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Native American Life in Northern Kentucky: Fort Ancient

“Fort Ancient” refers to the Native Americans who lived in the middle Ohio Valley from 1000 AD to about 1750, the time of European contact, according to A. Gwynn Henderson of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey.

Their territory extended from the Falls of the Ohio at modern-day Louisville upriver to what is now Parkersburg, W.Va., and north from present-day Columbus, Ohio, south to what is now Corbin, Ky.

The Fort Ancient people hunted, but they were primarily farmers. David Pollack, director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, said they grew corn, beans, and squash. Bridget B. Striker, a historian with the Boone County Public Library, said those crops enabled them to create settlements.

Around 1200 AD, the Fort Ancient people moved into more circular villages. “These were built as concentric rings around a central plaza,” said Pollack. “Much like if you look at a central park in a city today.”

Around 1400 AD, their communities became bigger, Pollack said. “They pretty much outgrew the circular arrangement of houses and so their houses really were more organized in clusters around the community.” Cemeteries were in distinct areas that were marked. In their social hierarchy, leadership wasn’t inherited, but achieved.

Henderson said the Fort Ancient people traveled by foot. “They did not have horses,” she said. “They walked the trails that crisscrossed the landscape, connecting villages to each other. And the long distance walks they would take on trading expeditions.” Pollack said the Warriors’ Path — the trail that Daniel Boone took through the Cumberland Gap — was part of a network of trails the Native Americans had used for centuries.

Their culture was thriving when Europeans arrived. And with them came infectious diseases. “The most virulent disease that arrived was smallpox,” said Henderson. “Between 75 percent and 90 percent of the indigenous people who lived in the Ohio Valley died. The people who were most susceptible were the very young and the very old. The saddest part of that is that the people who died were the future and the past of Fort Ancient peoples.”

Those that survived became dispersed throughout the region. The Fort Ancient culture exists today, Henderson said, among the diverse indigenous peoples in the places where the Fort Ancient people used to live. “We live in their homeland,” Henderson said.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2203, which originally aired on October 15, 2016. Watch the full episode.