Why “Cenantua”?

Posted on October 6, 2010 by


I love this time of year. It’s a chilly day, the sky is overcast…

… I have a fire in the wood stove…

… and a relaxing cup of cappuccino in my manly-man Mickey Mouse coffee mug (what else??!!) is close at-hand.

Feels like a good time to sit down and write… just wish I could add the sounds of the wind blowing outside, and the crackle of the wood in the firebox… oh well…

Over a year and a half into this blog, and not once (I think…) have I mentioned from whence the title comes.

Call it…

… the place in which the majority of my European-rooted North American ancestors lay in silence…

… my starting point… and more than likely my end point…

… thereby, a personal point of reference.

The place that forms the foundations of my understanding of history…

… and the very center of my historical discussions.

As a word, “cenantua” is one of a handful that are left to us here in the Shenandoah Valley, that are supposed to be legacies of a people that were gone long before Europeans laid foot in the area. Was this really the word of a native people or has it been distorted through the years? We may never know. Other words attributed to local native inhabitants in the Valley include Senedo/Senedos/Senedoes, Sherando, Gerando, and Shendo. Perhaps one of the words is genuine… perhaps none… but my preferred word is “cenantua”, which sounds closer to the word “Shenandoah” than any of the others. Why not just use the word “Shenandoah”? Well… for one, it’s too common… and simply isn’t as meaningful, to me, as “cenantua”. I also consider “Shenandoah” to be overused and story-added (the word is said to mean “daughter of the stars”, but frankly, there is no means to confirm such a suggestion). Then too, I’m of the belief that the overall legend accompanying the word “cenantua” encompasses a greater span of geography than just the Shenandoah Valley proper, with connections reaching into other areas tied to my family roots, namely, the Hagerstown Valley and Cumberland Valley, in western Maryland and Pennsylvania, respectively.

Additionally, being aware of certain affordances made possible through the Web that are not possible in print, using the word “cenantua” has its perks as a keyword in this particular format.

I don’t think I can explain further without giving some background information on the supposed origin of the word. So, a little background then, about the supposed originators…

The “Senedo” or “Senedos” tribe (or a people led by someone called “Senedo”) is thought to have been a group of Native Americans that once inhabited the Shenandoah Valley. The amount of time they resided in the Shenandoah Valley is uncertain, but, 40-60 years before the first European, John Lederer, first laid eyes on this place in 1699, it is generally suggested that they may have been driven out of the Valley or annihilated in an attack by another native people.

A 1585 painting of a Chesapeake Bay warrior by John White; this painting was adapted to represent Opechancanough in the engraving "John Smith taking the King of Pamunkey prisoner", which is a fanciful image of Opechancanough from Smith's General History of Virginia (1624).

One source (a source that I regret to say, slips my mind) suggests that Opechancanough, a brother (or half-brother) of Wahunsunacawh (known to the English as “Chief Powhatan” of the Powhatan), made war on the Iroquois leader “Senedo” (though it seems a little far south for the Iroquois, considering their more common area in the Hudson Valley of New York), and drove his people out of the Valley permanently. Opechancanough placed his son, “Sheewanee” (?), in charge of the area, but was later driven out by yet another attack and fled to the Tidewater.

In A History of the Valley of Virginia (1833 – see Note # below), Samuel Kercheval (a name you may recall from my post of October 4) suggested something different,

Tradition… relates that the Southern Indians exterminated a tribe, called the Senedos, on the North fork of the Shenandoah river, at present the residence of William Steenbergen, Esq.*, in the county of Shenandoah. About the year 1734, Benjamin Allen, Riley Moore [no, sorry… no known relation to me], and William White, settled in this neighborhood. Benjamin Allen settled on the beautiful estate called Allen’s bottom. An aged Indian frequently visited him, and on one occasion informed him that the “Southern Indians killed his whole nation with the exception of himself and one other youth; that this bloody slaughter took place when he, the Indian, was a small boy.” From this tradition, it is probable this horrid affair took place some time shortly after the middle of the seventeenth century. Major Andrew Keyser also informed the author that an Indian once called at his father’s in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, appeared to be much agitated, and asked for something to eat. After refreshing himself, he asked what disturbed him. he replied, “The Southern Indians have killed my whole nation.”

[*To those who may be unfamiliar with the geography of the Valley, the location mentioned is near the northern base of Rude’s Hill, near Meem’s Bottom, between New Market (to the South) and Mt. Jackson (to the North). Today, the site is probably best known for its covered bridge.]

In A History of Shenandoah County, Virginia (1927), Valley historian John Walter Wayland (1872-1962) suggested that these “Southern Indians” were the Catawba, and it is likely that he makes this suggestion based on Kercheval’s mention of a regular struggle, primarily in the lower (northern) Valley, between the Delaware (Lenape) and Catawba. “Tradition relates”, wrote Kercheval, “that the Delaware and Catawba tribes were engaged in war at the time the Valley was first known by the white people…” Kercheval mentions a number of battles fought on and near the Cohongoruton (Wayland later defined this as the portion of the Potomac River from “its junction with the Shenandoah to the Alleghany mountain”), from the Antietam to the Conococheague (a Lenape/Delaware word, meaning “water of many turns”), and from the Opequon to the Wappatomaka (the “ancient name of the Great South Branch of the Potomac, and generally in the vicinity of what is now known as Hanging Rocks in Hampshire County).

