On September 2nd, Friends of Blackwater is sponsoring a living history presentation focused on the early West Virginia explorer Gabriel Arthur. If you don’t know anything about this historical figure, you can catch up now.
Gabriel Arthur is believed to be the first white person to see the Kanawha Valley in 1674. The previous year, Arthur had joined an exploratory expedition that set out from Fort Henry at what is now Petersburg Virginia. West Virginia was still considered a wild frontier at that time, with little in the way of colonial settlements, although fur trappers and traders were already interested in finding safe routes in the mountains. The expedition was led by James Needham, but within a few months of getting started Needham was killed in an altercation with one of their guides. Despite this setback, Arthur was able to continue his journey.
The history of this expedition is mostly second-hand, and we have no account directly from Gabriel Arthur himself. The main sources was written by a military officer named Abraham Wood who stayed at Fort Henry and based his account on stories he had been told about the expedition. As such, Wood’s version includes plenty of details that are colorful but unverifiable.
The relationship between Gabriel Arthur and the native people he encountered either wasn’t well understood at the time or changed rapidly over the course of the expedition. Early on he is described as being threatened and taken captive, but most of his travels were possible because of friendly interactions with tribes, and at the end of the expedition he was escorted back to Virginia by a Shawnee chief.
Arthur had spent time studying Cherokee at the beginning of the expedition, and likely would have had to learn some basics in other languages, since his trip to the Kanawha Valley has facilitated by members of the Yuchi tribe. His ability with languages might have come as a surprise, since he was described elsewhere as a young man who had received little education, and it is possible that he was an indentured servant before leaving Fort Henry.
In addition to reaching the Kanawha Valley, Arthur’s travels also took him through the Carolinas, Georgia and to the edge of Spanish territory in what is now Alabama. He was gone roughly a year, setting out in June 1673 and returning to Fort Henry in June 1674. Recorded history doesn’t tell us much about him after that, as he presumably was not involved in any adventures that equaled the 1673 expedition. Arthur is said to have married a Native American woman named Nikitie, who was either Powhattan or Cherokee. (Colonial historians weren’t particularly good at differentiating between tribes)