Ohioans, particularly those in the Cleveland – Akron area are certainly familiar with the Cuyahoga River, but not overly acquainted with its importance in the history of the state. It’s probably more well-known because of the several times it caught fire between 1868 and 1969 as a result of industrial flammable pollutants that were dumped in the river.
The eighty-five mile long Cuyahoga begins in Geauga County, about two miles south of the beautiful little village of Burton, Ohio, and winds its way south and southwest to thread its way between the cities of Cuyahoga Falls and Akron, Ohio. From there the river flows almost due north to empty into Lake Erie at Cleveland.
The river has many twists and turns for most of its length, which gives rise to the notion that Native Americans named the river Cuyahoga in reference to its serpentine course. Most local historians state that “Cuyahoga” is a derivation of the Mohawk word Cayagaga, which means “crooked river.” However, a search of Mohawk language books and dictionaries did not list the word Cayagaga anywhere. The closest Mohawk word in pronunciation is kyo-hà-keh, [pronounced key-oh-HAH-kay], which simply means “river.” The descriptors “crooked” and “serpentine” in the Mohawk language are te-yots-hà-k-tonh and ó-nya-reh. Since those descriptors are missing, it’s likely that if Mohawk travelers actually visited the river, they would have simply referred to it as kyo-hà-keh, [river], which I suppose could have morphed into Cuyahoga. But the Mohawk Nation was the easternmost of the Iroquois, and their homeland was about 350 away near present Albany, New York, so why would their name for “river” be the one that stuck?
If any of the Iroquois Nations were the ones to name the Cuyahoga River, it would most likely be the Seneca who were the westernmost of the Iroquois. Their homeland was adjacent to present northern Ohio. After the destruction of the Erie Nation in the mid-seventeenth century, the Seneca were the most numerous of expatriate Iroquois to settle in Ohio as Mingos.
Studying the Seneca language, one finds that the closest word to “Cuyahoga” is Cuy-o-hoga, which translates to “place of the jawbone.” One might question why anyone would name a river “place of the jawbone.” Who knows? Perhaps they were referring to ancient fossilized bones that may have been found there. The same question could be asked of the Lenape [Delaware] Indians who called the Muskingum River “eye of the elk,” and the Walhonding River “to dig a hole.” Those names meant something to them that we’ll probably never understand.
So, even though the Indians probably didn’t call the Cuyahoga River, “the crooked river,” we’ll likely continue to claim they did, simply because the name seems more appropriate and logical, at least to our way of thinking.
The Cuyahoga is a rather strange river; relatively shallow and only eighty-five miles long along most of its serpentine course. It flows south and southwest from its source in Geauga County before making an abrupt U-turn back to the north to empty into Lake Erie at Cleveland, Ohio. Even so, it was one of the more important rivers in Ohio’s history. In 1750, the greatest concentration of Native Americans living in present Ohio, were the 2,400 or so whose villages were in the Cuyahoga River Valley.
The western portion of the river between present Cleveland and Akron was one of the major water and trail thoroughfares that crisscrossed the present state. It was possible for an Indian to travel by water from Lake Erie to the Ohio River by paddling south to the Little Cuyahoga River and then via a relatively short portage to the Tuscarawas River, which joined the Muskingum at present Coshocton. From there a canoeist could take the Muskingum all the way to the Ohio River at present Marietta, Ohio.
By land, the trails directly associated with the Cuyahoga River were The Cuyahoga War Trail, The Cuyahoga-Muskingum Trail, and The Mahoning Trail. Each of those trails connected with The Lake Trail to the north, and in the south, they joined The Watershed Trail, The Great Trail, The Killbuck Trail, The Mohican Trail, The Moravian Trail, the Mingo Trail, The Owl River Trail, and The Scioto Trail. As a major communications waterway, the Cuyahoga River was on a par with the Sandusky, Scioto, Tuscarawas, and Muskingum Rivers.
The dense population of Indians living along the Cuyahoga caused both the French and the English to establish trading posts in the area to take advantage of the lucrative fur trade. In 1742, the French-Canadian merchant François Saguin established a trading post on the west side of the Cuyahoga River opposite the mouth of Tinkers Creek. Saguin had chosen his location well as evidenced by the fact that by the end of his first season, he had acquired in trade two hundred bales of prime furs. Saguin’s post was so popular with the Indians that they began to call the Cuyahoga “Saguin’s River,” and it was shown as Riviére de Saguin on a 1754 map by French military engineer Gaspard Joseph deLery’s. Even a 1764 English map by John Montressor depicted the Cuyahoga as River de Sanguin.
While François Saguin’s name was associated with the Cuyahoga River for only a short time, it has a more permanent attachment to another nearby river. From his post on the Cuyahoga, Saguin often travelled to surrounding areas where he set up temporary trading locations. One of those was about thirteen miles northeast near the falls of a small river that also became known as “Saguin’s River,” and the falls known as “Saguin’s Falls.” However, the Lenape Indians of the area only had the “sh” sound in their language, and they pronounced Saguin as “Shaguin,” it didn’t take English settlers into the area long to further corrupt the name to “Chagrin,” which over time morphed into Chagrin River and Chagrin Falls.
