Rudes Hill Mound

Eyewitness Accounts to Early Indian Settlements in Shenandoah Valley

According to English maps and books of the late 1500s, Sir Francis Drake landed on the coast of Virginia, near the mouth of the James River in 1577. He named the region Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth I then explored the Chesapeake Bay for a few weeks. He then led a part of his fleet’s crewmen on horseback and foot along the James River for 10 days until they reached the summit of a mountain, where they could see a vast valley, covered in grasslands and fields. Drake’s memoir states that this valley was densely populated by agricultural Indians, who were peaceful and culturally advanced.

A book published by John Smith in 1612, Proceedings of the English Colony of Virginia, provides detailed descriptions of the Native American inhabitants of eastern and northern Virginia. The Manahoacs occupied the region of northern Virginia east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Smith stated that valley beyond the mountains was densely populated by agricultural peoples, but did not provide detailed descriptions of the inhabitants.

Beginning around 1645, Governor William Berkeley sponsored small parties of Indian traders to make contact with Native American tribes living outside the Chesapeake Region to obtain furs, skins and Native American slaves. Initial contacts were with Occanechi Indians in south-central Virginia and the Rickohocken Indians, whose principal town, Otari, was near present day Bedford, VA. Now forgotten traders brought back descriptions of large agricultural villages in the Valley along with vast grasslands, they called savanna’s that teemed with bison and deer. The name of the principal ethnic group that occupied this large valley was written as Senantoa, Cenuntua, Shanantoa, or Senentoa.

After the Royalists were defeated in the English Civil War, Berkeley was replaced by a Puritan governor. He then concentrated his energies developing his plantation on the James River and his chain of factories (trading posts) along the western frontier. Berkeley gained great wealth from his private trading with the Indians. He used his influence to discourage settlement of the region west of the mountains, or allowing the public to know what was there. He is probably the reason that mid-17th century Virginia maps still did not describe the occupants of the Shenandoah Valley.

After being appointed governor again by King Charles II in 1661, Berkeley almost immediately pushed through laws in the Virginia House of Burgesses that institutionalized Native American and African slavery. The colonial government provided firearms to the Rickohockens and promise to buy all the Native American slaves that they could deliver.

In 1667, Governor Berkeley equipped an expedition, consisting of 14 Englishmen and an equal number of Native Americans, for the exploring the lands west of existing settlements. The party was under the command of Capt. Henry Batte (founder of Richmond.) After traveling seven days from their starting point at Appomattox Courthouse, they reached the foot of the mountains. The first ridge they crossed is described as not being very high or steep, but the succeeding ones “seemed to touch the clouds,” and were so steep that an average day’s march did not exceed three miles.

They came upon fertile valleys, covered with luxuriant grass, and found the forests abounding in all kinds of game, including turkeys, deer, elk, and buffalo. After passing beyond the mountains they entered an extensive level country, through which a stream flowed in a westward course, and after following it for a few days they reached some old fields and recently deserted Indian villages.

Beyond this point the Native American guides refused to go any further. They protested that not far away dwelt a powerful tribe that never allowed strangers, who discovered their towns, to return alive, and the expedition was therefore compelled to return. According to the historian, Burke, this expedition took place in 1667.

The broad plain could only be the Roanoke Valley around present day Roanoke and Salem, VA. The only river that flows in westward direction in southwestern Virginia is the Clinch River. Contemporary texts assume that the fierce tribe to the north was the Cherokee, but the maps of that era show the extreme southwestern Virginia occupied by the Tamahiti (Tomahitans in Algonquin.) The Rickohockens occupied the region south of the Clinch River.

Augustin Her(man, a German-Czech explorer hired by Lord Calvert to survey and map his proprietary domain, explored the Potomac River Basin and upper Shenandoah Valley in the 1660s. At the time of his journeys, the Upper Shenandoah Valley was densely occupied by the “Tobacco” Indians, who cultivated tobacco intensely and acted as middlemen between the English traders and tribes located in Canada and the Great Lakes region. The Tobacco Indians eventually moved north and joined with the Huron (Wyandot) Indians.

In 1669 Johann Lederer led a small party of explorers up the York River to its headwaters. They climbed to a high peak where the heart of the Shenandoah Valley could be seen. Apparently, his part did not enter the valley. He is generally described as “the first white man to see the Shenandoah Valley.” This is probably not true. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Lederer actually entered the valley.

