Lighting Up West Virginia’s Native American Past After Suppression

11,000 people in WV claim Native American ancestry — Couldn’t own property until 1960s

In Moundsville, Native Americans are present through the stories of the Adena people and the mound they built over two thousand years ago. We couldn’t find anybody in town with Native American ancestry to interview, but in West Virginia, there are still some 11,000 people who claim ancestry, out of a population of 1.8 million.

In the 18th century, white settlers and explorers, including George Washington, found a land of rivers and valleys dotted with settlements, sometimes villages in the thousands, and tribes that included, among others, the Shawnee, Mingo, Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca and Mohawk. Humans had lived in Appalachia for over ten thousand years, forming some of the oldest settlements on the continent after trekking from Asia. The town of Wheeling’s name comes from a Delaware word that means “place of the skull.” Famously, white settlers battled Native Americans in and around the Ohio Valley. The Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774, “eliminated Native Americans as a force on the frontier for the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, clearing the way for peaceful settlement of the region,” notes the state’s official history.

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In the 19th century, as the United States of America thundered westward, the government forced Native Americans to relocate to reservations outside West Virginia, or assimilate and list themselves as “white” or “colored”, a process that continued into the 1950s. We talked to people who grew up next to Cherokees born in the 19th century, segregated in the same part of town as African-Americans. It wasn’t until Civil Rights legislation was passed in the 1960s that Native Americans could own property in the state.

Although West Virginia was founded in 1863 during the Civil War as, essentially, Virginia without slavery, it was still segregated, “and Indians didn’t legally exist,” Wayne Appleton, head of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia, told me. “When people raised the question of why some people in the state have darker skin, the standard answer was, well, we’re Portuguese, because that made them white.” Appleton, a Charleston-based chemist who also goes by the name “Chief Grey Owl”, has made it his life’s work to resurrect the heritage of Native Americans in the state.

Federal and state leaders did all kinds of things to obscure the history of previous human inhabitants. They spread rumors that somebody else had built burial mounds. Curriculums emphasized that West Virginia had been empty, or a “hunting ground”, before white settlers moved in, a line we heard echoed in interviews for the film. It’s comforting for white Americans to think that their ancestors didn’t displace anybody in settling this vast, diverse land.

In the last few decades, the light of truth has been shining through in parts. In 1996, West Virginia’s state senate passed a resolution recognizing Appleton’s group, the AAIWV, and affirming that “American Indians were the original inhabitants of the lands that now comprise the United States of America and West Virginia.” The resolution noted that “concepts such as the freedom of speech and the separation of powers in government, all of which were found in the political systems of various American Indian nations, influenced the formation of the government of the United States of America.”

John W. Miller


  1. My great grand mother was a cherokee Indian from Martinsburg W.Va and moved after marriage to Maryland

  2. Why did you get so much information wrong? Native Americans were not segregated in a similar fashion to African Americans nor is there merely 11,000 claiming Native American ancestry in the state (NA ancestry =/= Native American).

    I don’t know where to begin where your disinformation about misinformation. There was no attempt by government leaders to “obscure the history of previous human inhabitants.” The general (though not specific) identity of the mound builders as Native Americans were debated and settled long before there were official curriculums being established nor were they lying that West Virginia was less inhabited area compared to other states (as it is today).

    You also misrepresent what traders, soldiers, hunters and non-Native American inhabitants described of the area of it being vastly unbroken and uninhabited wilderness in many parts. Most of the tribes you listed barely lived within the peripheries of West Virginia. Appalachia is known for the lack of diversity in number of tribes compared to lower elevation areas like Virginia or Indiana, West Virginia is no exception.

    “It’s comforting for white Americans to think that their ancestors didn’t displace anybody in settling this vast, diverse land.”

    It is comforting because it’s true. If you can not conceive various settlement patterns and the individuality of people of the past you should not make such grand statements.

  3. The trail of tears did not include removal from western Virginia (including West Virginia) or Eastern Kentucky. Much of West Virginia was not mapped until much later than other parts of America and therefore the indigenous population was never fully ascertained. The most likely largest group would be the Siouan and Mingo tribal groups. The Shawnee and Cherokee being seasonal guests of the area and the Iroquois were further to the north.

  4. Additionally, St Claire’s defeat (aka the battle with no name) is the big last battle between native Americans and it occurred in 1791 and resulted in the complete destruction of the USA military at the time. When it came time to remove natives from western Virginia and eastern Kentucky at the orders of President Andrew Jackson, the military refused as the terrain was too rough.

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