Natives of Lancaster County


  November is designated as “Native American Heritage Month”. On Thanksgiving Day, many Americans remember the story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a feast together. Today, some Native Americans observe Thanksgiving Day as a day of mourning to memorialize the many indigenous people who lost their land and died because of colonization. With that in mind, I thought I would summarize the various indigenous tribes that occupied the region that became Pennsylvania and especially, Lancaster County.

  For thousands of years before the first Europeans explored the “New World” the forests of North America were occupied by the various tribes of aboriginal people. These peoples were mostly nomadic and would move from place to place depending on the availability of game and fish. For about 2500 years, the area was inhabited by a group of people known today as the “Shenks Ferry Native Americans”. They disappeared around 1550 A.D. By the time that the first Europeans began to arrive the area was occupied by many diverse groups. It is difficult to sift through the many names that are mentioned in the history books. As the people traveled from place to place, they often took the name of the place where they settled. For example, the people living along the Piscataway Creek were called “Piscatways” until they migrated to Pennsylvania where they were known as the “Conoy”. Further complicating things is that various European settlers transliterated the tribal names into their own vernacular. The league of nations was called “Five Nations” by the English and “Iroquois” by the French. What follows is an attempt to catalog the main tribes that had some influence in our Eastern Pennsylvania area.

The Five Nations


In the northeast, in what is now New York and Canada, was the area occupied by the Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks, Cayugas, and Senecas. Sometime in approximately the mid-1400s, the five groups formed a league of nations called the “Haudenosaunee” or “People of the Longhouse”. The league was governed by a council of fifty chiefs; however, the league was egalitarian. Each tribe in the league maintained its own language and territory, none was superior to the others. The French referred to the Haudenosaunee as the “Iroquois League” and the British called them “The Five Nations”. In 1722, refuges from the Tuscarora tribe joined the league, after which it was called “The Six Nations”. The head village, or capitol if you will, of the Haudenosaunee was at Onondaga, just south of Syracuse New York on today’s map.

The Delaware


Along the eastern seaboard of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania lived the Leni Lenape people. The Leni Lenape were made up of groups of related clans with similar languages. The two primary languages were Unami and Munsee. The Lenape were matrilineal, meaning that they reckoned their lineage through their mother’s kin. When a couple married, they would live with the wife’s family. When the English settled the area, they named the river after the first governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Third Baron De Le Warr. The English called the Lenape living along the river “The Delawares”. In 1624, the Dutch founded their colony called “New Amsterdam”. The Lenape began selling furs to the Dutch, primarily beaver pelts. This began the lucrative fur trading business that unfortunately led to the overharvesting and near extinction of beavers in the Delaware Valley.

The English colony of Pennsylvania was founded in 1682 by William Penn. Penn made a treaty with the Lenape under the famous tree at Shackamaxon in which Penn and the leader of the Lenape, Tamanend, agreed to live together in peace for as long as the rivers run. William Penn advocated a policy of benevolence with the Lenape although his growing colony eventually put pressure on the native settlement and hunting grounds. William Penn’s sons did not follow their father’s policy and employed various schemes to subsume the land of the Lenape. During the French and Indian war, the Lenape sided with the French, partly due to a promise that their land would be restored. After the war many of the Lenape migrated west to the Ohio Valley although a few remained.

The Shawnee

(Piquaws, Pequea, Shawanese)

The Shawnee seem to have originated in the Ohio Valley but occupied must of what later became Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Shawnee were related to the Lenape and called the Delawares their “grandfathers”. In 1698, some 60 Shawnee families from Georgia applied to the Susquehannocks for permission to settle near the Pequea Creek. The name of their town was “Pequehan”. Their principal chief was named Opessah. They remained there about 34 years. Opessah was chief until 1711 when he abdicated and Lakundawanna was elected his successor. They began emigrating to Ohio around 1728 and has all moved out of Lancaster County by the middle of the 18th century.

Frenchman Martin Chartiere lived with the Shawanese at Pequea and married an Indian woman. Several years before his death in 1708, he moved his trading post to a point about a mile above the Conestoga’s fort in Manor Township. His son, Peter Chartiere, also married a Shawnee woman and later convinced the Shawnee to fight with the French in the war of 1755-58.  In 1709, the governor of Pennsylvania came to Pequehan and offered each of the Shawanese braves a gun if they would join in an expedition about to start against the French in Canada. The Shawanese declined the offer not wanting to get involved in a conflict where they would likely not prevail.

