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The Kanawha River (pronounced kuh-NAW or less often ka-NA-wah and earlier, kuh-NOIE) is a tributary of the Ohio River, approximately 97 mi (156 km) long, in the U.S. state of West Virginiamarker. The largest inland waterway in West Virginia, it has formed a significant industrial region of the state since the middle of the 19th century.

It is formed at the town of Gauley Bridgemarker in northwestern Fayette Countymarker, approximately 35 mi (56 km) SE of Charlestonmarker, by the confluence of the New and Gauley rivers. It flows generally northwest, in a winding course on the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau, through Fayette, Kanawhamarker, Putnammarker and Masonmarker Counties, past the cities of Charleston and St. Albansmarker and numerous smaller communities. It joins the Ohio at Point Pleasantmarker.

Paleo-Indians, the earliest indigenous peoples, lived in the valley and the heights by 10,000 BCE, as evidenced by archaeological artifacts such as Clovis points. A succession of prehistoric cultures developed, with the Adena culture beginning the construction of numerous skilled earthwork mounds and enclosures more than 1000 years ago. Some of the villages of the Fort Ancient culture survived into the times of European contact. The area was a place of competition among historical Native Americans, as the Iroquois' invading from present-day New Yorkmarker drove out or conquered Fort Ancient-culture peoples, as well as such tribes as the Huron and Conoy. The Iroquois, Delawaremarker and Shawnee kept the area as a hunting ground and resisted European-American settlement in the colonial years.

The river valley contains significant deposits of coal and natural gas. In colonial times, the wildly fluctuating level of the river prevented its use for transportation. The removal of boulders and snags on the lower river in the 1840s allowed navigation, extended after the construction of locks and dams starting in 1875. The river is now navigable to Deepwatermarker, an unincorporated community about upriver from Charleston. A thriving chemical industry along its banks provides a significant part of the local economy.


In addition to the New and Gauley Rivers, the Kanawha is joined at Charleston by the Elk River, at St. Albans by the Coal River, and at Pocamarker by the Pocatalico River.

List of cities and towns along the Kanawha River

The confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers at Point Pleasant, West Virginia

Variant names

Winfield Lock and Dam on the Kanawha River at Winfield, West Virginia, 31 miles upriver from the mouth at Point Pleasant.
According to the Geographic Names Information System, the Kanawha River has also been known as:
  • Big Connawas River
  • Big Connawas River
  • Big Kanawha River
  • Canawha
  • Canhawa River
  • Chinidashhichetha
  • Chinodahichetha River
  • Chinodashichetha
  • Chinondaista
  • Great Canawha River
  • Great Kanawha River
  • Great Kanhawa River
  • Great Kanhaway River
  • Great Kehhawa River
  • Great Kenhawa River
  • Great Kenhaway River
  • Great Konhaway River
  • Great Konhawayriver
  • Kanahaway River
  • Kanawa River
  • Kanawah River
  • Kanaway River
  • Kanawhy River
  • Kanhaway River
  • Kannawha River
  • Keanawha River
  • Kenhaway River
  • Keninsheka
  • Kinhaway River
  • Kunhaway River
  • Le-we-ke-o-mi
  • New River
  • Pi-que-me-ta-mi
  • Pique-me-ta-nei
  • Woods River

"Ka(ih)nawha" derives from the region's Iroquoian dialects meaning "water way" or "canoe way" implying the metaphor, "transport way", in the local language. The Glottal consonant of the "ih" (stream or river, local Iroquois) dropped out as few European settlers and homesteaders were fluent with any of the dialects of Iroquois. Kahnawáˀkye in Tuscarora (Iroquois) means "waterway", "kye" is augmentive suffix.
Kaniatarowanenneh means "big waterway" in Mohawk (Iroquois).
Lachler, McElwain, and Burke
Mingo (Iroquois) etymology about boating: kaháwa' noun means boat. kényua'. This switch-interactive verb means to row a boat or more to ferry someone across a stretch of water. It belongs to the semantic fields the sea and transportation. Etymology kényua' -NYU- Verb Root. Grammatical Info Base -nyu-.Stem Class LX. Conjugation Class XX. kényua' "I row boats". kaháwa', (boat) grammatical info base -haw- Stem Class C, Prefix Class Agent, Linker Vowel ö. Note that the -h- at the beginning of this base is strong, and so does not drop out when it would come between two vowels. Varies with kahôwö'. Possessed Form akháwa' my boat. Plural Form kahawa'shö'ö boats. káhu' means "this way" or in this direction. See also Mohawk language


Archaeological artifacts, such as Clovis points and later projectiles, indicate prehistoric indigenous peoples living in the area from as early as 12,500 BCE. Peoples of later cultures continued to live along the valley and heights. Those of the Adena culture built at least 50 earthwork mounds and 10 enclosures in the area between Charlestonmarker and Dunbarmarker, as identified by an 1882 to 1884 survey by the Bureau of Ethnology (later part of the Smithsonian Institutionmarker). Three of their mounds survive in the valley, including Criel Moundmarker at present-day South Charleston, West Virginiamarker. Evidence has been found of the Fort Ancient culture peoples, who had villages that survived to the time of European contact, such as Buffalomarker and Marmetmarker. They were driven out by Iroquois from present-day New Yorkmarker.

