Archaeology of the Lower Susquehanna River reveals that the area has been occupied for thousands of years. Beginning around 1550 AD, the Susquehannock Native Americans appeared in the Lower Susquehanna Valley and the Shenks Ferry people, who had occupied the region for a few hundred years, disappeared. It is not known if the Susquehannocks conquered the indigenous Shenks Ferry culture, incorporated them into their own culture or that the Shenks Ferry people simply moved elsewhere. The Susquehannocks were Iroquoian speakers and shared many similarities with the Iroquois in New York.

It is probable that the Susquehannocks moved south in order to better control the fur trade. However, they quickly trapped out the Susquehanna valley and became a ‘middle-man’ for furs from Native groups in the areas of New York, Ohio, and Canada. Tensions between tribes over the fur trade were fierce throughout the 17th century.

In 1608, Captain John Smith and his small crew of adventurers set out in an open boat to explore the Chesapeake Bay. They mapped and documented nearly 3,000 miles of the Bay and its rivers. Along the way, they visited many thriving Native American communities and gathered information. Smith only traveled up the Susquehanna a few miles, where he met the Susquehannock Native Americans just north of the river’s mouth.

John Smith’s depiction of a Susquehannock

Smith described the Susquehannocks “as great and well-proportioned men, are seldom seen, for they seemed like Giants to the English”. Based on archaeological evidence, they were no taller than the average modern day European but they were a formidable tribe that had taken control of the Susquehanna Valley. Smith included in his map of the Chesapeake Bay a large drawing of a Susquehannock Native American.

Although the Susquehannocks controlled the fur trade for nearly a century, they were in constant conflict with other Native American tribes. The warfare and disease eventually caught up with them. By 1675, the Susquehannocks had been decimated by several epidemics and had lost regional power. In the early 1700’s the newly established American colonial government gave them land in Conestoga Township, Lancaster County, effectively creating one of the first Native American reservations in Pennsylvania. The Susquehannocks became known as the Conestoga Native Americans and frequently worked for the residents of Lancaster County.

Visit the Zimmerman Center to discover more about Smith’s travels and the Native Americans of the Susquehanna and walk through the historic landscape of the last known settlement of native Susquehannocks.

Susquehannock Fort as depicted by map maker, Herman Moll, in 1720

The Susquehannocks lived in large fortified villages, some of which may have contained as many as 3,000 people. Villages were located along the Susquehanna, especially in Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and York counties. The villages were composed of longhouses that were 60 – 80 feet in length and housed a number of nuclear families related through the female line. The Susquehannocks established their towns along the Susquehanna because the waters facilitated travel and trade in the region and provided them with a constant supply of water and fish.

The Schultz site is the earliest known Susquehannock village in the lower Susquehanna River Valley. Located just sound of Washington Boro it appeared to be occupied between 1575 and 1600 by as many as 1,300 people. Archaeological evidence from trash and burn pits shows that the Susquehannock had a diverse diet. Deer was most common but bear, elk, and fish were also popular proteins. They planted maize, beans, and squash in the fields near their villages. They also worked as gatherers collecting wild-plant foods, seeds, and nuts.

The Susquehannocks were large scale agriculturalists. They practice ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. This involved clearing the forest by burning down trees and planting crops in their ashes. As they depleted the nutrients in the soil they had less crop production. Forcing the Susquehannock to move their villages about every two decades.

Susquehannock Face Port at the Pennsylvania State Museum

The Susquehannock culture also has distinctive pottery known as the Face Pot. The hallmark pottery type of the is high-collared pottery with human faces likely created between 1600 and 1630. Pottery of this form and size were used by the Susquehannocks as common food vessels at meal time and as containers to store small personal items such as needles, fish hooks, spoons and other items made of antler, bone and wood. As trade with Europeans expanded Native made items were replaced with European equivalents like the brass kettle. Susquehannocks received goods such as glass beads, iron axes, metal harpoons, and flintlock muskets in trade.

Susquehannocks traveled to trade with Europeans on footpaths and using their dug out canoes. Dug out canoes were created burning a log with a controlled fire and then scraping and chopping out the charred and softened wood. The process was repeated for days until the canoe was evenly hollow.

Map of Native American footpaths between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers

 

The Susquehannock’s canoes were heavy but strong and fast. The weight and bulkiness made it extremely difficult to transport the canoes over land. It is likely that dugouts were used primarily to cross the river. For travel up or down the river, Susquehannocks used an extensive system of walking paths in the region.

Although, they controlled the fur trade for nearly a century, they were in constant conflict with other Indian tribes, especially the Seneca of western New York State. Large scale battles took place with the Seneca in Washington Boro and across the river in York County. Warfare and disease eventually caught up with the Susquehannocks, and in 1675, approximately 500 survivors sought refuge with the English in Baltimore. However, this arrangement also ended in disaster, and with permission of the Seneca, they soon returned to the Lower Susquehanna Valley. They became known as the Conestoga Indians and frequently worked as laborers on local farms. Two weeks before Christmas, in 1763, they were attacked by a gang from Harrisburg known as the “Paxtang Boys,” who were upset by Indian attacks from the Ohio Valley. The survivors were placed in the Lancaster jail for their own protection but two days after Christmas, the Paxtang Boys returned and killed every man, woman, and child, thus ending the Susquehannock culture.

Susquehanna Heritage offers tours from the Zimmerman Center through the historic landscape of the last known settlement of native Susquehannocks.