Stories from PA History
The Indians of Pennsylvania
The Indians of Pennsylvania
Chapter One: Before Penn's Woods: Pennsylvania's First Inhabitants

This photograph depicts an effigy mask on a Susquehannock Indian clay pot.
Effigy mask on a Susquehannock Indian clay pot, ca. 1600-1625 AD.
The very name "Pennsylvania," or "Penn's Woods," implies that the history of this land began only when a famous English Quaker showed up to take possession of a primeval forest in 1682. We know, however, that William Penn and his fellow colonizers encountered native inhabitants upon their arrival who had their own name for this land and their own starting point for its history. The Lenni Lenape (literally meaning "original people"), or Delaware, told a marker creation story in which the first man and woman grew from a tree on the back of a turtle in a vast ocean.

The Iroquois told a marker similar story claiming they were descendants of a woman who had fallen from the sky and landed safely on the back of a turtle. Like Indian peoples living elsewhere in what would eventually become known as Pennsylvania, the Delaware and Iroquois did not keep written records of their history before contact with Europeans, but they claimed for themselves a status as "first people" that conveyed a sense of their attachment to and long history with the land they inhabited.

Array of Paleo-Indian period fluted spearpoints
The signature stone tool of the Paleo-Indian Period is the fluted spearpoint.
Some scholars refer to the period before European contact as "prehistoric" because there are no written records for historians to study. Others prefer the terms "pre-contact" or "pre-Columbian" (in reference to Christopher Columbus) because "prehistoric" conjures images of a world frozen in time, in which cavemen hunted woolly mammoths. Regardless of the terms used to label this period, it is important to remember that Indian peoples lived in the region that would become Pennsylvania for thousands of years prior to European colonization, and that the world they inhabited was culturally and technologically diverse. Written documentation of this era may be lacking, but the archaeological record provides plenty of evidence of this dynamic, ever-changing world.

Paleo-Indian Diorama
Paleo-Indian Diorama, The State Museum of Pennsylvania
The first people to live in Pennsylvania were part of the earliest waves of human migration into the Western Hemisphere. They came to the Americas during the end of the last Ice Age (about 30,000 to 10,000 years ago), when lower ocean levels exposed the Bering Land Bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Hunters crossed this land bridge from Asia into North America, following the herds of animals that they relied on for subsistence.

These Paleo-Indians, as archaeologists call them, were similar to other human populations around the world at that time; they were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in kinship-based bands ranging from twenty to thirty individuals. They fashioned tools from stone, bone, and wood, but did not plant crops or build permanent dwellings. The most recognizable artifact associated with their culture is the Clovis point, a long, fluted spearhead named for an archaeological site in New Mexico believed to be about 12,000 years old.

This pot, the body of which is decorated with cord-wrapped paddle impressions, is of the Clemson Island style.
Clemson Island
Judging from the broad distribution of Clovis points in the Americas, Paleo-Indians moved quickly through the corridors opened by retreating glaciers to more temperate climates in the Americas. The most famous Paleo-Indian archaeological site in Pennsylvania, the markerMeadowcroft Rockshelter, shows evidence of human occupation possibly as early as 16,000 years ago, meaning it may be the earliest documented site of human occupation in North America. Paleo-Indians encamped at similar natural rock shelters elsewhere in Pennsylvania, hunting turkey, white-tailed deer, elk, and other prey.

As the Ice Age ended and glaciers receded, environmental and climate changes ushered in the next major phase in human history in the Americas, the Archaic Period, which lasted from about 8,000 to 1,000 B.C. Like their predecessors, Archaic Indians were hunter-gatherers, but as the natural resources around them changed, their technology became more diverse and sophisticated to take advantage of their surroundings. The markerFishbasket Old Town archaeological site in Clarion County has yielded arrowheads, stone axes, sinkers for fishing nets, and other Archaic Era artifacts. The markerIndian Jasper Quarries in the Lehigh Valley and marker Indian Paint Hill in Warren County have also yielded archaeological evidence of the Indians' use of Pennsylvania's landscape and natural resources long before the arrival of Europeans.

