History of Ohio’s Native American Tribes

While often marginalized in mainstream narratives, the Native Americans in the United States have a rich history, and their contributions and legacies are an important part of the fabric of American society. Natives once lived all across what is now the United States, including in Ohio. In fact, Ohio was once home to a variety of tribes, includes ones that originally settled here as well as groups that migrated here from other places when Europeans took their territory.

Native Ohio Nations

Before the Europeans arrived, what is now Ohio was the home of three main groups: the Kickapoo, the Erie, and the Shawnee. The Erie and Kickapoo lived in the northern part of the state, while the Shawnee and other Ohio Valley tribes lived in the rest of what is now Ohio.

The Kickapoo Tribe

The Kickapoo were originally part of the Shawnee tribe. In fact, some linguists theorize that their name came from a Shawnee word meaning “wanderers.” The Kickapoo spoke a tonal language that bore a resemblance to Algonquian, and they also communicated using whistle speech, a unique form of speech that converts the tones and stresses of the language into whistles. This allowed them to speak and be heard over long distances. The Kickapoo were also known to avoid conflict, though they would not surrender when threatened. When the Europeans arrived, the Kickapoo fought hard to defend their land, but ultimately, the Europeans forced them out, pushing them southward. Today, the remaining Kickapoo live mostly in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Mexico, and their native language is in danger of disappearing.

The Erie Tribe

The Europeans named the lake that borders northern Ohio after a tribe they found living there, the Erie. This agrarian tribe spoke a similar language to those spoken by the Iroquois peoples, though they were enemies of the Iroquois. Little documentation of their history exists, but we do know that they were conquered by the Iroquois in 1654. Those who were not killed in battle were captured by the Iroquois or assimilated into the Wyandot.

The Shawnee and Ohio Valley Tribes

Oral histories suggest that the Shawnee may be descended from the Lenape tribe, and their languages are related closely enough to be mutually intelligible. The Shawnee moved around in what is now Ohio and also lived in Illinois, New York, and Georgia. In the early 1800s, under increasing pressure from both the Iroquois and American settlers, Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, formed an alliance of native tribes in an effort to reclaim and defend their lands. They did manage to slow the pace of the settlers’ encroachment, but after a crushing loss at the Battle of Tippecanoe, the alliance began to weaken. Tecumseh was killed two years later in the Battle of the Thames, and the alliance crumbled. The Shawnee were forced to move, ending up in Oklahoma, where they remain today.

Migrated Tribes

Ohio has been a home to members of many tribes that migrated from other places due to conflict or forced relocation, including the Lenape, Seneca, Wyandot, Ottawa, and Miami. The Lenape lived mostly in modern-day New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware, but some moved here amid conflicts with the European settlers. The Seneca built longhouses near Lake Erie and went on to join the Iroquois Confederacy. The Wyandot fractured, with some becoming part of the Iroquois; the remainder of the Wyandot were forced out by the Americans, moving to what is now Kansas. The Ottawa tribe settled around what is now Toledo, and the Miami tribe lived in what is now southern Ohio. They, too, were forced out by the Americans in time. However, some members of all five of these tribes stayed behind, and today, their descendants still live in Ohio.

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