Historical Overview of local Native American groups

Prepared by Tanya Kevorkian, Associate Professor of History, 2022

In the vicinity of Millersville, three groups of native Americans had villages from the 1400s to the 1700s: the Shenks Ferry people, the Susquehannocks, and the Conestogas. Members of numerous other groups, including the Shawnees, Conoys, and Senecas also travelled through the area and had settlements for thousands of years.

The Shenks Ferry people had roots in the area from the 1200s. They were farming and building small hamlets by the 1300s and had villages of around 500 people by the 1400s. They cleared fields and planted crops of corn, beans, and squash, gathered fruits and nuts, and hunted, trapped, and fished in the Conestoga and other area rivers and streams. As  soil fertility and nearby supplies of lumber dwindled they moved to a new site, often every fifteen to twenty-five years. Two of the three most important Shenks Ferry sites that have been found to date are close to the Millersville campus. In the 1990s, when the construction on the Crossgates golf course and development adjacent to campus was begun, a village from the 1440s was found and extensively excavated. In the early 2000s, when construction of the Southern Village near the intersection of Routes 999 and 741 started, another village that was occupied in the early 1500s was found and extensively studied.

The Susquehannocks arrived in this area in the mid-1500s from what is now New York State. They overlapped with and replaced the Shenks Ferry people in a process that is not well understood. The Susquehannocks were an Iroquoian culture and built settlements -- towns by the standards of the time -- of up to 3,000 people. Their farming, hunting, gathering, and fishing practices were similar to those of the Shenks Ferry people, although on a larger scale. The Susquehannocks traded extensively with Swedish settlers on the Delaware River, and many colonial trade goods are found in their village sites. The largest settlements of this group are along the Susquehanna River. After reaching a high point in the mid-1600s, epidemics and warfare began to take a toll. The remaining Susquehannocks dispersed around 1680. 

The history of the Conestogas took place in a colonial Pennsylvania context, after King Charles II granted William Penn a charter to establish the colony in 1681. The Conestogas formed as a new ethnic group that included Susquehannocks returning to the area in the 1690s as well as members of other groups who had been displaced around the mid-Atlantic area as it was colonized. Their village was set up as a trading post on what was then the frontier, and they received a deed to their land from William Penn, who visited them. From the beginning, they were a much smaller group than their predecessors. Their initial village included under 200 people, and by the 1760s there were under 30 Conestogas. Whereas the Shenks Ferry people had constructed round homes and the Susquehannocks had built longhouses, the Conestogas lived in colonial-style log cabins and primarily used colonial trade goods in their everyday life, along with some Native American pottery and other goods that they manufactured themselves. The Conestogas were massacred by the Paxton Boys, a group of men from northwest of Lancaster, in 1763. 

Jay Custer et al., "Data Recovery Excavations at the Slackwater Site (36LA207), Lancaster County, Pennsylvania," in Pennsylvania Archaeologist 65 (1995), 19-112. 

PA Historic and Museum Commission article on Quaker Hills/Quarry Shenks Ferry site: http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/archaeology/native-american/quaker-hills.html 

Kurt Carr et al., ed., The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

Barry Kent, Susquehanna's Indians (Harrisburg: PHMC, 1984)

Daniel Richter, Native Americans’ Pennsylvania (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2005)