Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In their efforts to trace the changing ways of life of ancient human societies, archaeologists have had to devise labels for each individ­ual culture they discovered. Often, these names seem strange and confusing. For example, in the Eastern United States, the term Late Wood­land Period has been given to all Indian cultures which prac­ticed large scale agriculture, and which existed between about 1000 A.D. and the ar­rival of the Europeans. Exist­ing throughout the Eastern United States are literally hun­dreds of curiously named local variations of Late Woodland Period culture. In addition to agriculture, the unifying ele­ments of the Late Woodland Period are the triangular ar­row head (the use of the bow and arrow appear for the first time in American Indian pre­history), well developed pot­tery (in a bewildering array of styles), population expansions and larger and more perma­nent villages.

Although hunting and gathering of wild foods re­mained important in sustain­ing life, it was the development of agriculture and the more stable food re­source it provided which in­duced population growth. The result was the emergence of more complex and competitive societies. More than anything else, the pottery of each indi­vidual group or tribe distin­guishes the various Late Woodland societies. When it appears that a particular group of people has borrowed certain ideas for making or decorating pottery from some other soci­ety, there is good reason to postulate the contemporaneity or contacts between those societies. The study of ceramic relationships between prehis­toric societies enabled archae­ologists to trace the history of movements and changes dur­ing the Late Woodland Period.

The first of these cultures has been given the non-Indian name of Shenks Ferry. At any given point of time in their history, one could collectively refer to all of their separate, but spatially related villages, as belonging to the Shenks Ferry tribe; however, as more was discovered about this tribal group it became obvious that there were different varia­tions or phases of its unique cultural characteristics throughout its existence. These changes were clearly evident in the potter’s craft.

The earliest phase of Shenks Ferry pottery decora­tion dates from about 1250 to 1450, during which tribe mem­bers made their pottery in a more or less similar manner, involving low collars with decorations primarily com­prised of simple combinations of horizontal and oblique in­cised lines, and grit tempered days. Archaeologists have named this pottery Shenks Ferry Incised and place it in the so-called Blue Rock Phase of Shenks Ferry culture. About 1425 came a gradual shift to a new style of pottery. The hall­marks of this new type, called Lancaster Incised, included higher collars, and more elaborately executed oblique incised line decorations. Villages asso­ciated with this kind of pottery were frequently larger than those of the Blue Rock Phase and, for the first time, some of the occupation sites were sur­rounded by wooden stock­ades, implying a need for defense against other un­friendly societies. Once more, a name was necessary to iden­tify a new and distinctive cul­tural development, and this one has been called the Lan­caster Phase of Shenks Ferry.

By 1500, Shenks Ferry pot­tery was undergoing yet an­other stylistic change, as the collars became exceedingly high and bulbous, and deco­rated with still more elaborate and pronounced incised lines. Punctate marks were often incorporated into the general design. This pottery is called Funk Incised and the stage to which it belongs has been aptly named the Funk Phase.

A second group of Indians in the lower Susquehanna Valley who obviously had some contact with Shenks Ferry populations was the tribe now called the Susquehan­nocks . These Indians were first described in 1608 by Capt. John Smith of the Virginia Colony who, upon meeting sixty of their most impressive warriors at the head of Chesa­peake Bay, wrote that, “Such great and well proportioned men, are seldom seene, for they seem like Giants to the English … The picture of the greatest of them is signified in the Mappe. The calfe of whose leg was 3 quarters of a yard about: and all the rest of his limbes so answerable to that proportion.”

Archaeology has proved that John Smith’s descriptions were both vivid and somewhat inflated. In fact, subsequent historic records clearly indicate that “Susquehannock” was not what these people called themselves. Their actual name in native Iroquoian language was a word with a pronuncia­tion somewhere between “An­daste” and “Gandastoque.” Susquehannock was the term that Smith’s Algonquian­-speaking Chesapeake Bay informants used as a name for those people. For better or for worse, the term most fre­quently appeared in the seven­teenth century documents where mention was made of the lower Susquehanna Valley Indians.

Until about 1690 there was a rather large number of colonial references to the Susquehan­nocks, especially in the minutes and proceedings of Maryland’s colonial assembly. These references have pro­vided historians with some useful insights into Sus­quehannock life and the gen­eral locations of their villages along the Susquehanna River. Interestingly enough, it was not until the turn of the nine­teenth century that any better understanding of them came to light.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, several of the ancient Susquehannock towns had been discovered in Lancaster and York counties by local historians and relic collec­tors. The site locations were later published by David Lan­dis in 1910 and Charles Hanna in 1911. With an interest in identifying more Susquehan­nock sites, as well as investi­gating those already known, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, under the direc­tion of Donald A. Cadzow, initiated an ambitious archaeo­logical program in 1931.

As a result of the Commis­sion’s project and the ensuing half-century of research, much new archaeological informa­tion has been gathered con­cerning the Susquehannocks, their places of residence and their way of life. One impor­tant fact which became evident during these fifty years of research was that the Sus­quehannocks were not originally from the lower Susquehanna Valley. Before 1575 most of them lived along the Upper Susquehanna in the region of present-day Bradford County.

Among the contributions of the Commission’s 1931-1932 expedition was the discovery of a new Indian culture which had once lived in the Lower Susquehanna Valley before. and up until the time the Sus­quehannocks arrived. Cadzow referred to this new culture as “Algonkian” in the Algon­quian versus Iroquoian dichot­omy of his day. In point of fact. the linguistic and tribal affiliations of these people remain unknown. The place of this exciting new find? Near the old Susquehanna River crossing in southern Lancaster County known as Shenk’s Ferry.

There are no contemporary documents referring to these Indians, nor to their tribal name. As is customary, the first place of their discovery was used as their archaeologi­cal name – hence the “Shenks Ferry” people. Here too, work in the past fifty years has provided new understandings of this culture that forms the backdrop for the continuing interest in them.

The earliest sub-stage of Shenks Ferry culture (dated 1250 to 1450) was the Blue Rock Phase, and scores of Blue Rock Shenks Ferry sites, usu­ally comprised of small clus­ters of houses with associated midden accumulations and burials, have been found in Lancaster County. Preferred settlements were the fertile floodplains of the Susque­hanna River. Lesser numbers of these earliest Shenks Ferry sites have also been located in nearby Lebanon, York and Cumberland counties.

The search for the influ­ences which eventually brought about the changes in Shenks Ferry culture, previ­ously described as the Lancas­ter and the Funk phases, has led archaeologists to examine contemporary Late Woodland developments in other areas. The valley known as the West Branch of the Susquehanna may hold the key to much of the puzzle.

Sometime around 1300, a Shenks Ferry-like pottery, whose culture has been called the Stewart Complex, began to appear in the West Branch Valley. One theory claims this was the result of Blue Rock people, or at least some of their borrowed ceramic tech­niques, moving into this area. A second theory is that the Stewart Complex was the result of an in situ develop­ment out of a local antecedent culture identified as a Clemson Island/Owasco. It is possible that a combination of both theories accounts for the Ste­wart Complex pottery. To be sure, the pottery does share certain decorative patterns with Blue Rock Shenks Ferry, of which the most notable difference is lower collars of the Stewart Complex pottery. Major differences between Blue Rock Shenks Ferry and the Stewart Complex include the frequently larger and often stockaded villages of the latter. Blue Rock burials were gener­ally extended while those of the Stewart Complex were flexed. Clearly these were two difference cultures, yet they seem to have shared certain ceramic traits.

Stewart Complex pottery eventually shows up on sites of the upper West Branch in Clearfield County, in associa­tion with shell-tempered pot­tery whose origins lie in the so-called McFate/Chautauqua culture of northwestern Penn­sylvania. One of the most thoroughly studied of the Clearfield County locations where this blending occurred is the Kalgren Site. The result of this interaction of Stewart Complex pottery and McFate/Chautqua is yet another new ceramic phase. Curiously, the emergence of this phase seems to mark the end of the Stewart Complex as a separate culture.

