There is little doubt that many homes and buildings in Miami County, and parts of Darke County, are located where ancient Native American burial mounds, earthworks and villages once sat. Or, that when we bicycle or walk the Great Miami Recreational Trail or the Tecumseh Trail we are using paths that have been trekked for thousands of years by generations of people.
The fact is, long before Europeans arrived in western Ohio, life had flourished here for millennia.
“As long as people have been in Ohio, they have been here,” said Andy Hite, site manager at Johnston Farm & Indian Agency in Piqua. “And that’s been about 13,000 years.”
Hite is an expert on local Native American history, and his office sits near one of the most intriguing Native American village sites in Ohio, Pickawillany, not to mention one of the few mounds still visible in these parts. (Most were plowed over long ago).
Pickawillany was at the center of one of the largest Native American communities in Ohio, and certainly one of the largest in western Ohio. When European traders arrived in Pickawillany in the 18th century, along with the large village, they took note of nine other dwellings in the area, all located near where Loramie Creek meets the Great Miami River in modern-day Piqua.
Clusters of dwellings were not uncommon, (see map below) and several others were noted by these traders, including four along Trotters Creek, north of Covington, and three just north of the Eldean Covered Bridge in Troy. (Interestingly, there were no villages or dwellings noted in Shelby County, with the exception of one near Houston.)
What was very unique about the cluster of dwellings at Pickawillany was the number of prehistoric earthworks in the area, including 11 circular enclosures, three square enclosures and an 18-acre stone wall enclosure. Traces of this last structure can be seen when driving along Ohio Route 66 in Piqua. These types of earthworks served as burial structures, ceremonial sites, historic markers and possibly gathering places.
In comparison, there were only four or five other earthworks noted within a 25-mile radius of Piqua, and even then, they’re very scattered out. So it seems there was something very special about the place where Loramie Creek meets the Great Miami River.
Unfortunately, knowing what that special something was remains a mystery.
When traders asked the Shawnee and Miami tribes living in Pickawillany in the 18th century who had built the earthworks in the area, they didn’t know. The fact was, even at that point in history, these earthworks were already thousands of years old, built by the Adena culture, who left no written history, and who disappeared from the Miami Valley sometime around 2,000 years ago.
What became Pickawillany itself may have been the location of an ancient native village, which means people have been living in the northern Miami Valley for thousands of years.
Although we may never know why “Piqua” was such a treasured place to early Native American cultures, we have a good idea about how culture evolved in western Ohio during prehistory. Here’s the story…
The First People
Paleo & Archaic
About 13,000 years ago, Ohio was coming out of the last Ice Age. It would have been cool and damp, and wooly mammoths and other large mammals would have walked the land.
Hite said he believes the first humans to step foot in Miami County were Paleo Indians who were hunting these large mammals. The Paleo subsisted almost entirely on meat and moved with the roaming herds they hunted. They never stayed put for long.
However, about 8,000 years ago, when the Earth’s climate warmed, these large animals died out. When this happened, the Paleo Indians in the Midwest had to adapt, as did new animals in the environment, including deer. “This is when you see culture shift from Paleo cultures, the big game hunters, to the Archaic culture,” Hite said. “The Archaic were still hunters, but they were hunting animals we’re more familiar with. And since those animals were not as mobile as the big game, we start to see hunting camps; we start to see a little more sedimentary life.” Interestingly, there are typically two types of spear points found in the Miami Valley. There are big spear points, which were used by Paleo Indians to hunt big game, and there are smaller, thinner spears, used for animals such as deer and wild turkey, which were used during the Archaic period and beyond. To this day, these spear points can be found in fields and streams throughout the region, especially along the Great Miami River, the Stillwater River and Greenville Creek.
As there was no bow and arrow at this time, the preferred hunting weapon was the atlatl, a long-range spear that can travel at speeds of 93 mph and penetrate metal.
Hite said the other change seen during the Archaic period was the gathering of plants and nuts.
“They became hunters and gatherers, as compared to just hunters,” he said.
The Archaic-era lasted about 5,000 years. During this time, the climate continued to warm, and it eventually became much like it is today in Ohio.
Hite said the only evidence of these early cultures in Miami County is the arrowheads they left behind, although it’s easy to imagine that they built camps and fires along many rivers and streams in this area.
