SusquehannocksJan 20th, 2010 | By Pat and Lloyd Reed | Category: Features, Front Page
Before Jamestown was settled, the Susquehannock Indians followed the North Branch of the Susquehanna River down river to the vicinity of what is now Washington Boro. The area was already occupied by Shenks Ferry people, whose culture is known primarily through their pottery.
At first the pottery style of the Susquehannocks merged with the pottery of the Shenks Ferry people, but later only Susquehannock©style pottery existed. Historians surmise that the Shenks Ferry people were either killed off or adopted by the more war-like Susquehannocks. It was a preview of the Susquehannocks demise according to Barry Kent in “Susquehanna’s Indians.”
Captain John Smith of the earliest English settlement, Jamestown, wrote of meeting 60 Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannocks in 1608 at the mouth of the Susquehanna River. He lived among the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans so he and his guides could not converse with the Susquehannocks. He noted that the Susquehannocks had European trade items in their possession when he met them. Some early trade items came from European fisherman who frequented the coastline in the 15th century.
A stockaded village at Washington Boro was the Susquehannocks major and perhaps only village in the lower Susquehanna Valley from 1608 until 1625. The river supplied the Indians with vast quantities of shad and sturgeon. The land had abundant wild life, which could be harvested for food or trade. The early Dutch and Swedish traders along the seacoast vied with one another for every kind of animal pelt the Susquehannocks could supply them, but most of all they wanted water-repellant beaver furs, “brown gold,” for high-fashion hats.
The Susquehannocks were willing to fight with other Indian tribes to secure or retain their European trading partners. The Lenni Lenape (Delawares) were the main source of pelts for the Dutch trading post at the junction of the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers until the Susquehannocks subdued and forced the Delawares out of the fur trade.
The Dutch were angered when Swedes established not only a trading post at Fort Christina (Wilmington) but a colony in Dutch claimed trading territory. When the Swedes started getting the majority of Susquehannocks pelts, the angry Dutch connived with their Mohawk allies (an Iroquoian tribe) to travel down from New York state to attack the Susquehannocks. The Mohawk Indians were used by the Dutch as an indirect attack and warning to Swedes to leave the fur trading in the Delaware Bay area to the Dutch.
At some point after 1625, the Washington Boro village was abandoned by the Susquehannocks and some moved to a site south of Bainbridge called the “Billmyer Quarry” site and some to a site on the Conestoga River. The majority of Indian artifacts at the Billmyer site were destroyed when the area was quarried in the 20th century.
In 1632, King Charles I of England signed a charter making the land 40 miles south of Washington Boro a new English colony.
It was named Maryland, in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria, and placed under the direction of Lord Baltimore. Meanwhile, the Susquehannocks had returned to the Washington Boro area (Strickler site) and established a large village there. It wasn’t long before the Susquehannocks were at war with Maryland over the fur trade but they had to make peace because the Dutch and their Seneca (another New York Iroquoian tribe) allies became the mutual enemy of both the Susquehannocks and the Maryland settlers.
The beaver were being over-harvested. In an effort to get more pelts from areas to the north, the Dutch persuaded the Seneca Indians to transport their furs to Dutch trading posts on the Delaware River. The arrangement guaranteed war because the Seneca would have to transport furs through Susquehannock territory.
Lord Baltimore’s people must have viewed the Seneca-Dutch deal as a Dutch effort to weaken the Maryland colony. Marylanders were ordered to the Susquehannock fort on the Susquehanna River near Washington Boro to aid in its defense against the Seneca.
By the 1670s the Susquehannocks were weakened by the long war with the Seneca and by European diseases. They fell for a political maneuver by Lord Baltimore and moved from the Washington Boro area to Maryland to serve as a buffer against the Seneca and the Dutch. In 1674, the Maryland Assembly voted for peace with the Seneca, and Maryland no longer needed the Susquehannocks to fight the Seneca.
In the summer of 1675, some Susquehannocks lived at an abandoned Piscataway (Conoy) Indian fort. That summer a white man was killed in Virginia and, with little evidence, it was blamed on a Susquehannock. Virginians and Marylanders launched a 6-week siege against the Susquehannocks in the Piscataway fort. Some 75 Susquehannocks slipped out of the fort but could find no refuge in Maryland or Virginia and the remains of the tribe became widely scattered.
A commemorative panel at Samuel S. Lewis State Park, south of Wrightsville, says, “The Susquehanna’s west bank opposite Washington Boro was the last home of the Susquehannock Indians.” After 1676, the remaining Susquehannocks lived at one time or another at one of two palisaded villages in the vicinity of Long Level. They may have stayed in that area for four years before fading into history.
This all occurred before William Penn was granted a charter by the English King Charles II to form a colony called Penn’s Woods in 1681. Some Susquehannocks reportedly moved to live with the Lenni Lenape, some may have returned to Maryland, some may have joined the Iroquois Nation in New York state, and a few moved to a town along the Conestoga Creek and became known as the Conestogas.
Sources: Brugger, Robert J. Maryland: A Middle Temperament©©
1634-1980. 1988, Johns Hopkins University Press,
Kent, Barry C. Susquehanna’s Indians. 2001, PA
Historical and Museum Commission, Hbg.
Wallace, Paul A.W. Indians in Pennsylvania. 1993,
PA Historical and Museum Commission