Eventually the new phase, a shell-tempered pottery. pri­marily with high collars, deco­rated with oblique and horizontal incised lines­ – referred to as the McFate­-Kalgren Phase, began to move eastward. By about 1425-1450 some of the McFate-Kalgren influence (and no doubt some of the people) reached the lower Susquehanna Valley, where it made contact with the Blue Rock Shenks Ferry people.

The latest expression of the McFate-Kalgren Phase sur­faced at the Quiggle Site near Lock Haven on the West Branch. Certain ceramic differ­ences occurred and yet an­other new name seemed necessary – thus the cumber­some label of McFate-Kalgren­-Quiggle Complex. Apparently this complex survived at the Quiggle Site until about 1525. Sometime shortly before that date a few of its people (or a little of its pottery) reached places like the Wyoming Valley at Wilkes Barre, the Overpeck Site, and other Indian sites along the Delaware River, as well as the Sheep Rock Shelter on the Juniata River’s Rays­town Branch. Most interest­ingly, shortly after 1525, pottery similar to that of the Quiggle Site showed up in association with some Sus­quehannock pottery in the Wyoming Valley and further afield.

The result of the McFate­-Kalgren influence on the Blue Rock Shenks Ferry in the lower Susquehanna Valley may very well have caused the shift to a new pottery phase, the Lan­caster Incised. The makers of Lancaster Incised pottery con­tinued to use grit-tempered day, but their higher collars and incised decorations resem­bled the McFate-Kalgren Phase. For the first time in the lower Susquehanna Valley a few villages were protected by stockades, much like those of the McFate-Kalgren Phase. Two of these fortified towns, known as Mohr and Locust Grove, located near Bainbridge in Lancaster County, have yielded undecorated shell-tempered pottery similar to that excavated at the Kalgren Site.

The next change in Shenks Ferry pottery in the lower Susquehanna Valley has been called Funk Incised. Sometime around 1500, Lancaster Incised was more or less evolving into this new type, but the source of influence which eventually resulted in it is still uncertain. Part of it may have stemmed from contact with Indians living in the Wyoming Valley, whose ancestral roots are attributed to the Iroquois.

The place known as the Shenks Ferry site excavated by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in 1931 produced a fair amount of Funk Incised pottery, but it was not until about 1948 when another site with this kind of pottery on the Funk Farm in Manor Township, Lancaster County, was excavated, and its relationship to the older Blue Rock Phase Shenks Ferry pottery recog­nized. Archaeology has dem­onstrated that Funk Incised pottery was being made by these people until perhaps 1575; not long after, however, Shenks Ferry culture as a sepa­rate entity disappeared from the archaeological record.

Current evidence suggests that it was the period from 1550 to 1575 when the first Susquehannocks began to move into the lower Susque­hanna Valley. This chronologi­cal coincidence of the disappearance of Shenks Ferry populations and the arrival of the Susquehannocks in this region has led archaeologists to surmise that the Sus­quehannocks were somehow responsible for what happened to the Shenks Ferry people.

During the period in which Funk Incised pottery was being made, there were at least thirty Funk Phase Shenks Ferry camp sites and villages in Lancaster County. Two of these, the Fund and Murry village sites located south of Washington Boro, were quite sizable and surrounded by stockades. Both fortified vil­lages provide a hint of contact with the Susquehannocks­ – actually the evidence is just a few sherds of shell-tempered pottery similar to that made by the Susquehannocks! These sites also show some indica­tion of the violent death of several of their occupants­ – unusual mass graves or iso­lated interments in which are embedded arrowheads.

