Valleys of the Susquehanna
Front St. (PA 147) between John & Julia Sts., at Fort Augusta site, Sunbury
January 10, 1947
"[Shickellamy was] truly an excellent and good man, possessed of noble qualities of mind, that would do honor to many white men laying claims to refinement and intelligence"
- Moravian leader Count Zinzendorf
Shickellamy (also spelled Shikellamy) was one of the most influential Indians in colonial Pennsylvania, and he lived in one of its most important native communities, the town of Shamokin, located at the confluence of the west and north branches of the Susquehanna. Shickellamy defined the role of the Indian intermediary and diplomat, constantly negotiating between a shifting array of native and colonial peoples. The records of the era identify him as the "viceroy" or "half-king" of Shamokin, but like the man himself, these titles are slippery and hard to define.
Shamokin's population was composed of people from a number of different Indian nations. Eastern Delaware moved there when land frauds such as the Walking Purchase dispossessed them from homelands in the Delaware Valley. Seneca and other Iroquois from New York moved there because of its central location on the Warriors Path and Great Shamokin Path, which they used to conduct trade, diplomacy, and warfare to the south of their homelands in New York. Conoy, Nanticoke, and Tutelo Indians moved there after being uprooted from their homes in the Chesapeake Bay. Missionaries, some of the first Europeans to visit Shamokin, described it as a lawless place that fell under no one's jurisdiction but its own, with a population so diverse as to appear ungovernable.
Contemporaries said Shickellamy was an Oneida (one of the six Iroquois nations from New York), but he may have been adopted into that tribe, and we do not know any more about his background. He first appeared in Pennsylvania's records in 1728, when he was identified as living in "Shickellamy's Town" not far from Shamokin on the western branch of the Susquehanna. From 1737 until his death in 1748, he lived in Shamokin and achieved his greatest fame as an Indian diplomat there.
Shickellamy did not rule over Shamokin, but he did live there in an official capacity. Indians and colonists alike recognized him as a representative of the six Iroquois nations in New York, who claimed to have conquered the Susquehanna Valley during the fur trade wars of the 1600s. The ceremonial and political center of the Iroquois was in Onondaga (modern-day Syracuse, New York), and Shickellamy was supposed to serve as Onondaga's "eyes and ears" in Shamokin. The title "half-king" often associated with him reflected this split personality: he lived in Shamokin but also represented the interests of the Iroquois based in Onondaga.
As this role would suggest, Shickellamy's work rested on powers of persuasion and reputation, rather than military or political coercion. In 1731 he met a newcomer to the region, German settler Conrad Weiser, who spoke an Iroquois dialect and knew the culture and customs of his people. The following year, while Shickellamy was leading a large delegation of Iroquois to Philadelphia, he asked Weiser to serve as his translator. The two men would work together as go-betweens and negotiators for the next seventeen years, making numerous journeys in each other's company between Philadelphia, Shamokin, and Onondaga. Their long trips together helped bind the Iroquois and Pennsylvanians together in what each side called "The Chain of Friendship," a diplomatic alliance that peacefully negotiated differences over trade and land in the years before the French and Indian War.
In addition to his diplomatic embassies, Shickellamy dealt with local and provincial authorities on the illicit sales of rum, white theft of Indian valuables, and other issues that jeopardized peace on the frontier. His participation in a joint colonial-Indian expedition to remove squatters from the Juniata Valley in 1750 (which gave Burnt Cabins its name) is a good example of his efforts to protect Indian interests while also keeping the peace. Suspicion and rumors were persistent difficulties on the frontier and could very easily and quickly lead to conflict, so Shickellamy was often called upon to discredit "Ugly talk" or the "chirping [of] bad birds," that might lead to open hostility.
Although many whites were prejudiced against Native Americans, Shickellamy was well-regarded for his honesty and trustworthiness. James Logan, Pennsylvania's Provincial Secretary and de facto Superintendent of Indian Affairs, was a friend who kept his store of trade goods at Shickellamy's house. The Oneida chief named one of his sons, the famous Chief Logan, after his Quaker friend. In return for his services to the province, the Quaker government of Pennsylvania rewarded Shickellamy by having Conrad Weiser and a group of workmen build him a large log cabin at Shamokin. Colonial officials also periodically sent him presents of clothing, medicine, and food, most of which he redistributed to his neighbors, as was customary for Iroquois chiefs.
One of Shickellamy's great successes was his partnership with the Moravians, a German religious sect based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Moravians asked his permission to keep a missionary in Shamokin; Shickellamy made his approval contingent on the Moravians also maintaining a blacksmith there, so that the town's inhabitants would not have to travel to eastern settlements to get their weapons and tools made or repaired. Shickellamy was impressed by the Moravians' goodwill and their refusal to engage in the liquor trade. In 1748, he traveled to Bethlehem, the headquarters of the Moravian Church in North America, and was baptized into their faith. On his way home, he fell ill and died in the company of his missionary friends on December 6, 1748.
Shickellamy's life also illustrated some of the liabilities Indians faced when they tried to live in two worlds. He lived in Shamokin, but his closeness to the Pennsylvania government and the Moravians set him apart from his Indian neighbors. As the focus of Pennsylvania's fur trade moved west toward the Ohio Country, his influence in the colony's Indian relations waned, and the people of Shamokin had less reason to listen to him. Shamokin, the village whose interests he had worked so hard to protect, did not long survive him. Its population was uprooted during the French and Indian War, and the Pennsylvania government built a military garrison, Fort Augusta, on the site.
James H. Merrell, “Shamokin, the very seat of the Prince of darkness: Unsettling the Early American Frontier," In Contact Points:
American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830, edited by Andrew R. L. Cayton and Fredrika J. Teute (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998): 16-59.