Stories from PA History
The Indians of Pennsylvania
The Indians of Pennsylvania
Overview: The Indians of Pennsylvania

Oil on canvas painting of a hollow cottonwood tree depicting Europeans and Native Americans engaged in trade and conversation. To the left of the painting sit canoes at the waters edge.
We Dined in the Hollow Cottonwood Tree, by Robert Griffin.
The mood must have been tense at the treaty conference held in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1758. Not far away, the French and Indian War raged on along the frontier, with no end in sight. Indians allied with the French forces at Fort Duquesne on the Ohio River had been engaged in hostilities with Pennsylvania frontiersmen for three years. As the treaty conference in Easton convened, a British army was cutting a road through the Pennsylvania wilderness to attack Fort Duquesne, but its mission was in jeopardy if the western Indians remained loyal to the French. At this moment, it seemed as though the future of Pennsylvania was riding on the shoulders of a few colonial agents and Iroquois and Delaware chiefs gathered in Easton to hammer out a peace.

An image of Native American Teedyuscung, dressed in European clothing, holding a cane, and wearing Native American jewelry.
Lenape chief Teedyuscung
The key figure in the Easton negotiations was an Indian named Teedyuscung. He lived in the Wyoming Valley, on the northern branch of the Susquehanna River, and he claimed to be the "King of the Delawares." At similar treaty conferences held over the previous two years, he had emerged as the spokesman for the Indians of the Wyoming Valley, and he claimed to be the one person who could convince the western Indians to cease their war against the British. What he wanted in exchange for this was a guarantee from the Pennsylvania government that his people would always remain in possession of the Wyoming Valley. His chief opponents were agents of the proprietary Penn family, who had their own designs on that land, and Iroquois Indians from New York, who claimed the land was theirs and that Teedyuscung's people lived there only with their approval.

Well aware of the forces arrayed against him, Teedyuscung made a speech on October 20 to his Iroquois and colonial counterparts. Speaking of the Wyoming Valley, he stated, "I sit there as a Bird on a Bow; I look about, and do not know where to go; let me therefore come down upon the Ground, and make that my own by a good Deed, and I shall then have a Home for ever." His plea went unanswered, as the colonists and Iroquois worked in partnership to squeeze Teedyuscung out of power and negotiate the restoration of peace on their own terms. Teedyuscung died a few years later in a house fire set by unknown arsonists. Shortly thereafter an incoming tide of white settlers pushed his people out of the Wyoming Valley.

Initial excavation of the mound (July or August 1896) – person with long white beard and vest probably is Thomas Harper, the person who served as the main assistant of Frank H. Gerrodette.
Initial excavation of McKees Rocks Mound, 1896.
Teedyuscung's unhappy story reveals much about the history and fate of the Indians who originally inhabited the land that became Pennsylvania. His personal history testifies to the changes wrought in the Indians' lives by their encounter with Europeans. Teedyuscung was born among Delaware Indians who lived near modern Trenton, New Jersey, in close contact with colonial society. Like many of his kin and neighbors, Teedyuscung grew up wearing European clothing and relying on iron axes and knives and other European-made goods for daily tasks. He learned to speak some English, converted to Christianity, and lived briefly in a missionary village on the Lehigh River. But Teedyuscung did not like living under the spiritual or political supervision of his colonial neighbors, and so he joined other eastern Indians who moved to the Wyoming Valley in the 1730s and 1740s. Although he had acculturated in many ways to the colonial world, Teedyuscung remained undeniably Indian and sought to preserve his independence from white society.

Of course, Indians had not always faced the same difficult choices as Teedyuscung. Archaeological evidence documents their existence within modern Pennsylvania's borders as far back as 12,000 years ago, and over that vast expanse of time, Indian cultures developed and diversified in countless ways as they adapted to the landscape they inhabited. Rather than being frozen in time before the arrival of Europeans, Indians were a constantly changing collection of distinctive cultural groups with different languages and customs. They borrowed from each other, improving their technologies for farming, fishing, hunting, and pottery making and developing the means of long distance travel and communication with each other. They traded and warred with each other long before Europeans entered the scene.

In the Ohio Valley, distinct cultures that rose and fell in the first millennium A.D. built massive earthen mounds for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. In the central portion of the state, other Indian peoples used the Susquehanna Valley as a highway of migration, trade, and communication between the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay. In the east, Teedyuscung's forbearers in the Lehigh and Delaware Valleys mined rock quarries and traded with native peoples in coastal New England and the Hudson Valley.