Around 1670 the Iroquois attacked the Manahoac Tribe. The survivors were forced to flee southward to the area around present day Charlottesville, VA. The Iroquois then claimed the Northern Neck as part of their territory. However, Virginia’s government bitterly opposed this because ten years earlier, the Northern Neck had been given to the Culpepper Family by King Charles II.

In 1670 Johann Lederer led another party of 21 Europeans and about an equal number of Natives southward along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Although many books interpret his book and map to state that he stopped at the headwaters of the Catawba River at present day Old Fort, NC, his names of Indian towns and description of geography match the headwaters of the Keowee River in NW South Carolina. The only tribe that Lederer’s book and map mention living on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the Rickohockens.

In 1671 Johann Lederer lead another small party on horseback to the Blue Ridge Mountains near present day Sperryville, VA. Near the headwaters of the Rappahannock River they found the trail was too steep for horses. From there they hiked on foot to the western edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here they could see both branches of the Shenandoah Valley, plus the Allegheny Mountains beyond.

In 1700 the Iroquois announced their claim to all lands west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Few, if any Iroquois actually established villages outside their home territory, but only those Native peoples willing to become vassals of the Iroquois were allowed to remain on their land. However, the Iroquois were not able to conquer the mountain tribes of western Virginia, even though they claimed their lands.

In 1705 George Ritter, a recent immigrant from Bern, Switzerland led a small party of settlers to the Shenandoah River, immediately north of where the North and South Forks joined. Apparently, the area was still occupied by the Tobacco Indians. The party turned back after discovering that potential settlement sites were claimed by the Indians.

Around 1716, the Iroquois-Catawba-Cherokee War began. The Catawba and to a lesser extent, the Cherokees had assisted the British in the Tuscarora War between 1711 and 1715. The Iroquois Confederacy declared war on these two tribes. The Catawba were in northern South Carolina. Most of the Cherokees lived in western North Carolina and northeastern Tennessee. For the next 30 years war parties from these three tribes marched back and forth across Virginia. The Iroquois and Cherokee utilized the Shenandoah Valley to attack each other.

In 1717 Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood led a body of patricians, who called themselves “the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe,” over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Much of the landscape, east of the mountains, was his estate . . . tracts in which he wished to sell to his guests. They passed across the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, but stopped their progress westward upon reaching the base of Massanutten Mountain, near present day Harrisonburg, VA. They could see the ruins of a large, recently abandoned Indian town.

Nothing is said in official records about the Virginians having prior knowledge of an ethnic cleansing in the Shenandoah Valley, and therefore feeling it safe to venture there. However, in 1715 the Cherokees had become Great Britain’s favorite Native American ally. One wonders if they were encouraged to “clean out” the Shenandoah Valley of all Native Americans, since the Iroquois would have forced any Shenandoah residents to be their vassals.

In 1719 Thomas Fairfax, Sixth Lord of Cameron, came in possession of the vast Culpepper Estate in Northern Virginia, by marrying the widow of the last Culpepper heir. Under English law, a husband instantly owned all of the real estate previously owned by his bride.

In 1721 the British Crown signed an agreement with Iroquois denoting the Blue Ridge Mountains as the eastern boundary of Iroquois territory. The British also recognized the right of the Iroquois to use the Valley as a route for war parties. Individual families began to filter across the mountains into the valley soon afterward. Virginia had interpreted the treaty to mean that Englishmen could settle the valley, since it belonged to Lord Fairfax, but Iroquois could not hunt east of the valley. The settlers often built cabins in the Valley without obtaining leases from Thomas Lord Fairfax, and also at grave risk of being attacked by the Iroquois.

Beginning around 1730, increasing numbers of settlers began crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains and settling in the Shenandoah Valley. They used the same term for the bottomlands along the rivers as Georgia settlers used when occupying former Creek agricultural lands – Old Fields. It is clear that all of the bottomlands had been in agricultural use. The Native American occupants of the Shenandoah Valley were not hunters and gatherers as stated in many history texts.