Shortly before 1575, the stockaded towns of the Funk Phase Shenks Ferry inhabit­ants were probably aban­doned. The only site which has thus far produced undeni­able evidence of Funk Phase people interacting with Sus­quehannocks is the old Shenks Ferry site excavated by the Commission in 1931. It was at this place where Funk and Susquehannock pottery had apparently been found in the same archaeological contexts. For the first – and only – time, there was some evidence of European trade goods associ­ated with the Shenks Ferry Culture. Actually, most of these were objects fashioned by the Indians from pieces of copper and brass which were probably acquired through trade with other Indians who, in turn, obtained them from mid-sixteenth century European fishermen along the Atlantic. Coast. Similar items have been found at the early Susquehannock sites in Brad­ford County. The presence of Susquehannock pottery at the Shenks Ferry site (circa 1550- 1575) suggests that at least a few of these people were living there and it was probably the Susquehannocks who brought with them the shiny metal trinkets.

Shenks Ferry was a small settlement, with probably no more than three or four houses erected there at any one ti.me. The site is remote, suggesting a place where a small group of people from a broken-down society had gone to hide. Those few Susquehannocks who accompanied them did so for some unknown reason.

Between 1550 and 1575, war parties of Susquehannocks may have attacked and dis­persed the Shenks Ferry set­tlers from their villages near Washington Boro, but it would appear that the Susquehan­nocks had not yet initiated any attempt at settling the new territory of the lower Susque­hanna Valley. The move may have taken a number of years involving various size groups of people. Could some of the Susquehannocks have been captured or otherwise taken in by the defeated Shenks Ferry people in hiding? It was with these questions the Pennsylva­nia Historical and Museum Commission revisited the old Shenks Ferry site during sum­mer 1985 in an effort to dis­cover the nature of the interaction between these two Indian societies.

The site is situated on a prominent bluff about one mile east of the Susquehanna River and overlooking Grubb Creek. Excavations in 1985 revealed only one circular house pattern as defined by postmolds. Parts of several other structures could be dis­cerned but their actual size and shape could not be traced. It was evident from the archaeology that no stockade surrounded the small settlement. However, it was fairly well protected by steep terrain on three sides. In addition, nearly two hundred archaeological features were excavated. The majority were various size pits which the Indians used for storage, while the remainder were hearths and human bur­ials.

The archaeology of the site was somewhat confused by the fact that the Blue Rock Phase Shenks Ferry people had previously occupied the site. Radiocarbon dated char­coal from these early Shenks Ferry features indicated that they lived there during the early fifteenth century – a hundred and fifty years or so before their Funk Phase de­scendants! Scattered stone tools from the Late Archaic Period (circa 2000-4000 B.C.) also found during the excava­tion shows that Indians lived at the Shenks Ferry Site at an even earlier time.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the features had been previously excavated. Fifty-seven of these excavations can be accounted for by the Commission’s 1931 project, determined after com­paring the old field maps with those of the 1985 excavation. At least ninety others had been haphazardly dug by individuals who left no record of their looting activities.

The 1985 excavations confirmed the presence of Sus­quehannock remains at the site. One shallow storage pit containing much charred corn yielded a late Shenks Ferry Hybrid pot lying on top of a large sherd of early Sus­quehannock (Schultz Incised) pottery. Three rolled copper beads were found in storage pits that also contained Funk Incised pottery.

Since they were first discov­ered by archaeologists, it has become rather obvious that the Shenks Ferry people were extremely eclectic. They seemed unusually willing to borrow new ideas and things, and readapt them to their own uses. Especially apparent in their pottery, they were mim­icking Susquehannock pottery, a process which resulted in curious blends of ceramic art. For lack of a better term, these vessels have been described by the rubric “hybrid pots.” Although such pottery is largely Funk Incised in shape, it has strange design mixtures of Shenks Ferry and Susquehannock.

