The prehistoric origins of the Shawnees are quite uncertain. The other Algonquian nations regarded the Shawnee as their southernmost branch, and other Algonquian languages have words similar to "shawano" meaning "south." However, the stem shawan does not mean "south" in Shawnee, but "moderate, warm (of weather)." In one Shawnee tale, Shawaki is the deity of the south. Some scholars have speculated that the Shawnee are descendants of the people of the prehistoric Fort Ancient culture of the Ohio country, although other scholars disagree, and no definitive proof has been established.
Before contact with Europeans, the Shawnee tribe consisted of a loose confederacy of five divisions which shared a common language and culture. These division names have been spelled in a variety of ways, but the phonetic spelling is added after each following the work of C. F. Voegelin.
- Chillicothe (Chalahgawtha) [Chalaka, Chalakatha]
- Hathawekela (Asswikales, Sweickleys, etc.) [Thawikila]
- Kispokotha (Kispoko) [kishpoko, kishpokotha]
- Mequachake (Mekoche, Machachee, Maguck, Mackachack) [Mekoche]
- Pekuwe (Piqua, Pekowi, Pickaway, Picks) [Pekowi, Pekowitha]
Membership in a division was inherited from the father. Each division had a primary village where the chief of the division lived; this village was usually named after the division. By tradition, each Shawnee division had certain roles it performed on behalf of the entire tribe, although these customs were fading by the time they were recorded in writing by European-Americans and are now poorly understood.
This arrangement gradually changed due to the scattering of the Shawnee tribe from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century.
Sometime before 1670, a group of Shawnee had migrated to the Savannah River area. The English of Province of Carolina based in Charles Town were first contacted by these Shawnees in 1674, after which a long lasting alliance was forged. The Savannah River Shawnee were known to the Carolina English as "Savannah Indians." Around the same time other Shawnee groups migrated to Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and other regions south and east of the Ohio Country. Historian Alan Gallay speculated that this Shawnee diaspora of the middle to late seventeenth century was probably driven by the Iroquois Wars that began in the 1640s. The Shawnee became known for their widespread settlements and migrations and their frequent long-distance visits to other Indian groups. Their language became a lingua franca among numerous tribes, which along with their experience helped make them leaders in initiating and sustaining pan-Indian resistance to European and Euro-American expansion.
Piqua Shawnee has approximately 300 members, and is a recognized tribe by the State of Alabama. Piqua Shawnee Tribe is also a member of the Alabama Indian Affairs Commission. Piqua refers to one of the five septs of the Shawnee.