|Artist's concept of a Shawnee warrior in the 1700's|
To begin with, the name “Shawnee” roots from a word that means “southerner” in many native languages. In the various migrations that occurred over North America, the tribe known as Shawnee were pushed southward by the Iroquois and settled for a while in South Carolina, eventually winding up as far south as Florida and Alabama. I found it interesting that there’s even a linguistic tie between Shawnee (Shaawanowi, from shawunogi—and understand that native spellings were as fluid as English ones in the time, mostly existing for the sake of capturing pronunciation) and the name Savannah, since according to at least one source that’s what the colonists of South Carolina called them. (Which is easy to see, if you soften the modern pronunciation and accent from emphasis on that hard short A in the second syllable, and consider how the Germanic V and W were often interchangeable.)
So who were the Shawnee, in the midst of other native tribes? Not only were they known as the “restless” people, with a loose social structure that probably evolved as a result of their wanderings, but they were known as proud, thoughtful, fiercely independent, in some cases shutting down the efforts of Christian missionaries before they could even get a good start. They regarded their own spirituality as superior to everyone else’s—including other native tribes, which is nothing new to human nature. William Penn, however, who took great care to treat native peoples with as much consideration and dignity as he would want shown himself, suggested that the Shawnee and others descended from some of the lost tribes of Israel. In addition to citing similarities to Hebrew in their language, he wrote:
“For their original, I am ready to believe them of the Jewish race; I mean of the stock of the ten tribes, and that for the following reasons: First, they were to go to a land not planted or known, which to be sure, Asia and Africa were, if not Europe, and he that intended that extraordinary judgment upon them, might make the passage not uneasy to them, as it is not impossible in itself, from the easternmost part of Asia, to the westernmost part of America. In the next place, I find them of like countenance, and their children of so lively resemblance, that a man would think himself in Dukes’ Palace, or in Berry Street, in London, when he seeth them; but this not all: they agree in rites; they reckon by moons; they offer their first fruits; they have a kind of feast of tabernacles; they are said to lay their altar upon twelve stones; their mourning a year; customs of women, with many other things that do not now occur.” (History of the Shawnee Indians from the year 1681, to the year 1701, as cited by Henry Harvey)
Whether we also believe this could be true, or not, they were a remarkable people, a study as many native tribes were in contradictions but with their own code of honor that in some ways could be considered amazingly biblical. Flaws and admirable qualities alike, they are definitely a fascinating people!
For my upcoming release, The Cumberland Bride, set on the Wilderness Road into Kentucky in 1794, I did as much research on the Shawnee people as on the Wilderness Road itself, and found some great resources:
History of the Shawnee Indians, From the Year 1681 to 1854, Inclusive by Henry Harvey.
The Shawnees and the War for America, Colin G. Calloway.
Native American Tribes: The History and Culture of the Shawnee, by Charles River Editors
The Magic Moccasins: Life Among Ohio's Six Indian Tribes, Volume One, Delaware/Shawnee/Mingo, by Jane Barks Ross.