Shenks Ferry storage pits (holes dug into the ground to store food) at most o£ the sites which have been excavated were characteristically shallow, irregularly shaped bums. At the Shenks Ferry Site, how­ever, some of the pits which yielded Funk and the hybrid pottery showed dear evidence that the persons who dug them were copying a Sus­quehannock style, that is, a deep bowl or silo-shaped stor­age pit. A few were narrow at the top and wider at the bot­tom, a form which archaeolo­gists refer to as “bell-shaped.” In their efforts to create these Susquehannock pit styles some of the Funk Phase peo­ple seem to have literally out­done themselves. Three o£ the bell and silo-shaped pits were much larger than any ever found at a Susquehannock village site. The largest of these found in 1985 measured seven feet deep and six feet across at its opening. Al­though their original purpose was for food storage, the holes were eventually abandoned and then later re-used as gar­bage pits. It was in the fill and at the bottoms of these aban­doned storage pits where most of the debris of the Funk Phase occupation of the site was discovered. Corn, beans and a variety of wild plant foods and large quantities of well pre­served animal bones – some retaining butcher marks – were found. Other bones, those of birds and fish, were mixed with the pottery, grinding stones, celts, triangular arrow­heads, bone tools and other things lost or discarded by the last of the Shenks Ferry people.

Unfortunately, the reason for the Susquehannock presence at the Shenks Ferry site and the precise nature of their interaction with the Funk Phase inhabitants could not be unraveled – and perhaps never will. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Susquehannocks witnessed, and were somehow party to, the “last of the Shenks Ferry” as a distinct culture.

By about 1575, the Sus­quehannocks built the first of their permanent settlements in the lower Susquehanna Valley, known as the Schultz site, located on the fertile river terrace south of Washington Boro, and partially built over the now abandoned old Funk village site. This, the first of the Lancaster County Sus­quehannock towns, was much larger and more extensively fortified than any o£ the earlier Shenks Ferry villages. Here the Susquehannocks first began to acquire large quanti­ties of European trade goods, consisting of iron axes, knives, many types of glass beads and a few brass kettles.

No Shenks Ferry towns existed at this time, including the “hide-a-way” on Grubb Creek. Shenks Ferry as a sepa­rate culture was dead, possibly the result of warfare with the more powerful Susquehan­nocks. Some archaeologists believe at European epidem­ics may have also played a role in the demise of the Shenks Ferry culture. Yet, it is appar­ent from the archaeology that a small number of Shenks ferry individuals did survive to become part of Susquehan­nock society. In the Sus­quehannock sites of the following half-century, about 1625, archaeologists occasion­ally find Funk Incised pottery, “hybrid” pottery, and Sus­quehannock shell-tempered pottery incised with some of the old Shenks Ferry designs.

Until recently, many be­lieved that the Susquehan­nocks played out most of their history – from 1575 to 1763 – as residents of the lower Susque­hanna Valley. However, as is frequently the case in archaeology, the discovery of new sites and artifacts often de­mands the re-evaluation of old ideas. For the past fifty years it has been known that a small amount of Susquehannock pottery and a few associated European trade goods occurred along the South branch of the Potomac River particu­larly at a place called the Herriot Farm Site near present-day Romney, West Virginia. Previous interpretations held that the Susquehannock pottery in this remote place was the result of occasional hunting forays or trading ventures from the lower Susquehanna sometime around 1600. How­ever, recent investigations have disclosed another and even earlier Susquehannock site at Pancake Island, several miles up river from Romney. This one was a stockaded, albeit small, settlement which yielded pottery most like the early Susquehannock pottery of Bradford County. The few trade good from this site suggest a date around 1550. Even more startling was the discovery of associated pottery similar to that uncovered at the Quiggle Site, some one hundred and fifty miles to the north, near Lock Haven. Indeed, there is a blending of McFate-Kalgren-Quiggle Complex pottery and that of the early Susquehannocks which implies an amalgam of these two cultures at the time they moved to the Potomac’s South Branch Valley. If this assessment is accurate, it would place this movement (between 1525 and 1550) as contemporary with – or even earlier than – the first incursions of other Susquehannocks into the Shenks Ferry territory of the lower Susquehanna Valley.

