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

Everyone has some interest in the past, even if only an intrinsic realization that our present existence is shaped by past experiences. For many, there is a much greater aware­ness of our debt to the past, or at least an abiding interest in prior human events and products.

The degree and reasons for these curiosities vary enor­mously: from the function of a rusted tool, or the fascina­tion with dates of an old house, to concern with the total way of life of some past society. Some seem to find in reflecting on bygone days a dream-like escape to a way of life which somehow seems better, less cluttered or more beautiful.

One thing is certain: we can never really live in the past. However, it is possible to recapture some of one’s favorite aspects of another time through restoration, re-enactments or simply by having some knowledge of what happened.

The vehicles by which we transport our minds back in time and by which we return knowledge of it to the present are ancient objects, history and archaeology.

Pondering over the aura of another time which sur­rounds old objects, structures or places is the means by which most of us travel into, or at least become enthused about the past. Those who are concerned with a more ac­curate assessment of the people and events relating to the physical remains of the recorded past find historical re­search the necessary time machine.

Archaeology can help to fill in some of the missing pieces from the historic past. However, its greatest use is in reconstructing unrecorded or prehistoric periods of human existence.

Archaeology is a set of techniques and procedures by which we attempt to recreate and chronologically order ancient cultures. Among other things it involves the re­covery and careful study of the lost and buried nonperishable products or artifacts of a former way of life in order to discover more about the total fabric of that culture.

Unlike history, archaeology can rarely uncover specific events, names, or exact dates of occurrences. Its focus is necessarily on the general development of cultures and the manners in which they have changed over time.

Archaeological research, here coupled with a degree of imagination, is the vehicle for most of our present brief tour of Indian cultures in very early York County. Toward the end of our trip we will also be riding on historical accounts.

Our journey begins in the late spring 11,000 years ago, on a cold wind-swept hill overlooking what we now call the Susquehanna River. The vegetation about us, as far as the eye can see, consists of scattered clumps of tall spruce and fir trees surrounded by open meadows of tundra grasses and low brush. The time of our visit is near the end of the last great glacial period which has brought mile high sheets of ice into northern Pennsylvania and forced our hardwood forests far to the South.

From below us on a marshy flat along the river come the sounds of human life. Twenty shouting old men, women and children are struggling through the cold marsh to join five men standing near the fallen hulk of what seems to us an enormous beast.

The men had been following a mastodon, a large, hairy, elephant-like creature, which they had speared in a ravine along Kreutz Creek near present day Hellam. The wounded animal, in an attempt to flee the constant stabbing spears of his predators, lumbered toward the sanctuary of the wide river near Wrightsville. Fortunately for the tired and hungry hunters the animal collapsed before it could reach the river’s edge.

The gleeful group, which was now catching up with the hunters, carried stone knives and scrapers for skinning and butchering the animal. Eventually all of the meat would be dragged to a dry place along the river. Here they would camp until all of the food was consumed, then to continue their wandering in search of the migratory caribou herds or perhaps another mastodon. This small group represents the total population of York County.

If our tour permitted us to follow successive generations of these people over the next four thousand years we would see very little change in their way of life or the fluted chert spearpoints which they made.

Our archaeologist tour guide tells us that we now call these people the Paleo-Indians. We have no idea what language they spoke, but in their own tongue they probably called themselves the “real people.” These were the direct descendants and culturally identical to the first people who crossed the Bering Straits into North America some two thousand years earlier.

The next stop on our journey is in a somewhat more familiar looking hardwood forest near the junction of a small tributary to the Conewago Creek in Dover Township. The glaciers have receded and the climate is like that which we are accustomed to. The only real difference that we notice in this area 6000 years ago is that almost all of the trees about us are of enormous size.

Scattered among the trees along the small stream are five bark-covered, dome-shaped huts. It is a crystal clear winter day. Several children are playing with toy spear shafts beneath a giant oak. Two men sit near an open fire, chatting with one another as they chip long, stemmed spear heads from the rhyolite which they had collected the previous fall at the quarries near Caledonia.

