So, what were the earliest towns in Kentucky?
Numerous internet sources and even history text books will tell you the first towns (permanent settlements) in Kentucky were European settlements such as Fort Boonesborough and Fort Harrod. These were defensible residential settlements occupied during the European colonization of Kentucky during late-1700s.
Archaeologists will tell you this narrative is inaccurate and needs to change, and they are correct.
The first towns in Kentucky were Native American farming communities. This post focuses on the farming towns that were located in central and eastern Kentucky referred to by archaeologists as “Fort Ancient”. Fort Ancient farming towns dotted the river valleys and uplands of central and eastern Kentucky from about 1200 to the early 1700s A.D. Some Native American settlements predating this time could be considered towns, but they were not widespread until the 1200s.
The Fort Ancient culture was based on a shared tradition of agriculture, silviculture, architecture, technology, and religious/ceremonial symbols and practices. Archaeological remains of this culture have been recorded in central and eastern Kentucky, southeast Indiana, southern Ohio, and western West Virginia. Further south and west in Kentucky was a distinct Native American farming culture archaeologists call “Mississippian” (not described here). There is clear archaeological and historic documentary evidence that the Shawnee are the main, though perhaps not only, Tribal descendants of the Fort Ancient culture.
Each Fort Ancient town had a few dozen residences surrounding a central plaza with a public structure and a cemetery area. Residences ringed the plaza to make a circular or arc-shaped community layout. Each house had a central hearth, food storage areas, and usually the front door opened toward the plaza. Sometimes the interior floor was compacted or fired clay almost like concrete. The public structure (some use the term “council house”) was in the plaza, and was typically larger than residential structures. The cemetery was sometimes between the houses and the plaza, sometimes behind the houses. Some towns had wooden palisades (high walls) around the perimeter; archaeologists disagree on whether these served defensive, symbolic, or both purposes. Of course, all of the visible architecture is now gone, but archaeologists can trace out the structures, plaza and cemetery using a combination of maps, geophysical survey, and excavation.
Towns were just one component of a broader cultural landscape steeped in history and land management (see 2019 KAM post 1 and post 2 about this). Towns were surrounded by in-field crops; corn, beans, squash and tobacco were the mainstays. Beyond agricultural in-fields, forest lands were managed for nut crops and construction timber. Many of the major trails connecting these towns were recycled by Europeans, and many Kentucky towns/cities are on top of former Native American towns, including Augusta, Petersburg, Ashland, Irvine and others. The trails connecting Fort Ancient towns also led to cemeteries and sacred places (mounds and earthworks), to adjacent regions, and also provided access to trade routes extending across eastern North America. Many history books claim the Native trails followed bison paths. Generally speaking this is not true. Bison did not occupy central or eastern Kentucky until the 1400s (see KAM 2018 post here) when a Native American trail system was already well-established. The bison trails observed by early settlers in the 18th century most likely followed previously established Native American trails.
Today you can visit the former location of a Fort Ancient town – the Sunwatch Indian Village – near Dayton, OH. The village was excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s, and they used their studies to build a partial replica of the village including several houses, the plaza, and a palisade (see https://sunwatch.org/exhibits/). The museum at Sunwatch has exhibits with artifacts and additional information about the former town location.
A replica house structure (above), doorway (lower left) and interior benches (lower right) located at the Sunwatch Indian Village near Dayton, OH. Photos by the author.
It is important to note that most of the information archaeologists have about the Fort Ancient culture, and other past Native American settlements comes from federally-mandated studies carried out to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. This act requires that studies are done in advance of projects that require federal permits or use federal funding (e.g., infrastructure projects). Archaeologists record and evaluate the significance of archaeological and historic places in advance of such projects. This makes the National Historic Preservation Act important for Native American history. The act also requires consultation with state historic preservation offices and federally-recognized Tribes, which gives both local residents and descendant communities a voice in the process of recording and preserving history.
You can read more about the Fort Ancient culture and see lots of great pictures in a free public educational booklet by the Kentucky Archaeological Survey here:
If you want more in-depth information about Fort Ancient in Kentucky, you can read Chapter 7 of The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Update here: