Native Americans in Shamokin c.1748 by David Minderhout, Ph.D.

As the Moravians settled in Shamokin in 1748, to carry out their mission to proselytize among the Native Americans living there, they found a bewildering variety of native nations represented and languages being spoken. Sitting at the spot where the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River meet – and then flow as a single waterway to the Chesapeake Bay, Shamokin was home to some of these native peoples, most of whom were refugees from points east and south, and a gathering place for others who were using the river to travel north to Iroquois country or south to Harrisburg, Lancaster and the Bay.

Lenapes/Delawares, Tutelos, Saponis, Nanticokes, Mahicans, Tuscaroras, Shawnees, Catawbas, and all the original five members of the League of the Iroquois – Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas – are mentioned in the diaries. Presiding over this complex mix of peoples was a man named Shikellamy, an Oneida chief who had often served as a middleman between Europeans and natives and who had been placed in Shamokin by the League to oversee native affairs in Pennsylvania and also to protect the southern border of Iroquois territory. This complex and ever-changing array of native peoples was not “traditional,” but, as a recent text puts it, a result of “a century of upheaval and transformation that enveloped all who lived through it.” (Marsh 2014, 2).

Native America in 1550

As best that can be known – from native oral histories and the earliest of European explorers’ accounts – the geographical distribution of native peoples in what would become Pennsylvania and surrounding colonies/states in the 16th century was far different from what the Moravians experienced in 1748. (see Richter 1990) The Lenapes – subsequently called Delawares by English colonists – were to be found in a broad swath from the Hudson River Valley south along the Atlantic Coast to northern Delaware (where the Nanticokes were to be found) and west throughout southeastern Pennsylvania to the Lehigh River. The Five Nation Iroquois occupied the center of New York State. Also called the Haudenosaunee, or “People of the Long House,” the Iroquois saw themselves as a metaphorical long house with the Mohawks as the “Door to the East” and the Senecas as the “Door to the West,” and then from east to west within the longhouse, the Oneidas, Onondagas and Cayugas. At the southern border of the Iroquois were another Iroquoian language family people, the Susquehannocks, after whom the river would be named; they were situated on the North Branch of the river near where present-day Athens, Pennsylvania is located. In the northwest were the Eries or Eriechronon people, another Iroquoian family group, and in southwestern Pennsylvania there was a native culture known today as the Monongahela, though they are known only through archaeological remains.

While the distribution of these groups was stable compared to the circumstances of 1748, they probably were never entirely sedentary and fixed in space. Archaeologists know that Native Americans have inhabited the Susquehanna River Valley for at least 11,000 years, and that through most of that time, they were semi-nomadic foragers, moving camps from place to place along the river to take advantage of seasonal resources, like the anadromous fish, like shad, that migrated up the river each year to spawn, and the wild animals and plants they hunted and collected. Agriculture, in the form of native horticulture utilizing what the Iroquois would call the Three Sisters – maize, beans and squash – had been introduced into the river basin by 900 A.D. – but this new form of subsistence required the shifting of fields and villages every eight to fifteen years as old fields became played out and new ones had to be opened up. Even the Iroquois League, which would play such an important part in colonial interactions, was a relatively recent innovation. Prior to the formation of the League, the various Iroquoian nations fought among themselves and with their neighbors, with the League coming into existence (estimates vary as to when) to provide unity and a common governmental structure among themselves and against their foes. (see Snow 1994).

Even after the formation of the League, the Iroquois traveled widely, their leaders coming together periodically at Onondaga to settle inter-group business, and their hunters traveling into northern Pennsylvania in pursuit of game. And by 1550, the Susquehannocks were beginning to travel south along the river – perhaps because of conflict with the other Iroquoian peoples – where they would eventually meet Captain John Smith at the point where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay in 1608.

However, compared to what the Moravians were experiencing in the mid-18th century, the era just prior to contact with Europeans was one of relative stability. Things would quickly change after 1600. There was the already mentioned contact between the Susquehannocks and John Smith from the English Jamestown colony in 1608. A Frenchman named Etienne Brule was living among the Susquehannocks on the North Branch in 1615, as an emissary of the explorer Champlain. A Dutch whale boat had sailed up the Delaware River in 1633 and made contact with the Lenapes; Dutch and Swedish settlements were established for trade in Delaware with the natives soon thereafter. (see Schutt 2007).This unleashed a sequence of events that led to tumultuous times for Native Americans.

