Historical Markers
Great Minquas Path Historical Marker
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Great Minquas Path

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Business U.S. 322, 1 mile SE of West Chester

Dedication Date:
August 23, 1951

Behind the Marker

Schultz Pennsylvania State Museum
Schultz site model in the Pennsylvania State Museum
While exploring the northern Chesapeake Bay in 1608, Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony met a party of Indians entirely distinct from the Algonquin peoples he had encountered thus far in his American travels. These marker "Sasquesahanocks," so named by Smith's Algonquin guides for the river they came from, "seemed like giants" to Smith, and their voices boomed as if echoing in a vault or cave.

Their clothing, made out of the skins of bears and wolves, added to their imposing appearance. One even wore "the head of a wolf hanging in a chain for a jewel." They carried bows and arrows and clubs "sufficient to beat out the brains of a man," but they also gave to Smith gifts of beads and tobacco pipes.

Perhaps most telling of all, these strangers possessed metal knives and hatchets and other items of European origin.

Smith may have been meeting them for the first time, but they already were part of a trade network that connected inland regions to the eastern seaboard. However warlike in appearance, the Susquehannocks who met Smith were primarily interested in extending that trade network to the English newcomers at Jamestown.
Strickler Site trade objects
Strickler Site trade objects

During the 1620s and 1630s, Dutch and Swedish fur traders built forts on the lower Delaware and Hudson rivers. They too met the Indians described by Smith, but they called them "Minquas," a name borrowed from the local Lenni Lenape people who used it to describe their neighbors to the west.

The Susquehannocks/Minquas lived in the lower Susquehanna Valley, fairly distant from colonial outposts on the Atlantic coast, but they played an important role in the early colonization of the mid-Atlantic region. They traveled east to trade with the Dutch and Swedish by way of an ancient path that connected the lower Susquehanna and Delaware rivers. European traders named this route the "Great Minquas Path" after the native peoples it carried to their doorstep.

Archaeologists have done much to reconstruct the history of the Susquehannocks (the name modern scholars use for this group) before European contact. They appear to have originated among the Iroquoian peoples of modern New York, initially living in villages in the northern Susquehanna Valley.

Sometime in the late 1500s, they began migrating south, into the lower Susquehanna Valley, displacing another Indian culture in that region that archaeologists call the "Shenks Ferry People," after one of the excavation sites used to identify them. Early colonial records make references to "White Minquas" and "Black Minquas." This distinction is not entirely clear from the sources, but it seems likely that "White Minquas" referred to the peoples of the lower Susquehanna Valley, and the "Black Minquas" may have been a culturally-related group from farther north and west, perhaps the Eries who lived near the modern Pennsylvania city of the same name.
Map of Great Minquas Path
Map of Great Minquas Path

Like other Iroquoian peoples in the Late Woodland Period, the Susquehannocks lived in matrifocal families, meaning that kinship was reckoned through the mother's lineage and that women held the lion's share of power in domestic relations. Families lived in fortified villages, where they combined seasonal hunting, gathering, and fishing with the cultivation of corn, beans, and squash.

At the time of European contact, their population was concentrated in modern Lancaster County, at the western terminus of the Great Minquas Path. The extent of their contact and trade with other Indians in the Northeast is indicated by the different names used to describe them in early European sources: Minqua and Susquehannock as already noted, as well as Andaste found in French documents.

For much of the seventeenth century, the Susquehannocks figured prominently in the fur trade. Their location in the lower Susquehanna Valley gave them access to the fur-bearing animals of inland regions as well as access to the colonial traders in the east. The Swedish colonizers of the lower Delaware Valley worked hard to retain their favor, agreeing to provide blacksmiths to repair their metal goods and weapons in return for trade and alliance.

The Swedes, however, were conquered by the Dutch in 1655, and the Susquehannocks became embroiled in war with colonial and Indian neighbors anxious to dominate the mid-Atlantic fur trade. This warfare led to a long-term reduction in their numbers, from about 6,000 in 1650 to about 250 by 1700. By the early eighteenth century, most surviving Susquehannocks had either assimilated into Iroquois and Delaware communities or resettled in markerConestoga, a village of mixed Indian peoples in the lower Susquehanna Valley.

Today, travelers approximate the route of the Great Minquas Path when they use Route 30 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) to travel between Philadelphia and Lancaster. This region remains one of the most populous and commercially developed parts of the state, a reminder of the crucial role the Great Minquas Path played in developing colonial Pennsylvania's economy.
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