Synopsis of Native Americans (up to 1682) in Pennsylvania

prepared by Marlene Arnold Professor of Anthropology ©2022

Perhaps more than 16,000 years ago, there were people living in what is present-day Pennsylvania. Some archaeologists have dated a site about 30 miles southwest of today’s Pittsburgh, the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, to at least 16,250 years ago. The stone artifacts found there provide some of the oldest firm evidence of human occupation anywhere south of Alaska.

The movement of people further east into Pennsylvania and the migration of other groups throughout the Northeast was very, very gradual over thousands of years, with the indigenous population, in what became Pennsylvania, being only about 90 to 150 persons at about 10,000 years ago and probably numbering only several thousand 5,000 years later.

By about 3,000 years ago, or 1,000 BCE (before the Common Era), the Native population in Pennsylvania had reached many thousands. By 1550, when large numbers of Europeans arrived in the area bringing their technology and diseases, the Native American population of Pennsylvania was approximately 9,000 to 10,000.

While some archaeologists claim that Meadowcroft is one of the first authentic sites, other archaeologists believe that humans were not in this region prior to 11,200 BP (before the present). At the time of the Meadowcroft site, glaciers covered northern Pennsylvania, and southern Pennsylvania was covered by a patchwork of forests and open grassy environments; there is no place in the world today that looks like this Pennsylvania environment of 15,000 years ago.

At about 11,200 years ago, the native peoples lived in small, nomadic bands and foraged for food, moving frequently over long distances and hunting big game in the glacial environment, especially in the northern part of Pennsylvania, where there is evidence of hunting migratory caribou and elk. Hunting large and small game, as well as fishing, probably made up about 60% of their diet. Throughout the state, these indigenous people also hunted smaller game, fished, and gathered seeds, nuts, berries, and roots.

Their bands consisted of 15 to 25 persons, with only about perhaps six bands throughout Pennsylvania, totaling 90 to 150 people for the state at that time (11,000 to 10,000 years ago). They would have been egalitarian, meaning that everyone shared pretty much equal rank, with perhaps only one or two people providing some leadership from time to time. There was little conflict among bands. These people lived primarily in river valleys, and their territories—the land they made use of on a regular basis, but did not “own”—were large, ranging from 100 to 200 miles in diameter. No group held exclusive rights over land; there was no concept of private ownership of natural resources and land—an important feature of Native American cultures. There are several significant archaeological sites from this period in Pennsylvania, including along the lower Susquehanna Valley in Lancaster County, including one in the upper Conestoga River drainage.

Over the next 6,000 years, the people continued to hunt and gather a wide variety of animals and plants. They followed game—hunting and trapping—fished, and gathered wild plant foods, including roots, nuts, seeds, and berries. They also collected fresh water mussels. By now, these foragers lived in small, mobile bands consisting of an extended family—grandparents, their married children and spouses, and their children. They were nomadic, moving their camps many times during the year, to the location of seasonally abundant foods such as hickory nuts, sunflowers, fish, or migrating caribou.

Over this time period in the Susquehanna Valley spanning about 7,000 years beginning around 7,000 BCE (before the Common Era), the foraging bands increased in size and may have included several extended families. The size of the bands changed with the seasons and the demands of foraging. There were base camps located in the valleys, but also there were specialized camps for other activities such as hunting or gathering nuts. People returned to the same sites on a regular basis, re-using the hearths at those sites for longer periods of time.

People continued to live in small, egalitarian bands with their relatives. The average band size was approximately 25 persons, but if the quantity of food resources available was limited, bands would split into smaller family units of about 10 individuals and disperse. In times and places of abundant food resources, they could coalesce into larger bands of say 50 persons. Over time, these bands became larger and less mobile, and by 4000-2500 BCE bands begin to regionalize and the Pennsylvania Indian population increased—probably numbering in the thousands.

By 2300 BCE, in the Susquehanna drainage basin, there are 225 recorded archaeological sites, twenty of which are excavated, stratified sites, meaning that human occupation occurred over long periods of time that archaeologists can distinguish and date. By this time, the Susquehanna drainage basin is characterized by its own distinctive set of artifacts and probably its own culture.

By 700 BCE, fired-clay pottery appeared. The people continued to live along the valleys of major rivers and in the uplands along streams. By now the people are living in larger bands that are less mobile, and they are engaged in trade.

By 900–1550 CE, in the Susquehanna and Delaware drainage basins, agricultural sites are on floodplains, which have the most fertile soil for simple farming. These floodplains were used repeatedly and probably burned intentionally, resulting in the land being covered by meadows or small trees, rather than mature forests. Village sites were moved every 10 to 20 years, as soil fertility decreased. People became dependent on domesticated plants, especially corn, beans, and squash, called the “Three Sisters,” because they were grown together in a symbiotic way. One stalk of corn served as a pole for bean plants to climb, and squash planted at the base of the corn provided shade which helped to maintain moisture in the soil and at the same time inhibit the growth of weeds.

In the Susquehanna River Valley, families lived in year-round villages of hundreds of people, although special-purpose camps were still being used for foraging. Village sites could measure over 10 acres in size and frequently were surrounded by a wooden stockade, which seems to indicate that some protection was required. Some villages had special structures for community and perhaps ceremonial activities.