The Conoy

(Conoise, Gawanese, Ganowese, Piscataway)

The Conoy were originally settled along the Piscataway Creek near the Potomac river. The tribe was a tributary to the Five Nations who used the Piscataway settlement as a stopping point on the southern expeditions. For this reason, fearing that the Virginians would take up arms against them, the tribe requested permission to move further north. In 1704, William Penn welcomed them to his province. They settled for a while along the Susquehanna at a place called Conejohela which was located at present day Long Level in York County. Later they crossed the river and settled along the Conoy Creek. In 1722, their main settlement was called Conoytown in what is now Donegal Township, Lancaster County. The Conoy remained in that area until about 1744 when, feeling crowded out by settlers, they moved north near Shamokin.

The Susquehannocks

(Mingoes, Minquays, Conestogos)

  The Susquehannocks spoke the Iroquoian language and were possibly related to the northern tribes. When Captain Newport set sail for the New World on the Discovery, Susan Constant, and Godspeed to form the settlement at Jamestown, the Susquehannocks occupied a town with a stockaded fort on the Susquehanna River at the foot of Turkey Hill in what would later become Manor Township. At their peak they could field 600 warriors from their stockade at Turkey Hill.

   In the summer of 1608, Captain John Smith left Jamestown and sailed up the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay on an exploratory mission. At the head of the bay he encountered a hunting party of Susquehannocks. Captain Smith described them as more muscular and larger in stature than other natives that he had seen. Smith said, “They seemed like giants, and were the strangest people in all these countries, both in language and attire; their language well becomes their proportions, sounding ‘from them as a voice in a vault. Their attire is the skins of bears and wolves, some have cassocks made of bears’ heads, and skins that a man’s head goes through the skin’s neck, and the ears of the bear fastened to his shoulder, the nose and teeth hanging down his breast, another bear’s face split behind him, and at the end of the nose hung a paw, the half-sleeves coming to the elbows, where the neck of bears and the arms through the mouth, with paws hanging at their noses. One had the head of a wolf hanging in a chain for a jewel, his tobacco-pipe, three quarters of a yard long, prettily carved, with a bird, a deer, or some such device at the great end sufficient to beat out one’s brains, with bows, arrows, and clubs suitable to their greatness.”  Historians had assumed that Captain Smith was exaggerating but years later, when a bridge across the Octorara Creek was being constructed as part of the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, some human skeletons were found that were larger than usual in size. Also, bones excavated near the Susquehannock stockade not far from Washington Borough indicated that they were people of above average height.

   In 1658, a group of English Quakers led by Josiah Cole explored the wilderness along the Susquehanna looking for a place where the Friends could settle peacefully. They visited the Susquehannocks at their village where they were received courteously and where they “entertained us in their huts with much respect”. When Cole returned home and reported his findings to the others, they were greatly impressed and asked Cole to go back and ask the Susquehannocks if they could purchase some of their land. However, by the time Cole returned in 1660, the Susquehannocks were too busy with their war against the Five Nations to negotiate with the Quakers.

The Susquenannocks were decimated by their war with the Five Nations. Soon after this, the remnant left their fort on the river shore and moved to their town on Turkey Hill about four miles further up the hill. Once established at this new location they became known as the Conestogoes. “Conestogo” in the native tongue meant “place of the immersed pole”, probably referring to a tent or cabin pole. Here Penn granted them 500 acres of land that became known as “the manor”, today it is Manor Township. The Conestogoes dwindled until they were a small remnant of twenty individuals. This remnant was exterminated by a band of Scots-Irish vigilantes in Lancaster in December 1763.


Ellis, Franklin and Samuel Evans, History of Lancaster County Pennsylvania, Everts & Peck, 1883

Diffenderffer, Frank Ried, Indian Tribes of Lancaster County, Lancaster County Historical Society, 1896-97

Merrell, James H., Into The American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier, W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 1999

Wikipedia contributors, “Iroquois,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 21, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Lenape,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 21, 2020).

One comment on “Natives of Lancaster County

  1. Thanks Don! A much more respectful and complete history than I remember hearing in any history class growing up. Makes me sad to think I was taught they were savages and were not treated fairly or respectfully.

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