Reflecting on Ohio's Native American History

From mound-building cultures all the way to the final American Indian tribes removed from the area, Northwest Ohio holds a rich and tragic Indigenous history. While Native American histories are overlooked and often intentionally forgotten all across the country, Northwest Ohio is particularly seldom associated with native identity and stories, creating a gap in public memory and local history that emphasizes comfortable narratives over complex and harsh realities.

“Americans invented Indians and forced Indians to live with the consequences of this invention.” - Richard White

On October 15, 2022, a clear, sunny day on the banks of the Maumee River, Toledo, Ohio celebrated the completion of the largest mural in America. A creative partnership between a nonprofit, local artists and backers, a paint manufacturer and an international grain processing corporation, the project involved the painting of 28 grain silos overlooking the Maumee River on the city’s East Side — requiring 2,864 gallons of paint and over a year to complete.

The subject? “The original agriculturists,” represented by a Native American elder, mother and child — more specifically, representatives from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Shawnee and Dakota — next to a glorious bloom of sunflowers on a sky blue backdrop. The message conveys hope for the city of Toledo, a grandiose homage that attempts to reposition the agricultural history of this region (and perhaps also that of America as a whole) to a much earlier time of human settlement on the continent.

Nestled in the heart of a breadbasket state home to roughly 75,000 farms, the mammoth 135-feet-tall grain silos — owned and operated by the Archer-Daniels-Midland Company (ADM) — are epochal reminders of a region-wide identity in industrial agriculture.

Much closer to the ground, however, sits a rock only a few feet tall, telling a heavier prologue that deepens and contextualizes this celebration of America’s story of coexistence, promise and industry — a much smaller but no less significant monument that the mural’s artist Gabe Gault and producer and artist manager Justin McCormack say was confirmation for the artistic endeavor…

On a rainy November day in 1941 on the very same riverbanks decades prior, the Fort Industry Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated the site of an ancient fort at the corner of Miami and Hathaway Street (then Fort Street) with a four-ton boulder and a bronze plaque. The dedication speech by a Mrs. Breitenwischer that day speaks to the American indigenous civilization that, even erased from sight, persists into the living present: “Nothing is really ended until it is forgotten. Whatever is kept in memory still endures.”

The Maumee River serves as the backdrop for the historical marker freshly dedicated by the Fort Industry Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the corner of Miami Street and Hathaway Street, originally (and fittingly) Fort Street, just south of Fassett Street in East Toledo. Image courtesy of “East of the Maumee River: A pictorial history of East Toledo, Oregon, & other communities east of the river” by Larry R. Michaels and Ronald J. Mauter.
Indian Fort Marker, Miami Street, 1991. “After 50 years as seen here, the stone marker had become dwarfed by the huge grain elevators along Miami Street. The fort originally stood on a bluff above a bend in the river and had ditches around four-foot high earthworks. Any remains of the fort were plowed underground by pioneer farmers in the 1800s, and even the early Fort Street has had its name changed to Hathaway.” Image courtesy of “East of the Maumee River: A pictorial history of East Toledo, Oregon, & other communities east of the river” by Larry R. Michaels and Ronald J. Mauter.
Smithsonian drawing of ancient defensive earthwork along the banks of the Maumee at Fassett Street. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress (Davis, E. H. , Contributor, and E. G Squier. Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1848. Pdf.)

Their monumental declaration would soon be overshadowed — quite literally — by huge grain elevators.  

To really appreciate the new mural and the importance of the indigenous story in our region, one has to “look down” — for the marker, and what the mural stands for, asks us to imagine this bend in the river, and a fort above it, which has been largely obliterated from modern memory.

“One of the things that I say about Indian history is just look down. Look down at your feet, look down at where you stand, and who was there before you? Who's there now?” Dr. Fred Hoxie, professor emeritus at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, said.

An artist’s rendering of Toledo’s Maumee shoreline. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress (Gunckel, John E. The early history of the Maumee Valley. [Toledo, Ohio, Press of H. M. Schmit, 1913] Image.)