Kercheval also explained that there were also “evident signs of the truth” of the massacre taking place near the Steenbergen farm…

On Mr. Steenbergen’s land are the remains of an Indian mound, though it is now plowed down. The ancient settlers in the neighborhood differ in their opinion of its original height. When they first saw it, some say it was eighteen feet or twenty feet height, others that it did not exceed twelve or fourteen, and that it was from fifty to sixty yards in circumference at the base. This mound was literally filled with human skeletons; and it is highly probable that this was the depository of the dead after the great massacre which took place as just related.

Personally, I doubt that the mound was for the victims of the massacre, but was, more than likely, one that may have even predated the dispute between the Lenape/Delaware and the Catawba, if not their very presence in the Valley. In fact, there are multiple mounds found just across the mountain, in my home county, of Page. Little evidence remains of these as well, but before I digress…

Oh well, but while I’m on the subject, and before I move on, just a little show-and-tell…

No, it's not a fossilized wooden Dutch shoe 🙂 While I found lots of arrowheads as a kid, this topped any of those I ever found. When I first found it, around the ripe old age of 7 or 8, on my grandfather's land along the banks of the creek near Honeyville, in Page County, I thought it might be a tomahawk. It's probably hard to appreciate the shape of the item, as seen in this photo, but in time, I realized this was, more than likely, a device for plowing or skinning. No matter what, it is among the things that surround me in my study, as items of reflection into the past. I feel pretty certain that its age predates the legend of the "Senedos", but it's connection to the Valley is certain.

Interestingly, in the fourth edition (1925) of Kercheval’s book, in which Wayland was able to chime-in with footnotes, he challenged Kercheval’s idea that there even existed a group of people called “Senedos”.

Iroquois women at work, ca. 1664 engraving

This mention of the Senedos is no longer regarded as having an authentic basis. The treaty of Albany [Wayland says 1725, but I’m more familiar with the treaty being ratified in 1722], made with the Iroquois in 1725, does not speak of such a tribe. There would have been mention, had the alleged tribe been resident in the Valley of Virginia at the time indicated. The mound spoken of does not prove a massacre. Kercheval and other early writers were entirely too hasty in assuming the skeletons found in a mound are those of warriors slain in battle. The Indian burial mound includes the skeletons of women and children, and it rose , little by little, near every village. Indian armies were nearly always small, and the losses of the victorious party were small. Until a very recent day, a successful army, even of the white race, did not hold that it was under any obligation to bury the enemies it had killed.

Oh, boy… but could we have some fun with Wayland’s remarks and perspective?! I’ll refrain from saying too much, but will note that I find it particularly odd that he gives the date of the Treaty of Albany, when the supposed massacre is actually believed to have occurred nearly 75 years or so prior to the treaty. If this were a band of the Iroquois, and they were, as “massacre” suggests, wiped-out, how could they be mentioned in a treaty some 75 years after the fact? Additionally, why did Wayland make a reference (in 1925) to the Senedos as, in some way, linked to the Iroquois? As mentioned above, in 1927, Wayland suggested that the Senedos may have been Catawba. Anyway…

So, I think that’s about all I can say about the history of the people from whence the word “cenantua” may have originated.

This blog is about the geographic area that is encompassed by the legend of the Senedos, and those people who have lived here since then. “Cenantua” describes something deeper, or at least, that is my hope… that has been my hope. True, I veer off track from time to time, stepping outside geographical boundaries, but this place is the center of my historical focus.

As for the history you will find here… well, we can read history from the surface and be content, or we could dig into the mysteries that exist therein, in search of a more complex range of answers… the complex range of answers or possibilities being more typical than some would prefer to believe. That’s what this is all about. All too often, historical memory is for convenience of the living, not necessarily revealing the truth of the past. I prefer to think of history as more complex and meaningful than superficial.

While what you see here regularly focuses on the American Civil War, and usually the years shortly before and after, my writings don’t begin and end there, nor did they begin (see a list of my articles, here, and a list of my books, here) or will they end in a blog. Rather, they encompass a larger scale of history in relation to this area. I prefer to look at it all and generally consider it within a relatively small stretch of time, usually the Civil War. This is the way it should be. We should not look at the history of a people or place as defined by a finite set of years, but consider all of those years, all of the events, and all of the people over the course of the history.

Again, my time-line for this blog begins with the legend of the Senedos… and this blog will begin to reflect more of that in the months to come.

So, that, in a nutshell, is why I used “cenantua”. In the tradition of the native peoples, it’s not mine to keep… I just have the honor to borrow it for a short span of time.

Note #: Kercheval’s book has seen multiple printings, but only once (1833) in his lifetime. The second edition came (1850) a decade before the Civil War, while the others followed in 1902, 1925, 1973, 1981, 1986, and 1994.