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The Shawnees


An Algonquin wigwam made of wood and bark. The Shawnees lived in similar abodes (David Bushnell).


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Indian Academies

Early maps of both Texas and Indian Territory after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 identify various "Shawnee villages" scattered around the landscape. On first glance, it just looks as if these were settlements of native tribes, but even a cursory understanding of U.S. history refutes this - after all, weren't the Shawnees natives of the Ohio River Valley? And since they were, why did they live along the Red River?

A big Family
The Shawnees are from the Algonquin-language group, which is one of the largest language groups in North America. The Algonquins stretched from Canada to the Ohio River Valley and included the Delawares, Wampanoags, Crees, Kickapoos, Potawatomis, Araphaos, Cheyennes, and Powhattans. The Algonquins traded salt, copper, furs, and other manufactured goods among each other and, by the mid-17th century, with the English, Spanish and French. Their enemies included the Iroquoian people as well as the Sioux.

Like all other tribes, the Shawnees must have once been part of a larger, centralized culture before de-centralization occurred prior to 1492. Their ancestors have been described as the "Fort Ancient Culture," though not much is known about this culture. Within Shawnee homelands, evidence suggests that the Algonquin people buried their dead inside mounds, some of which were constructed into serpentine shapes. Their high-ranking dead (royalty and priests) were buried with personal belongings, and they had separate burial mounds for children. These practices became localized and individualized once de-centralization occurred.

Shawnee Integration
The Shawnees lived in the Ohio River Valley and Cumberland River Valley in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Their homes, called wigwams, were made of timber and bark. They resided inside semi-permanent villages that they abandoned in winter, when they hunted animals towards the south. Women and men dressed almost identically, each wearing leggings and moccasins and adorned with small stones, shells, quills, feathers, and European trade beads. Women farmed and made trade goods, and the men hunted and engaged in warfare. Their villages centered around long houses in which councils and ceremonies were held. In the Algonquin language, Shawnee refers to "southerly" - which makes sense, as they were the kinship group that wandered further south than the others. They may have had to wander because the Iroquois were encroaching on their hunting lands in a series of conflicts known as the "Beaver Wars." This ability to move and spread led to Shawnee dominance in southern trade in the 18th century. They became friendly with English traders and settlers in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Their language became the preferred trading language in the colonial fur-trading period.

Fur Wars
The fur trade that the Shawnees dominated waxed and waned, though. Furs were traded for guns, alcohol, and slaves. Women could become trade items when the balance sheet tipped in a European's favor, which led to the breakdown of families and initiated micro-rebellions. The Shawnees moved further west to escape from Anglo colonial practices. They still got caught up in the territorial fur-trade wars, and found themselves fighting the British, then the French, then the Iroquois, and then the British again. By the end of the French-Indian wars in 1763, the Shawnees had ceded much of their original homelands. Under the Proclamation of 1763, they were supposed to be secure in their smaller reservation land from further colonial encroachment, but the American colonists disregarded this, which led to further animosity.

During the American Revolution (1776-1783), the Shawnees allied themselves with the British against the colonists. Other tribes beyond the Proclamation Line did this as well. This is a major reason for the anti-Indian policies and actions that percolated throughout United States history. By the end of the revolution, the newly-minted Americans resented the old Americans who had sided with their enemy. The U.S. led wars against the Shawnees to push them west of the Mississippi River.

After the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, the Shawnees splintered into bands. While one band remained in Ohio under the Treaty of Greenville (1795), another band sought Spanish land grants within the Louisiana Territory. They secured land claims in today's Missouri near Cape Girardeau.

The Indiana Territory Shawnees
The Shawnees who remained the Ohio River Valley inside Indiana Territory after the Treaty of Greenville discovered that the United States did not take its treaties with tribes very seriously. Anglos settled on Shawnee lands. The British, who still occupied a few of the forts along the fur-trade route of the Mississippi River Valley, traded guns with the Shawnees, which in turn made the Anglos suspicious. War between the U.S. and the Shawnees brewed.