At least four major developments in the 17th and early 18th centuries led to the complex mix of peoples at Shamokin in 1748. The first was the fur trade. When the Dutch met with the Lenapes in 1633, the Lenapes gifted the Dutch with bundles of beaver pelts, which were then transported back to Europe. This ignited a fashion craze in Europe for beaver skin hats and other items of apparel – Europeans having devastated their own native fur-bearing animals over the centuries – and soon European ships were risking the crossing to North America in order to trade for more pelts. What they had to offer Native Americans was European metal and glass technology. Prior to European contact, Native American technologies were limited to stone, bone, wood, animal skins and clay pottery – all perfectly suited to pre-contact cultures – but which were quickly replaced by European metal implements – cooking pots, axe heads, fish hooks, etc – and guns and powder. It is estimated that within a generation of contact with Europeans, native technologies were largely replaced with European goods, and native graves become filled with glass and metal implements and decorative items. With iron-headed axes, more forest could be cut down for native fields and more game – especially fur-bearing game, could be killed. To get the pelts the Europeans sought, natives killed all the beaver they could reach: the Eastern subspecies of beaver was driven into extinction and the Eries were annihilated by the Iroquois so that the Iroquois could get access to peltry in Erie territory. Susquehannocks would travel down the river to Maryland to engage in trade for European goods; they also went overland to Manhattan Island and Delaware to trade pelts to the Dutch for guns and iron tools. (One of the continuing commentaries in the diaries is the demand for the services of the Moravian’s blacksmith, once a forge has been set up, as natives show up to have metal pots and flintlocks repaired.) In general, the fur trade set native peoples in motion, as well as creating a dependence on European technologies. (Another European introduction, which resonates all through the diaries, was alcohol, another European item in high demand. Prior to contact, North America above the Rio Grande was the only region of the world that had not brewed or distilled alcoholic beverages. The demand for them soon dominated trade.)

The second development was the introduction of European diseases, especially smallpox, which devastated native cultures. There is still debate as to why smallpox was so contagious and deadly to Native Americans (see Mann 2006, 102-105, for this discussion), but it is generally accepted that 90% of the native population of Pennsylvania was killed off by the disease. The first reported outbreak of smallpox among the Lenapes occurred in 1654; among the Susquehannocks, it was 1661. One theory for the disappearance of the Monongahela culture in Western Pennsylvania is a smallpox epidemic. Among native peoples, generally the first people to succumb to the disease were young people, leaving communities of children and old people; reports tell of bodies being left to decay because there was no one to bury the dead. Initially smallpox spread unintentionally, but by 1763, Europeans were deliberately trading blankets from smallpox victims to natives in order to undermine their resistance. One can only speculate as to what would have happened in European/native interactions in the 17th and 18th centuries if it was not for epidemic disease; certainly the reduction in their numbers undermined their ability to offer much resistance to colonial pressures.

The third development has to do with the policies of William Penn, the Quaker diplomat and gentleman into whose hands the colony of Pennsylvania fell in 1681. As noted, the Dutch were the first to settle in the Delaware River Valley after their initial contact with the Lenapes in 1633, and the area remained in Dutch hands until their defeat in a naval battle with the English in 1664. The Dutch colony became an English colony in 1665, and in 1681, Charles II of England gave the colony (Penn’s Woods) to Penn in payment for a debt that was owed by the Crown. In that year, Penn sent a letter to the native population of his new possession in which he pledged that “…I desire to enjoy it with your Love and Consent that we may always live together as Neighbors and Friends.” (in Minderhout & Frantz 2008, 62-64). This was Penn’s Holy Experiment, in which he was striving to build a colony in which all its citizens were treated fairly and with respect. When he arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682, he arranged a now famous meeting with two Lenape sachems (or spokespersons), Tamamend and Metamequam, in which he pledged his peaceful intentions and then purchased land from the two. He proclaimed that Europeans could not seize native property, but must purchase it fairly, and that natives had the right to challenge European wrong-doing in a court. As Marsh points out (2014, 12-13), Penn’s principles were not always fulfilled, especially after his death in 1718, but compared to other English colonies in North America, Pennsylvania stood out as a well-intentioned and relatively fair-minded place for Native Americans.

