Stories from PA History
The Indians of Pennsylvania
The Indians of Pennsylvania
Chapter 4: Dispossession, Dispersal, and Persistence

Indian Hanna Basket
Indian Hanna Basket
On July 28, 1797, an old Lenape woman known locally as marker"Indian Hannah" stood before Moses Marshall, overseer of the poor for Chester County. It was Marshall's job to interview the woman and determine which township within the county was responsible for paying her poor relief. The life story she conveyed to Marshall was a brief, unremarkable record of family relations, changing residences, and employment over the course of a long life, but it also rendered in personal detail the dramatic transformations that occurred in the lives of Indians in Pennsylvania during the 1700s.

Marshall identified his subject as Indian Hannah, but he noted that she also went by the name "Hannah Freeman." When and how Hannah acquired her last name is not known, but it signaled a familiarity with white society and proud claim to autonomy and equality within it. Hannah told Marshall that she had been born in the Brandywine Valley in 1730 or 1731. Early in her life, she moved seasonally with her family and other nearby Lenape between the white farmsteads of southeastern Pennsylvania and summer encampments where they planted corn and fished. As the white population in this region grew, its Indian population dwindled, and Hannah relied primarily on wages and room and board she earned from whites for her sewing and basket-making.

An oil on canvas Bird's eye view of the Mandan Indian Village consisting of round indian huts and villagers.
Bird's-eye View of the Mandan Indian Village, 1800 Miles above St. Louis,...
Hannah never married, and as she aged, her family members either moved away or died, leaving her increasingly dependent on the work, shelter, and companionship she found among her white neighbors. She ultimately chose to return to the place of her birth in Chester County and live among the whites there, because she had "almost forgot to talk Indian" and did not like "their [the Indians"] manner of living so well as white peoples." Some of her neighbors helped care for Hannah in her old age, raising money for her support until Chester County opened its first poor house in 1800. Hannah was one of its first residents, and she died there in 1802, approximately seventy-one years old. She passed into local lore as the "last Indian" of Chester County.

Local whites may have chosen to remember Hannah Freeman as the "last Indian" of their county, but her story could just have easily been told as one of persistence and adaptation to a rapidly changing world. By the early 1800s, Pennsylvania was one of the most populous and prosperous states in the new nation, a center for its expanding arts and industry. In such a world, it seemed that Indians had no place, and so American artists such as markerGeorge Catlin depicted them in paintings, novels, plays, and sculptures as a vanishing people, a fading reminder of the nation's colonial past rather than participants in its present. But as much as white Pennsylvanians may have wished it to be so, Indians never passed entirely from Pennsylvania, and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they found interesting and important ways to remain a part of the state's present and future, as well as its past.

Oil on canvas portrait of Chief Cornplanter.
Cornplanter, by Frederick Bartoli, 1796.
                                          The Loss of Homelands
During the second half of the eighteenth century, the tide turned decisively against Indians in their effort to hold onto homelands claimed by Pennsylvania. Since the early 1600s, European newcomers put pressure on Pennsylvania's indigenous population. Strange diseases ravaged Indians with no previous exposure to them. Liquor acquired through the fur trade devastated Indian communities. Trade goods, such as copper kettles and woven cloth, deepened Indians' economic dependency on outsiders as speculators and squatters pecked away constantly at Indian land.

All of these conditions worsened substantially during the chronic warfare of the second half of the 1700s. Even more damaging was a change in European attitudes toward Indians, away from co-existence toward a pervasive racism that condoned Indian removal. Indian responses to these changes ranged from militant resistance to increased accommodation to white society. Regardless of the methods employed, all Indians within Pennsylvania ultimately faced the same results of dispossession and dispersal. Once that process was completed, Indians slipped from reality into historical memory for the vast majority of the state's inhabitants, despite the persistence of Indian peoples and identities within its borders.

 Jim Thorpe in his Olympic uniform, Stockholm, Sweden, 1912.
Jim Thorpe in his Olympic uniform, Stockholm, Sweden, 1912.
The Indians' armed resistance to white expansion in Pennsylvania peaked during the waning days of the American Revolution, when militiamen and warriors fought an all-out war against each other in the Allegheny-Ohio region. Hostilities flared again in the early 1790s, as white Americans renewed migrations into the Ohio Valley south of Pittsburgh, which they had begun in the years prior to the Revolution.

The same Shawnee, Delaware, and Iroquois who resisted the British occupation of the Forks of the Ohio in the 1760s and 1770s continued to defend their homelands from these latest intrusions. They delivered devastating blows to the United States Army in the Ohio Country in 1790 and 1791. Those defeats prompted the federal government to raise an army under the command of Pennsylvanian General Anthony Wayne, who used markerFort Lafayette in Pittsburgh as his base for supplying and training his recruits. At the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, Wayne's army defeated the Ohio Indians and finally secured the Pennsylvania frontier from Indian attack, closing the book on forty years of violence in this region.

