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Lesson 4: Native Americans in Kentucky

Native Americans in Kentucky

  • Paleoindian Period: the period of time ranging nearly 12,000 years ago when the first Native Americans lived in Kentucky (10,000 B.C.to 8,000 B.C.)
  • Archaic Period: the longest period of Native-American life in Kentucky in which the climate became warmer and drier (8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C.)
  • Woodland Period: the period of Native-American life in which gardening increased and led to more sedentary  lifestyle (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 1000)
  • Late Prehistoric Period: the period in which corn-based farming flourished and led to an increase in population, larger villages, and trade (A.D. 1000 to 1750)



For many years, writers depicted Kentucky, the Great Meadows of Indian lore, as uninhabited prior to European settlement. They believed that the Indians considered the land sacred and lived elsewhere, coming to the region only to hunt and war. However, almost 3,000 years before Kentucky pioneers came face to face with such tribes as the Shawnee, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, the area had been inhabited by prehistoric Indians. The ancestors of these earliest Kentuckians may have come to the Western Hemisphere as early as 20,000 years ago by crossing a strip of land, now submerged beneath the Bering Straits, connecting the Asian and North American continents. They slowly drifted southward, arriving in Kentucky by 12,000 B.C. Over many years these early Indians developed four prehistoric traditions which archaeologists have designated as Paleo Indian (12,000-7500 B.C.), Archaic (7500-1500 B.C.), Woodland (1500 B.C.-900 A.D.), and Mississippian (900-1650 A.D.).



A nomadic people, the Paleo Indians used Clovis points (leaf-shaped projectile points—archaeologists prefer the term “projectile point” instead of arrowhead) to hunt big game animals like the mammoth, mastodon, and bison which thrived in the cool postglacial environment. While the early hunters did produce stone projectile points, their transient lifestyle kept them from making large quantities of tools and implements. No skeletal remains of Paleo Indians have been found in Kentucky.



By 7500 B.C., Kentucky’s Indian culture changed. Large game animals died out, and the Archaic Indians now depended on fishing and efficient gathering of wild foods as well as hunting. The white-tailed deer and the elk became the dominant game animals. Hunting skills improved with the use of the atlatl, a short wooden board which enabled the Indians to throw their spears farther than with their arms alone. Stone tools, ground to the desired shape, appeared. Artifacts such as grooved axes, conical and cylindrical pestles, bone awls, and cannel coal beads also have been found from this period. A unique feature of the Archaic period was the “hominy hole,” a particular type of depression worn in sandstone by grinding or pulverizing. Despite its name, the hominy hole was probably used for grinding up nuts or seed; corn (from which hominy is made) was not grown in Kentucky until the Woodland period. Shell (mussel) mound sites along the Green, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers indicate that the Indians returned to the same places year after year. Archaic Indian social groups were probably small, consisting of a few cooperating families. Their dead were buried with bodies flexed in round pits, and sometimes tools were included in the graves.

     archaic archaic


Beginning about 1500 B.C., people of the Woodland culture entered Kentucky. They occupied the area for about 600 years. Efficient hunters and gatherers, the Woodland Indians also participated in an intricate trade network to obtain such things as copper from Lake Superior, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, and conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico. They mined both Mammoth Cave and Salts Cave for gypsum and mirabilite, a salty seasoning. The Woodland people cultivated corn, sunflowers, giant ragweeds, and amaranth (pigweed), and they raised squash and gourds for containers rather than as a food source. The Woodland Indians buried their dead in conical and later flat or oval-shaped burial mounds, which were often 10 to 20 feet high; this practice resulted in their being called the Mound Builders by 19th-century observers. The remains of two distinct Woodland groups, the Adena (early Woodland) and the Hopewell (middle Woodland), have been found in northcentral Kentucky.





Extant records reveal neither what happened to the Mississippian way of life nor how long before the arrival of the white pioneers that Kentucky was without Indian inhabitants other than roaming bands of hunters and warriors. Probably a century elapsed, and undoubtedly many a battle was fought on Kentucky soil during the interval. Neither the southern Indians (the Cherokees and Chickasaws) nor the Shawnees from north of the Ohio River were strong enough to occupy and permanently hold the Great Meadows. However, the Shawnees seem to have made the greatest effort to live in Kentucky. In the early 18th century, there was a Shawnee settlement in Clark County called Eskippakithika and others in Greenup and Johnson counties. But for unknown reasons—perhaps a massive crop failure or widespread disease—most of the Indians who had lived in Kentucky disappeared before Europeans arrived in the state.



The last of the prehistoric peoples were the Mississippian Indians, who lived in western Kentucky from 900 to 1650 A.D. In the greater Mississippi Valley, these Indians had a well established social order and a full agricultural economy with corn, beans, squash, and tobacco as the principal crops. They hunted with bows and arrows; made pottery in effigy forms; and fashioned large chipped-stone knives, picks, and hoes. These Indians constructed permanent homes of woven branches and plastered mud and protected their villages with wooden palisades (walls made of tall posts) and a moat (wide ditch) outside the palisades. These features gave the villages much the same appearance as the early pioneer forts. Although the Mississippians buried their dead in small burial mounds or stone box graves, they built large flat-topped temple mounds as the ceremonial centers of their cities. Because of this construction design, they have been called the Temple Mound Builders.


(Information obtainged from: https://www.ket.org/education/resources/kentuckys-story/ )