A woman, clad in simply tailored deer skins, is grind­ing nuts with a stone mortar and pestle. The resulting paste she will mix with the dried berries which she has been storing in her woven grass basket. The cakes will be baked in hot coals pulled to one side of the fire.

Two other women are skinning rabbits which their men folk had taken earlier that day. The roast rabbit and cakes will be shared by the whole community. People will eat whenever hunger stirs them from the lazy tranquility which seems to prevail.

These people are known to us today as Early Archaic Period hunters and gatherers. The group of thirty people which we are visiting will live out their lives – most will die before they reach forty years of age – along the Conewago Creek and its tributaries from the headwaters to its mouth at the Susquehanna.

They, like all of their neighboring bands in adjacent drainages, will make the same shaped spear heads, knives, grooved axes and bone tools. On special occasions when sufficient food is available, such as in the nut gathering season or during the spring fish runs, this band will join with some of their neighbors to trade tools and celebrate simple ceremonies. Perhaps a marriage or two might take place. Men would customarily take a wife from another band.

This archaic way of life will continue until almost the beginning of the Christian Era. Population will remain stable as will the resources. The only noticeable changes which will occur will be in the shapes of their chipped stone knives and spear points. Toward the end of this period one major technical innovation will take place. It will be discovered that vessels in which foods can be boiled could be carved from soft soapstone of Southern York County.

Our next stop is in the final year of the reign of Caesar Augustus. We are at the base of the cliff over which Councilman’s Run tumbles into the Susquehanna. A few yards south of the waterfall an overhanging portion of the ledge provides a small, but well-protected rock shelter.

Smoke from a fire against the back wall of the shelter is streaming up the face of the cliff above the overhang. With it comes the smell of baked sturgeon.

Two families of Early Woodland Period Indians are camping here during the Spring fishing season.

Two new objects from their way of life catch our eye. Leaning against a hemlock which is growing from the talus slope in front of the shelter, is a large conical ceramic pot. Nearby a naked man sits smoking tobacco in a hollow stone tube.

Pottery first appears during the Early Wood land Period and is one of the characteristic features of all Woodland cultures. Its form and quality will change over the next 1500 years.

The Middle Woodland Period will bring with it the beginnings of simple horticulture. However, it will not be until Late Woodland times, after 1000 A.D., that agriculture becomes a significant enough source of food to permit Indian communities to increase in size.

In the year 1400 A.D. we stop at a small village site situated in a clearing on gently rolling land along the Codorus Creek a few miles upstream from York. Here we find a dozen loaf-shaped bark covered huts, each about fifteen feet long and arranged in a circle around a well­-trodden central plaza. Dogs and children seem to be into everything. Women are attending to the chores of cooking, preparing hides, and cultivating the corn, beans, and squash in the field next to the village. Men, as in times past, occupy themselves with hunting. Tales of the hunt are related whenever men sit down to enjoy the tobacco from their short clay pipes.

Only one man appears to be working as we observe the activities of this village. He is lashing small stone triangular points to arrow shafts. The bow and arrow is an invention which came about only a few hundred years before. It was widely accepted by all Indians of this period because of its obvious advantages over the spear.

Pottery was made by the women, and at this time all Indian groups in York, Lancaster and Lebanon counties formed and decorated their pots in almost exactly the same manner. Archaeologists call this pottery and all those who used it the Shenk’s Ferry. The name derives from the first place it was excavated in Lancaster County.

Shenk’s Ferry peoples were to endure some drastic changes during the sixteenth century. A new group of Indians from northern Pennsylvania began moving into the Lower Susquehanna Valley. Their relationship with the indigenous Shenk’s Ferry people was not harmonious. Shenk’s Ferry hamlets were being abandoned for larger towns protected by palisades of vertical posts.

