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

With its seemingly endless vistas of shopping malls, housing developments, technology parks, truck terminals, and warehouses, it’s hard to imagine Pennsylvania’s lower Susquehanna River valley a vast, undisturbed wilderness. Yet, little more than two centuries ago, the region was home to a group of Native Americans generally called the Susquehannocks, but also known as the Minqua, the Andaste, and the Conestoga. Like the Iroquois, the Susquehannocks spoke an Iroquoisan language, possessed a similar culture, and lived in long houses.

The story of the Susquehannocks following the arrival of Europeans foreshadows the fates of other Native American peoples. After becoming acquainted with Europeans, the Susquehannocks adopted Catholicism — and advanced weaponry for protection from early settlers whose fear and hostility had been provoked by other Native Americans. Catholicism among the Susquehannocks is not so much an unbroken straight line but more a thread that meanders through a difficult and, at times, desperate history. From an enviable pinnacle of power they eventually declined, victims of warfare, disease, loss of land, and resettlement, finally succumbing to murder at the hands of land-hungry settlers. The saga of the Susquehannocks is part of Pennsylvania — and American — history, illustrating the intricate, complex relationships with both Native American peoples and Europeans that ultimately doomed them.

French traders established European contact with the Susquehannocks. When John Smith (1580–1631), the English explorer best known for his association with the Virginia Company and the colony of Jamestown, first encountered the Susquehannocks in 1608, he observed them carrying iron hatchets, which they said came from the French who had probably traded them in exchange for fur. Captain Smith described the Susquehannocks colorfully — and most likely accurately. “Such great and well proportioned men, are seldome seene, for they seemed like Giants to the English, yea and the neighbors: yet seemed of an honest and simple disposition…their language it may well beseeme their proportions, sounding from them, as it were a great voice in a vault, or cave, as an Eccho.” In 1615, Etienne Brulé, partner of French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635), visited the Susquehannocks. He had learned from the Huron that they were their allies and that the Huron needed their help in a war with the Seneca.

The earliest conversion of a Susquehannock to Catholicism took place about 1638, an account of which was offered eight years later, in 1646, by the Reverend Paul Ragueneau (1608–1680), a French Jesuit who had been working among the Huron. Jesuits,members of the Society of Jesus, a religious order founded by Saint Francis Loyola, devoted their lives to apostolic work, propagating and strengthening the Catholic faith. Born in Paris, Father Ragueneau entered the Society of Jesus in 1626 at the age of eighteen and wrote more than any other Jesuit in Canada. (During one of his missions, he saw and mentioned Niagara Falls thirty-five years before Louis Hennepin, the alleged discoverer, described the natural wonder.) Father Ragueneau’s record of the first baptism proved to be most encouraging.

Seven or eight years ago, we had here baptized an Andastoëronnon. . . . After that time, this man having returned to his own country, we supposed that his faith must have been stifled in the midst of the impiety which prevails there, since he had no longer any support in the midst of a nation wholly infidel, and so remote from us that not even have we been able, for five or six years, to learn any news of it. This winter we have learned, from a Huron who has returned thence, that the faith of this man from a strange land is as vigorous as ever, — that he makes public profession of it, and continues in his duty as much as if he lived among a people quite Christian. We gave him in his Baptism the name of Estienne; his surname is Arenhouta.

Andastoëronnon is the Huron name for the Susquehannocks and the root of the French appellation Andaste. The baptismal name of Estienne may have been given in honor of a French saint familiar to these people, or Arenhouta himself could have even asked for this name.

With the missionary work of the Jesuits, Catholicism was steadily taking hold in North America. At the mission of La Prairie de la Magdelene, outside of Montreal, the Reverend Pierre Raffeix (1633–1724) noted that in 1667 members of several Native American nations sought religious instruction, including the Gandastogues, yet another French variation for the Susquehannocks or, possibly, the name of a Susquehannock village. The Gandastogues are mentioned again attending the mission of La Prairie five years later. But concerns arose over both the effectiveness of the Jesuits’ teachings and their personal safety.

