Do you know Logstown?
If you heard of it, it’s been in romanticized terms. It’s usually said to be an important Indian village downriver from Pittsburgh, in the waning days of the noble red man’s preeminence here.
Come with me. We’ll see what it really was.
Joining us will be George Washington, Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis&Clark) and Charles Dickens. George, not yet President, will even sort through and expose “fake news.”
A knowledgeable Shawnee of our time will tell us what he knows of the place.
You’ll see the first U.S. basic training camp rise from the abandoned Indian site. Its main purpose? To train Pittsburghers how to kill Indians in an organized fashion.
A renowned religious sect then takes over the land. Its followers expect Jesus to show up there. They wait 80 years. He doesn’t, and he hasn’t yet. So, we have time to explore.
It appears Logstown could be viewed less as a quaint Indian village and more as a company town, the first in a series to sprout and whither over two centuries in that part of the Ohio River Valley.
As we look back, the first thing we have to do is dismiss some sage advice about forests. They say you may miss a forest if you’re looking at the trees. No matter. We intend to look at them.
The first one is a doozy.
We find it mentioned in a diary of a Jesuit priest, Father Joseph-Pierre de Bonnecamps. The length of French names are a bother, so we’ll call him Father Joe. He accompanied soldiers from New France (Canada) to Logstown. We’re talking 1749.
“We dined in a hollow cotton wood tree, in which 29 men could be ranged side by side.”
Sounds like something from “The Hobbit” or “Harry Potter.”
It is understood to mean Father Joe’s dinner mates sat in a circle, shoulder to shoulder. Average male width today is 18 inches. If it was similar then, the inside circumference of the tree was at least 43.5 feet, making the diameter inside about 14 feet.
Add several additional feet if you want elbow room, and a few more if left-handed people are seated at the table.
Do you think Father Joe may have had hallucinogenic mushrooms at dinner?
Well, people who scour the nation’s woods find similar-sized sycamores even today. No hollow ones are near that size, though. You better pack a tent.
By the way, Father Joe was a priest not a tree expert, and he was from Canada, so he was wrong about it being a cottonwood. They are not native to this area. It probably was a sycamore.
I should explain what the French were doing along the Ohio River.
The French-Indian Connection
For nearly 200 years, French companies had been giving guns, metal pans and knives, glass beads and manufactured clothing goods to Indians in exchange for furs. Europeans couldn’t get enough furs. Their own wild animals were long gone. Indians became as dependent on the fur industry as steelworkers later became on the steel industry.
The furs usually were processed into felts. Most of us would not recognize them as having animal origins. A century later, but still a good example, is Abe Lincoln’s hat. It was beaver felt; durable and very waterproof.
So, while Europeans were jauntily wearing animal skins, Indian men here were wearing ruffled shirts. They loved them. They were all about visual display. You can see that at the Fort Pitt Museum.
And, reminiscent of today’s opioid crisis, many, many Indians were laid low by addiction to white man’s rum.
It all was happening at trading posts. They were licensed to operate where significant Indian trails met in the wilderness.
The territory France claimed for its traders extended between Montreal and New Orleans, and well west. The British hadn’t ventured far from the Eastern Seaboard — until now.
Logstown as Company Town
Now, what about Logstown?
Historical evidence indicates it was set up by the French as a mutual convenience for fur gatherers and fur exporters.
If you go there today, you will find the remains of a steel company town, Ambridge, built by American Bridge Co.
Jeremy Turner, a Shawnee researcher from Indiana, says his tribe came to the site in the 1730s, erecting native-type wigwams on the lower shelf along the river bank. Delaware Indians came about the same time.
Both tribes were essentially refugees, and they depended on fur traders to survive.
English-speaking settlers had pushed them west. Hunting grounds were getting sparse. And, some tribes sought to put distance between themselves and the dominant Iroquois Confederation based in New York. They soon found themselves having to choose between the English and French.
The name Iroquois is French, but no one is quite sure where it came from. A French scholar in the 18th Century suggested those Indians ended each address saying something similar to “Iroquois”, meaning “I have spoken.”