This recorded story begins in the early 1600s on a rocky bluff nearly three stories above the Maumee River, where one might be just able to make out the outlines of a fortified earthwork. Likely built and used by the native Erie people who resided in the area before 1665, the fort was estimated to be nearly three acres in area, the “most pretentious” of the indigenous earthworks that could be found in the Northwest Ohio region. It consisted of a system of mounds and moats, palisades and structural walls. Its strategic location at the bend of the Maumee made for a superior defensive view down the river from surprise enemy attacks.

And it wasn’t the only one: Early surveyors documented “two prehistoric semi-circular earthworks, presumably for stockades … one at the intersection of Clayton and Oliver Streets on the south bank of Swan Creek, and the other at Fassett and Fort Streets on the right bank of the Maumee. A third work of this character was recorded … as existing at Eagle Point about two miles up the river from the Fassett Street work,” according to a 1930 edition of Northwest Ohio Quarterly.

As far as historians can tell, the influx of Iroquois tribes moving west through the area led to the fort’s destruction in the 1650s. When French settlers came upon to “claim” the area in 1669, this swamp-laden territory cut through with preexisting riverside fortresses was by no means a virgin land but one already laden with victories and losses, pride, culture and its own set of political histories.

Today, there are 574 federally recognized tribes of Native Americans and approximately 66 state-recognized tribes in the United States, but also many other recognized and unrecognized tribes across North America — or Turtle Island, as it is known in many tribal traditions. Ohio is one of 10 states in the U.S. that have no federally recognized or state-recognized tribes at all living within their borders.

In crafting this larger-than-life mural — done in collaboration also with the Myaamia Center, one of Gault’s goals was to not only celebrate and complexify Ohio’s agricultural identity, but also bring to the fore — quite literally — Native American figures over the Ohio landscape.

“When it's right in front of you on a certain scale, it says something that you just can't get through a phone screen or TV screen,” Gault said. “On a phone, it’s so easy to scroll past something, and in real life, you gotta just take it for its value up front.”

Unfortunately, much of that role has been obfuscated by how we’ve chosen to tell and retell our histories. Even in regions where historic events significant not only to Native American history but to state and national history, as well, are remembered, reenacted and even celebrated — think the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Maumee, for example — information is often focused on the events, rather than the people who participated in them.

“They are people with histories who have been a part of North America for tens of thousands of years and who have interacted and been a part of what's now the United States since its inception. And that's a hard thing for people to get their heads on sometimes,” Hoxie said.

The region we now know as the state of Ohio, and more specifically the Northwest Ohio region, has a place in both the broader history of Native Americans in the U.S. and in the more specific histories of the many indigenous peoples who have called the region home over the years. Through recognizing and learning about this history, we can begin to dispel some of those misconceptions that make it difficult to see the true complexity of American Indian history in our own hometowns.

“The Midwest is not just a place in the map; it's also a set of ideas,” Dr. Doug Kiel, Northwestern University historian and Oneida Nation citizen, said. “There's a lot of mythologies about what the Midwest is, and it's just too kind and gentle a place for most people to accommodate moments of vicious and violent colonialism.”

With this as our foreground, we delve into the known sliver of the history of our region to give context to our present-day endeavors and celebrations, and to reconsider what we think of as the “beginning” of the home we today call Ohio.

Illustration of Ohio Earthworks from William Cullen Bryant and Sydney Howard Gay's "A Popular History of the United States."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The story of Ohio begins before European contact and colonization, in a time period historians now call the “pre-contact” era. This term replaced the outdated term “prehistoric” that many historical sources use to describe this period of time, due to the fact that it was before any recorded history that scholars had access to. Ultimately, though, the newer term battles one of those persistent misconceptions about American Indians: that they only exist in the past or are archaic or obsolete.