As a result, Pennsylvania became a sanctuary for Native Americans who were being displaced elsewhere. Thus, Nanticokes from Delaware, Conoys from Maryland, and Tutelos, Saponis and Tuscaroras from the Carolinas all migrated into Pennsylvania in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Shawnees from the area that is now western Kentucky also joined the mix, as did Mahicans from New York; both were fleeing encroachments from other native peoples in their own homelands. There was a Shawnee town on the North Branch of the Susquehanna by 1702 and on an island at present-day Milton, Pennsylvania, by the 1740’s. Since the Susquehanna River was the conduit through which traffic flowed in central Pennsylvania, it is not surprising that so many people ended up passing through or living in Shamokin.

The fourth and final development to be discussed here is the interlinking between the rise of the Five Nations Iroquois as a power to be dealt with by Europeans and the subsequent expulsion of the Lenape/Delawares from southeastern Pennsylvania. To the colonial government in Philadelphia, the Iroquois in New York colony were natural partners in diplomacy in the early 18th century. By this point in time, the Iroquois had extinguished the Eries and defeated the Hurons and Susquehannocks, thus giving them a monopoly over the fur trade. They also served as middlemen between the English colonial governments and the French who controlled the upper Midwest – Michigan and the Great Lakes in particular. If an English trader wanted to do business in the Midwest, they had to work through the Iroquois. It was also possible for the Iroquois to draw on a large force of warriors, if needed, which made them potent enemies, but valuable allies.

It was also the case that colonial governments were more comfortable working with the Iroquois and their centralized government than with the decentralized tribal societies like the Lenape. To an anthropologist, a tribe is a social system that shares a common culture, but not a common government or leadership. Each local segment of a tribe is autonomous, and no one person in any tribal segment has sovereign power over the other members. Individuals, like Tamamend, were respected and widely admired, but they exercised no control over other Lenape. William Penn seemed to understand this, as he purchased the same piece of land over and over from different Lenapes, but his agents and successors did not seem to. Instead, the government in Philadelphia would declare one Lenape sachem or another a king and look to them to act on behalf of all Lenapes – which they were unable to do. The Iroquois system functioned very much like the federal system adopted in the U.S. Constitution. Each local unit, Senecas or Mohawks, etc., made their own local decisions about local matters, but each also chose chiefs who convened in Onondaga (because that group was centrally located) to discuss and decide matters that affected them all. When the chiefs meeting in Onondaga made a decision (which had to be unanimous), it was binding on all Iroquois, a system the colonial government could understand – and with whom they could negotiate.

Thus, it was the Iroquois who were the decisive factor in the action that removed the Lenape from southeastern Pennsylvania – the Walking Purchase of 1737. After William Penn’s death, his sons – John, Thomas and Richard – assumed control of Pennsylvania, and they soon proved to be far less conciliatory towards the Lenape than their father had been. And as more and more settlers poured into the Philadelphia area, the pressure on opening up more land for their use grew more intense. In 1700, there were 20,000 European colonists in Pennsylvania, but by the 1730’s that number had grown to over 100,000. In 1735 James Logan, the agent of the Penns, informed some Lenapes that a treaty that had been signed in 1686 by William Penn and some Lenape “chiefs” had been discovered in London. The treaty gave the Penns the right to all the land west of Philadelphia that fell within a day and a half’s walk of the current borders. The Lenape protested; they had no knowledge of the treaty or the people who had signed it, and,   in fact, the purported treaty has never been subsequently found in English archives. The Lenapes appealed to the Iroquois for support in denying the treaty, but found  that the Iroquois had already accepted its terms in negotiations with Logan; Shikellamy, in fact, had acted as an intermediary between Onondaga and Philadelphia in   confirming this “Walking Purchase.”

Lacking the support of the Iroquois, the Lenape agreed to the terms of the treaty, perhaps assuming that a day and a half’s walk would not yield much territory. However, the Penns hired the fastest runners they could find in Philadelphia and even sent workers out in advance of the runners to clear the path on which they would run.

Instead of a leisurely stroll, the Walking Purchase became a race. One of the runners managed to cover 55 miles in 36 hours, which under the terms of the treaty brought 1200 square miles under the control of the colonial government – an area about the size of Rhode Island. Again the Lenapes protested, and again the Iroquois chose to not support them. Instead, this led to an agreement between the Iroquois and the colonial government in which the Iroquois would see to the removal of the Lenapes to west of the Blue Mountains, beyond modern day Allentown. In turn, the Iroquois agreed to give up all land claims along the Delaware River – which had never been part of their territory to begin with. In this way, many Lenapes ended up as refugees in Shamokin.

