Cultures at the Confluence

17th-18th Native American Settlements of the Susquehanna River


The Susquehannocks

In 1550, the Susquehannocks were identified as a tribal community residing at the north of the Susquehanna River, between what is present day Scranton, PA and Binghamton, NY, (Jennings Glory death and transfiguration, 8.) Upon the arrival of Europeans, between 1550 and 1625, indirect European influence was inflicted on the Indian cultures, (Richter). “Susquehannock” was not the name these people used for themselves; it is an English interpretation. For the French, they were known as the Andastes; for the Dutch and Swedish they were the Minquas, (Jennings, Ambiguous, 27.)

As is well known, one of the first indirect influences on the Indians was disease.  In the 16th century, it is not known for sure, but is likely the case that the Susquehanna Indians, because of their location on water, were impacted by European microbes before their inland counterparts.  It is sure that they had received European goods through trade with other Indian groups before they ever met directly with the transatlantic carriers of those goods in the early 17th century.

Whether the European adventurers were looking for a new passage to the Orient, or if they were looking to better protect their trade routes, or if they were on a mission to spread Christianity, all of the Europeans coming into the “New World” (although this world was all but “new” to its inhabitants) were interested in changing something to better suit their interests.  And because the English worldview refused to recognize any connection between spirit and environment in the midst of a foreign people whose spirits were intertwined with nature, the Indians were looked upon as something lower than, or not quite fully, human.  Europeans feared the Indians: they thought of them as savage, ignorant, untrustworthy and dangerous.

Moving predominantly northwest, the Europeans were not limited to coastlines, but were involved with streams, rivers, and tributaries.  The waters sometimes pushed the explorers’ direction northeast.  Indians living on these rivers were thus forced, or moved voluntarily under intense pressure by the incomers, upstream. (Jennings, Ambiguous, 30.)   

Surprisingly, material influence was not particularly dramatic.  Indians would take unfamiliar traded goods from the Europeans and alter them into something they were used to working with.  In this period of indirect trade, something like a copper pot was more likely to be cut up and used for its raw materials than used as a pot would be used in England, (Richter, 25.)  According to Daniel Richter, the most serious influence on Natives the Europeans indirectly produced was in their relationships with each other. 
The Susquehannock Indians lived along a “long crooked river” wound around the base of the Appalachian mountains, “born from ten thousand springs at ten thousand points of birth” where several limestone caves create springs, (Cummings 26). Over 64,000 square miles of watershed acreage make up the entire Susquehanna River area, including all tributaries, making this river four times as large as the next largest river on the Eastern coast, the Connecticut, (Chesapeake 24)  Islands speckle the river and were most likely taken advantage of as good trading posts for Indians; Garrett Island (then called Palmers Island,) the first island to appear on one’s travel up the Susquehanna from its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay, was used by the Susquehannock and Tockwogh to trade, ( Chesapeake…108) 

In 1608, after three or four days of waiting, sixty of the Susquehannocks, impressive in size and voice, according to John Smith’s record, came down from their hills and met with Captain John Smith and had a “friendly talk,” (26 from big history book and page 26 from Kent’s Susquehanna’s Indians.)  At this point, Smith had plenty of time to observe the ambience and record a detailed interpretation of the area; he drew the first ever map of the Susquehanna.  He knew the river was huge from experience; he said it extended three to four days’ journey from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. 

At the time John Smith came into contact with the Susquehannocks, they were controlling the whole Susquehanna Valley, from Waverly to New York to the Chesapeake Bay; from Lock Haven to Sunbury, on the West Branch, (Penna History, Donehoo, 7?)  Some Englishmen who regularly interacted with the Indians developed a greater understanding of the Indians, and shed their initial prejudices against them.  John Smith was one of these men.

