Native peoples lived in the Susquehanna Valley thousands of years before the arrival of John Harris Sr. In the 16th Century, the Susquehannocks, an Iroquoian speaking people, initially inhabited the northern waters of the Susquehanna River. The Seneca and Mohawk tribes, members of the Iroquois Federation, were rivals who fought with the Susquehannocks as they competed for the lands of the upper branches of the Susquehanna River.
Sometime in the mid-to-late 1500s, drawn by the promise of easier access to trade with the Europeans, and under pressure from the Iroquois Federation, the Susquehannocks moved south into the lower Susquehanna Valley. In moving south, the Susquehannocks displaced a group of Native Americans known as the Shenk's Ferry people.
The first trading post in the northern latitudes was established by the French along the St. Lawrence River in 1603. Prior to that, trading ships had been dealing with the Indians along the Atlantic coast.
When John Smith of the Jamestown Colony encountered the Susquehannocks in 1608, he observed them already in possession of European trader's goods. Captain Smith met the Susquehannocks at the mouth of the Susquehanna River where it emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. He wrote a description of those he encountered:
"...60 of those Sasquesahanocks came to
the discoverers with skins, Bowes, Arrowes, Targets, Beads, Swords and Tobacco pipes for presents. Such great and well proportioned men, are seldom scene, for they seemed like Giants to the English... Their attire is the skinnes of Beares and Woolves... One had the head of a Woolfe hanging in a chain for a Jewell; his tobacco pipe 3 quarters of a yard long, prettily carved with a Bird, a Beare, a Deare, or some such devise at the end, sufficient to beat out the brains of a man... His haire, the one side was long, the other shorn close with a ridge over his crown like a cocks combe. His arrowes were five quarters long, headed with flints or splinters of stone, in forme like a heart, an inch broad, and a inch and a halfe or more long. These he wore in a woolves skinne at his back for his quiver, his bow in one hand and his club in the other, as is described."
As the fur and hide trade took hold, it altered Native American life. Hunting parties went on lengthy excursions far from traditional hunting grounds in search of the furs and skins of as deer, beaver, otter, raccoon, fox, and lynx. The demand for beaver especially drove the fur trade. The undercoat of beaver fur made for high quality felt to be used for broad rimmed felt hats that were fashionable in Europe at the time. Fierce competition developed among tribes who greatly valued the wool cloth and blankets, brass kettles,
beads for wampum, and tools and weapons including metal hoes, hatchet heads and knives, arrowheads and ultimately firearms.
Wampum held great significance to the Native People in the colonial regions. Panels of tightly strung black or white beads were used as a form of currency, but more importantly for a people with no written language, they were used to record important events, treaties, notable speeches, and could indicate peace or war. They have been referred to the "beaded language of Indian diplomacy."
The Susquehannocks were also known as the Andastes by the French, and Minquas by the Dutch. Late in their history they were called Conestogas. The word Conestoga was widely used during the 18th Century to refer to the town in Lancaster County and the Susquehannock and Seneca Indians who occupied it. These Indians referred to themselves as Conestogas.
At the time John Smith encountered the Susquehannocks in 1608, they had a fortified town along the river in what is now known as Washington Boro in Lancaster County, and other villages from which they controlled the lower Suequehanna Valley.
There is evidence of a Susquehannock site in Lemoyne in approximately 1610 — 1620 supporting a more geographical extension of Susquehanna settlement along the lower Susquehanna Valley.
Sometime after 1625, a Susquehannock town was
This is the left panel of a two-panel marker set, located on the left side of this three-panel kiosk. There is a related, but different, marker panel on the far right side of the three adjacent panels in this kiosk.
established in the area of Bainbridge. Some evidence suggests a town in the area of Columbia, both along the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County.
The Susquehannocks reached the peak of their economic power and population around 1650, with about 3,000 people at the Washington Boro site fort. A peace treaty with Maryland in 1652, renewed in 1661, enabled the Susquehannocks to fend off increasing pressure from the Iroquois. In 1663 the Seneca of the Iroquois Federation attacked the Susquehannocks in an attempt to displace them, but were repulsed with the aid of Maryland colonials.
Constant warfare and smallpox epidemics and other European disease unknown to the Indians (such as measles and influenza) weakened the Susquehannocks over time. In 1675 they were finally overrun and defeated by the Iroquois Federation. When Major Thomas Truman, in the service of Maryland, allied with the Iroquois, they destroyed the Susquehannock's fort three miles below Wright's Ferry on the western shore opposite Washington Boro in 1675.
