The First Hoosiers: Native-Americans Before Indiana
By Mary Giorgio
The first humans to arrive in Indiana were nomads. They wandered the forests and prairies in search of food, crossing large areas of land. These nomads settled into semi-permanent villages around 2000 B.C. Known as the Lake Archaic people, most villages were established near rivers. These early inhabitants of Indiana likely descended from the travelers who crossed a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska 30,000-15,000 years ago.
In Indiana, early indigenous tribes would find a hospitable home. Good fishing abounded. Hunting was plentiful. Forests were lush with wildlife. Eventually, those inhabitants began farming the land. Corn became a staple crop and continues to play a crucial role in Indiana agriculture today.
Some of the earliest named tribes to settle in Indiana were the Adena and Hopewell people. The Adena existed across Indiana and Ohio during the Early Woodland Period of history, roughly between 1000 BC and 200 BC. Rather than one centralized group, the Adena were a series of interconnected communities. They were potters and farmers. Their culture centered on the construction of mounds for ceremonial and burial purposes.
Over a period of about 500 years, the Adena evolved into what archaeologists call the Hopewell people. The Hopewell society continued to follow a model of interconnected, decentralized communities. They built a large, powerful trade network among other tribes. No evidence exists of the Hopewell society after 500 AD. Some archaeologists believe that they evolved into either the Miami or Shawnee tribes.
By the time the first French traders arrived in Indiana in the 1600s, Native American tribes had evolved greatly. The primary inhabitants that the French encountered were people of the Miami, and later Potawatomi, tribes. The Miami settlements were roughly located in the top third of the state, from the St. Joseph River region in Northwest Indiana to Lafayette and east to present-day Fort Wayne. The Miami tribes were members of the Algonquian language group. They included several distinct bands including the Wea and Piankahaw people.
The Miami eventually became one of the most influential bands of Native Americans in Indiana. Although they were most dominant in areas surrounding Lake Michigan, large villages existed around Fort Wayne and as far south as Vincennes. By the late 1700s, there were tens of thousands of Miami people living in Indiana.
The Potawatomi people migrated to Indiana by way of Michigan. Archaeologists have offered differing dates for the group’s arrival in Indiana, but by the mid-1700s, they had made their way down the Wabash River to present-day Kosciusko, Pulaski, and Fulton Counties. They befriended the French trappers and eventually fought with them against the British in the French & Indian War. The French, for their part, were friendly to Native American tribes. Missionaries sought to Christianize many native people and indoctrinate them to European culture. The French continued to be a dominant force in the area until their defeat in the French & Indian War in 1763.
Other Native American tribes gradually moved west into Indiana in response to the settlement of the eastern United States after 1700. These included the Delaware and Shawnee. The Delaware originated in the Chesapeake Bay Area, but migrated to Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early 1700s due to the influx of white settlers. By 1770, they were on the move again, settling in Indiana along the Ohio and White Rivers in present-day Hamilton, Madison, and Delaware counties. The Delaware had a reputation for being friendly towards their white neighbors and befriend many early settlers in the area.
The Shawnee also moved west from Ohio into Indiana. By the 1780s, they were present in Southern Indiana and began dispersing by way of the Wabash River, traveling north from Vincennes to establish villages near Fort Wayne. Others built villages around the White and Mississinewa Rivers. The most famous Shawnee village in Indiana was Prophetstown, just north of present-day Lafayette.
With the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, Congress opened large swaths of western land, including present-day Indiana, to settlement. The federal government began to force Native Americans further west after ceding land in treaties or in some cases, by force. The Treaty of Grenville in 1795 marked one of the earliest land cessions. Following the War of 1812, in which many Native American tribes sided with the British army, the pace of land cessions vastly increased.
Some tribes attempted to fight the encroachment of American settlers. The Miami people under Chief Little Turtle fought the American militia in the 1790s, but were defeated. The Shawnee organized many disparate tribes to fight the Americans under the leadership of the famed warrior Tecumseh. The movement lost considerable traction after their defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tecumseh was later killed while fighting with the British in the War of 1812. The Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818 forced many Native Americans living in Central Indiana, including the Delaware, Shawnee, and Potawatomi, to move west.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, requiring remaining Native Americans in certain states to move west. The Wea and Shawnee were the first to begin the journey westward. Most of the remaining Potawatomi tribes, led by Chief Menominee, resisted removal but were eventually forcibly driven west on the Trail of Death in 1838. Only the Pokagon band was granted special permission to remain on their lands.
Many Miami people also moved west of the Mississippi River at this time. Others were granted territorial reserves in Northern Indiana, but these, too, were eventually taken by the federal government in 1846. The only Miami to remain in Indiana were those who had become individual landowners. These individuals were allowed to remain on their private property in Miami, Wabash, Huntington, Grant, Blackford, and Jay counties.
By 1850, Native American populations in Indiana had virtually disappeared. Of the many tribes to influence the early history of Indiana, only the Miami retain a presence in Indiana today. While no reservations exist in the state, those Miami who remained on their private lands in the 1840s formed the basis for the survival of Miami culture in Indiana. The tribe maintains a formal headquarters in Peru, Indiana.
Today, one needn’t look far to find reminders of the Native American tribes that once called Indiana home. Across the state, museums, battlegrounds, and historical societies tell the story of those early cultures. In Lafayette, Indiana, Shawnee history is interpreted at Prophetstown State Park. Terre Haute is home to a museum dedicated to Native American culture and artifacts. The Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis displays visual arts created by many indigenous tribes. At Mounds State Park in Anderson, visitors can see the remaining ceremonial mounds created by early Woodland people. These and many other sites statewide offer a glimpse into the lives and culture of the state’s earliest human inhabitants.