The military defeat of the Ohio Indians occurred simultaneously with the forced dispossession of Indians by diplomacy. In the decade following the American Revolution, the federal government conducted a series of treaties with the Iroquois, Delaware, and other Indians that forced them to cede their land claims in Pennsylvania in return for lands farther west and annual payments of trade goods and cash. This process began in earnest with the markerPurchase of 1768, negotiated by British officials with the Iroquois at the Fort Stanwix in modern Rome, New York. By the terms of this treaty, the Iroquois gave up their claims in Pennsylvania extending from the Wyoming Valley to the Forks of the Ohio. After the Revolution, this process of dispossession by diplomacy accelerated, in part because the United States now regarded the Indians as defeated enemies rather than as important allies or valuable trading partners.

American Horse sitting with children during a visit to the Carlisle School, 1882.
American Horse with children during a visit to the Carlisle School, 1882.
Of course, the Indians who lived on the Pennsylvania frontier were more reluctant to part with this land than the New York Iroquois. Their resistance to the Purchase of 1768 forced the United States to seek a similar land cession at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784, and then another one at the Treaty of Fort McIntosh (modern Beaver, Pennsylvania) in 1785. By the conclusion of the federal government's treaty with the Iroquois at Canandaigua, New York in 1794, all Indian title to land within Pennsylvania's modern borders was extinguished. The sole exception was a 300-acre grant made to Seneca chief Cornplanter on the Allegheny River in modern markerWarren County. The Cornplanter Tract was home to a small community of Seneca until 1964, when the construction of the Kinzua Dam forced its inhabitants to move to the Allegheny Seneca reservation in New York State.

Faced with the loss of their lands after the Revolution, Indians moved elsewhere. Some migrated north and blended into Iroquois communities in New York and Canada. Others moved west into the Ohio Territory. Moravian missionaries markerDavid Zeisberger and markerJohn Heckewelder figured prominently in the relocation of Delaware communities in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario after the American Revolution. Those Indians who sought security under the protection of the Moravians, however, had to accommodate themselves to the Christian missionaries' rules for Indian converts, whom they expected to abandon Indian dress, diet, work patterns, spiritual beliefs, and sexual practices.

Those Indians uninterested in such changes were drawn in the post-Revolutionary era to revival movements inspired by traditional Indian spiritual beliefs. Such revivals shared several common threads, including a rejection of Christianity, abstinence from alcohol, and an emphasis on maintaining cultural distance from whites. One such movement was inspired by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake, whose message inspired followers among the Indians living on Cornplanter's Tract in Pennsylvania.

Mural of  Katharine Marie Drexel and her mission.
Mural of Katharine Marie Drexel and her mission.
                              From the Carlisle Indian School to Mother Drexel
After the Civil War, Pennsylvania once again became a laboratory for white-Indian relations when Colonel Richard Henry Pratt established the markerCarlisle Indian School at an old army base in Cumberland County. Pratt, a veteran officer of the Indian wars on the Great Plains, was a fierce critic of the federal government's Indian policy, which he believed doomed the Indians by segregating them on western reservations. Inspired by the assimilationist ideas that animated other social reformers of this era, Pratt pioneered the Indian boarding school movement, which took Indian children off of reservations and immersed them in white Anglo-Protestant culture in hopes of turning them into loyal citizens of the United States.

During its forty years of existence, the Carlisle School brought 10,000 Indians to Pennsylvania, the most famous of whom was the Olympic athlete markerJim Thorpe. Pratt's vision of American Indians, however, seemed devoid of the cultural accommodation and mediation that was the hallmark of white-Indian relations in Pennsylvania before 1750. For Pratt, there could be no meeting the Indian halfway. As expressed in his motto "Kill the Indian, save the man," he believed in erasing Indian character, rather than celebrating or understanding it.

One of Pratt's contemporaries in the Indian education movement was markerKatharine Drexel, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family who devoted her life to alleviating the poverty of Native Americans and African Americans. As a young woman, Drexel became a Catholic nun and founded the order of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Like Pratt, she believed that education provided the best means of assimilating Indians into modern white society, and her religious order established one of its first school's for this purpose in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Unlike Pratt, Drexel also saw the utility of establishing schools on Indian reservations, where children would not experience the profound dislocation of living apart from family and community.

While Pratt's and Drexel's methods differed in significant ways, each encountered problems typical to Indian education during the reservation era. Most of the students who matriculated at boarding schools dropped out before graduating, preferring to live at home rather than under the constant supervision of white teachers. The plight faced by such students illustrates the fate of Pennsylvania's Indians in general after 1800. The dispossession enforced by treaties between 1768 and 1794 presumably made it impossible for Indians to continue living within Pennsylvania as Indians, that is to say, in distinct communities with distinct languages, cultures, and customs, free from white intrusion.

Indians and peoples with Indian heritage have always lived in Pennsylvania and continue to do so. According to the 1960 U.S. Census, 1,122 Indians lived in Pennsylvania. In 2000, the U.S. Census counted 18,348 American Indians or Alaskan Natives living in Pennsylvania, as well as another 34,302 people claiming such heritage in combination with one or more other races.

As these statistics indicate, the Native American population of Pennsylvania is growing, a result of migration into the state and an upward trend in the number of people identifying their ethnicity as all or in part Native American. Unlike most states, Pennsylvania may not have any formally recognized Indian reservations within its borders, but Indian identity persists among its inhabitants, constantly adapting and reinventing itself in the modern age.

Back to Top