Looking back at Indian history through a West Virginia lens
WANT TO GO?
"Native American Research in West Virginia"
A talk by Greg Carroll
WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21
WHERE: Culture Center's Archives and History Library, state Capitol Complex.
INFO: 304-558-0230CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The one thing I thought I knew for certain about the history of American Indians in the territory that later became known as West Virginia is wrong, Greg Carroll says.
"That there were no Indians in the West Virginia area and they only used it as a hunting ground is not true," he said.
That's hardly the first common misconception about the brown-skinned folk that white-skinned Europeans encountered after waves of explorers, traders and settlers lapped onto North America's shores, then poured into the interior.
Teasing out known facts from myth is part of Carroll's mission when he speaks on "Native American Research in West Virginia" at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21 in the Culture Center's Archives and History Library in the state Capitol Complex.
Before he retired last October, Carroll was a staff historian for 23 years with the state's Archives and History Section, mostly focusing on American Indians, African Americans and Civil War history.
Even the terms of such a discussion lead to differences and disputes. Official Associated Press newspaper style calls for the phrase "American Indian" while Carroll uses "Native American." And when discussing "Indian" culture in the West Virginia region, what era do you mean?
"People have to decide what time period they wish to discuss," said Carroll. "Because the native population has been here for 9,000 to 10,000 years. And it was very large up and down the river valleys. During the Adena and Hopewell periods of time, the rivers were used as a trading highway."
He will first talk about those earlier cultures, Carroll said. "Then, transition to the later culture we know of as Shawnee, Mingo, Delaware, Iroquois, Cherokee -- those kinds of tribes. Because there are two different realities once the white invasion begins."
Conflict and cooperation
Broadly speaking, an already complex continent grew ever more complicated as the leading edge of white exploration, fort building and settlement encountered a dizzying variety of Indian tribes, confederations and ways.
One of the realities to which Carroll refers was the inevitable conflict between white and Indian cultures that led to skirmish and warfare. The other is the accommodation and cooperation that also resulted between Indians and whites.
"That is what I think is interesting because the white culture is both attractive to the native people and repugnant to the native people, both at the same time," he said.
Tribes desired guns and gunpowder, cloth, food and other material items and that desire changed native cultures, he said. At the same time, complex Indian inter-tribal relations were soon squeezed and altered by the powerful forces of what Carroll describes as successive "white empires."
"It's interesting to also realize how the Indian people had to effect a balance between the various political ties with the French-American empire, the English-American empire and then the new revolutionary Americans that threw off the control of the British."
Here might be a good point to consider another common perception. That would be the one of the enlightened, noble native perfectly in tune with Nature, living in peace and harmony until white people came.
"I do point this out at many times -- the white romanticizing of Indian peoples being these perfect princes of the forest is not really true. Native peoples survived as best they could, oftentimes brutally dealing with the environment. Native people would burn forests and burn down areas so they could have more grasslands for deer hunting."
There were countless vicious inter-tribal conflicts before whites arrived. And after they came, Indians were routinely employed against other Indians.
"The Iroquois and Shawnee people were capable of torturing prisoners, which they did, and oftentimes served the whites as scouts. They were paid well to do so and oftentimes would treat other tribes very brutally when they were in the service of the whites.
"But I point out that this is because they were trying to balance their existence against various white empires -- French, British and eventually the American government."
The Noble Savage myth was also useful to whites intent on moving ever westward into Indian lands as more and more tribes were pushed out of their homelands, said Carroll.
"The mythos was created by white cultures when they wanted to make-believe the Indian had disappeared -- 'The Last of the Mohicans,' you know? The white culture had mainly destroyed the Indian tribes, but they made it sound like they had faded into the forest. In reality, it was a very brutal political decision to attack the tribes and steal their land."
Yet Indian culture exerted its own influence on the newcomers to the continent.
The Iroquois Confederacy, a longstanding diplomatic and political entity of the Iroquois (also known as Haudenosaunee or "People of the Longhouse"), impressed Thomas Jefferson with the continuity and resilient make-up of this league of tribes and nations.
"Jefferson was inspired by their political set-up. The prejudice against the native peoples would not let him admit that until much later."
Indian or not?
Carroll also will discuss what he calls the "basic cultural reality" of how Indian tribes gathered and lived in this area. To make his point, he uses current geographical designations of what were then differently named regions.
"They unified in the spring and summer and brought their people together in larger tribal towns -- Chillicothe is a good example of a Shawnee town. But during the winter these groups disbursed all across Kentucky and West Virginia to live in small winter communities where they could feed themselves easier."
The last part of his talk will take on the vexing question of tracing Indian lineage in West Virginia residents today, in a state where you commonly hear people cite the "Cherokee blood' in their family line.
"The reality of Native American heritage is extremely difficult to prove for many people in the eastern United States because there were no reservations here, no records kept in that vein," he said.
Another complicating factor is that deep-seated prejudice against native peoples was strong in the region because of fierce battles with the Shawnee and other tribes. Then, there was the forcible removal of the Cherokee, Choctaws, Seminoles and other tribes from the southeastern United States in the 1820s and 1830s.
"Some of the Cherokee people escaped into the mountains of West Virginia," said Carroll.
Many Indian folk were not about to advertise their heritage, he added. "Native peoples did not want to admit to being native peoples. They were too smart. Because they knew if they could pass for white they would receive less oppression from the white power structure."
On the other hand, Indian roots may be hidden in plain sight in the state archives collection of birth, death, marriage and census records, said Carroll, who'll also discuss DNA testing for Indian heritage.
"You will see certain anomalies in your family history. You might find 'Negro,' 'Black' or 'Mulatto' written in your family records that refer to 'mixed race,' but oftentimes are a reference to Indian people."
When considering Indian lineage, it's important to remember that among the first whites to encounter Indian tribes were not settlers but traders, especially during the great rush to hunt furs in the American wild for eager European markets.
"Those people -- who are often Scotch-Irish or English or French -- oftentimes took Native American wives, to marry into the tribe and gain trading rights. So, almost immediately there are mixed race people all across the Eastern Seaboard area."
He understands the personal fascination with Indian heritage, Carroll said. He grew up in Texas in a family whose ranch was on the edge of the Comanche badlands, at a spot where Robert E. Lee signed a peace treaty with the tribe. Upon moving to West Virginia, the Carroll family legend was of an Indian man here who'd married into the family long ago.
"That kind of inheritance makes you interested in the subject," he said, noting he had no absolute proof of Indian blood in his lineage. "Just like so many other folks cannot prove their Native American heritage."
He hopes people will come to his talk with their own stories.
"I also think we should realize there are native groups functioning here in West Virginia that are tying to maintain a cultural identity for native people here. Folks are still very interested in this subject, so I'm glad we can talk about it."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com or 304-348-3017.