History
1:46 am
Thu June 26, 2014

New Book Discovers Where Wheeling (Place of the Skull) Got Its Name

Painter Cecy Rose looks onto her painting that serves as the cover art for the newly published book, PLACE OF THE SKULL.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

The name Wheeling is a very old word. While there’s some dispute, it’s most commonly translated from the indigenous Delaware language to mean “Place of the Skull.” That’s the name and subject of a recently published book written by Ohio Valley resident Alan Fitzpatrick.

Part 1 of "The Place of the Skull."
Part 2 of "The Place of the Skull."

Wheeling: from Delaware Indian language weel (meaning ‘skull’ or ‘head’) and lunk (meaning ‘place of’).

That’s according to Alan Fitzpatrick, the author of a newly published book entitled Place of the Skull**.

“What happened here? Something happened. Indians did not name places randomly, for no reason,” Fitzpatrick wondered.

The Legend:

Wheeling is the place where an early white settler was murdered by natives. His severed head was put on top of a pole as a warning to other settlers to stay away.

But, until now, no one has ever really tried to substantiate the story.

There were a couple of other motivating factors behind the undertaking:

  1. Brennan

Fitzpatrick first learned about the legend from Wheeling historian, Margaret Brennan. He dedicated the book to her, in fact, and credits Brennan, in part, for inspiring him to investigate the matter.

  1. A Family History

Place of the Skull is actually the third book Fitzpatrick has written about 18th century indigenous Americans. His interest was sparked in the subject when he began to look at his own family tree. He discovered one of his American ancestors fought with native tribes and the British during the Revolutionary War, against other Americans. Fitzpatrick then discovered there were many who fought with the indigenous people.

“The American side did not know how many white men had gone over to the Indians, who were sympathetic, who could speak the language who were with them, fighting against their own people.”

He discovered this oversees in England where he found a treasure trove of historical documents meticulously taken and maintained by the British before and during the American Revolution. Some 42,000 letters and documents exist there, Fitzpatrick says, and were the basis of his first book Wilderness War on the Ohio. Those same documents also informed Place of the Skull.

Fitzpatrick remembers encountering many references of Wheeling in letters written by white men who were fighting along side indigenous North Americans.

“These are Indians who have never been to Wheeling," Fitzpatrick said. "For some reason Wheeling holds a certain spell over them, and when you read the letters you get the feel of it. They’re always talking about Wheeling, almost like a place of mind, not an exact spot.”

  1. Fort Henry

Fitzpatrick also notes a war tactic anomaly that captured his curiosity. The last battle of the American Revolution was fought in Wheeling. Fitzpatrick explains, it was peculiar because the fort wasn’t a significant post, nor could it be easily taken. And yet, for three days a battle raged.

“Why would Indians spend three days attacking a fort when that went against every principal of warfare that they understood and had practiced?” Fitzpatrick wondered.

Fitzpatrick was intrigued and so he began a search to discover the story behind Wheeling.

A Cold Case

“I had to approach it like this was a cold case," said Fitzpatrick. He set out to find some very tight circumstantial evidence.

The search lead to studying 18th century indigenous customs—especially those regarding a man’s skull being severed from his body and put on display atop a planted post (not an especially easy task).

“They didn’t do this for recreation,” Fitzpatrick said, “It was not a random act of violence.”

Fitzpatrick points out that white people had very little insight to the native mindset then, and so we naturally still have a very shallow understanding of their perspectives. But he has been able to glean some understanding by interviewing modern indigenous Americans schooled in traditional cultures.

“To us today, if we see that man kill that person, that man is guilty of the act for whatever the motive was, but in Indian understanding of things in 1800s, there’s no difference between an evil act, and an evil person, and an evil place. They are one and the same," he explained. "And so the skull on the post is a warning to Indians that something bad has happened here to us.”

**You can find out more about this book, which was self-published by Fitzpatrick, here.