Native American Discoveries
Venture into the past at these sites that uncover the history of Ohio’s original inhabitants.
Sometimes, you can drive right past history and not even know it.
If you live near Dayton, for instance, and occasionally travel St. Rte. 68 between Xenia and Yellow Springs in Greene County, you’ll notice a little motor court called the Tecumseh Motel alongside a large stretch of farmland.
You might not realize, despite the aptly named inn, that the adjacent field is one of the most important places in Ohio’s Native American history: It’s the site of Oldtown, or Chalahgawatha, the village where Tecumseh, the great Shawnee war chief, was born in 1768. Read the historical marker, but also do this: arrive around dusk, get out of the car and squint; try to imagine the once-bustling settlement’s sounds and smells.
Ohio’s history is rich with the sites and stories of its Native American past. Some, like Old Town, are not well known. Many, like the Serpent Mound — built by the Ft. Ancient people around 1000–1500 A.D. on a hill in what is now Adams County — have been carefully preserved and interpreted, and receive thousands of visitors a year.
Prehistoric Ohio’s inhabitants left many signs of their presence here. Beginning around 800 B.C. and for the next few hundred years, the Adena people dotted the landscape of southern and central Ohio with large, often cone-shaped burial mounds, hundreds of which still exist today. Starting around 200 B.C. and for the next 600 years, the Hopewell people built vast complexes of mounds that were ceremonial and communal, such as the astonishing Newark earthworks.
After them, around 900 A.D. and later, the people we know today as the Ft. Ancient fished and hunted throughout southern Ohio and left remnants of fortified farming villages that archaeologists have discovered, such as the restored SunWatch village in Dayton.
When white settlers started arriving in the 1700s, with guns and traps and cabins, they met the Shawnee, the Miami, the Wyandot, the Mingo, Delaware and other people, who fought and resisted the loss of their land until around the time of the War of 1812. The native people eventually were forced out and moved west.
Today, most of Ohio’s Native American historical sites fall into two types: prehistoric remnants, such as mounds, earthworks and rock carvings, and places that are reminders of the struggles with white settlers and soldiers such as forts and battlefields. There are a lot of both to see. Where to begin?
“Personally, I would start close,” says Linda Pansing, curator of archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. “For a lot of driving vacations, the best thing is to pick things close to home and then move out. It’s like anything else — people tend not to pay attention to what is close to home, like my New York friends who haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty. But I think people need to just take a step back from their busy lives and look close to home and appreciate what’s here. For Native American history, the earthworks in Ohio are outstanding. The best in the world.”
She points out that Ohio is working now to have Newark and several other Hopewell earthworks sites named as UNESCO World Heritage sites, “so that they’d be up there with Stonehenge. I think if people knew we had that sort of site here in Ohio, they’d realize how amazing that is.”
While Pansing’s professional expertise and personal interest lead her back to the state’s prehistoric mounds and earthworks — Serpent Mound is her favorite — she also mentions the value of “post-contact” sites — those from the time after Native Americans and European Americans began to interact. Those hold particular interest for her colleague, Sharon Dean, director of museum and library services for the Historical Society.
“I like sites that have really great stories attached to them,” Dean says. “Places that spark a conversation.” She mentions Fallen Timbers, the battlefield in northeast Ohio where Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated a confederation of tribes in 1794. “The interesting thing there isn’t just the battle itself, but the fact that the field is in a different location than the actual marker, which was done for expediency.”
She also recalls speaking at an event marking the conflict at Big Bottom along the Muskingum River, where Indians attacked settlers in what is often portrayed as a “massacre,” but which brought violent reprisals that she says often go under-reported. “We need to remember that a monument represents memory, hope and community, and I think when we look at monuments we need to listen to all the voices we’re considering.” It’s important to remember, she says, that a lot of the sites involving Ohio’s Indian wars involve two equally important points of view.
Food for thought, then, as you start your driving tour. Here we suggest key sites around the state, all owned by the Ohio Historical Society, although many are managed and operated by local historical societies. More information about all of them, including hours, admission if applicable, history, maps and directions, is available at ohiohistory.org (click on Museums & Historic Sites). Many sites offer free admission.