Smith initially went upstream to visit the Susquehannocks because he had heard from the Massawomecks that the weapons (which seemed to be European, and not native) they had were from the Susquehannocks.  Smith met them on August 5, 1608 on very good terms.  Smith performed his own Anglican ritual of chanting, and the Susquehannocks returned the sentiment.  The Indians gave Smith several presents.  Upon meeting the Indians, Smith noticed they had already traded with the Dutch, because they were in possession of iron hatchets and other merchandise particular to them.  They must have traveled to the Hudson River region before 1608 to obtain these articles, (Donehoo, penna, a history, 8.)  French goods, too, were found in the possession of the Susquehannocks near the Chesapeake, (Jennings, Ambiguous, 41.)  As contact, both direct and indirect, increased between Europeans and Indians, the six cultural distinctions of Pennsylvanian Indians began to work together, alongside the Europeans, in one system of exchange, warfare, and diplomacy.  

In 1634, Sir William Clayborne established trading posts on the Susquehanna; he was the first white man to do so, (Penna, A history; Donehoo. 8.)  His first post was on Kent Island. 

In 1642, the Maryland English declared war on the Susquehannocks.  The first of two battles was won by the English; but the Susquehannocks were the victors of the second, with support from the Swedish.  Until 1652, the Susquehannocks and the Marylanders remained inactive in a state of war.  Without the English to trade with, the Chesapeake lost its economic incentive for the Susquehannocks.  The tribe was trading primarily with the Swedish at New Sweden.  Trade was halted between the Susquehannocks and the English while they were inactively in a state of war.  Because of their friendship with a Hudson River tribe, the Susquehannocks were also hostile towards the Dutch.  But because their only legitimate trade partner was the Swedish people, the Susquehannocks had overflow of pelt merchandise; they had to use the Delaware as middle-men in order to sell their goods. 

There were “paths” leading from the Delaware River area to the Susquehanna River area.  The Dutch settled along the Delaware to have better access to these “paths.”  According to Donehoo, the majority of efforts made by the Dutch, Swedish and English on the Delaware were not to trade with the Delaware Indians (the Lenape) but to make it more efficient to trade with the Susquehannocks, (Donehoo, penna, a history, 12.) 

Because of these good relations, some of Smith’s comrades were granted trading establishments on the Potomac River (Henry Fleet) and the upper Chesapeake Bay (William Claiborne.)  Claiborne was first using Kent Island to trade with the Susquehannocks, but then was given Palmer Island (now called Garrett Island) as a more convenient location.  In 1634, conflicts arose between Leonard Calvert, Maryland’s governor, and Claiborne and his Indian allies.  They took years to settle, and until 1652 when Claiborne’s forces took over the colony, were left in a state of unrest.   

As time went on, it became clear that the Europeans were using the Indians insofar as it benefited their economic prospects, (25, Barry Kent’s Susquehanna Indians.)  They took advantage of the lucrative fur trade.  From 1625 to 1675, the European invaders fought for control over the Susquehannock and Lenape trade.  Initially this brought advantage to both groups of Pennsylvanian Indians.  Through armed conflict, the Susquehannocks gained access to both trade centers.  Trade goods flowed into the area in abundance.  But as this happened, the European trade goods became more widely used than Native goods:  “brass kettles for clay pots, woolen cloth for animal skins, glass beads for sea shells, firearms for bows and arrows,” (Richter.)  The culture that designed native tools worked within the context of European material just as strong as it did with native material. 

With the extension of trade came an increase in warfare; by the middle of the century, the Beaver wars began.  The Delaware and the Susquehannock were the main groups, though they were not the only ones, in conflict over the fur trade with the Europeans.  The two tribes were also drawn into conflict with neighboring natives, and misused their relationships with previous allies in order to take advantage of opportunities with other colonials.  (Richter.)  The Susquehannocks’ location provided free access to English traders on the Chesapeake and the Swedish and Dutch traders on the Delaware.  It was extremely convenient.  They prospered because of this position, while most other groups struggled in their disadvantage.  With ample amounts of firearms and defense material, the Susquehannocks did not struggle to uphold their settlement.  (Richter) 

