Where are the Susquehannock?
Growing up in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, I remember studying the history of the Commonwealth in school. I remember reading about the native Susquehannocks, who farmed the land, traded with settlers, and left their namesake on many landmarks. Even today, throughout the region there are numerous reminders of the tribe that so dominated central Pennsylvania. So where are they now? Were they driven west? Were they hoarded onto a reservation? No, the ending was much more grievous.
The story begins with Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame, who, while exploring the upper Chesapeake Bay in 1608, had the first recorded European encounter with the native people known as the Susquehannock. That name, as well as the name for the Susquehanna River, is derived from the word Sasquesahanough, a descriptive term used by Smith’s Algonquian interpreter to mean People at the Falls, or People of the Muddy River. Historically, we often come to know tribal groups by the name that others call them, and not what they call themselves. Of course, this trend arises naturally from the fact that most tribes simply call themselves the People, and all others are the Others. How they differentiate among groups of others is how a name becomes attached to a tribe.
In the case of the Susquehannocks, colonial history records numerous names which can be associated with this tribe. The true nature of their society, whether comprised of a single tribe in a single village, or a confederacy of smaller tribes occupying scattered villages, will probably never be known, since Europeans seldom visited this inland region during the early colonial period. It’s likely that the Susquehannocks had occupied the same land for several hundred years. What is known is that at the time of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, the Susquehannocks controlled a vast territory, comprised of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, from what is now New York, across Pennsylvania, to Maryland. They had a formidable village in the lower river valley near present-day Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when Captain Smith met them. He estimated the population of their village to be two thousand, although he never visited it. Modern estimates of their population, including the whole territory in 1600, range as high as seven thousand. But the story of the Susquehannocks has a violent and tragic end. Within a hundred and fifty years, this once powerful tribe was completely obliterated.
During the 1600′s, the Susquehannocks, like many eastern tribes, were constantly forming alliances and waging wars with their neighbors, both native and European, for control and profit. Historically, the Susquehannocks had always been allies of the Huron and enemies of the Iroquois. During this time they were known to combat other tribes as well, such as the Delaware to the east, the Powhatan to the south, and the Mohawk to the north. Besides control of their native land and its natural trading routes, the Susquehannocks were fighting for the profits of business with the European fur traders. They were perhaps the only tribe to achieve friendly relations with all the Europeans: the French, the Dutch, the Swedes, and the English, at one time or another. They signed treaties with colonial governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.
But the price of constant warfare, along with the ravages of disease, took its toll. As warriors were killed in battle by the hundreds, their numbers quickly declined, and the social structure began to fail. Smallpox epidemics devastated their population at least twice. Many Susquehannocks left their homeland to join other tribes in New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. By the end of the 1600′s, only a few hundred Susquehannocks remained as an identifiable tribe. After migrating as far away as Virginia, they returned to their ancestral home to build a new village, where they lived under the protection of the provincial government of Pennsylvania. Here they were known as the Conestoga, referring to the name of their village, Conestoga Town on the Conestoga River. Some historians have suggested that Conestoga may well have been what the Susquehannock called themselves all along, but the evidence is circumstantial at best.
Today, of course, Conestoga is most closely associated with the Conestoga Wagon, named for the same river valley in Lancaster County. Although it probably had origins in European draft wagons, the utilitarian design of the Conestoga Wagon was perfected by the Pennsylvania Dutch merchants. (Incidentally, the Pennsylvania Dutch are actually of German descent. The misnomer results from the mispronunciation of the German word for German, Deutsch.) From there the Conestoga Wagon made its mark in American folklore as the canopied moving van of western expansion. Ironically, it was just these same wagon trains, followed closely by the railroads, that ultimately led to the demise of the western native tribes.
Conestoga Town quickly became an important center for trade and treaty signings. William Penn himself visited in 1700, as did several succeeding governors of the Commonwealth. Its importance may have been more symbolic than practical, for here was a genuine Indian community, friendly to the colonial settlers, within easy travel distance of the politicians in Philadelphia. The historical record is replete with references to the politicking at Conestoga Town during the first few decades of the 1700′s, but it is remarkably vacant of any meaningful insight into the daily life at Conestoga Town (or even exactly where the town was located!). Although no official censuses were kept, documents of the day suggest that the population of this small, isolated tribe declined steadily, from more than a hundred to a few dozen, within two generations.
