The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820
burgundy border icon: Encountering the american west burgundy border burgundy border icon: Contested lands burgundy border icon: peoples and migrations burgundy border icon: Empires and politics burgundy border icon: Western culture burgundy border icon: Constructing a western past burgundy border
Contested Lands
-- Nature's West
-- Western Explorations
-- Native Encounters
-- Ancient Mysteries
Hero of the Wabash cropped image
The first explorations of the trans-Appalachian West by European Americans came in the late seventeenth century. Virginia Colonel Abram Wood made the earliest recorded visit to what would become Kentucky in 1654. At that time and for more than a century that followed, France claimed the entire region to the west of the Appalachians.

French outposts were established on the Wabash, Illinois, Mississippi and other western rivers. In 1729, French traders and groups of Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo established Lower Shawneetown in Ohio. French hegemony remained in place until 1763, when France's defeat in the French and Indian War brought the whole vast western territory into British hands.

Early descriptions of the trans-Appalachian West conveyed the astonishing richness of the natural landscape and the life it supported.

Western explorers and the information they collected were of immediate use to American government officials and land development companies, but their reports were also an important factor in developing European interest in the West. English and French editions of books describing travels in the West conveyed the wonder and promise of the new territory and encouraged European observers to follow Americans westward over the mountains.

Nature's West
The birds of AmericaBack to Top

Early European American travelers west of the Appalachians were fascinated by the diversity of western plant and animal species. Oaks, walnuts, hickories, maples, and elms were present in abundance, as were tulip trees, Kentucky coffee trees, honey locusts, persimmons, and sumacs. Many of the larger trees could grow to spectacular size. George Washington, on a trip to the Ohio valley, noted a huge sycamore tree at the mouth of the Kanawha River that was forty-five feet in circumference.

  • A memoir on the discovery of certain bones of a quadruped of the clawed kind in the western parts of Virginia

  • Ornithological biography
  • The variety of western wildlife was equally impressive. Rivers held schools of carp, catfish, perch, and sturgeon. Flocks of tens of thousands of passenger pigeons darkened the sky overhead. Bison roamed in great herds, and bears, wolves, and wildcats flourished in the woods and ravines.

    Hunters had no difficulty stalking these and other native game including turkeys, geese, elk, deer, and squirrels. After a hunting trip to the West in 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker reported, "We killed in the journey 13 buffaloes, 8 elks, 53 bears, 20 deers, 4 wild geese, and about 150 wild turkeys, besides small game. We might have killed 3 times as much meat if we had wanted it."

    Among the earliest travelers to the West were professional and amateur scientists interested in collecting and cataloging specimens of plants and animals and monitoring patterns of weather and climate.

    Ornithologist Alexander Wilson and his contemporary John James Audubon focused on collecting, describing, and depicting the rich variety of western bird life, including species not seen on the eastern seaboard.

    Some observers like Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Williams were absorbed by the dramatic natural landscape and the atmospheric and environmental conditions it produced. Other students of the West were scientists like Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, professor of botany and natural science at Transylvania University, who recorded animal life of all types and devoted particular attention to newly discovered varieties of fish observed in western waters.

    Western Explorations
    Letter from Thomas WalkerBack to Top

    Although the British royal proclamation of 1763 forbade any settlement west of the crest of the Appalachians, by the mid-eighteenth century explorers and settlers had already begun to push deeper into the interior.

  • A map of the United States of America : with part of the adjoining provinces from the latest authorities

  • The discovery, settlement, and present state of Kentucke
  • In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, traveling on behalf of the Loyal Land Company of Virginia, discovered Cumberland Gap. That same year, the owners of the Ohio Company commissioned Christopher Gist to explore their western lands; after traveling down the Ohio River, Gist explored eastern Kentucky and crossed the mountains into the Carolinas.

    Daniel Boone first visited Kentucky in 1767, and he returned to Kentucky in 1769 with a party of hunters led by John Finley for a two-year exploration of the region.

    By the time Simon Kenton entered northern Kentucky in 1771, the scattered parties of traders, surveyors, and settlers coming westward from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina were becoming a steady stream.

    Anglo-Americans looking westward beyond the Blue Ridge imagined it to be a vast territory largely unoccupied and freely available for the taking

    Native Encounters
    History of the Indian TribesBack to Top

    By 1690, may of the Native American peoples in the eastern part of the region had been driven out by the Iroquois and their allies. A scattering of groups had returned, but their communities were concentrated in a few locations along river lowlands, and they did not maintain close connections with each other.

  • The history of the American Indians

  • Letter from William Henry Harrison to Charles Jouett
  • At the time of initial European American settlement, the principal peoples living in the upper Ohio River valley were the Shawnee and the Delaware. As Native Americans were displaced from traditional lands further to the east, they migrated into the western territory and intermingled with existing populations, resulting in the overlapping presence of Miami, Wyandots, Potawatomi, Wea, and Piankashaw.

    Most accounts of Native American life and culture were written by European Americans while responding to situations of intense danger or brutal conflict: narratives of escaped captives, military reports on expeditions and battles, or letters and stories of settlers describing bloody attacks.

    Even observers who were more thoughtful and sympathetic had difficulty comprehending the character of Native American peoples or interpreting their cultures as anything but a primitive survival doomed to fall before the advance of civilization. Surviving European American texts and documents present only discontinuous glimpses of indigenous cultures that were diminished and dispersed before they could be fully understood.

    Ancient Mysteries
    Ancient MonumentsBack to Top

    When European Americans first entered the western country, they were intrigued and puzzled by numerous mounds and earthworks found in abundance along rivers and highlands. As early as 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker noted earthworks at the head of the Cumberland River in Kentucky.

  • Ancient history, or, Annals of Kentucky

  • Farther observations on the discovery of America
  • Clusters of earthen mounds were discovered throughout the Ohio River Valley and Kentucky, at locations such as Grave Creek in what is now West Virginia and at the site of Marietta on the Ohio.

    Larger and more elaborate mound complexes were discovered further west and south, some of the most notable on the Ohio near the Wabash and on the Mississippi near its confluence with the Missouri. In some places, mummified human remains and other artifacts of ancient life were uncovered.

    The Native American peoples living near these formations had not built them, and European Americans with dismissive racist assumptions found it impossible to believe that any immediate forbearers of the indigenous tribes could have constructed such impressive complexes.

    A variety of imaginative theories were advanced to identify the mysterious "mound builders" who had created the earthforms. Some observers claimed that they had been constructed by the lost tribes of Israel or by Tartars or Greeks. Some saw clear ties to the culture of the Welsh, Vikings, Hindus, or Phoenicians.

    Whatever was made of their origin, most of the mounds were not considered sufficiently valuable to be preserved for more careful study. Farmers routinely leveled mounds while plowing their fields, and rectilinear patterns of urban streets were surveyed directly through rather than around the larger earthworks.

    Encountering the First American West


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