The Myth of Kentucky As A “Dark and Bloody Ground”

The Myth of the “Dark and Bloody Ground”1 asks us to believe that before people of European and African descent arrived in Kentucky, Native peoples had hunted and fought over the land and its resources, but had never lived permanently anywhere in the Commonwealth.  WHAT?

 

This enduring fallacy about Kentucky’s indigenous inhabitants – The Myth of the Dark and Bloody Ground – is a legacy of our pioneer past, handed down from generation to generation since the first European-American settlement of central Kentucky.

 

Source of The Myth

 

The most likely source was a statement made in March 1775 by Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee leader, during treaty negotiations between the Cherokee Nation and Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company at Sycamore Shoals. These negotiations transferred a large part of what is now Kentucky to the Company. As the transaction was being completed, Dragging Canoe reportedly said that a dark cloud hung over the land, known as the Bloody Ground.

 

In 1775, the region was, indeed, contested. The Cherokee, along with other Native groups, used portions of it with permission from the Shawnee, who claimed much of it. But the Iroquois, encouraged by their English allies, wanted to control it, and the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina also laid claim to part of the region. Henderson’s new claim could only complicate matters.

1

Kish-kallo-wa (Shawnee).

Dragging Canoe’s statement implies that the region Henderson was purchasing was linked to some kind of conflict. But it is difficult to tell if Dragging Canoe was reciting historical fact or if his statement was meant as a warning about things to come. Certainly the struggle for land a few years later on the Kentucky frontier gave support to his words.

 

Myth Making

 

Colonial land speculators, and the settlers who followed them, interpreted Dragging Canoe’s statement to mean that a conflict existed between Indian groups over Kentucky lands and that, therefore, the land was not claimed by any of them. Thus, if Kentucky was not the property of any particular Indian group, the land speculators could justify selling this “free” land to settlers; and the settlers had every right to move in and establish farms.

 

It is possible that during the years immediately following 1775, the conception of Kentucky as a contested land was applied to the present and immediate past history of just the Bluegrass Region in central Kentucky. For at that time, most Native peoples had moved their farming villages north of the Ohio River and returned in small groups to hunt and camp during the winter.

 

It is one thing to imply that control of a particular region had been disputed in the past or would be in the future. It is a different matter altogether to interpret Dragging Canoe’s statement to mean that Native peoples had always fought over and never lived in the area that is now Kentucky.

 

Yet, even before Kentucky became a state in 1792, this idea had taken on an all-encompassing meaning: all of Kentucky was never the permanent home for any indigenous groups. It had been merely a “happy hunting ground” or the scene of prehistoric battles.

2

Tens-kwau-ta-waw (Shawnee).

There are several reasons why The Myth developed:

 

 

  • the differences between the colonists’ and the Native peoples’ conception of land ownership;
  • the distinctions the settlers noticed between historic American Indian peoples they encountered and the remains – burial mounds and the stone tools – that they unearthed as they plowed their fields;
  • the economic benefit colonial land speculators got from encouraging The Myth;
  • the violent conflicts that took place between Indian peoples and the colonists in the 1770s and 1780s; and
  • the circulation of a widely read book published in 1784, entitled The Discovery, Settlement, and present state of Kentucke. Historian-speculator John Filson referred to Kentucky as the “Middle Ground” throughout – except in two instances where he called it the “Dark and Bloody Ground” and as “an object of contention, a theater of war, from which it is properly denominated the Bloody-Grounds.”

 

Myth Persistence

 

The Myth persists today. This despite the fact that “Kentucky” is simply the name of a political entity created in 1792; despite the fact that many place names in our Commonwealth refer to Indians; and despite the fact that no similar myth applies to the indigenous heritage of most of the states that surround Kentucky (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, or Tennessee).

 

It persists because:

 

  • no tribal lands have been set aside as reservations in Kentucky;
  • it is repeatedly mentioned in children’s books, scholarly books and journals, textbooks, and history books; and
  • there is a lack of access to information about Kentucky’s rich Native cultural heritage.

 

Myth Busting

 

The truth is this: just as in all the other states situated in the Ohio River drainage, Native peoples arrived in Kentucky about 12,000 years ago. And their descendants are still here.

Research at archaeological sites in every county in the Commonwealth has documented evidence of Kentucky’s permanent indigenous inhabitants: from the earliest migratory hunters late in the Ice Age; to their hunter-gatherer descendants; to the moundbuilding small-time gardeners who traded with distant peoples for copper and marine shell; to the farmers whose permanent towns held upwards of one-thousand people. People who trace their Native ancestry back to groups historically documented in this region, like the Shawnee, Cherokee, Miami, Tutelo, and others still call Kentucky “home.”

3

Ca-ta-he-cas-sa (Shawnee).

 

Myths are perpetuated, despite a consideration of the facts, as long as people distrust those who are different from themselves and as long as dominant groups refuse to see the value of all ways of life.

 

The Myth of Kentucky as the Dark and Bloody Ground is not valid. It applies neither to the entirety of the Commonwealth nor to the complete expanse of its Native past. Careful consideration of the information available from archaeological, ethnohistorical, and historical sources exposes it as nothing more than that: a myth.

 

 

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1 There is no single etymology for the name “Kentucky” (Kentucke, Cantucky). One of the first recorded uses of the name is in a deposition describing the capture of a group of colonial traders by Indians allied to the French on January 26, 1753 at a place they called “Kentucky.” They described the location of this “Kentucky” as being south of the Allegheny River about 150 miles from the lower Shawnee Town, which sat at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers.

 

Various authors offer a number of other opinions concerning the word’s origin: an Iroquois word (Kentake) meaning “meadow land”; a Wyandot word (Ken-tah-the) meaning “the land of tomorrow”; an Algonquian term (kin-athiki) referring to a river bottom; a Shawnee word meaning “head of a river.”

 

The name does NOT mean “dark and bloody ground” in any language.

 

Images by Charles Bird King published in History of the Indian Tribes of North America by Thomas McKenney and James Hall (1836-1844) (http://www.indigenouspeople.net/shawnee.htm).

 

Contact the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission for more information about Kentucky’s Native peoples (http://heritage.ky.gov/knahc/).

 

Blog abstracted from “Dispelling the Myth: Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Indian Life in Kentucky” by A. Gwynn Henderson. The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 90 (1): 1-25 (1992), and “Kentucky” by A. Gwynn Henderson and David Pollack in Native America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia. Volume One: Alabama-Louisiana (2012), edited by Daniel S. Murphree, pp. 393-440. Greenwood, Santa Barbara, CA.

 

By: A. Gwynn Henderson

Staff Archaeologist/Education Coordinator – Kentucky Archaeological Survey

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