The groups of people that inhabited the valley in the 17th and 18th centuries, were called Lenape, Oneida, Ottawa, and Wyandot. These tribes were no match for European diseases or colonists. An estimated one third to one half of their populations died, leaving villages weakened. Treaty after treaty added pressure for westward migration. Unable to defend their territories, these people sought refuge in the Ohio Country, present day northeast Ohio. Their stay was brief. The Ohio Country, coveted by Europeans for its land and by American Indians for its refuge, would be yet one more place where the battle for cultural integrity and existence would play out on this continent.
A Home Away from Home
When tribes seeking refuge arrived in the Ohio Country, they found relatively unoccupied land. The last permanent residents, the Whittlesey, had disappeared from the region in the early 1600s. Between the early 1600s and 1730, the valley had been used primarily as a transportation route for trade and hunting. The Cuyahoga Valley stirred back to life in the mid-1700s. Historic maps and oral histories indicate that the newly arriving American Indians settled throughout the Cuyahoga Valley. French missionaries note an Ottawa Village at the mouth of Tinkers Creek in Independence. A large Lenape camp, Old Cuyahoga Town, was just north of Portage Path in Akron. References mention an Ottawa village at Boston under the leadership of Chief Stigwanish and a Lenape village near Sand Run in Akron.
Supply and Demand
European desire for pelts brought traders and goods to the Ohio Country. The fur trade, established in the late 1660s, caused more American Indians to hunt in the valley and pulled tribes into a world market. Traders stationed at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) and Riviere au Boeuf (in northwest Pennsylvania) brought cloth, clothing, metal kettles, metal tools, and rifles into the valley. American Indians traded pelts, bark canoes, corn, berries, meat, fish, and labor. Especially prized, beaver pelts were made into European hats and coats. A 1755 map noted a trading post, known as the French House, along the Cuyahoga River near Boston. Early historians noted that in 1744 George Croghan set up a trading post at a Seneca village east of the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. According to historians, Croghan earned respect from local tribes for his fairness, affability, and ability to converse in Indian languages.
Shifting AlliancesThroughout the East and Midwest, American Indians were caught in a political tug-of-war. Forced to choose sides between the French and British in the 1750s French and Indian War and later between the British and Americans in the 1770s Revolutionary War, they shifted alliances based on who they considered to be the lesser evil. Their goal was to continue their trade networks while minimizing territorial loss. Located between key forts, Ohio became a battleground. Frontier warfare was bloody and destructive. All sides burned homes, destroyed supplies, massacred families, and harassed enemies. While no large battles occurred in the Cuyahoga Valley, inhabitants repeatedly took part in raids into Pennsylvania and Virginia. Indian captive James Smith described a group of warriors who left the valley to raid a Pennsylvania settlement: “I was grieved to think that some innocent persons would be murdered . . .” The warriors returned with four horses and two scalps.
Moravians on the Cuyahoga
The experiences of Moravian missionaries and their Lenape followers illustrate the complexities of American Indian life in the Cuyahoga Valley. Missionaries John Heckewelder and David Zeisberger had established three Christian mission villages—Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrunn, and Salem—along the Tuscarawas River about 75 miles south of the Cuyahoga Valley. A raid in 1781 by British-allied Wyandot Indians forced their removal to Sandusky. When a group of 150 returned home to Gnadenhutten to collect food, they were massacred by Pennsylvania militiamen in retaliation for attacks on settlers that they did not commit.
Treaties and Broken Promises
Treaty after treaty divested American Indians of their Ohio Country lands. John Heckewelder noted their greatest complaint: “. . . at treaties, they charged them, with injuries they had done to the Americans; while they [the Americans] neither said a word, nor would hear anything about injuries they had done to Indians!” American Indians forfeited all lands east of the Cuyahoga River when they signed the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. The result of a decisive loss to General Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers, near present day Maumee, Ohio, the treaty opened the Ohio Country to pioneers. In 1805 the United States government took the land west of the Cuyahoga River. Over the next 40 years, the United States government stole American Indian lands piece by piece.
Where is Home Today?
The Lenape have the most historic ties to the Cuyahoga Valley. Many of their descendents live on two reservations in Oklahoma, Anadarko and Bartlesville. The Lenape, known today as the Delaware, are recognized by the federal government as having ties to Ohio. They are not the only ones. The Seneca, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Miami are also federally recognized tribes.
Last updated: September 26, 2021