This pre-contact period is often divided into several smaller eras, beginning with the Paleo-Indian, followed by the Archaic, Woodland and Late Prehistoric (sometimes called Mississippian) eras. While various Native American groups lived in the Ohio region throughout each of these time periods, the tribes of the Woodland era are set apart by their enormous construction projects in the form of large burial mounds and elaborate earthworks built into the land, as documented in Indian Mounds of the Middle Ohio Valley by Susan L. Woodward and Jerry N. McDonald. Within the Woodland period, further divisions can be made between people of the Adena and Hopewell eras, many of whom lived in the southern half of the land we now call Ohio.

“Studying the monumental earthworks of our ancestors…gives us a glimpse into how sophisticated, technologically advanced and smart they were, how cohesive they were in their activities, how they were able to engage in community led grassroots activities, such as building the earthworks,” Dr. John Low, associate professor at Ohio State University, where he is also the director of the Newark Earthworks Center, and member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, said.

Overhead view of Newark Earthworks in Newark and Heath, Ohio. Image courtesy of Timothy E. Black/Newark Earthworks Center via Newark Advocate.
Overhead view of Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio. Image courtesy of the Archaeological Conservancy.

These structures appear to have ceremonial purposes and the earthworks are also notable for their astronomical designs, often featuring elements that track the movements of the Sun and Moon. Both the mounds and earthworks are also impressive for their sheer size and the construction that must have gone into them. Later, the Late Prehistoric period brought about Fort Ancient-era tribes who, along with the Adena, built the famous Serpent Mound site in Peebles, OH. Along with the Adena and Hopewell tribes, the Fort Ancient tribes were named and identified by settlers, and were not actually called this by their members. Even this recognition, though, was hard-won.

Many of the white colonists believed that the indigenous Americans they encountered were not capable of building such structures, speculating that a missing civilization of white people or of Phoenicians must have built the structures, according to Low. It would take years until proof that the Adena- and Hopewell-era cultures were American Indian would be widely accepted. Today, similar beliefs about the inability of certain cultures to build large, complex structures unfortunately persist, mostly in reference to indigenous tribes in the Americas and the Ancient Egyptians.

1860 Map of Newark Earthworks. Image courtesy of Ohio History Connection.
Mound Cemetery at Marietta Earthworks. Image courtesy of Washington County CVB.

There is evidence that Adena-, Hopewell- and Fort Ancient-era tribes were the ancestors of tribes encountered by European settlers in the Midwest, including the Potawatomi, the Shawnee and the Wyandot, Low said. Many tribes in the Ohio region upon the arrival of European settlers had also migrated relatively recently from the east and the north (modern-day Canada) due to a combination of colonization and the encroaching Iroquois Confederacy, a group of American Indian tribes claiming land in the north at the time.

This new group of Ohioan tribes includes the Kickapoo, Erie, Shawnee, Lenape/Delaware, Miami/Myaamia, Ottawa/Odawa, Seneca, Wyandot, Ojibwa/Chippewa, Eel River, Kaskaskia, Iroquois, Munsee, Piankashaw, Sauk and Wea tribes. Multiple sources differ in how these tribes are divided, so some of these categories may overlap or be redundant.

John Gast's 1872 painting American Progress is an iconic image of American colonization and Manifest Destiny.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The movement of these new tribes to the region that would become the state of Ohio was one of the early effects of European contact with North America. These colonization efforts would also lead to the French (and, later, the British and the American settlers) to move into the Ohio River Valley region. This progression of colonial presence in the area had devastating and irreversible effects on the indigenous peoples living in Ohio. 

In advance of the colonists, though, new diseases brought to the continent swept across the Midwest, with some estimates predicting that as many as 80% to 95% of Native Americans died of disease in an event often called the Great Dying or the Great Die-Off.

“A lot of the knowledge about who was here was lost because of the Great Die-Off,” Low said. “Because of primarily disease, but also conflict, impoverishment, diaspora, we had that 95% die-off of native people after Europeans arrived here.”