Recent finds at the Herriot Farm Site also warrant new interpretations. It is now known that the site has pro­duced more Susquehannock pottery than could be reasona­bly accounted for by just a temporary camp. Similarly, its dating may be earlier than previously thought. Presently it appears that the Herriot Farm Site was a small village, and a contemporary of the first major Susquehannock settle­ment of the Schultz Site in the lower Susquehanna Valley. A third, and recently discovered, site near Moorefield on the Potomac’s South Branch has also yielded a few sherds of Susquehannock pottery like that from the Schultz Site and possibly in association with trade goods dating to the late sixteenth century. All of the new evidence from this area points to Susquehannock settlement there. contempo­rary with, but separate from, that of the lower Susquehanna Valley.

Sometime between 1525 and 1550, European-made objects brought by fishermen were becoming an important, and ultimately essential, com­modity for Indians of North­eastern North America. One obvious source for these highly coveted objects of brass, glass, cloth and iron was the Chesapeake Bay. By at least the second half of the six­teenth century these items were definitely being moved, or exchanged northward along the Susquehanna River, and westward along the Potomac River and then across to the upper Ohio Valley.

It has generally been thought that the Susquehan­nock motive for displacing the Shenks Ferry people and for positioning themselves on the lower Susquehanna River was to control a larger share of the action-to become middlemen in the Susquehanna Valley trade. It now appears that a separate group of Susquehan­nocks acted similarly on the upper Potomac.

There is nothing unusual about people of different cul­tures interacting with one another for economic reasons. Unfortunately, such inter­course frequently involves warfare. Similarly, there is nothing unusual about a win­ning culture taking in some of the surviving losers in such a melee. As people of different and distinct cultures come to live with one another, for whatever reasons, individuals retain something of their old way of life in the mix of the new, such as America’s eclectic culture and society with its many ethnic survivals. Even­tually, however, these customs and folkways merge into a new and distinct form. One of the tasks of archaeologists is to identify and preserve this diverse heritage and varied sources of the world’s ancient cultures. The story of the Shenks Ferry and Susquehan­nock Indians is but one more incomplete, albeit revealing. chapter in understanding the Interactions and ongoing changes in the cultures of mankind.


For Further Reading

Brashler, Janet G. “A Middle Sixteenth Century Susquehan­nock Village in Hampshire County, West Virginia.” West Virginia Archeologist. 39 (2): 1- 30.

Cadzow, Donald A. “Archaeologi­cal Studies of the Susquehan­nock Indians of Pennsylvania.” Safe Harbor Report Number 2. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Histor­ical and Museum Commission, 1936.

Hanna, Charles A. The Wilder­ness Trail. New York: Ames Press, Inc., 1911.

Heisey, Henry W. and J. Paul Witmer. “The Shenks Ferry Peo­ple: A Site and Some Generali­ties.” Pennsylvania Archaeologist. 34 (1): 8-34.

Kinsey, III, Fred W. and Jeffrey R. Graybill. “Murry Site and its Role in Lancaster and Funk Phases of Shenks Ferry Culture.” Pennsyl­vania Archaeologist. 41 (4): 7- 44.

Kent, Barry C. Susquehanna’s Indians. Harrisburg: Pennsylva­nia Historical and Museum Com­mission, 1984.

Landis, David H. “The Location of Susquehannock Fort.” Lancas­ter County Historical Society Papers. 14 (3): 81-113.

Smith, John. The general histo­rie of Virginia. Glasgow; Macle­hose and Sons. 1907.

Witthoft, John. “Pottery from the Stewart Site, Clinton Couny, Pennsylvania.” Pennsyl­vania Archaeologist. 24 (1): 22-29.


The Pennsylvania Power and Light Company is gratefully acknowledged for its financial support of the 1985 excavations on the company’s property at Shenks Ferry. The Pennsylvania Histori­cal and Museum Commission is also acknowledged for its financial and administrative support, and curation of the artifacts and data resulting from this project.


James T. Herbstritt served as field director for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commis­sion’s 1985 Shenks Ferry excava­tions. He is presently a field archaeologist for the Cultural Resource Management Program of the University of Pittsburgh.


Barry C. Kent was State Archae­ologist for the Pennsylvania His­torical and Museum Commission from 1966 to 1986. Since his retirement from the PHMC, he has served as an archaeological consultant and lecturer.