Native Americans in the Shenandoah Valley

“The Great Warriors Path, then, was less an isolated route than the main artery of a dense communication system. This system, in turn, reminds us that the native peoples who inhabited the Valley or moved through it at any time in the past, were themselves never isolated, but were active participants in dynamic regional relations that helped shape their spiritual and material lives.”

From "The Great Valley Road of Virginia"

Early Native Americans used the fertile Valley of the Shenandoah for hunting, agriculture, and warfare. Frequent travel, trade, and migration throughout the Valley developed the trail network known as The Great Warrior Path.

Paleo-Indian Period, 15,000 to 11,000 Years Ago

The first people who came to the Valley after the Ice Age were characterized by a hunting lifestyle. Material evidence of their culture, the size of their group, and their settlement pattern establish that these people were highly mobile. Unfortunately, this mobility, the large areas over which they moved, their interaction with similar groups and limited evidence of material goods make it challenging to further identify these people.

Archaic Period, 11,000 to 3,000 Years Ago

Described as hunter-gatherers, cultures in this period incorporated more plants into their diet. Their migration was based on seasonal availability of plants and animals, as they moved between locations. This seasonal movement characterized hunter-gatherer society in and around the Shenandoah Valley. People lived in the lowlands, near the rivers, in the winter and spring, while moving to mountain-based camps in the summer/fall; over time, the pattern of these movements developed paths through and into the Valley. Adjacent paths were formed connecting to western lands in Ohio and across the Blue Ridge to tidewater Virginia. With regular access to both plant and animal sources, an improved diet allowed for population growth; this growth, along with increased competition for hunting grounds and access to plant-based foods, brought about confrontation between different groups.

Woodland Period, 3,500 to 500 Years Ago

Cultures in the Woodland period developed a more established lifestyle using domestically planted and grown food sources centered around fixed settlements composed of larger family groups. These settlements were located near creeks and rivers on the floodplains where the most fertile soil can be found. Their evolving diet is accompanied by locally caught fish and shellfish. Remains of these communities show large storage pits, up to 4 feet across; this indicates a growing community with surplus food production and the ability to feed large groups.

Late Woodland Period, 1,000 to 500 Years Ago

As we pass into the Late Woodland Period, more evidence is available to distinguish between specific cultures and their communities. The development of pottery survives as a record of these cultures and demonstrates the technology for food storage. The use of fragile pottery indicates the people are no longer dependent on mobility, like the hunter-gatherers were. With a similar shift away from a transportation-based lifestyle, these cultures are known for ceremonial secondary re-burial in large mounds. These mounds, up to 180 feet in diameter, were up to 12 feet high, and contained the reburied remains of up to 1500 individuals. The mounds appear to be spaced between villages and it is likely they were shared by related communities as a way to collectively gather together their dead. Unfortunately, with these burial mounds located in the floodplains, many were destroyed or plowed over by farmers accessing the fertile soil. The designations of the cultures discussed below are named for the location in which the culture was first identified by archaeologists: Albemarle and Page Counties in Virginia, and Keyser Farm (located in Page County). What these people called themselves, their languages and society are lost to history.

Albemarle Culture, 1,300 to 700 Years Ago (900-1300 CE)

This culture can be identified through evidence of fixed settlements with the presence of similar types of pottery. For these people, the pottery was made with coils of clay flattened and textured with a wooden paddle. The clay contains crushed rock added to help distribute the heat of firing and reduce cracking. Locally developed food crops include sunflowers, gourds, and goosefoot (a local type of quinoa). Villages were formed along rivers, with thirty to forty people living in five to seven houses. The area around Opequon Creek in the lower Shenandoah Valley contains nearly two hundred village sites, but not all sites were permeant villages or live in at same time. Villages might be relocated due to depleted soil, lack of firewood or to escape disease at a particular location.

Page Culture, 750 to 550 Years Ago (1250-1450 CE)

The Page Culture is believed to have migrated to the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania. At this time, global cooling and the Little Ice Age disrupted farming and the societies that relied on those crops, particularly corn/maize and beans. The Page people may have moved south looking for warmer climates or available wild food. With a lack of abundance of food, communities consisted of small groups, thirty to forty people, living five or six to a house. Villages were clustered near the confluence of rivers and streams. Page culture pottery is distinguished by their use of limestone as a key ingredient in the clay; limestone is a major geologic feature of the Valley and would have been readily available for use.

Keyser Culture, 550 to 350 Years Ago (1450-1650 CE)

Research indicates the Keyser people migrated from the Ohio Valley, through Maryland and into the Shenandoah. Their villages are near those of the Page people, at the confluence of rivers and large streams. Perhaps the Keysers drove off the Pages or maybe the Pages were allowed to join the Keyser community? The Keyser Culture featured large villages, with as many as 200 people, fed by corn, beans and squash. Large village pits indicate the ability to store food. Additionally, the villages were surrounded by large palisades or wooden fences, which imply a threat to the village from competing cultures. It is believed that increases in food production led to increases in population which led to increased conflict between groups. Keyser Culture is also indicated by extensive trade with neighboring groups from outside the Valley. Shells of saltwater mussels, used for food, for making beads and as an ingredient in pottery, show connections with cultures on the Virginia coast. Many arrowheads found in the Valley are made from quartz which would need to be imported into the region, as well. Conversely, artifacts suggest the Keyser people may have been exporters of deer hides from the grassy deer habitat of the Shenandoah to communities farther downstream. Regularly established trade routes would have been essential to connect the Keyser culture with these outside communities.

Contact Period (After 1600 CE)

Colonial written records focus primarily on contact with Native American groups in and around the settlements in coastal Virginia. Few records mention communities living in the Shenandoah Valley. Although the fate of these villages is unknown, several hypotheses exist. First, perhaps the Little Ice Age and temperature fluctuations depressed farming to the point that sedentary villages were no longer viable. Second, perhaps disease had spread into the Valley from adjacent Native groups via trade. Third, perhaps tribal warfare destroyed these communities, or otherwise forced them to migrate. And perhaps several of these factors worked together in combination.

By the 1600’s, the Iroquois had come to dominate the Valley at the expense of the established farming villages. By keeping the Valley empty, the Iroquois were able to use the region exclusively for hunting and fur trapping. What became known as the Great Warrior Path was used by the Iroquois during their attacks on the Cherokee and Catawba Tribes in the Carolinas. In the 1722 Treaty of Albany, the Iroquois and Virginia Governor Spotswood agreed to use the Blue Ridge Mountains as the dividing line between Virginia and Iroquois lands. However, tension escalated as settlers continued to push across the Blue Ridge and into the Shenandoah Valley. In 1744, the Iroquois sold their rights to the Valley and by 1768 sold all land claims between the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.

During the time of Colonial Settlement, there may have only been 8,000 Native Americans living in the Shenandoah Valley. However, the area between the English Colonies and the French-held Great Lakes Region was highly contested and resulted in dynamic transformation for the people who lived there. Disease, war, politics, and migration all played a role in altering the region and the networks that connected the people who lived, hunted, traded, and fought in and around the Shenandoah Valley.

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park

Last updated: September 21, 2022