When the French occupied the territory now known as Ohio, Low said, they were more interested in establishing a fur trade in the area and converting American Indians to Christianity than in ensuring they could keep the land for themselves. French goods made their way into indigenous communities, establishing a reliance on everything from iron tools to guns to alcohol. In his book The Middle Ground, Richard White outlines the French “pays d’en haut” (the Great Lakes region that the French occupied) as a place where indigenous and French identities started to mix and coexist.

1777 Cartouche of Canadian fur traders by William Faden. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

In 1998, a group of international scholars gathered in Bowling Green State University to delineate a consensus for the series of conflicts that we now know as the Sixty Years’ War, encompassing the French and Indian War, the War of 1812 and several wars fought in the American Midwest in between. Framing this series of conflicts in such a way places the American Midwest at the center of its own colonial narrative that is often lost in favor of stories of East Coast settlement. The Sixty Years’ War also highlights the shifting nature of history and the need to learn and relearn it as time passes

Painting of British General Edward Braddock marching on Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War. Image courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica.

From 1754-1763, the French and Indian War pitted the French against the British in the American Midwest, and the Native Americans in the region were left to choose a side. Many tribes decided that the French were preferable to the British in controlling the area, and provided them with support. Ultimately, though, the British defeated the French and gained control of the former pays d’en haut land in the Midwest and Canada.

“The British came in and were a little heavier handed. They wanted to build forts. They wanted to have a military presence. They wanted to sort of order us around. They wanted us to be subservient to them and their king, that sort of thing. But still, the British were not intent on pushing us off our territory,” Low said.

Engraving of the Gnadenhuten Massacre featured in Henry Howe's 1852 book, "Historical Collections of the Great West."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When the American settlers began their revolution against the British Empire in 1765, the Native Americans in the Midwest once again chose between the two sides of a major colonial conflict. Again, most tribes chose to side with the relative stability of the existing colonial power over the new encroachers. In 1782, wrongful suspicion that the neutral Christian Indians at the Moravian missionary town Gnadenhutten were kidnapping Americans during the war led to a massacre committed by US troops. Two survivors were left after the killing of 96 men, women and children in one of the few military actions in Ohio during the American Revolution. Ultimately, the victory of the American settlers meant problems for the tribes in the area, as this new power was interested in fertile land and westward expansion.

The area identified by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that would eventually become part of the U.S.

By 1787, the U.S. government had continued to chip away at previously established boundaries by announcing their intention to move west. That year, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in which the country delineated the Northwest Territory, made up of the modern-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota and declared the region a U.S. territory that would soon become new states.

A number of treaties allowed American settlers to push northwest with the promise that the latest border on American settlement would remain. These included treaties signed at Fort McIntosh, Fort Finney and Fort Harmar. Beginning with the breaking of the Ohio River as a border, tribes in the area were pushed toward the Great Black Swamp region little by little. 

Multiple historians that I spoke to mentioned the importance of these treaties and the ones that followed for present-day Ohioans.

“What treaty allowed me to live here in this community? And I think that's an important place for people to begin. First, whose land was this? And then how did this happen? How did I get the right to be here? What treaty facilitated this? That's a treaty you're part of,” Kiel said.

The first page of a treaty between the Shawnee and the US, signed on January 31, 1786,. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“These are documents signed by the President of the United States. They are ratified by the Senate. These are legal documents. So, I think it's helpful for people to understand treaties, what they are, what's in them, how they were crafted, and, of course, they vary in different parts of the country, and so on,” Hoxie said.

Several conflicts in the Sixty Years’ War involved direct conflict between Native Americans and settlers, including Pontiac’s War, Lord Dunmore’s War and the Northwest Indian War. Hostilities in this third war began in 1786 after the eroding effects of treaties increased anxieties among the area tribes and as both settlers and indigenous people ignored previous treaty lines. Several tribes formed the Northwestern Confederacy to combat the U.S. in this war, including the Cherokee, Huron, Shawnee, Delaware, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Twitchee, the Five Nations tribes and the Wabash Confederation.

