Conoy Indian Town
Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region
Pa. 441, 1 mile S of Bainbridge
The Conoys inhabited a region between modern-day Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The Nanticokes lived across the Bay from the Conoys on Maryland's Eastern Shore and present-day Delaware. Both were caught up in the rapid transformations unleashed on this region by the English colonization of Maryland in the 1630s. Colonists seeking their fortunes in the booming trans-Atlantic tobacco market wanted to turn native homelands into plantations. At the same time, Susquehannock and Iroquois Indians were pushing south from the Susquehanna Valley seeking new sources for furs and new markets for selling them to European traders.
Caught in this vise, the Conoys and Nanticokes were also struck by epidemic diseases brought by the Europeans. Historians estimate that the Conoys' population dropped from about 2,500 in 1632 to about 300 by 1697. The Nanticokes experienced similar demographic disaster. During the early decades of the 1700s, the remnants of both groups migrated north into Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley.
When they did so, the Conoys and Nanticokes were moving on to land that had belonged to the Susquehannocks a century earlier. In 1608, Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony had described the Susquehannocks as a powerful people, but warfare and economic competition unleashed by the fur trade had ultimately spelled their ruin. During the mid-1600s, the Susquehannocks warred with Iroquois - a confederacy of five Indian nations to the north - and with Maryland and Virginia colonists from the south. By 1700, most Susquehannocks had died, been assimilated as captives into other Indian nations, or become part of the small, fractured Indian populations, like the Conoys and Nanticokes, who were gradually repopulating the Susquehanna Valley.
The demise of the Susquehannocks left the Iroquois with new power in the region. While there is no evidence that the Iroquois ever struck a decisive blow against the Susquehannocks in the seventeenth century, colonial agents were willing to believe the fiction of an Iroquois "conquest" of the Susquehanna Valley because it helped establish order along a much fractured frontier. Too weak to challenge Iroquois authority, small refugee groups like the Conoys and Nanticokes became, in effect, tributaries of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Generally speaking, this tributary status did not weigh heavily on the Conoys and Nanticokes. Continuing to manage their own internal politics, they showed their submission chiefly by deferring to the Iroquois at treaty conferences. However, as the advancing edge of colonial settlement pushed toward the Susquehanna River, they realized their vulnerability when the Iroquois assumed the power to sell their lands to colonial agents.
In addition to the town identified on this marker, some Conoys and Nanticokes established new homes at the mouth of the Juniata River, and others lived in Shamokin (modern Sunbury), at the confluence of the west and north branches of the Susquehanna. The violence on the Pennsylvania frontier during the Revolutionary Era caused the Conoys and Nanticokes to continue their migrations, some into western New York, some into Ohio, and some eventually to Oklahoma in the 1800s.
The experience of the Conoys and Nanticokes is indicative of how life constantly changed for Indians during the colonial era. While their homelands were actually in Maryland, they became identified with Pennsylvania because by the time European colonizers showed up on the Susquehanna, these Indians were already living there for at least a generation. Indian refugee groups, in turn, added to the diversity of interests and cultures that defined colonial Pennsylvania.
Francis Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with the English Colonies from its Beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744 (New York: Norton), 1984.