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Beaver County in the time of the Lenni Lenape

Milestones Vol 29. No. 3

by Rex Downie


With the celebration of what Churchill called the First World War, the French and Indian war in the Transallegheny Region, the geography of the headwaters of the Oyo (Ohio) becomes relevant to that discussion. This article may assist in bringing clarity to place names and locations involved in that celebration. For example, Pittsburgh was once Shannopin, Ft Duquesne, Ft Pitt, and Daundaga. Beaver has been Shingas' Town, King Beaver's Town, and Sawkunk. It would help to put a historical frame on these names, and the foundation of the names comes from the language of the Lennie Lenape.

The time frame in question goes back into the 17th Century, but it saves detailed explanation to place, loosely, the 1700-1750 time frame on this exploration. While French trappers were on the Ohio in the 1600s, this area was not lived in by the Delaware until 1720 or thereabouts. However, the ancient, true name for the Delaware is Lenni Lenape, or the "original people," a nomenclature that finds parallels in the original names of many indigenous peoples, and their language is thought by scholars of the period to have been a root language for many of the eastern tribes.

It is relevant to point out that due to "treaties" between the Iroquois and the Lenni Lenape, the headwaters of the Ohio were a kind of no man's land, to be used for hunting but not residence, and this agreement extended clear down into what is now Kentucky. Still, the Lenni Lenape must have had hunting camps before the general immigration of Delaware into Transallegheny area in the 1720s.

With this background, and the author's admission that his information lacks precise "surveyors" exactitude, I'll proceed to explore the headwaters of the Beaver River and Ohio geography using the Lenni Lenape names to provide at least a starting point in discussing those troubled times.

Beginning at the north end of the sketch, we see that the Beaver River begins at the confluence of three creeks, the Mahoning, the Shenango, and the Neshannock. Five Indian villages grew up here, and were in place in the early 1750s. These were called, collectively "The Kuskuskies." It was to this area that the Moravian missionaries were drawn from eastern Pa. in seeking a peaceful home for their converts, so they founded Friedenstadt downstream perhaps 8 miles from the Kuskuskies.

No other place name comes into the records as we descend the Beaver River until we hit the Oyo, as it was called then. This mystery will be addressed shortly. At the Oyo, however, the meeting of those streams was called Sawkunk. The French had built a group of log cabins with stone fireplaces and chimneys there long before Washington's visit, for the purpose of inducing Indians to settle there to support French trapping interests in the area and oppose the British(1). As the tides of the cultural battle between white and Indian shifted and flowed, this point successively became Shingas Town, King Beaver's Town, and then Ft. McIntosh, and, last, "Beaver" the county seat when it was laid out at the end of that century.

Map of the Lenni Lenape Country

"Forts" or "Blockhouses"(2) only came as European Civilization came west, so I am not focusing on them in this paper. Obviously, though, the military mind found encampment indicated at these river junctions for the same reasons as the hunting/migratory fife style of the LL's did.

So, on the map, continue south. We pass Logstown on the right, likely one of the older residence points in this no man's land, for here Washington met Tanacharison who was NOT in "Pixboig" for that occasion. There's a bit of residual doubt regarding Logstown, for when Anthony Wayne trained his legion across the river downstream several miles, some settlements doubtless grew up, and Col. John Gibson had a trading post "across the river," so settlements could spring up without the stupid and clumsy building codes interfering.

The next point of interest is "at the point," if you will forgive the pun, for there is the Lenni Lenape settlement of DAUNDAGA, which is mentioned in few if any of the early journals. and, apparently the geographical meeting of the rivers was to the Lenni Lenape CHEONDEROGA. It means "joining of rivers", or "three rivers joining", which the French immediately translated into "Trois Rivier," a name that hangs around in our times and has been projected into National prominence by TV and the Steelers.

Now, with this primer on Lenni Lenape terminology reviewed, one last matter remains. That is the naming of the Allegheny and Oyo Rivers. According to Heckewelder and others, the Lenni Lenape's had encountered another tribe, perhaps the mound builders, who were called by the Lenni Lenape "Alegewi." Thus what we know now as the Allegheny River was to them the "Alegewi Sipu," or "the river of the Aleghewi people." Thus, both our ridge ranges and that river are named for that ancient people. The Lenni Lenape's called the Ohio the Oyo, or beautiful river. The French immediately renamed it the Belle Riviere, or beautiful river, which it most surely is. But the Oyo lurks still, not too deep under the surface of the "Dark and Bloody River" as Eckhardt named it. Since the Lenni Lenape's language still haunts Penn's Woods, in the Susquehanna River, at Aliquippa, and up the Connoquenessing, and up the Monongahela and Youghiogheny, it might be beneficial to add the above to the contemporary vocabulary.


1 Part of the battle between settlers and Indians was caused by the French using the Indians, and supporting them, to attack the "British," which were indistinguishable from settlers as far as the Delaware were concerned. The "settlers" became the sacrificial lamb in the French and Indian War, as well as later in the Revolutionary War when the British in Detroit bought settlers' scalps in an effort to attack the Revolutionary armies on their rear. Oddly, without ever being sworn in or paid a dime, the settlers performed at great suffering the role of a rear-guard to our beleaguered Armies.

2 While we briefly consider the settler's intrusion into Indian culture, it is clear from the journals of witnesses such as Fredrick Post and Christopher Gist, and others, that the Delaware and Shawnees wanted trade goods: steel knives, iron pots, wool blankets, glass beads, things that Indian culture coule not produce. The idea that the Indians had a "perfect" and serene existence is nothing but a modern urban myth. For example to make iron, one needed stonework, a large supply of limestone and wood, and iron ore, a large bellows, and the hard labor of 15 or 20 men and the knowledge of how a blast furnace worked. Moreover, once the labor of building a furnace was done, it made no sense to abandon it, so some of them lasted for decades. This was not possible in a tribal semi migrant hunting society that could not develop the creation in such a way. Yet what it produced was MUCH BETTER than the technology of flint and hides and bone. Thus the Delaware became dependent on steel and wool, wholly and innocently unwitting that these very items spelled finis to woodland culture.