Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

From the period of early contact of Native Americans with European settlers through the first half of the nineteenth century, little effort was made by most Americans of European descent to understand the religious beliefs and practices of the Native peoples. This began to change in 1855 when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Song of Hiawatha” captured the American imagination with a romanticized version of Native American traditions. At about the same time, Philadelphia folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) began conducting interviews of Algonquin tribes in New England to record their religious beliefs and folk traditions.

In the early twentieth century, professional and amateur anthropologists, ethnographers, folklorists, and historians in Pennsylvania began to systematically document Native religious practices among the tribes of the once powerful Iroquois Confederacy. After befriending Aren Akweks (Ray Fadden) of the Akwesasne Mohawk Counselor Organization, Paul A. W. Wallace (1891-1967) was adopted into the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois on July 15, 1949, taking the name Tor-ri-wa-wa-kon (“Holding a message”). Merle H. Deardorff (1890–1971), a Warren banker, developed a lifelong interest in the Iroquois Seneca living on the Cornplanter Reservation in Warren County. Dated September 3, 1943, a transcript of a Seneca religious ceremony expressing “thankfulness to the Great Mother the earth” is contained in Manuscript Group (MG) 220, Merle H. Deardorff Collection, at the Pennsylvania State Archives. The page is part of a complete transcript of the ceremony recorded by Clayton White Plain, a Seneca living in New York. Deardorff regularly corresponded with members of the Seneca and contemporary authorities William N. Fenton, Donald H. Kent, George S. Snyderman, John Witthoft, and Wallace.

The Deardorff Collection contains correspondence, research notes, and transcripts of diaries and journals relating to Seneca warriors Cornplanter, Governor Blacksnake, Handsome Lake, and Red Jacket. Materials related to Native American religions are also found in MG 192, Paul A. W. Wallace Collection, and MG 395, Donald H. Kent Collection, at the Pennsylvania State Archives, as well as in Manuscript Collection (MC) 51, George S. Snyderman Papers, and MC 20, William N. Fenton Papers, held by the American Philosophical Society (APS), and MG 363, Charles Godfrey Leland Papers, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Both APS and HSP are located in Philadelphia.

This is the fourth and final installment of Our Documentary Heritage underscoring the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s annual theme for 2011, “William Penn’s Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity.”


Willis L. Shirk Jr. is an archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives.