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FYIForks of the Ohio

Native American Crossroads: Before 1750

Over 12,000 years in western Pennsylvania, Native Americans progressed from nomadic living off hunting and gathering wild plants to agriculture and representative government.

But when white settlers arrived, their population was rapidly decimated by unfamiliar diseases, more advanced technology, and clashes over land. The tribes who survived were forced further west by treaties.

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How long have humans inhabited Western Pennsylvania? All around the region are clues to the land's first human "tenants." Names like Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio, Aliquippa, all find their origins in Native American language.

After Asian migrants crossed the Bering Strait 20,000 years ago, they slowly inhabited the continents of North and South America – and became the land's first human occupants. Scientific estimates suggest people have been in this region for over twelve thousand years – some even say as long as eighteen thousand years.

Archaelogists at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter Dig
Archaelogists at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter Dig
Rick Sebak

Meadowcroft Rock Shelter is one of the oldest inhabited places in the Americas. Archeaologists believe, once this dig is excavated and analyzed, that some parts of the shelter may date back as long ago as 20,000 years.

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Those Indians who roamed the land 12,000 years ago relied primarily on hunting and gathering to survive. They knew nothing of farming, they had few tools, they recognized only simple social units – but they had language and the mastery of fire. Gathering nuts, berries, roots, and hunting and fishing for food demanded a nomadic lifestyle.

6,000 years ago, the Indians developed canoes to travel the rivers, and developed tools of wood and stone to help them hunt more effectively. The land was densely forested and inhabited by bison, elk, deer, beaver, and wild turkey, which were all hunted for food. Panthers, wolves, bear, and mountain lions were their fellow hunters in the woods of western Pennsylvania.

3,000 years ago an agricultural revolution took place when Indians learned to cultivate corn (maize), allowing a steadier diet of plant foods and the establishment of permanent villages. Smaller village hunting parties took over the task of supplying meat, as, curiously, Native Americans never domesticated animals except for dogs used for hunting. Corn, beans, and squash became staples of the Indian diet, something to think about the next time you eat one of these native New World vegetables!

By two thousand years ago, they were living in villages and making pottery. Farming had become intensive, and trade flourished between villages and even between tribes.

Diagram of Native American bark house
Diagram, Susan Donley

Barkhouses were made by driving saplings into the ground, bending them into a dome shape, and covering the dome with bark or mats woven out of rushes.

Native American villages would often be situated on a hill and surrounded by a stockade.

Even during this era, Pennsylvania was networked with a web of "roads" as intricate as today's system. They were not "roads" as we know them today, or even "roads" as they were defined in the 17th and 18th centuries! These "roads" were a series of 18-inch-wide footpaths, and Indians used them to travel between villages to trade goods. All through the woods and along these paths, the precursor to the modern-day "newspaper" existed in the form of messages painted on trees in a simple picture language. These messages proclaimed tales of battles and hunting excursions to alert and astound other travelers.

Without beasts of burden, or knowledge of the wheel, however, all goods had to be carried by humans along these footpaths. In Western Pennsylvania, the Indians tapped the power of the rivers to lighten their load by perfecting canoes hollowed out of logs (called "dug-outs") and boats made from stretched animal skins and tree frames. With these and other advances in daily life, the Indian population grew, town life developed, and agriculture flourished.

However, when white Europeans landed in America, they met the Indians with disastrous effect. European diseases, to which the Indians had no resistance, decimated the population. Their stone weapons were no match for European guns , gunpowder, and horses. More subtle was the effect of the fur trade. Desirous of metal tools, horses, and guns, Indians obliged the European settlers' demand for furs – but the result was a catastrophic depletion of the region's game supply and dependence on white trade that would forever alter the course of the Indian economy and way of life.

So, the original inhabitants of western Pennsylvania—the Monongahela people—were wiped out by European diseases before they even met the people who imported those diseases.

The disappearance of this people in the early years of the 1600s left whole sections of western Pennsylvania unpopulated by humans. Soon other tribes, especially Delaware and Shawnee, who were pushed out of their eastern homes by white settlers, moved into the area to take their place.

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