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A Shawnee cooking pot (ca. 1500 AD)

A Shawnee cooking pot (ca. 1500 AD)

The Shawnee people probably first suffered from contact with European explorers and traders shortly after 1500 AD. That’s when they caught measles from their Iroquois and Mississippian neighbors. Many Shawnee died. There were fewer Shawnee people than there had been before. Shawnee people kept on living in villages, but the villages seem to have been smaller. And some people may have returned to gathering instead of farming. People sometimes left their villages in the wintertime to live in smaller groups. Small groups of just one or two families could find food and wood for fires more easily. But by 1550 the Shawnee were trading with their neighbors to get European glass beads and ironcopper, and brass tools.

Trade beads made in Venice in the 1600s and traded in North America

Trade beads made in Venice in the 1600s and traded in North America

Shawnee people first actually met European explorers and trappers about 1614 AD. That’s when white traders first began to move beyond the Atlantic coast further inland.

In the 1650s, the Iroquois, using guns they got from the Dutch, began to invade Shawnee land (modern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, and Kentucky). Apparently the Shawnee lost these battles. Many Shawnee left their land and migrated south and west.

But that wasn’t the end of the Shawnee. Soon many Iroquois also died of smallpox. So by the 1670s the Shawnee were able to get their land back again. Shawnee met English settlers around Charles Town in 1674, and formed an alliance with them. In 1700 there were Shawnee living in villages spread out from Georgia in the south to modern Illinois. At this time the Shawnee were very powerful. They organized themselves and other native people to resist the European settlers.

Shawnee ruler Tecumseh

Shawnee ruler Tecumseh

By the 1730s, however, things were going worse again. British settlers were moving into Shawnee land. In 1753, the western Shawnee sent messengers inviting the Virginia Shawnee to leave Virginia to white people and come join them in Ohio, and soon there were no more Shawnee in Virginia. They joined the Ohio Shawnee, and together they sided with the French in the wars between the British and the French over the Midwest.

By 1768, with the French losing, American colonists began pouring over the mountains into Ohio, displacing many Shawnee. In the Revolutionary War, therefore, the Shawnee took the side of the British, hoping to push back the American settlers. After the war, once again on the losing side, the Shawnee lost a lot of their land to the United States, and many moved even further west to Missouri, where people called them the “Absentee Shawnee”.

In 1809, as more settlers wanted to get free land in the West, the United States coerced the Shawnee into giving up most of Indiana in exchange for money. The Shawnee leader Tecumseh, seeing where this was going, tried to unite all the Native Americans of the Midwest to fight back. He made an alliance with the British. But when Tecumseh himself was killed in battle in 1813, his resistance movement ended.

At this point, many Absentee Shawnee left Missouri to settle in Spanish Texas. When Texas became independent of Spain, Texans threw out the Absentee Shawnee, who moved north to Oklahoma. The United States gradually forced other Shawnee people out of Ohio and Indiana. They had to move to Indian Territory in Kansas. These Kansas Shawnee moved south from Kansas to Oklahoma in the 1860s after settlers moved onto their land while they were away fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Today most Shawnee still live in Oklahoma, on trust lands (like reservations). Many Shawnee run casinos.

More about Shawnee neighbors: the Cherokee

Bibliography and further reading about the Shawnee:


Early Shawnee history
Cherokee history
Mississippian history
American history home