Some American Indians used a form of symbolic drawing called pictography. Information was conveyed using drawings of objects, humans, animals, tools, weapons, houses, canoes, and so forth, combined in a particular sequence. Various colors of paint and charcoal were used. The pictographs were often painted at face level on a section of tree trunk from which the rough outer bark had been removed to create a smooth surface. The pictograph usually told of war or hunting exploits. Pictographs were often encountered along trails in West Virginia during the 18th century by European settlers, explorers, and soldiers.
Pictographs were once abundant on West Virginia’s Paint Creek. The creek, whose history was researched by the late Sigfus Olafson, runs parallel to the West Virginia Turnpike for many miles and empties into the Kanawha River at Pratt. Olafson discovered, through examining local land surveys and grants, and from a letter in the Draper Collection, that the Fayette County stream was named as early as 1774, for the many painted trees on its banks.
The Warriors Path ran alongside Paint Creek and led the New York Iroquois south to wage battle against the tribes of Virginia and North Carolina. Local 19th-century tradition held that the Indians danced around the trees after painting the trees to symbolize the enemy they had targeted for attack. This may have continued until dawn, with the warriors hurling tomahawks and spears into the trees as part of their exhausting ceremony.
Olafson concluded that there were two painted tree sites on Paint Creek. ‘‘One of these, sometimes called ‘the Big Painted Trees,’ was in a fair-sized bottom on the west side of Paint Creek immediately below the little village of Long Branch in Fayette County,’’ he wrote in 1958. ‘‘This bottom is well suited for Indian encampment and is at the point where the Coal River path, a more direct but also a more difficult route to the Indian towns on the Scioto, joined the main path on Paint Creek.’’ This site is north of Pax, near the present Turnpike toll plaza.
About three and a half miles farther up Paint Creek, at the mouth of Sandfork in Raleigh County, was the second site, Upper Painted Trees. Olafson said that this site was apparently of less importance, and infrequently mentioned in surveys.
Written by Robert F. Maslowski
Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Northeast 15. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.
Warhus, Mark. Another America: Native American Maps and the History of our Land. New York: St. Martins Press, 1997.
Olafson, Sigfus. The Painted Trees and the War Road, Paint Creek, Fayette County. The West Virginia Archeologist, (Sept. 1958).