In 1670, Father James Fremin (1628–1691), a Jesuit missionary to the Seneca, speculated about the fate of members of his religious order among the Susquehannocks after a Jesuit had been captured by the Seneca. “This Captive surely has the faith,” he wrote, “he certainly must have been instructed by some one of our Fathers who must be at Gandastogué.” South of the Susquehannock homeland, the visionary Calvert family founded the Province of Maryland, where they had been joined in 1664 by a Jesuit priest, Andrew White (1579–1656). Father White celebrated the first Catholic mass in Maryland, translated prayers into the language of the Piscataway Indians who inhabited the southern part of the province, and engaged in trade with them for food and beaver pelts.

The Reverend Jean Pierron (1631–?), a French Jesuit and a dedicated missionary, journeyed through the wilderness to Maryland from Acadia in 1674. His journey covered several hundred miles, and he was most likely guided by Mohawks he met while in Boston. The party made its way through western Massachusetts into New York and down the Susquehanna River through Pennsylvania. The travelers considered New York to be a “friendly” territory, not only because it was the home of the Mohawks but also because its proprietor was a Catholic, the Duke of York, later King James II of England. As they reached the lower part of the river, Pierron and his party met the Susquehannocks who served as his guides as they traveled into Maryland, whose governor, Charles Calvert, was Roman Catholic. Jesuits lived at Bohemia Manor, near the mouth of the Susquehanna River.

At the time of Pierron’s journey, the Susquehannocks maintained a fort of some renown south of present-day Harrisburg, which they equipped with weapons and ammunition supplied by their allies in Maryland against their common enemy, the Seneca. The Susquehannocks had earned a well-deserved reputation as tenacious warriors and through an alliance with them, Maryland had a strong defense to the north. When the Seneca did attack in great numbers in 1663, they were routed by a smaller force of Susquehannocks.

In a letter dated October 24, 1674, to R.P. Pinnette, the French Provincial of the Jesuit Order in France, Father Claude Dablon (1618–1697), superior general of the Canadian Missions, wrote that Pierron had begun a mission with the Susquehannocks. While Dablon did not reveal specific details, such as the mission’s exact whereabouts, he did convey that Pierron intended to “establish a Mission among the neighboring Savages, with whose language he is familiar.” Pierron was familiar with the Iroquois language since he had been a missionary among the Mohawks for several years, and Susquehannock was an Iroquoisan language.

Father Pierron painted pictures to make his teachings more impressive and while with the Mohawk he had invented a game, From Point to Point, to help win converts. From Point to Point was a card game with images depicting the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. Over the years the Susquehannocks may have used From Point to Point to remember Pierron’s teachings after he left them. This was a desperate time for the Susquehannocks as the once proud and strong people had been reduced by war with the Seneca and by smallpox. An appeal for divine intervention to ease their plight would seem only natural.

By the time Dablon wrote to Pinnette reporting on Pierron’s journey, the missionary had returned to the Mohawks. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the Susquehannocks continued declining and they needed much more than a formidable fortification, guns, and artillery. In battle they were more than a match for the Seneca, but their smaller number could not sustain casualties comparable to their adversaries. Against smallpox they had absolutely no defense, and both enemies took grave tolls. Sensing the Susquehannocks no longer possessed the military power they once wielded, Maryland forged a new treaty with the Seneca which abrogated the earlier pact with the Susquehannocks.

In less than one year after the mission began, the Susquehannocks abandoned their fort and homeland in Pennsylvania and scattered. Some ventured into central Maryland, which had declared war on them, accusing the Susquehannocks of committing various murders. Maryland dispatched its militia to engage them. The Marylanders were joined by Virginia’s forces under the command of Colonel John Washington, great-grandfather of George Washington. The militia routed the Susquehannocks, killing their leaders, and the survivors sought refuge among other Native American peoples. One band, however, eventually returned to its homeland along the lower Susquehanna River by agreement with the Seneca. This group, under the control of the Iroquois Confederacy, known also as the Five Nations, became known as the Seneca-Susquehannocks, or the Conestoga — frequently spelled Conestogue, similar to the French name Gandastogué — named after the village in which they settled.