A Violent End
The final chapter of the Susquehannocks is well documented in the historical record. In 1763, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawas led uprisings against settlers in the Great Lakes region, including western Pennsylvania. Although the Conestoga were peaceful farmers and craftsman, with no connection to the rebellion in the west, they were attacked by a vigilante group known as the Paxton Boys, who found the Conestoga an easy target. The Paxton Boys murdered the six people they found in the village. The provincial council ordered the rest of the Conestoga to be taken into protective custody, but the measures failed. The Paxton Boys broke into the workhouse and slaughtered all fourteen members of the tribe. Two residents of Conestoga, a husband and wife known as Michael and Mary, survived the attack only because they had been away, working at another farm. Governor John Penn eventually issued them papers of protection until their death. When they died, the history of the Susquehannocks died with them.
The Paxton Boys was an organization based in Paxton (Paxtang) Township near Harrisburg, then considered the western frontier of colonial Pennsylvania. They protested the Assembly’s unwillingness to aid the western settlers against the Indians by taking matters into their own hands. With forces numbering in the hundreds and armed primarily with hand weapons, they operated outside the law for several years. They have been described variously as frontier militia, vigilantes, thugs, and backcountry farmers. Although most colonists were appalled by the massacre of the innocent and peaceful Conestoga, the Paxton Boys suffered no legal consequences of their action.
Final Census of the Conestoga, recorded by Lancaster County Sheriff John Hays, 1763.
|Murdered at Conestoga Town:|
|Murdered at the Lancaster Workhouse:|
|Survivors on the farm of Christian Hershey:|
As a schoolboy, I remember reading about the Susquehannocks. But I don’t remember reading about the overwhelming wars, or how they were devastated by European smallpox, or how their story ended so violently. But the fate of the Susquehannock was by no means unique. In fact, it was worse for most eastern tribes. In the first few decades of colonial settlement, native peoples who inhabited the coastal regions, including whole tribes, were wiped out at an astonishing rate. Many of their names are lost to history. For the Susquehannock, although the tribe ceased to exist as a consolidated community, their legacy remains with the descendants who survive to embrace their lineage, and with the name that will never be forgotten. As long as the Susquehanna River flows to the sea, we will remember the Susquehannock.
Text of the historical marker in the first photo above, located along Route 222 near Port Deposit, Maryland:
SMITH’S FALLS — in 1608 captain john smith ascended the susquahannah river until he stopped by the rocks. on his map he calls this point “smyths fales” marking it by a which he explains as meaning “hath bin discovered what beyond is by relation”. – state roads commission
Text of the historical marker in the second photo above, located along Route 222 below Conowingo Dam in Maryland:
A SUSQUEHANNOCK INDIAN FORT — located at this point was an important factor in the boundary line controversy between lord baltimore and william penn in 1683. – maryland historical society
The controversy arose when William Penn established his Commonwealth of Pennsylvania north of the previously established Calvert colony of Maryland. The border between the two colonies was vaguely described as a line of latitude at the “Sasquehanna Fort” on the River. When push came to shove, the Calverts of Baltimore maintained that the Fort was the settlement located around 40ºN (known today as the Leibhart sites in York County, PA). The Penns maintained that it referred to the Susquehanna fort at the mouth of the Octarora Creek (where our marker is located in Cecil County, Maryland) around 39º39′N. The controversy between Maryland and Pennsylvania wasn’t settled until the compromise of the Mason-Dixon survey of 1763-67, which established the border at latitude 39º43′N. Oddly enough, according to Kent (see citation on the Resources page) no archaeological evidence of any such settlement has ever been found at the Octarora.
Since I first posted this article online in 2000, I have received many responses from people who descend from the Susquehannock. See the Members page for a list of some who have contributed their story.