Governor of Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, convinced other tribes west of the Greenville Treaty line to cede their lands to the U.S. in exchange for annuities and lands further west (land that was, as yet, undetermined). Tecumseh, the chief of the Shawnees in Ohio, opposed Harrison's Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809). Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa, went on the war path. They believed themselves to have been prophesied to reclaim the lost lands and ways of their people and set about creating a confederacy. Knowing that the Shawnees alone could not defeat the U.S. forces, Tecumseh sought alliances with other tribes who were opposed to American encroachment, most notably the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws, who were also feeling American "manifest destiny" breathing down on them.

The conflict came to a head at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, in which Tecumseh and over 1,000 of his followers were defeated. After the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, the Ohio Shawnees were forced out of the area set aside by the Treaty of Greenville. Some scattered to seek shelter with the British in Canada (including Tecumseh), which led to Harrison's invasion of Yorktown and, subsequently, the War of 1812. The rest became unsettled and consolidated with other tribes, notably their kin, the Cape Girardeau Shawnees. Finally, by the 1830s, the Federal Removal Acts reserved land for them in Kansas and northern Indian Territory.

The Absentee Shawnee
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Shawnees at Cape Girardeau saw their Spanish land claims being challenged by the Americans. Several left the area to find peace in Louisiana and Arkansas. In 1825, Cape Girardeau Shawnees ceded their land grants to the U.S. for a reservation in Kansas Territory.

However, a large group of Shawnees were not very keen on dealing with the U.S. anymore. Instead, they left for Mexican Texas and sought land grants there, which they received. This is why the American government deemed them "Absentee Shawnees." In Mexican Texas, they established villages along the Red River, though they still dealt with hostile whites in extreme northeastern Texas. These men had squatted on the land and claimed it to be part of Arkansas Territory. Whites, by and large, opposed all Indian land grant claims because by U.S. law, all Indians were disallowed to take advantage of any homestead acts and Anglo land grant schemes.

When Texas became a republic in 1836, an uneasy peace existed between the Anglos and the Shawnees. During the Cherokee wars of 1839, the Shawnees remained neutral. While the Anglo Texans still wanted to oust all Indians out of Texas, their neutrality helped the Shawnees in negotiating a removal treaty in 1840. In return for the sale of their rightfully owned land in Texas (including all improvements and deserted crops), the Shawnees agreed to leave Texas. They moved north.

They did not go to their reservation in Kansas, however. The Shawnees sought new villages along the Canadian River in Indian Territory, where other Shawnees and landless tribes added to their numbers. This included several Shawnees from the Kansas reservation, on whose lands hostile Anglos were squatting. During the Civil War, the Shawnees sought refuge in Kansas, but they faced hostility there and back home. The Kansas Shawnee reservation lands were claimed by the newly formed state of Kansas, which wanted to evict all Indians from the state. Although they were called "Loyal Shawnees" because they had fought for the Union during the war, the Kansas Shawnees returned from the conflict to their once prosperous farms that were now destroyed and claimed by Anglo "pioneers."

Shawnee Nations
Today, there are three recognized Shawnee Tribes. The Eastern Shawnees were the last of the Shawnees in their original homelands; in 1830, they were forced out of Ohio and settled in northeastern Indian Territory. The Absentee Shawnees (Cape Girardeau Shawnees) received land allotments in 1872, 1890, and 1891 in Indian Territory. The Loyal Shawnees consolidated with the Cherokees until 2000, when they became a federally recognized tribe.

The history of the Shawnees is American history writ large. Their tribe is the epitome of what Richard White has called the "Middle Ground," a state of uneasy balance between the old and new worlds, of people caught in the middle between the European empires and the devastation they brought. They are also the epitome of resiliency. The Shawnees continued to persevere as a separate people despite their continuous relocations. Of all of the people who have called the Red River Valley in the Southwest their home, the Shawnees are some of the most interesting and historical, even if their habitation was relatively short.

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