Another excellent driving-tour site, and one that takes history from a very thoughtful point of view, is Ancient Ohio Trail, a National Endowment for the Humanities site that focuses on prehistory.
Fallen Timbers, Lucas County
When America’s military attention turned toward the Ohio frontier after the Revolutionary War, President Washington sent Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne to lead an army to suppress tribes along what’s now the Ohio-Indiana border. His drive led to the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a large and bloody skirmish in 1794 that forced the tribes of the Northwest Territory to the peace table and what became the Treaty of Greene Ville, the beginning of the end for Native American claims on Ohio.
Inscription Rock, Erie County
This prehistoric petroglyph consists of more than 100 drawings and designs on a big limestone boulder in the southern part of Kelleys Island. The images of human and animal shapes are believed to date from 1200 A.D. or later and were found in the 1830s. The rock is one of the best Native American pictographs in the country.
Schoenbrunn Village, Tuscarawas County
This settlement is one of several that mark the occasionally peaceful intersection of white settlers and the Native Americans they found here. The first Christian settlement in Ohio, Schoenbrunn was founded in 1772 by Moravian missionaries who were working with the Delaware Indians. Things went well until the Revolutionary War, when the British-allied settlement had to be abandoned in 1777.
Newark Earthworks, Licking County
This vast and complex system of earthworks built by the Hopewell people is what remains today of mounds that once crossed the entire city of Newark. Today, visitors can see the Great Circle Earthworks, formerly known as Moundbuilders State Memorial, built about 2,000 years ago; the Octagon Earthworks, which consist of a circular enclosure connected to an octagonal enclosure; and the intricately geometric Wright Earthworks.
Logan Elm, Pickaway County
Much of Chief Logan’s story is cloudy, but he has been identified both as Iroquois and Mingo, and spent part of his life advocating peace with white settlers until several of his family were slain by them — causing him to lead warriors against Virginian forces during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. Logan’s side lost, and at this site he gave a famous speech known as “Logan’s Lament,” which seemed to foreshadow the sad plight of Native Americans in the coming decades. The park marking his speech is five miles south of Circleville.
Big Bottom, Morgan County
Located along the Muskingum River near the village of Stockport in Morgan County, this is where, in 1791, about two dozen Wyandot and Delaware warriors attacked white settlers who were moving into their lands. The U.S. government fought back in what led to several years of warfare that crossed the entire state and led to Anthony Wayne’s campaign against the Indians in western Ohio.
Leo Petroglyph, Jackson County
This set of rock drawings, one of several in Ohio, is near the village of Leo, five miles northwest of Jackson. Take U.S. Rte. 35 to Co. Rd. 28, then left in Leo on Twp. Rd. 224. Signs are visible. You’ll see 37 drawings depicting human, animal and other figures that were probably made by people of the Ft. Ancient culture.
Serpent Mound, Adams County
Located on St. Rte. 73 near the village of Peebles, this site includes both the mound and a museum containing exhibits about it and the geology of the surrounding area. Visitors can view the 1,300-foot-long earthwork from a footpath that encircles it.
Fort Ancient, Warren County
It’s impossible to visit Fort Ancient and not be amazed by the sophistication, complexity and effort involved in its construction. Atop a hill overlooking a deep river valley near Oregonia, south of Lebanon, this site encompasses three and a half miles of earthwork enclosures that were built by the Hopewell people between 100 B.C. and 400 A.D. Not a fort, per se, Fort Ancient was ceremonial in nature. The park includes walking trails and a visitor’s center/museum.
Miamisburg Mound, Montgomery County
Built by the Adena people, the 65-foot-high Miamisburg Mound is the largest conical mound in Ohio and one of the two largest in eastern North America. It was built sometime between 800 B.C. and 100 A.D. and was used for burials, apparently added to and enlarged over time. Today, you can climb 116 steps to the top for a panoramic view of the Great Miami River valley.