In 1655, when New Sweden’s government was removed by the Dutch, all people inhabiting the Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia areas were in chaotic warfare.  The Susquehannocks were threatened.  In so-called virtue of religion, power, trade, propriety, etc., every nation seemed to be fighting against every other (ambiguous, Jennings 123.)  What followed resembles recent economic history around the world: the Indians developed a habit of exporting raw materials, things such as skins, in exchange for manufactured, more luxurious, goods.  In effect, they began to rely on the Europeans for materials such as clothing, tools and weapons.  (Richter) 

Between 1640 and 1660, with the spike in violence, the Susquehannocks’ weapons and flanked village designs (they built rectangular fortifications around their villages; some had European-style bastions and cannons) rendered them at yet another advantage against their enemies.  (from Craig S. Keener, An Ethno…)  They were not at an all too unattainable advantage, however, for the Iroquois were armed by the Dutch in 1640.  Whether it was because of their support by Maryland and Sweden, or by their intelligent village designs, the Susquehannocks repelled the Iroquois attack for years.

In 1661, Jacob Claeson, a European living around Delaware, acted as liaison between the Maryland English and the Susquehannocks.  He had succeeded in learning the Susquehannock language, and so was a very useful member of the early colonialist puzzle.  He was active in securing a pact useful for both sides: the Susquehannocks would gain support from Maryland against the Iroquois, and the Marylanders would gain both defensively and offensively from the increase in land on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay they would be appropriated. (128, Ambiguous, Jennings.)

As if the conflicts among the Iroquois and their European axis were not enough to trouble the Susquehannocks, not to mention their own interests in trade and status improvement, the Susquehanna region was directly in the way of southern Indians traveling northward towards New York and Canada.  This created even more friction, and necessitated more military action.  The Susquehannocks were not the instigators of these conflicts; indeed, they defended as best they could against the tribes and groups moving to the north.
Ethnic Identities

Indians who inhabited the Delaware, the Lehigh River, the North Branch of the Susquehanna, and Brandywine Creek all joined together with the Lenapes and considered themselves of a collective ethnic Delaware identity.  Likewise, all other Indians who did not associate with the Delawares, were, by the 18th century, referred to by the English as the Conestogas.  By the 1720s, Pennsylvania was home to several ethnic refugee groups: the Conestogas, the Delawares, the Shawnees, the Nanticokes, the Conoys, and the Tuscaroras (who came all the way from the Carolinas.) 

Unfortunately for the Susquehannocks, and other Indian groups of the area, these ethnic conflations were not voluntarily created.  With the death of William Penn in 1718, his successor in power, James Logan, forcefully transferred Indians living on the lower area of the Susquehanna and Delaware westward to the Monongahela, Ohio and Allegheny Rivers.  The migration put enormous pressure on those living in the northern reaches of the Susquehanna River.  While on the western side of the state, the Indians lived in close contact with emigrant Iroquois (“Mingos”) and Shawnees.  The ethnically mixed group developed deep resentment towards the Europeans who forced their migration, (Richter, 250).

In the early eighteenth century the Susquehanna Valley was resettled by an ethnic mixture.  Iroquois, Shawnees, Conoys, Nanticokes, Delawares, Tuscaroras, and Tutelos apparently intermingled and intermarried with the Susquehannock-Conestoga, although bands settled in separate villages and treated separately with PA’s government (handbook)  366.

In the general peacemaking at Albany in 1677, an extensive Indian-White confederation called the Covenant Chain was created under NY auspices.  It linked a number of English colonies, with NY as their mediator, to an alliance of Indian tribes, with the Iroquois in a preeminent position among the Indians.  In the peacemaking process the dispersed Susquehannocks lost their tribal identity, being submerged politically among the Iroquois and Delaware.  A few recalcitrants still wandering in the backwoods of VA and MD were pursued and subdued by the Iroquois (366 handbook).





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