As a result of these four developments, Shamokin was for a short period of time a place that belonged to Native Americans in Pennsylvania in the early to mid-18th century. That ended in 1755 with the onset of the French & Indian War (1755-1763), called the Seven Years War in Europe. While this war was primarily between England and France, both sides drew Native Americans into the war as fighters. This was especially true of the French, whose settlers were significantly outnumbered by English colonists. The French made use of Shawnee warriors who engaged in a war of terrorism against English settlers in the Susquehanna River Valley, killing and kidnapping them. Iroquois warriors fought on both sides, and the English recruited Cherokees from Kentucky to join the battle, thus bringing this native nation into the Pennsylvania ethnic mixture. The Moravian diaries record the fear that was engendered among European colonists as a result of this conflict.

This war, and the subsequent Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, fundamentally changed the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans in Pennsylvania. No longer was there any pretense of a Holy Experiment in the treatment of native people. Instead the Pennsylvania colonial legislature passed a Scalp Act which offered as much as $150 for the scalp of a male native. And in December 1763, a group of vigilantes from Dauphin County called the Paxton Boys massacred a community of Susquehannocks in Lancaster in retaliation for native participation in the war (even though the Susquehannocks in that area had not been involved in it.) The war undermined the Iroquois’ position of strength, especially in the sense that the English no longer needed them to act as middlemen with the French in the Midwest – the English could now go directly into the area themselves. Subsequent treaties forced many natives into Ohio and farther west, but others stayed in the Susquehanna River Valley and went into hiding. (see Minderhout 2013).


A prominent figure in the diaries – and in native/colonist relations in the early 18th century – was Chief Shikellamy (also known as the Swatane), who, as noted earlier, was placed in Shamokin by the Five Nations to oversee Iroquois interests in the Susquehanna River Valley and to act as a mediator between natives and colonists. (Merrell,1999, covers Shikellamy’s role in colonial/native affairs in some detail.) Shikellamy was an Oneida chief, though it has been suggested many times that he had been kidnapped as a boy from a French settlement and raised among the Oneida, a not uncommon phenomenon in 17th and 18th century America (see Axtell 1991).

Shikellamy was a close friend of many important colonial figures of his time including the Moravian missionary, David Zeisberger, Conrad Weiser – the most important intermediary between the Philadelphia government and the Five Nations – and the Penns’ agent in Pennsylvania, James Logan, after whom Shikellamy named his oldest son, John Logan (also known as Tachnachdoarus). As seen, Shikellamy helped negotiate the Iroquois position on the Walking Purchase and the subsequent removal of the Lenape into the Susquehanna River Valley, and he served as guide and interpreter for colonial agents who needed to go to Onondaga.

As will be seen in the diaries, Shikellamy was friendly to the Moravian missionaries, intervening for them on a number of occasions when other natives were imposing on them. He became a Moravian not long before his death in 1748. Zeisberger was present at his death, and the missionaries aided in his burial. The various diarists’ accounts do not present Shikellamy as the important historical figure that he was, but as a kindly older man who liked to talk with the missionaries and who sought their help on a number occasions, such as a request to have them build a fence around his garden to keep livestock out of it. Shikellamy had made a journey to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – the center of the Moravian sect in America – in November 1748, and it was then that he became a member of that faith. On the way back from Bethlehem, he fell ill, and that led to his death on December 6, 1748. The diarists’ accounts are the only description of these events. At his death, he was succeeded in his role as leader and mediator in the Shamokin community by his son, John.



Axtell, James. White Indians of Colonial America. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1991.

Mann, Charles. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Marsh, Dawn G. A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Merrell, James H. Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Minderhout, David J., and Andrea T. Frantz. Invisible Indians: Native Americans in Pennsylvania. New York: Cambria Press, 2008.

Minderhout, David J. “Native Americans in the Susquehanna River Region, 1550 to Today,” in Native Americans in the Susquehanna River Valley, Past and Present. David J. Minderhout, editor. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2013, pp. 77- 112.

Richter, Daniel “ A Framework for Pennsylvania Indian History,” Pennsylvania History 57(1990):236-61.

Schutt, Amy. People of the River Valleys: The Odyssey of the Delaware Indians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Snow, Dean. The Iroquois. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1994.