By 1575 A.O., the Iroquoian speaking peoples from the north had established their own very large stockaded town near Washington borough in Lancaster County. Twenty-five years later there were no Shenk’s Ferry towns to be found anywhere in the Lower Susquehanna.

Seventeenth century records indicate that this new tribe called themselves something like Gandastogue. However, they have become known to us as the Susquehannocks. This was what Capt. John Smith’s Algonkian guides called them when he became the first white man to meet them. Their first encounter took place at the head of Chesapeake Bay in the year 1608. That date marks the beginning of over a century and a half of interaction, commerce, and conflict between the Susquehannock and the newly arriving Europeans.

The Susquehannocks along with all contemporaneous Indians of the Eastern United States had two major items which the Europeans coveted: land and furs. Swedes, Dutch, French and English explorers and settlers traded, cheated, stole and killed for these commodities.

Quickly, the Indians became accustomed to and depen­dent upon European manufactures, including guns, kettles, iron knives, axes, etc. Often they fought bitter wars with other tribes for control of trade, with the result that other Indians as well as whites were annihilating Indians.

The Susquehannocks became embroiled with the New York Iroquois over control of the fur trade. For over forty years the Susquehannocks held the upper hand in this inter­necine warfare. Then, by 1670 they began to slip. The rigors of war and European diseases were eroding their population and society.

In 1673 we visit our York County Indians for the last time. Just a few years before our visit, the Susquehannocks had moved their village from the depleted soils and wood supplies of Washington Borough directly across the river to a hilltop at Long Level.

Their sixty-foot longhouses were protected by a single encircling line of palisade posts. At first glance we get the impression that we are viewing an ordinary Indian town. However, upon closer scrutiny we discover that something is wrong.

Women are still farming, cooking and making pottery. But the pottery is crude and less abundant than in former years. Brass kettles have almost completely replaced the need for native-made pots. Similarly, brass arrowheads and flintlock guns have become the rage for hunters and war­riors. Only a few old conservatives continue to use the stone tipped arrows. Even the art of making elaborately decorated stone or clay smoking pipes has declined. Great quantities of European-made kaolin pipes are available.

The stench of human debris scattered on the ground and filling the old storage pits is nearly more than we can stand. But curiosity leads us onward. Behind one ramshackle long­house we find a man lying face down in the dirt. Beside him is a very handsome blue or grey German stoneware jug. We also notice two broken rum case bottles, one of which he has fallen upon.

Spiritous liquors, something totally unknown to North American Indians prior to the coming of the white man, are now frantically sought after. The fact that none of the villagers pays any attention to the drunken man before us reflects the demoralized state into which they have fallen.

Even as we are preparing to leave, a small group of women stands quietly outside the village by the open grave of a child dead of smallpox.

A new and desperate way of life has befallen our York County Indians. The old, the simple, the good and the beautiful life in forests is a dim memory of the past.

If we were to return to this spot a year later we would find the village abandoned, much of the stockade and many of the houses burned and fallen into decay.

The Seneca Indians had finally overcome the Susquehan­nocks in their efforts to monopolize the trade for guns, trinkets and rum.

Susquehannock survivors were widely scattered. Some were taken as captives by the Iroquois, while others had gone to live with Lenni-Lenape or elsewhere to the South and West.

Later some Susquehannocks along with a few Seneca Indians settled a new town in Manor Township, Lancaster County. Here at Conestoga Town they farmed, hunted and trapped, now totally dependent on the white man’s trade goods. In the end, they had been reduced to broommakers and beggars. Even though they were peaceable and quite innocuous at Conestoga Town, Indian atrocities on the western frontier seemed to be sufficient cause for a group from Harrisburg, known as the Paxton Boys, to massacre them in December of 1763.

Occasional small groups of Indians were seen in York County during the first half of the eighteenth century, but their coming and going were of little consequence to the new occupants of the land.


Dr. Barry C. Kent is state archaeologist on the staff of the PHMC.