William Penn had made an agreement with the Susquehannocks in 1701 to acquire their lands in return for goods. As part of the agreement, the Susquehannocks were allowed to remain on the land. They also looked to the Penn family and the government of Pennsylvania for security, although as a people they still remained under the Iroquois.

In 1743, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), a leading member of the Moravian Church, addressed the Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel in London and described the Seneca-Susquehannocks as having “been converted by the French Missionaries some time ago . . . and one sees them make Crosses and such like Ceremonies. This is all I could find among them; and when any of them comes to Philadelphia, they go to the Popish Chapel to Mass.” (The chapel exists today as Old St. Joseph’s Church; established by Jesuits in 1733, it served the city’s first Catholic parish. The church, now occupying its third building, is still located on Willing’s Alley in Society Hill, just two blocks from Independence National Historical Park.) Von Zinzendorf’s ardent interest in Native Americans stemmed from his belief that they were of the lost tribes of Israel. The Moravian Church was committed to their conversion to Christianity.

In November 1763, twenty years after von Zinzendorf’s speech, the desperate Susquehannocks appealed to Governor John Penn, the founder’s grandson. Their situation was dismal and their future grim; they had been reduced to wage labor, crafts sales, even begging.

We hope now, as we are deprived from supporting our Families by Hunting, as we formerly did, you will consider our destressed situation and grant our women and children some Cloathing to cover them this winter. The Government has always been kind enough to allow us some provisions, and did formerly appoint people to take care of us, but as there is no person to take that upon him, and some of our nieghbors have encroached upon the Tract of Land reserved here for our use, we would now beg our Brother, the Governor to appoint our Friend Captian Thos. M’Kee, who lives near us and understands our language, to take care and see Justice done us.

Not long after the French and Indian War had ended in February of that year, Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out in the Great Lakes region and instilled fear among Pennsylvania’s settlers. Native Americans attacked settlers in western and central Pennsylvania and further agitated hostilities. Suspicion and suspense mounted until, on December 14, the Paxton Boys, an armed mob of vigilantes of Scots-Irish descent who resided in Paxton (present-day Paxtang), near Harrisburg, attacked Conestoga, the Susquehannock village in Lancaster County. Citing Pontiac’s Rebellion and Native American attacks in Pennsylvania as a pretext for their attack, the Paxton Boys burned the village and killed three men, two women, and a young boy. Those who escaped were persuaded to be taken into protective custody and placed in the workhouse, or jail, at Lancaster. This proved to be no safe haven because two weeks later the Paxton Boys rode into Lancaster in broad daylight without fear of reprisal, stormed the workhouse, and murdered the remaining Conestoga.

One eyewitness, William Henry, a resident of Lancaster, recounted the harrowing episode in gripping, gruesome detail.

I ran into the prison yard, and there, O what a horrid sight presented itself to my view!!— Near the back door of the prison, lay an old Indian and his squaw, (wife) particularly well known and esteemed by the people of the town, on account of his placid and friendly conduct. His name was Will Sock; across him and his squaw lay two children, of about the age of three years, whose heads were split with the tomahawk, and their scalps all taken off. Towards the middle of the gaol yard, along the west side of the wall, lay a stout Indian, whom I particularly noticed to have been shot in the breast, his legs were chopped with the tomahawk, his hands cut off and finally a rifle ball discharged in his mouth; so that his head was blown to atoms, and the brains were splashed against, and yet hanging to the wall, for three or four feet around. This man’s hands and feet had also been chopped off with a tomahawk. In this manner lay the whole of them, men, women and children spread about the prison yard: shot—scalped—hacked—and cut to pieces.

The assault agitated heated discussion and prompted much correspondence, as well as the publication of a spate of pamphlets. Horrified by the assault, an enraged Benjamin Franklin wrote and printed in late January 1764 A Narrative of the Late Massacres in Lancaster County, of a Number of Indians, Friends of this Province, by Persons Unknown, in which he decried the attack by the Paxton Boys and lamented the tragedy.

