banner search whats new site index home

Pennsylvania Indians



The Native Pennsylvanians [1]

Immediately before the advent of the white man, eastern Pennsylvania was inhabited principally by groups belonging linguistically to the Algonquians, who occupied a more extended area than any other linguistic stock in North America. An important tribe within this group was the Lenni-Lenape, or 'original people,' known historically as the Delaware.

The tribe consisted of three principal subtribes: The Unami or Wonamey, the Minsi or Munsee, and the Unalachtigo or Unalatka, each having its own territory and slightly different dialect. According to Lenape tradition, they had migrated into eastern Pennsylvania from the west, the tribal divisions later receiving their names from some geographic or other peculiarity characterizing the region in which they lived.

The Unami, using the turtle as their totem, inhabited the Delaware River Valley from the junction of the Lehigh River southward to what is now New Castle, Delaware. The Minsi, or Wolves, occupied the headwaters of the Delaware as far south as the Lehigh. The Unalachtigo, or Turkeys, lived on the west bank of the Delaware, in what is now the State of that name, and on the east bank in the present New Jersey. The Delaware had declined in power and dignity by the time Pennsylvania history began, and also had undergone a considerable redistribution in population areas. The Delaware within the present limits of Pennsylvania numbered only a few thousand when Penn came into the territory, and had become the vassals of the Iroquois Confederacy.

The Delaware were tall, broad-shouldered, small-waisted, and erect, with tawny reddish-brown complexion and straight black hair. Their hair was usually worn long, but sometimes they burned off all except a scalp lock. They wore no beards; hairs of the face were plucked out with pincers made of clam shells or small fiat stones; their cheekbones were broad and high, and their eyes small and dark. Among their musical instruments were the drum, rattle, gourd, and a sort of flute fashioned from a reed or a deer's tibia. They also had an instrument through which they could emit a howling, melancholy sound. They never developed harmony in instrumental music, although, like many other tribes, they achieved harmonic effects in choral singing.

In the time of Penn, the Minsi kindled their council fires on Minisink Flats along the Delaware River above the Water Gap; they had a village and peach orchard near the forks of the Delaware, where Nazareth now stands. The principal Lenape village was Shackamaxon, now part of Philadelphia, where Penn and the Delaware tribe presumably made their famous treaty. In later Colonial times the center of Indian influence moved northward to Shamokin, at the confluence of the north and west branches of the Susquehanna River, site of the present city of Sunbury. This Indian village was at one time the 'melting pot' of aboriginal culture, having among its inhabitants not only the belligerent Minsi and representatives of the crafty Iroquois Confederation, but scatterings of Shawnee, Conoy, Nanticoke, and other tribes.

Another interesting tribe was the Shawnee. Linguistically Algonquian and known as the 'people from the south,' the Shawnee were tall and muscular, with coarse features and exceptionally prominent cheekbones. They were diligent cultivators of the soil until expulsion from Kentucky and North Carolina forced them to lead a wandering existence. Permitted by the Delaware and Iroquois to enter Pennsylvania, they settled on the flats below Philadelphia, in the forks of the Delaware as far north as the Minisink, and in the Wyoming Valley. Later they drifted westward to the Ohio Valley and engaged in the Indian wars of a later day.

The Shawnee differed from other Algonquian peoples in allowing their women to sit in council. Their implements showed a crude knowledge of metallurgy, and like the Mound Builders and Susquehannock they practiced some sort of funeral ceremony involving cremation. Early settlers in western Pennsylvania found them living on the Monongahela ('the river with skidding banks') and on the Youghiogheny ('the river that flows in a roundabout course'). In later times the Wyandotte and Miami resided in that section.

Remnants of the migrant Lenni-Lenape or Delaware tribes lingered in the region, but the Iroquoian influence probably was not felt until the Ottawa accompanied the French southward from Canada in the middle of the eighteenth century. In the bloody battle of Bushy Run in 1763, Colonel Henry Bouquet's forces were opposed by the Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandotte, Mohican, Miami, Ottawa, and perhaps one or two other tribes.

White encroachment, climaxed in 1737 by the perfidy of the 'Walking Purchase', drove the Delaware from their ancestral homes in eastern Pennsylvania, but the cause of their decline lay partly in their own loose confederacy and chiefly in the dominance of the Iroquois. The Iroquois Confederation consisted of the Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, and Mohawk until early in the eighteenth century, when a tribe of Southern Indians-the Tuscarora-was taken in as the sixth nation. Although the Iroquois occupied very little of Pennsylvania territory, they held sway over the lands of the Delaware at a time when conditions led not only to bitter misunderstanding with early pioneers, but to strife and bloodshed as well. Subjugation of the Delaware is believed to have occurred after the Iroquois obtained firearms from the Dutch in New York, early in the period of American colonization. With these superior weapons they were able not only to subdue the tribes to the south but also to resist encroachment of the French from Canada.

