old woodcut image of the Kentucky River

A Teacher’s Guide to

Kentucky’s Story

A nine-part Kentucky history series for grades 4 and 5, produced by KET.

See our online ITV catalog  for upcoming broadcasts and additional information for teachers.

Early Kentucky

Program Goal

Students will name and discuss important aspects of early Indian life in Kentucky.

Program Summary

This program briefly reviews the arrival of prehistoric people on this continent and then focuses on the Indians living in Kentucky just before the coming of the white man. The program looks at the homes, games, clothes, economy, and lifestyles of these tribes.

Historical Background

Early Indians in Kentucky (12,000 B.C.-1650 A.D.)

For many years, writers depicted Kentucky, the Great Meadows of Indian lore, as uninhabited prior to European settlement. They believed that the Indians considered the land sacred and lived elsewhere, coming to the region only to hunt and war. However, almost 3,000 years before Kentucky pioneers came face to face with such tribes as the Shawnee, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, the area had been inhabited by prehistoric Indians. The ancestors of these earliest Kentuckians may have come to the Western Hemisphere as early as 20,000 years ago by crossing a strip of land, now submerged beneath the Bering Straits, connecting the Asian and North American continents. They slowly drifted southward, arriving in Kentucky by 12,000 B.C. Over many years these early Indians developed four prehistoric traditions which archaeologists have designated as Paleo Indian (12,000-7500 B.C.), Archaic (7500-1500 B.C.), Woodland (1500 B.C.-900 A.D.), and Mississippian (900-1650 A.D.).

A nomadic people, the Paleo Indians used Clovis points (leaf-shaped projectile points—archaeologists prefer the term “projectile point” instead of arrowhead) to hunt big game animals like the mammoth, mastodon, and bison which thrived in the cool postglacial environment. While the early hunters did produce stone projectile points, their transient lifestyle kept them from making large quantities of tools and implements. No skeletal remains of Paleo Indians have been found in Kentucky.

By 7500 B.C., Kentucky’s Indian culture changed. Large game animals died out, and the Archaic Indians now depended on fishing and efficient gathering of wild foods as well as hunting. The white-tailed deer and the elk became the dominant game animals. Hunting skills improved with the use of the atlatl, a short wooden board which enabled the Indians to throw their spears farther than with their arms alone. Stone tools, ground to the desired shape, appeared. Artifacts such as grooved axes, conical and cylindrical pestles, bone awls, and cannel coal beads also have been found from this period. A unique feature of the Archaic period was the “hominy hole,” a particular type of depression worn in sandstone by grinding or pulverizing. Despite its name, the hominy hole was probably used for grinding up nuts or seed; corn (from which hominy is made) was not grown in Kentucky until the Woodland period. Shell (mussel) mound sites along the Green, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers indicate that the Indians returned to the same places year after year. Archaic Indian social groups were probably small, consisting of a few cooperating families. Their dead were buried with bodies flexed in round pits, and sometimes tools were included in the graves.

Beginning about 1500 B.C., people of the Woodland culture entered Kentucky. They occupied the area for about 600 years. Efficient hunters and gatherers, the Woodland Indians also participated in an intricate trade network to obtain such things as copper from Lake Superior, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, and conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico. They mined both Mammoth Cave and Salts Cave for gypsum and mirabilite, a salty seasoning. The Woodland people cultivated corn, sunflowers, giant ragweeds, and amaranth (pigweed), and they raised squash and gourds for containers rather than as a food source. The Woodland Indians buried their dead in conical and later flat or oval-shaped burial mounds, which were often 10 to 20 feet high; this practice resulted in their being called the Mound Builders by 19th-century observers. The remains of two distinct Woodland groups, the Adena (early Woodland) and the Hopewell (middle Woodland), have been found in northcentral Kentucky.

The last of the prehistoric peoples were the Mississippian Indians, who lived in western Kentucky from 900 to 1650 A.D. In the greater Mississippi Valley, these Indians had a well established social order and a full agricultural economy with corn, beans, squash, and tobacco as the principal crops. They hunted with bows and arrows; made pottery in effigy forms; and fashioned large chipped-stone knives, picks, and hoes. These Indians constructed permanent homes of woven branches and plastered mud and protected their villages with wooden palisades (walls made of tall posts) and a moat (wide ditch) outside the palisades. These features gave the villages much the same appearance as the early pioneer forts. Although the Mississippians buried their dead in small burial mounds or stone box graves, they built large flat-topped temple mounds as the ceremonial centers of their cities. Because of this construction design, they have been called the Temple Mound Builders.