Fifty of them, armed as before, dismounting, went directly to the Work-house, and by violence broke open the Door, and entered with the utmost Fury in their Countenances. — When the poor Wretches saw they had no protection nigh, nor could possible escape, and being without the least Weapon for Defence, they divided into their little Families, the Children clinging to the Parents; they fell on their knees, protested their Innocence, declared their Love to the English, and that, in their whole Lives, they had never done them Injury; and in this Posture they all received the Hatchet.— Men, Women, and little Children — were every one inhumanly murdered—in cold Blood!

The barbarous Men who committed the atrocious fact, in Defiance of Government, of all Laws human and divine, and to the eternal Disgrace of their Country and Colour, then mounted their Horses, huzza’d in Triumph, as if they had gained a Victory, and rode off — unmolested!

The Bodies of the Murdered were then brought out and exposed in the Street, till a Hole could be made in the Earth, to receive and cover them.

But the Wickedness cannot be covered, the Guilt will lie on the whole Land, till Justice is done on the Murderers. THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT WILL CRY TO HEAVEN FOR VENGEANCE.

Franklin also made pointed observations about the Paxton Boys. “In short it appears,” he wrote, “that they [the Conestoga] would have been safe in any Part of the known World — except in the Neighbourhood of the CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES of Peckstang and Donegall!”

Susanna Wright (1697–1784), an articulate, cultivated, and literary Quaker associated with some of the most brilliant individuals of her day — James Logan, Anthony Benezet, and Franklin — lived nearby at Wright’s Ferry (today Columbia), Lancaster County, on the Susquehanna River. “The cruel murder of these poor Indians has affected and discomposed my mind beyond what I can express,” she sadly opined. “We had known the greater part of them from children; had been always intimate with them. Three or four of the women were sensible and civilized, and the Indians’ children used to play with ours and oblige them all they could. We had many endearing recollections of them, and the manner of effecting the brutal enormity so affected us, that we had to beg visitors to forbear to speak of it. But it was still the subject of every body.”

The bloodbaths in Lancaster County spelled the end of the Susquehannocks. Although their bloodlines continued among other groups of Native Americans, the massacres represent the end of the Susquehannocks as a people and a culture. Although the Paxton Boys used fear resulting from Pontiac’s Rebellion to justify their attacks, the land on which the Conestoga lived — by legal, binding agreement with the Penn family — had been coveted by settlers for some time. Over the years the Conestoga had addressed grievances of encroachment to different governors of Pennsylvania. James Logan, William Penn’s provincial secretary and land agent, noted that in 1730 the Scots-Irish were building cabins on Conestoga Manor which were then burned by the local sheriff. The reason given for the land grab? “It was against the laws of God and nature that so much land should lie idle, while so many Christians wanted it to labour on.” Logan was of a prominent Scots family born in Ulster, Ireland, and he initially wanted the Scots-Irish to settle in Pennsylvania because he believed they would provide a defense against “Northern Indians,” the Iroquois, in the same manner that they had defended Londonderry (Derry) and Inniskillen against Catholic forces in Ulster.

After the first attack by the Paxton Boys, Governor John Penn issued a proclamation calling for the apprehension of the perpetrators which, unwittingly, encouraged Native Americans to seek safety and security in Philadelphia. After the massacre in Lancaster, Penn again responded with another proclamation and offered a reward of two hundred pounds each for three of the ringleaders. The arrest of three leaders may have been used to justify a charge of conspiracy. Even with the reward none of the Paxton Boys, initially numbering fifty-seven, were ever brought to justice.

The massacre in Lancaster was not the end of the Paxton Boys. Even with a bounty placed on their heads, they managed to raise more men to their cause. Several hundred of them marched on Philadelphia to confront the Native Americans who had sought safety there with the help of the Moravian Church and under the protection of the government. The Paxton Boys were met by a much larger group of armed Philadelphians, including Quakers, who refused to allow them to pass. Benjamin Franklin stepped forward to reason with them. Upon seeing the city’s impressive defense and the citizens armed against them, they returned to their homes without a single shot being fired.