The region surrounding Millersville University was inhabited by the Shenks Ferry people from the 1200s to the 1500s. The Shenks Ferry people, and the Susquehannock who lived in the same area after them, practiced slash and burn or swidden agriculture, which is farming done with a simple wooden digging stick. Fertilizer was not used, so the fertility of the soil decreased quickly and fields had to be moved every 5 to 10 years. Several years before a move, a new location would be identified and the lower bark was removed from all of the large trees, causing them to die within two seasons. When all the trees were dead, limbs and brush were piled around the trunks and set on fire. The resulting charcoal was good for the soil and a new farming location was ready. Fields were always within about 2 miles of a village, so villages also needed to be relocated on a regular basis. A new village site needed good soil, water, and saplings for constructing new houses; it also needed to be in a location that could be defended.

Evidence of the Shenks Ferry culture appears at about 1200 in the Susquehanna River basin. Early on, the Shenks Ferry people lived in hamlets of not more than five family homesteads, and by 1400 some of these were surrounded by stockades. By 1500, Shenks Ferry villages were stockaded and included up to sixty nuclear-family sized round houses organized around a central plaza, sometimes in two concentric rings with a structure in the center for public or ceremonial use. These villages could cover an area of four acres and have a population of 300 to 500 people. The villages served as bases for growing crops; there were fields planted with the “Three Sisters”—corn, beans, and squash—outside of the wooden stockade. Shenks Ferry people, like their ancestors and descendants, continued to forage for food as well. Small groups left the villages throughout the year for gathering seeds, nuts, roots and berries, and for fishing, trapping, and hunting.

In villages scattered along the North Branch of the Susquehanna, and perhaps in a few outposts on the West Branch as well, lived the Susquehannocks. Culturally and linguistically, the Susquehannocks were closely related to the Iroquois. Typically, the Susquehannock sites are found on the flood plains of the Susquehanna River and its many tributaries, including on some of the large islands. In the lower Susquehanna Valley, small, “basin-like openings occur along the river at Wrightsville, Columbia and Washington Boro. The latter of these might well be considered the Indian capital of Pennsylvania from Paleo-Indian times to the beginning of the eighteenth century” (Kent 1984: 11).

Archaeological evidence indicates that the people who became known eventually as the Susquehannocks probably lived along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River, primarily in today’s Bradford County, Pennsylvania, sometime during the fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries. Sometime in the early 1500s, these Susquehannock Indians who were living in small, scattered sites along the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River began to abandon these villages and move south; most of them eventually settling along the Susquehanna River in today’s Lancaster County, where they coalesced into one large town. By 1575 this move was complete. There is archaeological evidence of hostilities between the Susquehannocks and the Shenks Ferry people of the lower Susquehanna Valley, who cease to exist as a distinct culture after this date, presumably as a result of Susquehannock aggression. But it is not definitively known why exactly the Shenks Ferry culture disappeared.

By 1500 in Pennsylvania, the three river systems were dominated by a different cluster of Native groups: the Monongahelas in the southwest, Iroquoian-speakers in the north and center, and Lenapes and Munsees in the east. Although there were local variations and differences in language, culture, and beliefs, some common patterns prevailed. Everywhere agricultural towns were female worlds. There was a gendered division of labor. Hunting and fishing continued to be important, so that for much of the year villages would be inhabited primarily by women and their children who attend to the fields while males, accompanied by a few women and older children, dispersed to far-flung fowling locations in the spring and to hunting and trapping grounds in the fall and early winter. Most villagers of both sexes were at home simultaneously for extended periods only in mid- to late winter (Richter 2005: 26-27).

In 1550, the Native American population of Pennsylvania was 9,000 to 10,000. In the early 1600s, when Europeans began to arrive in what would become southeastern Pennsylvania, the two main peoples were the Lenape (in the Delaware River Valley) and the Susquehannock—later known as Conestoga—in the Susquehanna River Valley.

For about the first 50 years after the arrival of Europeans in their ‘New World,’ the Indians of the Susquehanna Valley were largely insulated from contact. But by the mid-sixteenth century, the first items of trade—shiny metal and glass objects—appear among them via trade with Natives living closer to the Atlantic Ocean. The Indians living along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries became known as the Susquehannocks during the 1600s. Although a party of Susquehannocks met John Smith in 1608 when he sailed from Jamestown to the head of the Chesapeake Bay, from 1500 to 1682 most Indians of what would later be called Pennsylvania lived their lives out of sight of—and independent of—the European newcomers. However, Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza would have reached the lower Delaware and Susquehanna regions, carried by Indians traveling from the coast who would have infected people who had not yet directly dealt with Europeans. Over the course of a century, Native populations typically declined by 80 to 95% before reaching a new plateau.

This synopsis was created largely by drawing from:
Carr, Kurt W. and Roger W. Moeller. 2015. First Pennsylvanians: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

See also:
Kent, Barry C. 1984. Susquehanna’s Indians. Anthropological Series, No. 6. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Minderhout, David J., ed. 2013. Native Americans in the Susquehanna River Valley, Past and Present. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Richter, Daniel K. 2005. Native Americans’ Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania History Studies Series, No. 28. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania Historical Association.