Know Ohio: Native Americans in Ohio
When I think about Thanksgiving, I think about turkey, football, family, Mom’s green bean
casserole – oh, and the pilgrims & Indians, of course! This is because the first Thanksgiving
dates back to 1621 in present-day Massachusetts, when one of the first groups of English
settlers and their Native American allies, celebrated a bountiful harvest with a series of
But when we say Native Americans, we’re not talking about one uniform culture. We’re
actually talking about a diverse group of tribes and civilizations scattered throughout the
present-day United States – including Ohio. In fact, many of the names of Ohio’s cities,
lakes, rivers, and landmarks, are traced back to the Native Americans that lived here.
The word Ohio itself actually comes from the Iroquois Indians. In the1600’s Iroquois Nation
was a powerful civilization made up of 5 different tribes. They were conquerors, who spread
across present-day New York, Pennsylvania, and eventually pushed their way the rich Ohio
Valley. They called the river that separates Ohio and Kentucky the Ohi-yo, which means
roughly “great creek” – and our state took its name from there.
It was also the Iroquois that named the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. In the Iroquois
language, “Cuya-hoga” means “crooked river.” And, given the way it winds through
Cleveland, that’s a pretty accurate description if you ask me.
Southwestern Ohio is home to the prestigious Miami University – and two large rivers, the
Great Miami, and the Little Miami. All take their name from the Miami people, a group of
tribes that migrated south into Ohio in about the 1700’s. The Miami civilization spread across
portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. They spoke Algonquin, and grew maize – or corn.
After a series of wars led by Chief Little Turtle, the Miami people were eventually forced out
of Ohio by European settlers.
The Miami people were allied with the Shawnee Indians – and it’s this tribe that gave the city
Piqua, Ohio its name. To the Shawnee, Piqua, or “pee-ko-wi” means “a man coming out of
the ashes,” which is part of this tribe’s creation myth that says man was born out of the
smoke and ashes from an ancient fire.
The Shawnee are also responsible for one of my personal favorite city names: Chillicothe!
It’s so fun to say – and it’s derived from the Shawnee word Chalah-gaw-tha, which means
principal place…because Chillicothe was where the Shawnee tribe leadership lived.
There are many more interesting Native Ohio civilizations that shaped our state – but, of
course, none of these Native people were present at the first Thanksgiving. The tribe the
pilgrims shared their meal with was the Wampanoag tribe, who lived in present-day
Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But, if you’re doing any travel this Thanksgiving, keep an
eye out for some of Ohio’s most interesting names – they’re often reminders of our Native
Website Article: Touring Ohio, Native Americans in Ohio
Timeline: Ohio History Central, Ohio's Prehistoric Timeline
Website, Videos & Teacher Guide: Western Reserve Public Media, One State, Many Nations