Map of the Battle of Wabash, where Little Turtle (Michikinikwa) led indigenous forces to defeat U.S. General St. Clair's army. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Early on, the war effort went relatively well for the Native American side, as the U.S. Army suffered major losses under the leadership of Josiah Harmar and, later, Arthur St. Clair. In the wake of these losses, President George Washington increased pressure on the Native Americans in Ohio Country by appointing General Anthony Wayne to the war effort in order to push settlement further into modern-day Ohio. Major figures on the Native American side during this conflict included the Miami Little Turtle (Michikinikwa), the Shawnee Blue Jacket (Weyapiersenwah) and the Wyandot Tarhe.

1817 print portrait of Tarhe. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Statue of Little Turtle (Michikinikwa) by Doug Hyde at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Anthony Wayne Memorial statue in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Image courtesy of General "Mad" Anthony Wayne Organization.

Many people in modern-day Northwest Ohio are familiar with the name Anthony Wayne. From Anthony Wayne High School and the Anthony Wayne Trail to the statue of Anthony Wayne at the Fallen Timbers Memorial in Maumee, his status as a local hero remains relatively unquestioned.

Anthony Wayne is most famous for his participation in the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, where the Northwestern Confederacy made its last stand to defend the land of several local tribes from the American military. Under Wayne, the American Army became better organized and prepared to fight the Native American forces.

Wayne’s forces won out in the end of a grueling battle that took place on August 20, 1794. To this day, the site of the Battle of Fallen Timbers stands, complete with a memorial that, since 1935, has commemorated the 33 soldiers on the American side of the conflict who died in the battle. Nearly sixty years later, in 1994, a memorial to the approximately 66 American Indians who died defending their land was added, as well.

In 1795, one year after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, U.S. officials and indigenous tribal representatives signed the Treaty of Greenville, which would be the beginning of the end for most American Indians in Ohio. The treaty severely limited the space in what is now Ohio for Native Americans to live, and allowed American settlers to buy much of the land once occupied by indigenous peoples. Northwest Ohio was the last place in the modern-day state where Native Americans could live on their own land.

American Indian territory in Ohio following the Treaty of Greenville.

Around the turn of the century, even greater changes came to the region. In 1803, Ohio became an official U.S. state, and the land was more open than ever before for white settlement. This stands in stark opposition to the 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt, in which Americans promised the Delawares future representation in the federal government and their own Native American state on their own land.

As the Americans were advancing, though, a new confederacy was forming, and the final attempt to win back Native American land rights in Ohio was beginning. Tecumseh, a Shawnee warrior who fought at Fallen Timbers, and his brother Tenskwatawa, an influential prophet, began to form their own confederacy in 1808, based in Prophetstown, Indiana (in modern-day Tippecanoe County).

Portrait of Tecumseh by Owen Staples. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
1830 portrait of Tenskwatawa by George Catlin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tecumseh held a line that may seem extremist to us today, but that certainly shows the persistence of many Native Americans in the face of land theft and lapsed treaties. He believed that the American Indian tribes in the area shared collective ownership of their land and that any individual who sold their land to white settlers would be a traitor selling something that did not belong to them. This philosophy was supplemented by Tenskwatawa’s spiritual movement, which espoused the belief that the Great Spirit would help the Native Americans send away the white settlers if they could stop their reliance on European goods.

The Battle of Tippecanoe and destruction of Prophetstown depicted in an 1889 lithograph published by Kurz & Allison. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tecumseh frequently went on mission trips to gather members of his new confederacy. In 1811, while he was away missionizing, his brother was left to look after Prophetstown. The governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, marched troops up to the confederacy hub, and Tenskwatawa sent out an attack against the gathering troops, despite Tecumseh’s warnings. The resulting battle ended with the burning of Prophetstown, leaving the confederacy on its last legs.