A Hint of Future Mound Building
Along with advances in gathing and hunting, toward the end of the Archaic period, people began to take a little more care with the burying of their dead, a hint that times were changing.
“This tells us a lot because it means they’re not just struggling so much with day-to-day survival. They’re starting to look outside of their world a little bit,” Hite said.
For reasons that are unknown, the Archaic cultures in Ohio, and the Midwest, began to bury their dead in the tops of glacial kames, which are very prevalent in the region. (Glacial kames are hills of dirt and rocks left behind by glaciers.)
“They’re not building mounds yet, they’re using what nature gave them,” Hite said of this practice.
This gives us a hint at the origins of manmade mounds and earthworks found in later generations. This early tradition of burying the dead in the tops of natural hills was not only passed down to new generations, but built upon and changed, spanning all the way to the 17th century when some of the greatest earthworks in history were still in use, including the massive mound city of Cahokia, located across from modern-day St. Louis.
NOTE: Not all Native Americans were buried in mounds. Early settlers in western Ohio, and later, archeologists, have noted numerous traditional burial sites throughout the region, including clusters in the modern towns of Versailles, Pleasant Hill and Tipp City. In these instances, the dead were often buried under slabs of stone.
The Adena Culture
About 3,000 years ago, the Adena Culture had developed in the Miami Valley, probably enticed by the abundance of food and resources in the area, plus the great transportation networks provided by the Great Miami River and its tributaries.
The Adena culture flourished mostly in Ohio, as well as West Virginia and small parts of Indiana and Kentucky. They are direct decedents of the Archaic and Paleo cultures.
Hite is quick to point out that “Adena” is just a name we have given this culture, noting that: “We have no clue what they called themselves.”
No matter their name, the Adena were pioneers.
Like the Archaic culture before them, the Adena were still hunters and gatherers, but they were now making art and simple pottery, which meant they were staying put, rather than roaming around.
One of the areas they chose to stay put was the intersection of Loramie Creek and the Great Miami River in Piqua, where, thousands of years later, traders would find their earthworks and mounds and wonder what their purpose was.
Hite said he imagines this area was preferable to the Adena because it is where the Great Miami River widens out, which makes it more navigable for canoes, and because of the fertility of the land surrounding the two streams.
Ohio History Central paints a picture of what life was like for the Adena as one of relative peace and harmony with nature. They lived in small settlements of one or two structures. Their dwellings were circular and made with wooden branches for the walls and bark for the roofs. They hunted deer, elk, black bear, beaver, turkey and other animals; gathered seeds, grasses and nuts; and cultivated pumpkins, squash, sunflowers and goosefoot.
The Adena also brought mound building to western Ohio, which, by this time, had become an important part of spiritual life. It had developed from using natural glacial kames to bury the dead to building man-made mounds. According to Ohio History Central, at first, the burial mounds were simple, covering a single burial. The dead were often sprinkled with powered ocher, graphite or manganese dioxide and buried with personal possessions, such as tools, beads and tubular pipes.
Over time, however, the mounds and burial customs changed and the burial chambers started to contain one or more bodies, which were surrounded by circular structures made of wood. These structures, along with the dead, were burned and then a new layer was added. This was followed by more burials and, ultimately in many circumstances, larger mounds. (Hite said one of the largest Adena mounds in this area is the Miamisburg Mound, which contains multiple burials.)
The dead of this later period were painted with bright pigments and buried with offerings of food and valuable objects, including bracelets and rings.
Many of the resources used to make this jewelry came from another Adena advancement – trade.
“You start to see evidence of copper coming in for the first time, which has to be a trade item because there are no copper mines in Ohio,” Hite said, adding, “The closest copper is in the state up north, near Lake Superior.” (That would be the state of Michigan.) “That gives you a glimpse that they’ve stabilized their food supply a lot more. Now they’re really star- ting to look outside of their world. And they’ve developed a network of some sort to get that stuff here.”
“Were people from the Miami Valley visiting these places? Were they brought here? Did they meet half- way, moving up and down a chain? We don’t know.”
Toward the end of this period, the Adena began building earthworks and enclosures, including almost all of the earthworks recorded by those early traders in the Miami Valley.