Some, but not all, archaeologists recognize a fifth Kentucky Indian tradition: the Fort Ancient culture, which developed when the Mississippian tradition came into contact with the retrogressive culture of the indigenous people of northern Kentucky. These Indians lived among the Hopewell sites but had no part in building the great mounds of the earlier period. Kentucky’s Fort Ancient people differed little from Woodland Indians in that they continued the old way of life of hunting small game and gathering food. They also planted beans, corn, and squash to supplement their diets, and they built villages of a few dozen bark-covered huts, generally on prominent knolls, but their settlements contained no temple mounds. They buried their dead in small burial mounds or stone box graves, made pottery for food and water storage, and carved small gorgets (throat armor) incised with human faces.

Extant records reveal neither what happened to the Mississippian way of life nor how long before the arrival of the white pioneers that Kentucky was without Indian inhabitants other than roaming bands of hunters and warriors. Probably a century elapsed, and undoubtedly many a battle was fought on Kentucky soil during the interval. Neither the southern Indians (the Cherokees and Chickasaws) nor the Shawnees from north of the Ohio River were strong enough to occupy and permanently hold the Great Meadows. However, the Shawnees seem to have made the greatest effort to live in Kentucky. In the early 18th century, there was a Shawnee settlement in Clark County called Eskippakithika and others in Greenup and Johnson counties. But for unknown reasons—perhaps a massive crop failure or widespread disease—most of the Indians who had lived in Kentucky disappeared before Europeans arrived in the state.