According to French missionary reports, by the late 1500s, several thousand Huron, originally of the Great Lakesmarker region, lived in central West Virginia. They were driven out in the 1600s by the Iroquois' invading from western present-day New York. Other accounts note that the tribe known as Conois, Conoy or Canawesee, were conquered or driven out by the large Seneca tribe, one of the Iroquois Confederacy, as the Seneca boasted to Virginiamarker colonial officials in 1744. The Iroquois and other tribes, such as the Shawnee and Delawaremarker, maintained central West Virginia as a hunting ground. It was essentially unpopulated when the Englishmarker and Europeans began to move into the area.

Those whom actually came to the Great Kanawha, quoting Captain Hanson in April 1774 "18th. We surveyed 2,000 acres (8.1 km2) of Land for Col. Washington, bordered by Coal River & the Canawagh..." This area is the lower area of today's St. Albans, West Virginiamarker. After the Treaty of Fort Stanwix-- "The Kanawhas had gone from the upper tributaries of the river which bears their name, to join their kinsmen, the Iroquois in New York; the Shawnee had abandoned the Indian Old Fields of the valley of the South Branch of the Potomac; the Delaware were gone from the Monongahela; the Cherokee who claimed all the region between the Great Kanawha and Big Sandy, had never occupied it." quoting Virgil A. Lewis (1887), Corresponding member of the Virginia Historical Society. "History of West Virginia In Two Parts", Philadelphia. Hubbard Brothers, Publishers. 1889.
West Virginia State Historian/Archivist, Virgil A. Lewis, 1905 - 1912 (died while in the position) from Mason County – see WV Bluebook reference MC descriptions 1916 - 1920. (11/1/09) Virgil's grandfather was a western Virginia surveyer, Andrew Lewis , who surveyed the Kanawha's tributaries in the middle 18th Century. The river's name changes to the Kanawha River at the Kanawha Fallsmarker. Lewis was granted a large tract of land near the mouth of the Great Kanawha River in the late 18th Century.

The Little Kanawha and the Great Kanawha rivers, the two largest in the state, were named for the American Indian tribe that lived in the area prior to European settlement in the 1700s. Under pressure from the Iroquois, most of the Conoy had migrated to present-day Virginia by 1634, where they had settled on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay and below the Potomac River. They were also known to the colonists there as the Piscataway. They later migrated north to Pennsylvaniamarker, to submit and seek protection with the Susquehannock and Iroquois. The spelling of the Indian tribe varied at the time, from Conoys to Conois to Kanawha. "The latter spelling was used and has gained acceptance over time," according to scholars at West Virginia Universitymarker.


  • Interstate 64 crosses the Kanawha four times on major bridges in the Charleston vicinity.

See also

Further reading

  • Arthur Benke & Colbert Cushing, Rivers of North America, Elsevier Academic Press, 2005 ISBN 0-12-088253-1
  • Atkinson, George W. 1876. History of Kanawha County, From. . . 1789 Until the Present Time, Charleston: West Virginia Journal Office.
  • Braley, Dean. 1993. The Shaman's Story, West Virginia Petroglyphs.
  • Dayton, Ruth Woods. 1947. Pioneers and Their Homes on Upper Kanawha, Charleston: West Virginia Publishing Company.
  • Dickens, Roy S., Jr. and James L. Mckinley . 1979. Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia, LaGrange, Georgia: Frontiers Publishing Company
  • Laidley, W. S. 1911. History of Charleston and Kanawha County, West Virginia, Chicago: Richmond-Arnold Publishing Company
  • Lewis, Thomas M. N. and Madeline Kneberg. 1958. Tribes That Slumber, Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press
  • McMichael, Edward V. 1968. Introduction to West Virginia Archeology, Morgantown, WVA: West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey
  • Nabokov, Peter and Robert Easton. 1989. Native American Architecture, New York: Oxford University Press
Potter, Eloise F. and John B. Funderburg. 1986. Native Americans: The People and How They Lived, Raleigh, North Carolina: North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences
  • Rhodes, Captain Rick, The Ohio River in American History and Voyaging on Today's River. Heron Island Guides, 2007, ISBN 978-0-9665866-33
  • Thomas, Cyrus. 1894. Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology. Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Wavra, Grace. 1990. The First Families of West Virginia, Huntington: University Editions , Inc.
  • Weatherford, Jack M. 1988. Indian Givers, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.


  1. Dr. Robert F. Maslowski, "The Kanawha Valley and its Prehistoric People", 2002, Council on West Virginia Archaeology, accessed 31 Oct 2009
  2. Dr. Robert J. Dilger and James Marshall, "Kanawha County History", Institute for Public Affairs, West Virginia University, 21 Feb 2002, accessed 31 Oct 2009
  3. Dr. Robert J. Dilger and James Marshall, Kanawha County History", Institute for Public Affairs, West Virginia University, 21 Feb 2002, accessed 31 Oct 2009

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