Woodland Period artifacts
Woodland Period artifacts
                                        The Woodland Period
Sometime around 1,000 B.C. life for Indian peoples in North America changed dramatically as they learned to cultivate crops. Agriculture made it possible to produce food surpluses, which in turn enabled population expansion, economic specialization, and sedentary communities. During the Woodland Period, which lasted from approximately 1,000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., Indians living in Pennsylvania learned to make and decorate pottery. They planted, hunted, and fished in an annual cycle that required commuting between villages and seasonal encampments.

Work patterns developed into a gender division of labor in which men took care of hunting and fishing while women tended crops, typically maize (corn), beans, and squash. Indians often referred to these crops collectively as the "three sisters," a phrase that reflected the feminine spirit and power they associated with agriculture. Woodland Indian families developed matrilineal kinship patterns, meaning households of extended kin were united by their shared maternal ancestors.

Despite these similarities, Woodland cultures became more elaborate and distinct from each other as time progressed. The greatest evidence of this process of cultural development is found in western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley. In this region there arose the Adena Culture (800 B.C. - 100 A.D.), which was most remarkable for the construction of large earthen burial mounds. The Adena Culture gradually transitioned into the Hopewell Culture (c. 100 - 500 A.D.), in which burial mounds gained increasing significance as ceremonial centers for Indian communities.

In Pennsylvania, the markerMcKees Rocks Mound south of Pittsburgh still stands as testimony to the engineering skills and public architecture of Adena-Hopewell peoples. Eventually, the Hopewell peoples gave way to the Mississippian Culture (700 - 1300 A.D.) in this same region. The Mississippians, as the name suggests, fanned northward from the lower Mississippi Valley along the Ohio River, building mounds and ceremonial centers far more elaborate than the Adena or Hopewell peoples before them.

A Native American family, consisting of a man, woman, and child is the subject of this black and white image.
 Indian Family, from Kort abeskrifning om beskrifning om provincien Nya...
                                           The Late Woodland Era
By the Late Woodland Era (c. 1000 - 1500 A.D.), distinct Indian cultures had population centers along the three major river systems of Pennsylvania: the Delaware, the Susquehanna, and the Allegheny-Ohio. The Lenape inhabited the northern and southern parts of the Delaware Valley respectively, living in villages and commuting to seasonal hunting and fishing camps. To the west, the northern Susquehanna Valley was home to Iroquoian-speaking peoples centered in modern upstate New York, but in the 1500s, one branch of that population migrated south along a route that would eventually be known as the markerWarriors Path. 
The Chief of the Lenni Lenape stands with outstretched hand while members of the tribe sit around him.
A Delaware chief addresses his people.

The Susquehannocks concentrated their population in modern Lancaster County and conducted trade with Indians to the east along the markerGreat Minquas Path, which would become a major route to the interior for early European traders and colonists. In the Allegheny-Ohio watershed, the markerGreat Shamokin Path and smaller markerKuskusky Path connected the northern branch of the Susquehanna with the Allegheny. This region appears to have been populated by Iroquoian-speaking peoples related to the Susquehannocks.

Moving south along the markerVenango Path from Lake Erie to modern Pittsburgh, a traveler would have encountered a cultural group archaeologists call the Monongahelas, which emerged in this region after the decline of the Mississippian Culture. Some archaeologists theorize that they may have been related to the Susquehannocks further east, but archaeological evidence is inconclusive.

By the time Europeans arrived in "Penn's Woods" in the 1600s, it might more accurately have been called "The Indians" Well-Planned and Already Quite Occupied Land." Distinct Indian peoples lived in the major river valleys, from the Delaware to the Ohio. Manipulation of the landscape was evident in their villages, fields, and hunting and fishing camps. The paths they had created to travel and trade among these distant and diverse communities crisscrossed the landscape. Native place names, burial mounds, and mysterious petroglyphs etched into rocks testified to the sacred attachment Indians had developed to this land over thousands of years.

"Penn's Woods" may have appeared a pristine wilderness to European colonizers and explorers, but to the Indians who greeted them, it was most certainly an ancient, sacred, and familiar place.

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