One of the first areas of the Shenandoah Valley to be legally settled was near present day Shepherdstown, VA. In addition to the ruins of a recently abandoned Tobacco Indian town, a new settler, Joseph Swearengen, found what appeared to him to be “a peculiar circular earthwork.” The earthwork was about 300 feet in diameter. The circular earthen wall was about 18 inches high. Inside the wall was a ditch about two feet deep. The placement of a ditch inside a wall seemed illogical to 18th century Europeans, but archaeologists now know that such an earthwork was the vestige of an Adena ceremonial center dating from about 500 BC to 100 AD.

In Shenandoah County, a Captain Oliver found a cemetery containing graves lined with stone slabs, containing skeletons seven feet tall. Most of these stone sepulchers also contained artifacts that appeared to be of Native manufacture. Elsewhere in Shenandoah County, early farmers found stone lined sepulchers either isolated or in small clusters. Throughout the valley, farmers plowing their fields found a treasure trove of stone mutates, grind stones, hominy pestles, ceremonial axes and decorated copper sheets. In the northern part of the valley are apparent cemeteries composed of stone cairns.

In 1757, while supervising the construction of Fort Loudon in present day Winchester, VA, Colonel George Washington uncovered what appeared to him to be an Indian cemetery. Surviving accounts do not say if the graves were stone lined, but they probably were . . . for he also found several seven feet tall skeletons among the graves. Most of the burials also contained artifacts that he thought were American Indian in manufacture.

Samuel Kercheval settled in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1800s. He published A History of the Shenandoah Valley in 1833. In his book, he wrote, “Along all our water courses evidences of Indian dwellings are yet to be seen.” It is entirely impossible that the vestiges of simple wigwams or longhouses would be visible 160 years after the Shanantoa Indians were massacred. Obviously, there were earthworks, stone walls and thick wattle and daub houses in their towns.

Rudes Hill Mound
The Rudes Hill mound and village near Mt. Jackson, VA. The builders of this large town probably were the same ethnic group as found in Lee County in SW Virginia. Source: VR image by Richard Thornton. Source: VR image by Richard Thornton

Kercheval further stated that elderly residents of the Shenandoah Valley, still living when he arrived, told him that there were many Indian mounds visible when they arrived. The largest was a pyramidal mound about 20-25 feet high at the base of Rudes Hill near Mt. Jackson, VA in Shenandoah County. In Kercheval’s time the mound was still about 15 feet tall. It was destroyed during the Civil War. Other large mounds were originally located near Powells Fort, Toms Brook, Meems Bottom and Stony Creek in Shenandoah County, and Cedar Creek, Opequon Creek and Hawskills Creek in Frederick County.

Near Front Royal at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah were several mounds plus the ruins of a very large Indian town. The largest mound near Front Royal was a mound that was about 20-25 feet high and about 180 feet in circumference. Early settlers found many skeletons and artifacts in this mound. One of the artifacts was a ceramic pipe with a carved snake coiled around its bowl.

All of the eyewitness accounts made by early settlers in the Shenandoah Valley are very credible, because they contain accurate descriptions of structures and artifacts, known to be associated with several advanced Native American societies in the Southeastern United States or Ohio Valley. The only problem is that “officially” the Commonwealth of Virginia never contained these advanced cultures. The Adena Culture is associated with the Ohio Valley and western West Virginia. Platform mounds are associated with Muskogean “mound builders” in the Lower Southeast. The Stone Box Grave culture is associated with the Cumberland River Valley of Tennessee and with the ancestors of the Itsate Creeks in northern Georgia. Stone metates are associated with Mexico and the Arawak peoples of Florida. What were all these vestiges of cultures known to be elsewhere, doing in the Shenandoah Valley?


Shenandoah Valley,

Thornton, Richard. Native Americans of the Shenandoah Valley. Web. See Further: People of One Fire. Blairsville, Georgia, © 2012.

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3 thoughts on “Eyewitness Accounts to Early Indian Settlements in Shenandoah Valley”

  1. This is wonderful! I have ancestor (Sheetz) killed by Native Americans at end of French & Indian War, and my recent journey to understand the Native American viewpoint put me on a quest to understand the Shenandoah Native American history. These first hand accounts add so much!
    Thank you!

  2. What is your opinion of the buffalo ridge cherokees of virginia . are they really vassal who became cherokee,even though the area is filled with siouan people

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