The English just called them the Five Nations.
It could be they rarely heard Indians finish their speeches. George Washington complains in his journals of the tedium of listening to Indians speak at conferences.
There are about 125,000 registered Iroquois in North America today. They prefer the name Haudenosaunee, which means people of the longhouses.
They include: Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga and Onandaga. It’s thought they’d been together for 600 years before Logstown was built. A sixth nation with ancient Iroquois roots, the Tusacarora, joined in the 1740s. Settlers had forced them north out of the Carolinas.
A few Seneca leaders were at Logstown to keep watch over things. They leaned toward the English.
Indian Name Calling
It is not unusual for people of various tribes to live together in one village. A single tribe, however, would dominate. Its ceremonies and traditions guided group activity.
Confused by all the tribe names? You should be. Now, lets add to the confusion.
The Iroquois in this area were known as Mingos.
Eh . . . why?
Well, it reflected what other tribes thought of them. And, it wasn’t good.
The name is considered a corruption of mengwe, which means “stealthy” or “treacherous.” They were not trusted.
A white trader may well have seen a new face at the trading post and asked a Delaware or Shawnee the newcomer’s tribe.
“Oh, he’s Mingo.”
From then on, that Indian and his tribe are called Mingos by whites. Language being what it is, it never gets corrected.
Many tribe names come down to us that way. They could be insulting, or maybe just an Indian joke on a white settler.
Adirondack, for instance, means “bark eater.”
The Algonquins didn’t call themselves that. That was what their neighbors, the Mohawk, called them.
It probably was intended to be disrespectful, but white settlers didn’t know any better. Maybe Mohawk snickered everytime they heard white people say it.
Three centuries later, the joke continues as we lean back and relax in Adirondack (bark-eating) chairs. Oh well.
There is a bit of circular justice in this, though.
The Delaware and Shawnee, who gave local Iroquois the name Mingo (treacherous), are part of the large Algonquin family of tribes . That’s the same family that Mohawks (Iroquois) earlier called Adirondacks (bark eaters).
I told you I would add to the confusion. Let’s move on.
You Say Chinique and I Say Shenango
Remember, Indians had no written language. All the so-called Indian words that are part of our geography (think Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio, etc.) are all English or French phonetic spellings of what traders or settlers thought the Indians were saying. And, they were largely illiterate. Even among well-educated, there was no standardization of spelling yet.
Turner says Indians called Logstown Chiningue (French spelling) or Shenango (English spelling). It is said to mean “beautiful one.” However, it seems too many Indian place names mean that, so I’m dubious.
There is a Shenango Township only 30 miles away, but it was named 60 years later by whites. Settlers tended to “respect” and romanticize Indian names even as they wiped out the people.
Logstown had a lower town and an upper town on the north/west side of the river, where Ambridge is today. It also had a cornfield on the other side of the river in today’s Aliquippa.
“Then about 1747, the French built about 30 log homes for the Indians in the upper town. . . This is when the town became known as Logstown ” Turner says.
But, don’t be thinking log cabins. At least not Lincoln Logs.
Turner says the French way of making log homes was to stand the logs on end, sticking posts in the ground. They were vertical log cabins.
In fact, the last such structures remaining in America were just made a part of the National Park system. You can see them at Ste. Genevieve, a small town south of St. Louis. Somehow, houses from the same era as Logstown survive.
World Powers Needed Indians
As France and England jockeyed for dominance around the world, each needed American Indians on their side. It would determine who got North America.
Logstown became the place where such things were negotiated with Indians.
They needed continued access to European goods and decent prices for their furs.
The French companies wanted furs, but their supply of goods was limited by British naval blockades. Angry Indians even killed French traders for having too little and charging too much. The English had plenty of stuff, but they wanted land far more than furs. We know how that turned out.
There may well be a second reason for the name Logstown.
We’ll get into that in the next post as we go downriver with Charles Dickens and Conotocaurious.
No, Conotocaurious is not a river-dwelling dinosaur. It is an Iroquois name for a man meaning “devourer of villages.” We’ll see what happens when he shows up at Logstown.