Opinion — Native Americans’ role in Southwest Virginia history often overlooked

Published 12:34 pm Thursday, August 4, 2022

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Virginia’s Appalachian history is a diverse combination of cultures. We recently learned about the African American influence in the area. Now I want to talk about the indigenous tribes that influenced this vibrant area of Virginia. Sadly, it has been overlooked in telling the history of Appalachia, Virginia and America.

There were four eras of Native Americans that settled in Lee County. The tribes in the Paleoindian era arrived around 13,000-800 B C. and were nomadic hunters who hunted large game. In 8,000-1,000 B.C. the Archaic era emerged with tribes that hunted deer, small mammals and gathered wild plants. The Woodland era involved tribes that were more sedentary and made pottery, as well as being horticulturists that began in 1,000 B.C.-A.D. 1,000. In addition, they had elaborate burial rituals.

The Mississippian era began in 800-1,600 A.D. These tribes, such as the Yuchi, had more complex religious practices.

More About The Yuchi

The Yuchi tribe originated at Cahokia on the Mississippi River, near present day St. Louis, Missouri. They reached western Tennessee by the 14th Century and eastern Tennessee by the 15th Century. By 1717, the group migrated throughout the Southeastern U. S. and the Appalachians.

In the counties of Smyth and Washington, evidence of the Yuchi comes from large village sites and caves along the North, Middle and South forks of the Holston River.

The Spanish came in contact with the Yuchi Indians in 1541 and 1567. Near Rose Hill in Lee County, stands the Ely Mound that was a burial site of the Yuchi tribe built in the Mississippian and late Woodland eras. Buildings such as temples, elite homes and council buildings stand on top of the mound. The Yuchi have a distinct language that differs from the Siouan language of the Monacans and the Algonquian language of the Tidewater tribes.

In Saltville, located in Smyth County, evidence was found of the Yuchi of arrowheads, cave dwellings and pottery bearing sites along with pipes, ear ornaments and shell pendants. The last battle involving Native Americans and whites in Lee County was at Hickory Flats where the Native Americans were defeated under the command of John Sevier of Tennessee.

How did they get to Lee?

Cumberland Gap, which lies partly in Lee County, was the main route and a great passageway to the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Mountains of the Appalachians, called Quasioto by the Native Americans. The Cumberland Gap’s western part lies in Lee County, dividing Virginia with Kentucky in the north and Tennessee in the south.

When the Europeans arrived in Lee County in the mid 1700s, indigenous people such as the Cherokee, Shawnee and Delaware, claimed ancestral territory there. Cherokee villages existed near Natural Bridge, three miles west of Jonesville and near Rose Hill where numerous Indian mounds were located.

Lee County, the most western of the counties, was established from Russell County in 1792, adding a part of Scott County later. It was named for Henry Light-Horse Lee, governor of Virginia from 1791 to 1794 and an American Revolutionary War officer.

The presence of Native Americans in Southwest Virginia is a vital part of a varied history in Virginia and the U.S. The importance of the indigenous people has been greatly overlooked in the study of our collective histories. When dedicated historians and researchers take the time to research and study the various cultures with unadulterated care and precision, a clearer picture of our rich and true history can be revealed, understood and appreciated.

Judy Moore lives in Wylliesburg, can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com and is a tour guide at The Central High Museum.