The Iroquois, as represented in Pennsylvania chiefly by the Seneca, were powerful in physique, cunning and fierce in warfare, and often treacherous and overbearing in behavior. Despite these characteristics, they were imbued with a desire for peace, waging war primarily to perpetuate their unified political life and independence. They often allowed vanquished tribes to remain upon conquered territory, yet ruthlessly annihilated those who refused to submit to vassalage.

It must be understood that the term 'Iroquois,' while generally applied to the confederated nations, includes also the Erie, Susquehannock, and other tribes of Iroquoian origin. The Erie, occupying portions of northwestern Pennsylvania, lost their identity as a tribe in 1654, when the Five Nations virtually annihilated them. The Huron or Wyandotte also were destroyed as a strong tribal unit; those found in western Pennsylvania at the time of Bouquet were remnants of a once strong confederacy in the north smashed by the Five Nations in 1642.

Of all Pennsylvania's native inhabitants in the early historical period, the least known to ethnologists are the Susquehannock. They appeared along the Susquehanna watershed at the beginning of white colonization, fought bitterly with both the Delaware and the Five Nations, and then faded into obscurity. Though of Iroquoian stock, they recognized no allegiance to the Massomacks, the Iroquois name for the confederacy. Several explanations are suggested for the derivation of their name, one being that it comes from the Algonquian Sas-k-we-an-og, meaning 'the river that rubs upon the shore.'

All the Susquehanna Iroquoian groups, however, were called the Carantouan by the Five Nations. The most important were the Susquehannock on the lower reaches of the river. Those along the upper river were known as the Andaste. They were first visited by a white man in 1616, when Etienne Brule, Champlain's interpreter, came down from Canada to enlist their aid in a French attack against the Five Nations' strongholds in New York. It was this alliance of the Carantouan and Huron with the French that later led to the destruction of these tribes by the Iroquois.

The early Swedes in Pennsylvania called the Susquehannock 'Black Minquas.' This term probably came from the Lenape, who used the Algonquian 'mingee or mengwe ('treacherous') as an opprobrious classification for all detached bands of Iroquois. Corrupted to 'Mingo,' the term was widely and loosely applied by Indian and white settler alike from early Colonial days until long after the Revolutionary War. In some parts of the State entire tribes or their remnants became known as Mingo, while further confusion in classification of tribal units resulted from amalgamation, adoption, and intermarriage.

The Susquehannock were tall, aggressive, and keen of mind; they had dispersed the Raritan and Piscataway in the Chesapeake Bay area and were in control of that territory when Captain John Smith encountered them in 1608. Excavations of their early burials indicate that some used platforms on which to place their dead until the flesh had rotted from the bones; the remains were then buried at a depth of three feet, with the skull surmounting the pile.

The power of the Susquehannock in Maryland and Virginia was broken by conflict with the whites early in the seventeenth century. In Pennsylvania, however, their war activities were centered chiefly against the Five Nations, for whom they had an undying hatred. The seat of their power in Pennsylvania was a stronghold near what is now Washington Borough. In 1663 they repulsed an attack of Seneca and Cayuga warriors, and sent the defeated Iroquois back to their Long House bearing messages of derision. By 1667, however, the Susquehannock had begun to feel the effects of continued warfare and sickness, and in 1670 they sent emissaries to the Five Nations in an attempt to make peace. The enraged Iroquois refused to bury the tomahawk, and hostilities continued until most of the Susquehannock were captured or slain.

The main body of the survivors fled to Maryland. Others found refuge along the Susquehanna's west branch, and those remaining were absorbed by tribes of the confederacy. Many years later a group of exiled Susquehannock returned to their former home in Lancaster County and became known as the Conestoga. Crowded on all sides by white settlers and by tribes they once held in contempt, the Conestoga diminished in number until in 1763 only a few remained. In that year a band of white rioters, known as the 'Paxton Boys,' inflamed by accounts of Indian depredations along the frontiers, broke into the Lancaster jail, where the Conestoga had taken refuge, and destroyed all of them (see Lancaster). With this massacre, the last known group of Susquehannock passed out of existence.