(Below depictions from Ohio History Connection and the U.S. Government. Map below from Wikipedia Commons)
In about 100 A.D., the Hopewell culture emerged in Ohio, most notably along the Scioto and Licking River valleys. What, if anything, happened to the Adena is not known. Like many cultures in history, they either evolved, dissolved or merged with the Hopewell.
“There was overlap of the two for a period,” Hite said. “It’s sort of like today if you go to Holmes County in Amish Country, you see people living a different lifestyle than what we are. They’re not necessarily different people, but they’re living a different lifestyle.”
Some people even refer to the Hopewell as the zenith of the Prehistoric Culture, but as Hite points out, “We really don’t know.”
The Hopewell developed extensive trade routes that brought seashells to Ohio from the Gulf of Mexico and obsidian from Yellowstone National Park, among many other new treasures.
They used these items to make new tools, which, in turn, fueled more technology, including agriculture.
“The Hopewell became great gardeners, which further stabilized food supplies,” Hite said.
With stability came introspection, and, ultimately, in this instance, scientific innovation.
The Hopewell built the great Newark Earthworks and many other elaborate earthworks in the region. Many of these structures are astronomical calendars and markers. They were probably used as places of ceremony, science and celebration. While the Adena had some knowledge of astronomy, as indicated in the earthworks they built in Piqua and other places, the Hopewell became experts.
“Mound building and earthworks exploded during the Hopewell culture,” Hite explained. “You start to see huge geometric (structures) show up, circles and squares and octagons and all sorts of stuff.”
For whatever reason, the Hopewell did not have much interest in the northern Miami Valley, and there is little evidence of them being here for any length of time.
This may have been a period when the older ways of the Adena were practiced in the Miami Valley, while the new ways of the Hopewell took over elsewhere.
Eventually, as is often the case, the new ways replaced the old ways entirely, until the old ways were simply forgotten.
A Mysterious Decline
Even though the future looked bright for the Hopewell, something went wrong in about 1000 A.D.
“You see a cultural decline,” Hite explained of this era. “You start to see stockades around their homes. We’d never seen that. So something has happened. Was it a disruption in the food supply? Why were they protecting themselves? Were they protecting themselves from other people? From animals? We don’t know.”
This period also saw a decline in the quality of pottery and artwork being made, as well as the care given to the dead.
“Life became simpler for some reason,” Hite said. “Instead of burying in new mounds, they buried in existing mounds, so something disrupted them.”
Native Renaissance & The Beginning of the End
Luckily, but however in vain, the cultural decline of this early period quickly bounced back and actually began to thrive like never before.
By 1300 A.D., just before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, the Native American cultures in Ohio and the Mississippi Valley were building more earthworks than ever before, trading newer and larger amounts of goods, living in complex, stable cities and villages and farming larger amounts of corn to sustain their increasing populations.
Things were going well…
“Then our ancestors showed up and screwed everything up,” Hite said.
The End of Pre-History
In Ohio, prehistory ends in 1654. This is when French fur traders showed up and The Great Dying of the Native American population began.
During this time, Europeans unknowingly introduced diseases to the native population, killing unfathomable numbers of people.
“Diseases were coming across the Appalachian Mountains and wiping out almost whole villages. People who didn’t die moved to the next town and took the diseases with them. It went down the Ohio River Valley,” Hite said. Those who didn’t die had to face additional threats from the powerful Iroquois, who came into contact with Europeans on the East Coast and learned the value of the fur trade.
The Iroquois pushed into eastern Ohio in search of these furs. The problem was, the local people still living here needed the furs, and the meat inside of them to live. With no lifeline, the remaining locals were forced to make a living elsewhere.
“People migrated out of Ohio to live in trade centers. By 1700, Ohio basically emptied out,” Hite said.
However, when these trade centers in modern-day Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere became too crowded, some of the former residents returned to western Ohio to live. Only now, as European settlers pushed further west, it was a period that wouldn’t last very long.
Eventually, there was no native population left in much of Ohio. As settlers developed the land for farming, mounds, earthworks and any other sites of significance were leveled to make room for the future.
Today, little remains of the cultures that once dominated Ohio, but thanks to the efforts of the decedents of these Native Americans, historians and archaeologists, we are making sure they will never be forgotten.