In the 1960s and 1970s, State Archaeologist Barry C. Kent, of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), began excavating sites that had been inhabited by the Susquehannocks, which resulted in the publication of his Susquehanna’s Indians by the PHMC in 1984. During these archaeological investigations, Kent’s team found items of European origin or influence, including crucifixes, Jesuit rings, and a clay pedestal cup, or goblet, similar to a Jesuit chalice. A true mid-seventeenth-century chalice would have been made from precious metal or, at the very least, the bowl would have been lined with a precious metal. This object does not have such a lining nor does it seem to have ever had such. Nevertheless, it is especially interesting because of its small bowl, a traditional Susquehannock design, and its pedestal, a highly unusual feature for these people. A similar object was found at an Oneida site in New York.

The approximate date of the Susquehannock chalice corresponds to the Reverend Jean Pierron’s visit to the Susquehannocks. While archaeologists firmly believe this vessel was not used in worship services, they do accept its Jesuit influence. The origins and the ways crucifixes and Jesuit rings, also discovered during archaeological excavations, came to the lower Susquehanna River valley may never be fully known. Such objects could have been obtained by Susquehannocks visiting Jesuit missions at La Prairie or missions with the Huron. Father Pierron could have presented some of the items to the Native Americans during his visit. Maryland Jesuits could have provided some of the items. Or, perhaps, the answer lies in a combination of these contacts.


Travel Tips

Interested in Native American history and culture? Several historic sites and museums in Pennsylvania offer visitors enlightening and entertaining ways to learn about early cultures.

Begin at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, which introduces visitors to the Commonwealth’s earliest inhabitants. Museum exhibits discuss archaeological techniques and showcase hundreds of rare Susquehannock and Native American artifacts and objects. Dioramas of tribal villages show native dress, interiors of long-houses, and settings in the pristine prehistoric wilderness. Installations even allow visitors to “walk” through the life of a Lenape from birth to burial. For more information, visit www.statemuseumpa.org on the Web.

In Airville, York County, along the Susquehanna River, John E. Vandersloot, a York attorney, completed a cabin in 1912 that is today the Indian Steps Museum. While gardening, Vandersloot discovered numerous Native American artifacts, such as arrowheads, pottery, and stone tools. His neighbors also contributed similar items and Vandersloot embedded more than ten thousand of them in his cabin’s masonry walls and in other structures on the property, many forming patterns that tell the story of the earliest inhabitants. The Conservation Society of York acquired the property from the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company in 1956 and welcomes visitors from mid-April through mid-October. For more information, including online videos, visit www.indiansteps.org on the Web.

In Lancaster, the North Museum of Natural History and Science offers interactive exhibits and educational programs. Known for its extensive collection of Susquehannock artifacts, the museum is pre-senting a free monthly lecture series, “Conversations on Natives of the Susquehanna,” which includes “Susquehanna and the Susquehannocks” on Thursday, February 8, and related topics on Thursdays, March 8, April 12, and May 10. A new longtime exhibit, “Natives of the Susquehanna,” explores the Susquehannocks from 10,000 B.C. until their demise in 1763.

For other Native American exhibits, visitors might consider Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History and its Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians; and chocolate king Milton S. Hershey’s Native American collection at the Hershey Museum in Hershey. Several PHMC historic sites and museums along the popular Pennsylvania Trail of History have histories and exhibits related to colonial contact with Native Americans: Fort Pitt Museum at Point State Park, Pittsburgh; Bushy Run Battlefield in Jeannette, Westmoreland County; and Conrad Weiser Homestead in Womelsdorf, Berks County.


For Further Reading

Dunbar, John R., ed. The Paxton Papers. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1957.

Jacobs, Wilbur R., ed. The Paxton Riots and the Frontier Theory. Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1967.

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

Thwaites, Reuben G., ed. Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: The Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610–1719. 73 volumes. Cleveland, Ohio: Burrows Brothers, 1896–1901.

Wallace., Paul A.W. Indians in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999.


Colin P. Varga, a native of Baltimore, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He participated in an internship at the Library of Congress in 1983, and from 1985 to 1987 he served as a photographic assistant at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. He was also photo archivist for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, rights and reproductions coordinator for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania/Library Company of Philadelphia, and consultant to the Catholic Heritage Center, all in Philadelphia. He is currently photo curator for the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. This article is the culmination of a research project begun at the Catholic Heritage Center.