They retreated into Maryland where they suffered more losses at the hands of Maryland and Virginia, but not before disrupting the Piscataway Indians (who then become known as Conoy) of southern Maryland. Some Susquehannocks are taken north and integrated into the Oneida nation of the Iroquois Federation. The once powerful Susquehannocks were decimated, scattered, and lost their identity.
Displaced Indians Occupy the Lower Susquehanna Valley, 1675-1763
The defeat and dispersal of the Susquehannocks opened the way for other Indian refugees of colonial expansion to move into the Susquehanna Valley. Eventually the remnants of the Susquehannocks emerged at the Indian town called Conestoga (south of Lancaster). There they joined with Senecas and Delaware. These Indians became generically known as Conestogas. Conestoga became an important meeting place for Indians and the colonial government.
The displaced Indians established settlements at Conestoga, Conoy Creek, (about two miles south of Bainbridge), Pequea (Shawnee) and Shawnee along the Swatara Creek and Paxtang, (Delaware). This is not an all inclusive listing of various Indian settlements in the lower Susquehanna Valley especially along the west shore.
By 1707 the Indian town at the Paxtang (Paxton Creek) site had become a main trading point for Indians traders who lived in the region. Governor Evans traveled to Paxtang in 1707 marking its first historical reference. By 1709 the Delaware "king" Sassoonan was living at the Paxtang site.
The Paxtang Indian town, most likely placed between the mouth of the Paxton Creek and what became Harrisburg, was an important trading center well into the 1730s, and most of the major Indian traders of the first four decades of the 18th Century are mentioned in connection with Puxtang, most notably John Harris, who established his trading post around 1717.
Actual Indian habitations in Paxtang may well have been scattered throughout the area called Peixtan by the Indians and was comprised of mixed Indian populations. Sassoonan appears to have left the town shortly after 1718.
The name Paxtang/Paxton derived from a Delaware word meaning standing water or place of springs. There are various spelling of this in the colonial records: "Peixtan," "Peshtang" and "Pextan."
A Shawnee settlement existed across from Paxtang at present day New Cumberland. Farther north was the Indian town known as Shamokin (present day Sunbury) and other settlements developed north along the Susquehanna River.
The Tuscarora Indians were an Iroquoian speaking people who lived in North Carolina at the start of the colonial period. Disputes arose related to kidnapped Tuscaroras sold into slavery. They migrated north through Pennsylvania to safer environs and were taken into the Iroquois Federation.
William Penn's 1701 Treaty with the Indians
Penn's 1701 Treaty with the Indians at council was held at Philadelphia and included Conestoga, Conoy, Shawnee, with Iroquois (Onondaga) observers.
Agreements made in this treaty included the ratification of the sale of lands lying near and about the Susquehanna River to William Penn, and, that no one would be permitted to trade with the Indians without first securing a license under the Governors hand and seal. The Indians would not sell or trade with anyone without such a license.
Later in 1701 in a separate action, Pennsylvania outlawed sale of rum to Indians. This was done at William Penn's direction at the request of Conestoga and Shawnee Indian chiefs. This became a recurring issue for Indian leaders. In 1715 Sassoonan pleaded for authority to seize all the rum that Indians came into possession of. He did not receive such authority.
The decline of the Indians in the Lower Susquehanna Valley
Pennsylvania participated in the Council at Albany in 1722. This marks the formal shift of Pennsylvania dealing with the Indians of the lower Susquehanna Valley (Conestoga, Delaware, Shawnee) to directly dealing with the Iroquois Nation regarding the lower Susquehanna Valley lands and Indians.
Throughout the 1720s -1730s German and Scotch-Irish established farms and homesteads on Indian land in the lower Susquehanna Valley. The Pennsylvania colonial government was unable or unwilling to stem the tide of settlement which deprived Indians of their promised hunting grounds. This finally pushed large numbers of Delaware and Shawnee to move north and west into the Ohio valley. This influx also pushed the Indian settlement in Paxton out in the 1720s. The Indians of Paxtang (Delaware) and New Cumberland (Shawnee) left the area about 1726 - 1727.
The Conoy were also on the move. They migrated north from Conoy Town (also known as Deknoagah) through Paxton (Harrisburg), Shamokin, and Catawissa, before finally locating in southern New York by 1765.
By 1740, the remnants of the Susquehannock at Conestoga seem to have lost their native language and spoke primarily the language of the Seneca. The Treaty of 1744 - in which the Iroquois Federation ceded lands to Maryland and Virginia - occurred in Lancaster, indicating the loss of Conestoga's significance.