Oil on canvas of trade exchange. Natives and newcomers exchanged the products of their labor and far-flung homelands, as well as stories and ideas that changed old perceptions and practices forever.
Winter Trade, by Robert Griffing.
Indians borrowed from and adapted to strangers long before they encountered the first Europeans, but these newcomers were different in important ways. They brought with them new technologies and goods that Indians valued highly. Indians gradually adopted European woven cloth, copper kettles, and sharp-edged iron tools as substitutes for their own native-made clothing, pottery, and stone tools. In exchange for these items, they gave the Europeans animal pelts, and, as time progressed, land. This exchange set up an economic relationship in which the Indians became dependent on European trade, even as supplies of fur-bearing animals in their homelands diminished.

Indebtedness to fur traders set in motion other changes, as they sold land to settle accounts, made war to acquire new supplies of furs, or moved elsewhere to avoid such entanglements with colonial society. Diseases carried by Europeans also had a devastating impact on native communities, as did alcohol, acquired through the fur trade, which took a heavy toll on the Indians' physical and social well-being.

Conoy Indian Town artifact cluster.
Artifacts from Conoy Indian Town
Teedyuscung's people had experienced many of these changes by the time he rose to prominence in the mid-1700s. As the colonial population around them grew, many Indians in eastern Pennsylvania moved west into the Susquehanna, Allegheny, and Ohio Valleys, where they established new communities of mixed tribal affiliations: Delaware, Shawnee, Iroquois, Conoy, Nanticoke, Tutelos, and others. Hybrid Indian communities, such as at Conestoga Indian Town and Shamokin in the Susquehanna Valley, acquired new power and significance as the fur trade and frontier moved west.

Those Indians who chose to remain in their ancestral homelands faced difficult choices in accommodating themselves to their colonial neighbors. Some adopted European craft or farming occupations, but colonial prejudices made it hard for them to remain secure in their property and personal safety. Others sought security by converting to Christianity and joining mission communities, as Teedyuscung briefly did, but in doing so, faced strong pressures to abandon their cultural heritage and practices.

By the time Teedyuscung proclaimed himself "King of the Delawares," the pressures of the fur trade, missionary activity, and colonial settlement had soured European-Indian relations in Pennsylvania. For the first half of the eighteenth century, Indians and whites alike considered the colony a haven of peaceful coexistence, but all of that changed abruptly after the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754. Indians pushed to the wall by fraudulent land purchases and colonial intrusions on their lands fought tenaciously to retain control of the upper Susquehanna, Allegheny, and Ohio valleys. This intercultural warfare grew increasingly vicious during Pontiac's Rebellion and the American Revolution.

Tales of Indian atrocities committed against frontier communities gave license to equally murderous reprisals by white Pennsylvanians. When the smoke cleared, white attitudes had shifted decisively in favor of Indian dispossession and exile, while Indians were drawn to nativist movements that urged them to reject association with white society. In such an atmosphere, Indians such as Teedyuscung, who had hoped to negotiate a lasting peace between his people and their white neighbors, disappeared from Pennsylvania's political landscape.

Group photograph of children at Pratt School
Students at the Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, PA, circa 1890.
By 1800, most Indians whose original homelands were within Pennsylvania's borders had moved out of the state to new homes in Ohio, Canada, or farther west. With the exception of a small Seneca community living in the northwest corner of the state, there were no officially recognized reservations or self-governing Indian communities remaining within Pennsylvania's borders. The eradication of Indian life and culture in Pennsylvania seemed so complete that one post-Civil War reformer, intent on assimilating Plains Indians into white society, established his Indian boarding school in Carlisle, where its students would be far removed from any vestiges of their native culture.

In this photograph, an Indian family poses outside a typical home on the Cornplanter Tract in the mid 1900s.
Cornplanter home with family
Of course, Indians never disappeared entirely from Pennsylvania. Tribal lands and governments may have been denied recognition by the government, but Indian peoples remained. Some blended in with the dominant society by learning new occupations or marrying across racial or ethnic lines. Others moved into the state from elsewhere. For many, many years, white society pressured Indians living in the United States to hide or disavow their cultural heritage, to mask their "Indianness" under cover of European names, religion, customs, or jobs.

That pressure began to let up after World War II, when Indians became more vocal and assertive about preserving and promoting their distinct heritage and place in the nation's history. Nevertheless, as recently as 1960, Pennsylvania had one of the lowest Native American populations counted in the United States. Since then, the state's Indian population has rebounded, in part because of a willingness among Indian peoples to identify themselves as such to the state and federal government, and in part because of new methods among census-takers that allow people to identify themselves by more than one racial category.

Teedyuscung lost his bid to establish a permanent Indian homeland within Pennsylvania during the 1750s, but the spirit of his plea to "let me . . . have a Home for ever" remains meaningful to all Pennsylvanians today, Indian or not. Indians have figured prominently in Pennsylvania's history, and as the census figures indicate, will continue to do so in the future, because they have had a home here for many centuries, even if it has not always been recognized by others.

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