Suggested Activities

  1. To help students understand time, make a timeline on shelf paper. Divide the timeline into 1,000-year sections, leaving sufficient space to write in events from the past. Place names and dates of prehistoric Indian cultures in Kentucky on the timeline. Explain the meaning of B.C. and A.D. Have students add important dates in world history to the timeline (such events as Egyptian Civilization, 3100-1100 B.C.; Roman Empire, 27 B.C.-476 A.D.; Mayan Pyramids, 1000 A.D.; Columbus, 1492; Jamestown, 1607; American Revolution, 1776; Civil War, 1865; World War II, 1939-1945; today; etc.). Students will realize how short the present century is in comparison to past events and that different stages of cultural progress existed in the world at the same time.
  2. Have students imagine that they have been left in a Kentucky forest. They have no tools and only the clothes on their backs. They must devise methods of building shelters, making clothing, and obtaining and preparing food. Students can write imaginary diaries of how they survived the ordeal or divide into teams and include one another’s solutions to surviving in such a situation.
  3. Simulate an archaeological dig by having a “trash can dig.” In attempting to understand the cultural system of ancient people and the environment that fostered it, the archaeologist leaves no evidence unexamined. Even discarded debris—the garbage, flint chips, pieces of broken tools, clam shells, etc.—is valuable. These things reveal as much about prehistoric culture as wadded bits of paper, pop-can tabs, and discarded batteries do for our 20th-century lifestyles. For fun, have students excavate a trash can as if it were the site of an ancient civilization.
    • Excavation: Divide the class into two groups (or four, if the class is large). Find one full trash can, from another classroom or activity area, in the school for each group. Explain to one group how to excavate the trash can in levels from top to bottom. The students must keep accurate and detailed records (drawings and descriptions) of each level. They must record everything they find. Tell the other group to excavate the trash can any way they want. Each group is to select a speaker to report on the excavation orally after 20 minutes. Compare excavation procedures. Which is the more detailed? Why?
    • Analysis and Interpretation: By examining data collected at a site, archaeologists hope to discover how people lived. Students should be able to learn a great deal about the people who deposited trash in the cans through analysis. First, categorize the artifacts—trash—by form and function. Why were certain items found together? How many soft drink cans, discarded sheets of paper, broken pencils, etc. are there? Is there anything you might have expected to find but didn’t? Now answer some questions. From which classroom is the trash can? How do you know? Do you know the names of any of the students in the class? Can you ascribe personal characteristics to them? Who is the teacher? What were the students working on? Can you tell the order in which activities were conducted in the classroom by the levels of the trash? When was the trash last emptied? Students will be able to think up many more questions and answers as they examine the trash.
  4. Using an overhead or opaque projector, draw a wall-size map of Kentucky. As the series progresses, plot rivers, trails, settlements, etc. on the map.
  5. Archaeologists believe that prehistoric Kentuckians relied largely on small game, wild vegetables, and nuts, plus a few domesticated vegetables, for their food sources. Snails, mussels, deer, elk, bear, raccoon, beaver, raspberries, wild onions, pawpaws, walnuts, chestnuts, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, squash, and corn may have been among the foods hunted, gathered, and grown by early Kentuckians. Students might add to this possible list of foods, then learn to identify them, gather them, and attempt to cook some of them.
  6. Learn the Shawnee game Tetepauhalowaawaa (Teh-teh-paw-ha-lo-way-way), the rolling game. (It is described in Shawnee Traditions: C.C. Trowbridge’s Account. Vernon Kinietz and Ermine W. Voegelin, ed. Ann Arbor, 1939.) Divide the group into two teams, with a maximum of six players to a team. Mark off a rectangle 40' x 4'. If the court is on soft ground or sand, smooth the surface and dig 14 shallow holes (about 6" in diameter) at the places marked on the diagram. If the court is on hard ground or a gymnasium floor, the “holes” may be marked with rope and masking tape. One team stands at each of the court’s narrow ends. Each team has six balls. Teams alternate rolling one ball at a time down the court, trying to sink them into the pits and earn the points marked on the diagram. Balls must be aimed at pits at the end of the court opposite where the players are standing. When each team has rolled six balls, the teams switch ends, repeating the rolling procedure until one team has scored 60 points.
  7. Have students make clay pots using the coil method, as did the earliest prehistoric potters. Materials needed: clay, water, flat wooden paddles (e.g., flat wooden ice cream spoons), cord or twine similar to that used for macramé, and a small stick (popsicle stick or tongue depressor). Pots were either rounded or flat-bottomed, with straight sides. For a flat-bottom pot, roll out a round, flat piece of clay for the bottom. Then place a piece of clay between the hands and roll it into a coil. Place the coil around the edge of the bottom of the pot. Make more coils to build up the sides, pinching each coiled layer to the one below. Make the pot’s walls thinner by gently squeezing the wall between the thumb and fingers. Smooth the pot using the cord-covered paddle, patting on the outside with one hand while the other hand reinforces the pot from inside. After the pot is smooth, use a stick to impress a simple design around the rim. When the pots are finished, discuss with the students the problems encountered while creating their vessels—how long it took and whether they think their products look crude. Discuss how prehistoric people may have found the materials to make pottery. Some students’ pots will be better made than others’. Do students think this was the case with the early Indians? Would it have been possible that certain members were the pottery makers within a family or group?
  8. Ask a professional archaeologist or other interested person to speak to the class on
    1. what a professional archaeologist does
    2. recent archaeological discoveries
    3. the excavation of an archaeological site in your area
    4. federal and state legislation regarding cultural resources
    Your local county historical society, the county librarian, or the speakers’ bureau or history department of the regional university or community college nearest you should be able to help you find such a person).

Web Picks

Free and Inexpensive Materials


  • Carpenter, James C., and Fraser, Kathryn M. Environmental Approaches to Pre-History. Murray State University, 1980.
  • Kentucky Pre-History: A Guide to Sites and Museums for Student Field Trips. Murray State University, 1983.
  • Clark, Jerry E. The Shawnee. Lexington. 1977.*
  • Dickens, Roy S., and McKinely, James L. Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia. Atlanta, 1979. (Grades 5-8 textbook, easily adapted to Kentucky.)
  • Powell, Bruce. Digging the Past: Archaeology in Your Own Backyard. Reading, MA, 1979.
  • Schock, Jack M. Prehistoric Indians of Southern Kentucky. Bowling Green, 1978.
  • Schwartz, Douglas W. Conceptions of Kentucky Prehistory: A Case Study in the History of Archaeology. Lexington, 1967.

*Denotes books in the Kentucky Bicentennial Series. These brief studies were written for the general public and should be in almost all school and public libraries.