According to conservative estimate the Indian population of Pennsylvania was about 15,000 at the time of the first English settlement; but by 1790 white encroachment and conquest had reduced it to little more than 1,000. The Powhatan Nanticoke, who entered the Province from Maryland in 1690, drifted northward to New York, after living for a time along the Susquehanna's east branch. The Conoy, another Algonquian tribe more correctly known as the Gawanese or Piscataway, migrated to southeastern Pennsylvania from West Virginia early in the eighteenth century, but by 1765 had removed to New York. The Shawnee and Delaware, the former never numbering more than 1,000 in Pennsylvania, had settled in Ohio by the end of the Revolution. The Indians had then ceased to be an important factor in Pennsylvania history, and those remaining within its borders were chiefly Seneca under the chieftainship of Cornplanter.

The Iroquois Confederacy played a minor part in affairs of the Province until 1742, when the aid of the Six Nations was enlisted by the Proprietors in expelling the Delaware from territory involved in the 'Walking Purchase.' Up to that time William Penn's successors had treated directly with the Delaware, but in 1745 the Iroquois established headquarters at Shamokin for control of Indian affairs in the Province. Thereafter the Lenape had to submit to Iroquois decision in all matters pertaining to the sale of land. Dispossessed Delaware, angered Shawnee, and sympathetic Seneca banded together in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and took an important part in the Indian uprisings from 1755 to 1763.

During the French and Indian War, the Six Nations as a confederacy remained neutral, although the Seneca, or Mingo, in the region were drawn into the struggle against the British through association with the Delaware and Shawnee. In the Revolutionary War, however, the Iroquois Confederacy, except for the Oneida and about half of the Tuscarora tribe, was allied with the British.

Today the red man is little more than a memory in Pennsylvania. The State contains a small Indian settlement on lands granted by the Commonwealth to Chief Cornplanter. It is on the west bank of the Allegheny River, some 20 miles northeast of Warren, where live about 50 families of Seneca blood. Here is buried Chief Cornplanter, Indian benefactor and friend of the whites, to whom a monument was erected in 1866 by special act of the Assembly. Several hundred descendants of other tribes are scattered throughout the Commonwealth, their tribal identities all but lost through fusion with the white man's culture and participation in modern industry. One thousand descendants of the Delaware are with the Cherokee and Wichita in Oklahoma; some are with the Stockbridge in Wisconsin and the Chippewa in Kansas, and still others are with the Iroquois in Ontario, Canada. For a time a non-reservation Indian school was maintained by the United States Government at Carlisle, but this institution was discontinued in 1918.

Philadelphia contains two small plots of ground said to have been set aside originally as camping sites for Indian delegations visiting the city. One plot, formerly a part of the Penn lawn, is just off Second Street, between Walnut and Chestnut; the other is behind the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Broad Street. Both are believed to have been granted long ago to the Six Nations; but whatever claims the Indians may once have had upon these plots, the grants now have a legendary rather than a legal base. In 1922 a delegation of Blackfeet, Oneida, and Ojibway Indians visited the city and held a conclave on the Second Street tract. At that time, John Gaskell Hall, a descendant of Penn, 're-dedicated' the old camping site to the Indians in the presence of Governor Sproul and Mayor Moore.

Evils may be laid at the door of William Penn's successors, but Penn himself took pride in treating the Indians fairly, and his policy of amicable settlements in all purchases of land was carried on throughout his life. It is significant that his Swedish predecessors had pursued a similar policy. Even before he had met and learned to love them, he had entrusted to Thomas Holme a letter addressed to the Indians in Pennsylvania, in which he wrote:

The great God, who is the power that made you and me, incline your hearts to righteousness, love and peace with one another, which I hope the great God will incline both you and me to do ... I have already taken care that none of my people sell rum to make your people drunk ... I am your loving friend, William Penn, England, 21st of the Second month, 1682.

One of Penn's first acts on arriving in Pennsylvania,, it is said, was to make a treaty with the Delaware and Susquehannock tribes, probably at Shackamaxon, on a site now marked by a marble obelisk. Voltaire referred to this compact as 'the only treaty never sworn to, and never broken.' Indeed, between the early settlers and the Indians a spirit of love and friendship endured until the white men's greed had destroyed the attachment that years before had led Captain Smith to write: 'They adore us as gods.'

  1. Writers Project, Works Project Administration, Pennsylvania, A Guide to the Keystone State, 1940, Federal Works Agency, John M. Carmody, Administrator




Information deemed reliable but not guaranteed. • Copyright © 1997-2010 • www.gombach.com
The Gombach Group • Morrisville, PA • 215-295-6555