Saguin’s trading business was so lucrative that in 1743 or 1744, George Croghan, known as “the king or the Pennsylvania traders” set up his trading post at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in present downtown Cleveland. Croghan’s presence severely impacted the French fur trade, and particularly François Saguin’s trading post about eleven miles south. Predictably, the French authorities at Fort Detroit were concerned at their loss of revenue, and they took the drastic measure of placing a price on Croghan’s head. It was never collected, partly because Croghan wisely decided to abandon his post on the Cuyahoga and decamp for a less perilous location.
In 1786, another Frenchman by the name of Joseph du Shattar established a trading post on the west bank of the Cuyahoga near present Jennings Road and Dennison Avenue in the Old Brooklyn area of Cleveland. Shattar maintained his post there until about 1800.
There was even an Indian mission community on the Cuyahoga. Most Ohioans are familiar with the Moravian missionaries David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder who established Indian mission communities like Schönbrunn and Gnadenhütten in Ohio, but not many are aware that there were actually nine Moravian Indian mission communities in the present state. One of those was Pilgerruh or “Pilgrim’s Rest,” which was a temporary community on the Cuyahoga River in 1786, and it only lasted about a year. It was meant as a stopover for the Moravians and their Christian Indians who were returning from forced exile in Canada during the Revolutionary War. Their village of Pilgerruh was sited in present Valley View, Ohio, at the corner of Canal Road and Hathaway Road where the present Valley View Police Department is located.
There were of course several Indian villages located along or near the Cuyahoga River, which was the primary reason traders like François Saguin, George Croghan and Joseph du Shattar set up shop there. The following are those villages that were sited near the Cuyahoga River.
Cuyahoga Town Around 1757 the Lenape chief Netawatwees (Skilled Advisor) established a large village just north of the Cuyahoga River at the southern end of present Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. At first, the Indians took refuge in the gorge at Big Falls, a series of falls on the river. There are several caves and deep overhangs in the gorge, which provided shelter during the winter months of 1757. The most famous cave is “Mary Campbell Cave,” or “Old Maid’s Kitchen.” It’s reputed to have sheltered the white captive Mary Campbell who had been captured by the Lenape when she was ten or eleven years old.
In the spring of 1758, Netawatwees relocated his village to the top of the gorge, where he established his permanent village near the present intersection of Francis Avenue and Campbell Street.
In 1763, in the face of Bouquet’s expedition, Netawatwees and his Lenape abandoned this area and relocated his village, now called Gekelemukpechunk, at present Newcomerstown, Ohio.
Gwahago was a Mingo village established in the 1750s, and according to Le Sieur Robert de Vaugondy, it was located on the east bank of the Cuyahoga, upstream or south of the mouth of Tinker’s Creek. That would have placed the village just north of present Alexander Road.
Mingo Town. Between about 1740 and 1809, a Mingo village existed southwest of the Cuyahoga River on the small peninsula east of the mouth of the Little Cuyahoga River. In some sources, the village is also known as Ostionish, and Logan’s Town.
Onondaga Town (Aurora) A few sources indicate the existence of an Onondaga Town at present Aurora, Ohio. The Onondaga were one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, along with the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. The town was likely sited near the Aurora Branch River at the eastern edge of present Aurora, Ohio.
Onondaga Town (Geauga Lake). Sources indicate that an Onondaga Town was located on the Aurora Branch River immediately southeast of Geauga Lake, north of present Treat Road and in the vicinity of the abandoned amusement park parking lot.
Ottawa Town was established around 1742 and existed about four years. It was located on the east side of the Cuyahoga River just south of Hathaway Road where the Moravians later established Pilgerruh in 1786. In fact, the Moravians, found evidence of the old, abandoned Ottawa village, and even planted their crops in the old Ottawa gardens on the west side of the river. It was easy to cross the river there, because of the shallow riffle area known as the “upper fording place,” which is still visible.
Ponty’s Camp or Pontiac’s Camp was a temporary village supposedly established in 1760 by the famous Ottawa war chief, Pontiac. The location was described in books by Frank Wilcox and General L. V. Bierce as being on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River, about one-half mile north of the Boston Mill.
Seneca Town. According to historian Frank Wilcox, sometime in the 1740s a band of Seneca or perhaps Mingo established a town at present Twinsburg, Ohio. The Mingo were expatriate Iroquois comprised for the most part of members of the Seneca Nation. The village was most likely sited near the present Public Square in Twinsburg, which is at the intersection of Ohio Routes 82 and 91.
Silver Lake: Local lore describes a large Seneca or Mingo village of about 500 inhabitants at present Silver Lake. That would be a major village indeed, since most villages contained fewer that 100 men, women, and children. There were villages in Ohio that had a population of 500 or more, but they were relatively rare. Gekelemuckpechunk at present Newcomerstown and LowerShawnee Town at present Portsmouth, Ohio were two towns that contained significantly high populations.
All of this information plus the history of Ohio’s Native Americans in the 18th century, plus their trails and villages, are described in detail in Sally’s and my book, American Indian of the Ohio Country in the 18th Century. Check out our website: www.Paul-Sally.com as well as our FaceBook page Paul & Sally Misencik – Tales From America’s Past. We’re happy to answer questions or discuss any of our books. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org