While exploring the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, Captain John Smith first encountered the Susquehannocks. In his journal, Captain Smith described them as “seemed like Giants to the English” but archeological research shows the Susquehannocks to have been of average size.
It is unknown what the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannocks called themselves, but the name that graces the river, the people and the state park is derived from the name, Sasquesahanough, given to Captain Smith by his Algonquian-speaking American Indian interpreter. The word has been translated ‘people at the falls’ or ‘roily water people’ referring to the Susquehannock’s home by the river. This small tribe had only one village by present-day Conestoga, but controlled the important trade routes along the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.
During the Beaver Wars, 1649 to 1656, the Susquehannocks formed an alliance with Maryland to acquire rifles and successfully fought the much larger Iroquois Confederacy. A brief peace followed then the Susquehannocks again waged war with the Iroquois until suffering a major defeat in 1675.
The Susquehannocks moved to old Fort Piscataway, below present-day Washington DC. Problems on the frontiers led to the mobilization of the militias of Maryland and Virginia and in confusion, they surrounded the peaceful Susquehannock village. Five Susquehannock chiefs went to negotiate and were murdered. The Susquehannocks slipped out of the fort at night and harassed settlers in Virginia and Maryland, then eventually moved back to along the Susquehanna River. Around 1677, the Susquehannocks moved to New York and intermingled with their Iroquois relatives. In 1697, some Susquehannocks returned to the Conestoga area and built a new village. In the early 1700s, the Susquehannocks migrated to Ohio where they intermingled with other tribes and lost their identity as a distinct nation.
The remaining Susquehannocks, often called Conestogas, stayed and their village remained an important Indian village for many years where many treaties were negotiated and signed, but the population declined. In 1763, the remaining Susquehannocks at Conestoga lived under the protection of the Commonwealth. In response to Pontiacs War, begun in the western part of the state, the Paxton Boys, a group of anti-Indian vigilantes, slaughtered six Indians at Conestoga. The rest of the Indians, who had been out peddling small goods like baskets and brooms, were taken to a workhouse in Lancaster for their own protection. The governor condemned the killings and forbid further violence. Less than two weeks later, the Paxton Boys slaughtered the 14 Indians in the workhouse.
The governor gave special papers of protection to the remaining two Susquehannocks, who worked as servants on a local farm. When they died and were buried on the farm, it was the end of the once powerful Susquehannocks.
For more information, try these books:
Susquehanna’s Indians by Barry Kent
Indians in Pennsylvania by Paul A. Wallace
Indian Wars by Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn