an artifact.” I blurted, “M’am I’ve studied in Mexico and taught Pre-Columbian architecture at Georgia Tech!” She repeated my words, but the professor just laughed and said, “Mexico?” That was the end of that.
Jay Monahan let me walk the old garden of his and Katie’s 1790 house, while it was under construction. It was about 1/8th mile from the Carville house. There again, I found polychrome and fancy Hopewell potsherds, but Jay was not particularly interested. By then, Jay and I were on the Advisory Council of the NPS’s National Battlefield Protection Program. He and I had a lot of fun walking Virginia’s Civil War battlefields, but like everybody else, it seemed, in Virginia, Native American history was just not anybody’s “cup of tea.”
A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon Samuel Kercheval’s 1833 book on the Shenandoah Valley. He specifically mentioned that the stone metates, stone griddles and stone box crypts were so dense in the bottomlands of the Shenandoah Valley that early settlers had trouble plowing the fields. Kercheval speculated that Indians from Mexico or the tropics had once lived in the Shenandoah Valley. He also mentioned that many families in his time had used the stone metates as yard decorations, just like the mechanical contractor said. All this has been completely forgotten by many generations of Virginia academicians.
Now you explain this!
Almost a decade later, when I was living in Georgia again after a marital breakup, I looked up my ancestors’ Civil War records. All of my Creek ancestors initially enlisted in Cobb’s Legion and were heroes in the Battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, the remnants of Cobb’s Legion was dissolved and one of my ancestors was re-assigned to a small Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley. Would you believe that he was captured, while standing on picket duty in November 1864, at the entrance to the driveway of my Shenandoah Valley farm?
Latest posts by Richard Thornton (see all)
- National Geographic Video: Secrets of the Nazca Lines - November 22, 2017
- BBC Video . . . An introduction to the Minoan civilization - November 20, 2017
- Satellite imagery reveals massive earthworks of Tama-tli near Murphy, NC - November 20, 2017
- Are you Taino, Arawak, Carib, Tupi or Eastern Peruvian? - November 19, 2017
- 16th and 17th century visitors to the South Carolina Upcountry - November 19, 2017