Salt and Deep History in the Ohio Country

tags: Ohio, Native American history, Salt

Annabel LaBrecque is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at University of California, Berkeley. Her work explores interdisciplinary approaches to the significance of salt throughout North American history. She has previously published research on salt and power in the sixteenth-century Lower Mississippi Valley for the Scottish Centre for Global History.

George Bluejacket was living at Wapaughkonnetta, Ohio, in 1829 when he recorded the history of the Shawnee people. Son of the famed eighteenth-century leader of the same name, Bluejacket devoted much of his narrative to explaining what had enabled Shawnees to endure and thrive in what was known during the eighteenth century as the Ohio Country. The region, Bluejacket explained, abounded with se-pe (rivers), me-to-quegh-ke (forests), and different animals—a reflection of the region’s bounty of life-giving resources.

However, Shawnee origins, according to Bluejacket, began not with rivers, land, or forests, but with saltwater. Long ago, the Shawnees’ Go-cum-tha (grandmother “of our people”) came out of a great salt sea holding the tail of Ne-she-pe-she, a giant panther. The Wash-et-che (husband) of Go-cum-tha soon followed, “carried to the shore by a very big Wa-be-the (Swan or Goose).” Their terrestrial tranquility did not last long. Watch-e-mene-toc, a bad spirit, used the great salt water to flood Go-cum-tha and her Wash-et-che’s home until everything “was swallowed up.” But Mish-e-me-ne-toc, “the Great God or Good Spirit,” did not let Go-cum-tha and her Wash-et-che drown; the Good Spirit saved them, as well as “many animals and birds.” Go-cum-tha and her husband enjoyed “plenty of hunting in the new me-to-quegh-ke (fForest)” salvaged by Mish-e-me-ne-toc. Referring to themselves as the Water People, Shawnees—Go-cum-tha and her Wash-et-che’s descendants—did not lose everything to the great salt water. Instead, they made their home upon the old sea floor. 

Bluejacket’s telling pointed to a geological truth that would take geologists more than a century to even consider. Modern geology now affirms that parts of present-day West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio once constituted the floor of the Iapetus Ocean, a 600-million-year-old extinct body of water that preceded the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. The Iapetus once separated the ancient continents of Avalonia and Laurentia. Roughly 420 million years ago, tectonic activity brought these two landmasses together, closing the Iapetus and trapping saltwater under a new supercontinent, Pangea. Pangea eventually separated, forming the distinct continents of Africa and North America and the ocean that now separates them. The salty waters and residue of the Iapetus became locked beneath the central Appalachians and have gradually seeped upward through millions of years of geologic history, re-appearing at the earth’s surface in the form of licks, springs, and seeps.

Lands bounded in by the Appalachians to the east, the Mississippi River to the west, the Great Lakes to the north, and roughly the Cumberland River to the south constitute an uncommonly salt-rich region of North America. These mineral pockets became magnets of human and nonhuman migration to and across Bluejacket’s ancestral lands. This is because large mammals, like humans, need salt to survive. Though it can vary in compound structure and mineral ratio, all forms of salt consist primarily of sodium and chloride. Sodium chloride—salt’s main homogenous compound—allows animals to retain hydrating fluids, process essential nutrients and minerals, and support microcellular processes critical to circulatory, muscular, and nerve function. Humans reliant upon large mammals for food recognized this dependency: “in all the western states,” one early nineteenth-century visitor to Kentucky observed, “they are obliged to give salt to the cattle. Were it not for that, the food they give them would never make them look well.”

In the Ohio Country, salt commonly took the form of mineral-rich mud or saline springs. Most large mammals in the region consumed their fill at mineral licks. American settler John Filson, for instance, wrote in 1784 that “Noblick, and many others, do not produce water, but consist of clay mixed with salt particles; to these the cattle repair, and reduce high hills rather to valleys [then] plains.” Even if mundane in purpose, salt licks were miraculous sights to behold. Filson wrote of the “amazing herds of Buffalo” that came to the licks, and how “their size and number, fill the traveller with amazement and terror, especially when he beholds the prodigious roads they have made from all quarters, as if leading to some populous city; the vast space of land around these springs desolated as if by a ravaging enemy, and hills reduced to plains.” Filson wasn’t fabricating; on May 18, 1774, a British survey party travelled up the Kentucky River “to a Salt Spring, where [they] saw about 300 Buffaloes collected together”—sights, smells, and sounds no doubt seared into the surveyors’ senses.

Read entire article at CommonPlace

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