Tecumseh's death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 depicted in a c. 1857 engraving by William Wellstood and Alonzo Chappel published by Johnson, Fry & Co.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Just as in the previous stages of the Sixty Years’ War, the American Indians in Northwest Ohio carefully used diplomacy with colonial powers in the War of 1812 to ensure their own survival. For Tecumseh and the remains of his confederacy, this meant taking one last stand with the British against the Americans. This final resistance, however, was ill-fated, as Tecumseh would eventually die at the Battle of the Thames in Moraviantown, Canada. With his death, the dream of pan-Indian unity and Native American resistance in the American Midwest ended.

Following the War of 1812, the 1830 Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson, allowed for the removal of American Indians to the west of the Mississippi River. Most notably, this act led to the famous Trail of Tears, which was accompanied by many other trails of tears, including tribes being removed from Ohio. This process began with the Senecas of Sandusky and involved much sickness and death for those removed in the winter months. 

“The Trail of Tears is iconic. And yet, people completely forget the Midwest is the heart of a lot of removal histories,” Kiel said.

The Wyandot Mission Church in Upper Sandusky in 2019. Image courtesy of the Advertiser-Tribune.
Portrait of missionary John Stewart. Image courtesy of Methodist Mission Bicentennial.

An alternative story of Indian removal in Northwest Ohio is that of the Wyandot. Due to the relatively friendly relationship between the U.S. and the Wyandot, the Wyandots in Ohio were allowed to remain on a reservation in Upper Sandusky rather than be removed. Over time, Ohioans became uneasy about Wyandot presence, in part because the reservation became a haven for escaped slaves. In 1842, the same removal policies that were enforced across Ohio were applied to the Wyandot, and they were removed to modern-day Kansas the next year, their “reward” for U.S. cooperation being stripped away.

Despite the lack of recognized tribes in Ohio, today, there are those who stayed behind and still exist. It is not only individuals that remain, either: groups like the Munsee Delaware Indian Nation of Ohio and Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band exist in the state without any acknowledgement from the U.S. government. Removal was not the “end of history” that it seemed.

Today, the image of Native Americans in the American memory is often reduced to faceless victims or even villains in the American colonial story.

“The indigenous history of America is, has been clouded and has been covered. But its uncovering literally begins with local history, and then building from that,” Hoxie said.

“People who have had a very powerful influence have been artists and writers,” Hoxie said. “Through their work [they] have made it obvious that there is a native presence in North America, and that it's a continuous presence. It isn't something people made up in the civil rights era, or it’s something that just popped out of social media, that this is a real presence.”

Whether it’s a small but weighty four-ton boulder or a presence as tall as the Glass City River Wall, art and monuments, in some ways, can only quietly remind passersby of something they may or may not know. It is indeed a tall task to remember what no longer exists — to treasure what has never been seen. Yet this challenge, however complex, ought to be a welcomed exercise for modern people to practice. It reminds us that there are ways we continue the break in the narrative, to pick up and reconnect with the thread of a people that has been broken by human violence and greed.

So, as the Glass City River Wall overlooks the Maumee River, a small amount of that history is returned to the region through art. More than a touristic destination or a beautiful decoration, the ambition of our collective project should be understood within the larger whole, acknowledging the greater, more ancient, less certain story that precedes the white settlement narrative. As we look up at the mural, we can’t forget to “look down” — to be both awed and humbled by the cycle of time that returns the stories of a people, again and again, refusing to be forgotten, enduring to be remembered.

“Father, we are sorry to trouble you so much; but these things are of consquence [sic] to us.” - Little Turtle (Michikinikwa)


The people who made this project possible.

Jason Mecchi
Ruth Chang
Logan Sander
Web design
Jason Mecchi
Samuel Chang
Web development
Jason Owens
Phillip Mobley
Data visuals
Caixia Cui
Yitong Jiang
Special thanks
Fred Hoxie
Doug Kiel
John Low
Gabe Gault
Justin McCormack
Judy Justus and the Perrysburg Area Historic Museum


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