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Archaeologist examines elusive West Virginia Native Americans in new book

Not much is known about the Native Americans that inhabited West Virginia. The Fort Ancient people lived along the state’s major rivers between roughly AD 1,000 and 1,700, but by the time the first Europeans settled in the Ohio Valley and Kanawha Valley, they were gone. 

“Early Native Peoples in West Virginia: The Fort Ancient Culture” by West Virginia University Native American studies professor Darla Spencer, examines what archaeologists do know about the Fort Ancient culture.
You’ve said in the past that not much has been written about the Native Americans that occupied West Virginia, except for in archaeological journals. What resources did you use Darla Spencerbeyond these journals?

I’ve been researching the Fort Ancient culture for over 20 years. During that time, I’ve worked with amateur archaeologists and photographed their collections and visited the Smithsonian Institution twice to photograph their collections from the mounds and Fort Ancient sites in West Virginia. 

The Fort Ancient people lived in the Ohio Valley from southern West Virginia to Indiana. Archaeologists in other states have published a good deal about Fort Ancient in their areas, and I have used those books and articles for comparison. There are many similarities between Fort Ancient sites in West Virginia and those in Ohio and Kentucky. I’ve also done a considerable amount of research with the collections at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville, which is our state repository for archaeological collections.

What was something particularly interesting that you learned from the collectors?

Some of the collectors or amateur archaeologists have a great many artifacts, particularly pottery. Pottery is a good cultural marker. Much of the pottery from these collections was different from typical Fort Ancient pottery found in Ohio and Kentucky. In particular, corncob impressing was found on the outside surfaces of much of the pottery from West Virginia Fort Ancient sites, but very little has been reported from Ohio or Kentucky. 

However, this type of pottery has been found in Virginia and the Southeast on sites typically occupied by Siouan-speaking people such as the Tutelo and Saponi. This brings up the question of who the Fort Ancient people in West Virginia were in relation to known historic Native American tribes and what language they spoke. Many historians and archaeologists have assumed that Fort Ancient people were ancestors of the Shawnee who lived in the Ohio Valley in [the] 1700s and spoke an Algonquian language.

It appears that Fort Ancient territory in West Virginia was an interface between Fort Ancient people to the west and Siouan-speaking people to the east. While Fort Ancient people in West Virginia shared a great many cultural traits with other Ohio Valley Fort Ancient people, there appears to have been some Siouan influences as well. One theory that seems plausible is that Fort Ancient people intermarried with Siouan people. Since historically the women of the tribes usually made the pottery, perhaps Fort Ancient men were taking Siouan wives.

You once said, “Once thought of as Indian hunting grounds, with no permanent inhabitants, West Virginia is teeming with evidence of thriving early native populations.” What did you mean by that?

Growing up in West Virginia, we were not taught in school about native people living here except those that built the mounds. Even today, people will tell me that they were taught that West Virginia was merely an Indian hunting ground with no permanent occupants. One reason for writing this book is to finally put this story to rest.

Native Americans hunted and lived in what is now West Virginia for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived. For many years, early excavations conducted by amateur archaeologists, but these excavations were usually not published.
West Virginia
However, the Council for West Virginia Archaeology, of which I am a board of directors member, has recently produced a handbook on the pre-European history of West Virginia that would be used in West Virginia history classes in fourth and eighth grades. If that Is adopted, it would also help fill that void in our education.

What do you hope people that read your book will take away from it?

The book was written for a general audience, as well as a reference for archaeologists. I would hope that the people who read it get a sense of who these people that archaeologists call Fort Ancient were, and that they thrived along the river valleys in southern West Virginia for hundreds of years. They led rich full lives here, farming, hunting, fishing and gathering nuts and berries for sustenance. However, artifacts found also show that they had time for recreation. Gaming pieces and musical instruments, such as turkey leg bone flutes and animal bone rasps, have been found that suggest they played games and made music.