The Monongahela People
by Dennis Stahl
"Monongahela," is a term applied to Native Americans of a wide-ranging settlement area of the Ohio River system that included the Monongahela, Youghiogheny and Casselman tributaries. This occupation encompassed western Pennsylvania and the adjoining areas of eastern Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland. Close to four hundred sites have now been recorded.
Somerset County Monongahela concentrations include site clusters at Confluence, Quemahoning and Upper Casselman (Meyersdale). Specific recorded and excavated archaeological sites at Meyersdale include Gnagey 36SO55; Peck #1 36SO1: Peck #2, 36SO8; Petenbrink, 36SO113; and Bluelick, 36SO62. Just south of Meyersdale are Troutman 36SO9, near Wellersburg and Emerick 36SO10, near Kennells Mill.
The total population of this culture was never very large, typically dispersed into small settlements. The standard grouping was usually a 100-150 family associated members. This extended family arrangement remained the norm throughout the 900 to 1600 A.D. lifespan of the Monongahela culture.
The oval to round stockaded villages had overlapping, sometimes covered, mazelike entryways. A few had elevated observation platforms. The typical layout consisted of a circular collection of rounded houses with an open, central plaza. Houses of varying sizes were bark, usually slippery elm, covered wooden pole frame structures. Usually trenched inside, some had double walls, perhaps for insulation purposes. Many of these houses had petal-shaped storage appendages with mat-like floors.
Mortuary patterns of the Monongahela are consistent. Burials were placed in a flexed position and interred within the confines of the village stockade, sometimes within houses. The graves of women and children often contain marine shell, which was embroidered on clothing or head dresses. Men were buried with personal adornment of shell, bone and stone, as well as pipes and medicine pouches or bundles. Larger villages had charnel houses, indicating some ranking in burial practices.
Life in these villages was difficult at best because of an environmentally restricted subsistence of farming, hunting and gathering. The three sister crops of squash, corn, and beans accounted for most of the Monongahela's agricultural production. Growing areas were irregular patches of burned out woods. Indigenous plants, roots, seeds, and nuts were consumed. Fish, freshwater mussels, the meat gamut from groundhog to venison, fowl from songbirds to turkey, constituted typical fare.
But life was harsh, Imagine surviving on the Allegheny plateau and river valleys in the dead of winter. The term "starving moon" was no doubt an apt metaphor, yet these people persevered, even flourished. Their fragile prosperity allowed them to craft a wide assortment of pottery and tools. Well-crafted stone and highly decorated clay pipes were smoked. Black bear masks were worn by someone of rank.
As populations increased, groups split and moved upstream to create sister villages. Regular relocation also occurred because of the depletion of available firewood, soil and food. Some village sites were reoccupied later, after being abandoned. Population and range reached their zenith during the 1300's; then life for the Monongahela began to unravel.
Maintaining a healthy population was difficult even in the best of times. Half of the infants died, by age thirty teeth were gone, and it was rare for a Monongahela to reach the age of forty.
Sometime in the beginning of the fifteenth century a variety of malevolent forces began their assault on the unsuspecting Monongahelas. Arctic air that originally stirred in the Himalayas swept into the Alleghenies. The minimum onehundred twenty-day growing season was shortened, all but eliminating agricultural production and reducing nut tree harvests. Malnutrition would have opened the door for a wide variety of illnesses, especially pneumonia.
As competition for food supplies increased, so does evidence of inter-village warfare among the Monongahela. Fighting erupted as plateau villagers tried to return to the crowded river valleys. Apparently, survival took precedence over bloodlines. Already weakened, the Monongahela now faced stronger adversaries. As other regional Native American cultures peaked, the Monongahela remained in their fragmented family groups. The Seneca, Mingo and Shawnee all took their turn nipping at the remains of the Monongahela, who made a futile effort to fight off invaders from behind their fragile fortresses. By the time the first white Europeans arrived in the Alleghenies the campfires of the Monongahela had been extinguished and they were gone.