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American Indians Were Major Part of Development of E-Town

In 1990, President George Herbert Walker Bush declared November as National American Indian Heritage Month. The current location of the post office in Elizabethtown was built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945). Inside the post office is a mural painted by WPA artist Henry Lee Gatch (1902-1968). The painting is entitled “Squaw’s Rest” and depicts the Conoy Indians who lived in present-day Elizabethtown. The next time you are in the post office take a look at the mural. Let us reflect on the history of the indigenous people of Elizabethtown.

Almost all Native Americans alive today descend from Asian ancestry. Over the course of thousands of years, Asians migrated to America through the Bering Strait filling the entire American land mass before nomads began growing wheat in Mesopotamia. Archeologists claim Collinsville, Ill., by the year 400 of the Common Era (also known as CE, more popularly known as A.D.) was a complex city housing a population of nearly 40,000 indigenous people. Philadelphia, the largest city of colonial North America, did not reach a population of 40,000 until after 1800.

Lancaster County contains the most concentrated record of indigenous habitation in Pennsylvania. Paleo-Indian habitation sites are frequently discovered and catalogued in Lancaster County containing artifacts with carbon-14 dates between 13,000 and 19,000 years old. Stone tools, specialized hide-scrapers, knives, and carefully fashioned fluted spear points dating to about 10,000 years ago have been uncovered at numerous local sites. These Paleo-Indian settlements flourished in agricultural production and operated complex trade routes expanding throughout the continent. Every river valley and every tributary of the Swatara, Conoy, Chickies, Conestoga, Pequea, and Octorara Creeks has considerable evidence of human habitation prior to European contact.

European contact with the Paleo-Indian inhabitants of America began in 1523 when Italian explorer Giovanni da Verazzano (1485-1528) landed in the Carolinas. Verazzano sailed along the northeast cost of America attempting to find a route to Asia. On May 30, 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernado De Soto (1500-1542) landed near Tampa Bay, Fla., with a garrison of 600 soldiers. His stray horses bred the first population of wild horses in America. In 1682 French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687) landed in Montreal canoed across the Great Lakes and down the Illinois River reaching the Mississippi.

We borrow many geographic names from Algonquin languages including the states Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin; and cities Milwaukee, Chicago, and Ottawa. Native Americans introduced Europeans to many of the vegetables we are familiar with today including maize (corn), potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, squash (including pumpkin), pineapples, papaya, and avocados.

The first European explorer to come to what is now Elizabethtown was Etienne Brule (1592-1633). In 1616, Brule, a French expert in the Algonquin language, who lived among the Susquehanna tribe in western New York, traveled down the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay. Along the way, Brule explored the tributaries of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County and encountered the Susquehannock tribes living along the Conoy and Conewago Creeks in Elizabethtown.

The Susquehannocks first emerged as a distinct entity about 1450 along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River Valley in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. Originally part of the Seneca, the westernmost tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Susquehannocks split the confederacy and migrated down the Susquehanna River dominating the valley and establishing a significant presence in Lancaster County.

In 1608 Captain John Smith (1580-1631) founder of the British settlement in Jamestown (1606) explored the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River. The Susquehannocks greeted Captain Smith with presents of “skins, bows, arrows, targets, beads, swords, and tobacco pipes.” Smith wrote about how the tribe was well familiar with the Europeans and had long been partnering with the French in trade.

In 1599 the French established a trading post with the Iroquois at Tadoussac, Quebec. The French called the Susquehannocks the Andastes. While the Swedish and Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania competed for control of the fur trade funneled through the Delaware Bay, the French extended their fur trading into the Susquehanna watershed shipping north to Montreal and south to New Orleans while calling the whole territory New France.

Between 1680-1690 no Susquehannock villages existed in what is now Lancaster or York counties. There was a migration to New York to settle among the Iroquois and Seneca and a movement south to Maryland. In 1703, consumed by debt, William Penn (1644-1718) charged his land agent James Logan (1674-1751) to send him in London “bear and buck skins for they [the creditors] bear an advance” and “urge the Pennsylvania assembly to establish a propriety monopoly in the Indian trade.”

To this end, in 1708, James Logan invited the French expert Indian language interpreter Peter Bezaillion (1661-1742) to establish a fur trading post where the Conoy Creek meets the Susquehanna River in what is now Bainbridge. Earlier in 1629 Etienne Brule also partnered with the British fur trader Sir David Kirke (1597-1654). By 1719 Bezaillion invited the Piscataway tribe to move from Maryland to Conoy Town. They assumed the name Canoise or corn shellers and were called the Conoy Indians.

Since 1300 CE the Piscataway people lived along the Potomac River. Sometime around 800 CE the Piscataway began to cultivate maize as a supplement to their ordinary hunting-gathering diet of fish, game, and wild plants. By 1600 incursions by the Susquehannock almost entirely destroyed the Piscataway settlements. The Piscataway or Conoy living in the Elizabethtown area were said to number only 150 people.

Early histories written about Lancaster county and Elizabethtown claim the Conoy Indians settled near the present site of Saint Peter’s Church in the borough and called the village Peshtauk meaning “beautiful spot.” They carved a trading trail between Lancaster City and present-day Harrisburg. The original trail entered Elizabethtown on South Market Street, turned sharply southwest at College Avenue, following the creek, before joining the current path of Pennssylvania Route 283 to Lancaster. At what is now the Center Square of town the trail was level with Conoy Creek and continued north to the trading post and ferry of John Harris (1673-1748) and John Harris Jr. (1716-1791) who established Louisburg (in honor of King Louis XVI of France) and later named Harrisburg.

Peter Logan did not only invite French and Indian fur traders to settle between the Conoy and Conewago Creeks along the Susquehanna River, he also sold land to the highest bidders among the Swiss-German (mostly Mennonite) Palatine farmers arriving in Pennsylvania in 1717. Simultaneously there was an influx of Ulster Scots or Scots-Irish settlers. William Penn’s sons John (1700-1746), Richard (1706-1771), and Thomas (1702-1775) inherited a great deal of debt when their father died in 1718. The Penn brothers became alienated from Quaker beliefs and did not subscribe to their father’s ideals for Pennsylvania.

In 1717, one year before his death, William Penn reserved 16,000 acres in Lancaster County for various tribes as a reserved hunting ground. This promise by William Penn would not be kept by his sons. According to Mennonite historian the Reverend John L. Ruth, Mennonite settlers in Lancaster County anxiously paid up to four times more than the price the Penn brothers were asking for acres. Meanwhile the Scots-Irish settlers encouraged to move here by James Logan started living on the land illegally. The obvious defense of one’s claim to property was to construct buildings and begin to improve the land, even before it was legally acquired.

A perfect example of this is the Scots Irish Captain Thomas Harris (1695-1801) who in 1726 settled in present-day Elizabethtown. In 1730 he builds a log cabin along the Conoy Creek as he becomes invested in the fur trade with the Conoy tribe. It is not until 1741 he legally owns the land and in 1745 he builds a stone house. This stone house becomes the Sign of the Bear Tavern, which is arguably the first permanent structure in Elizabethtown. Thomas Harris becomes a Captain in the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Old Peter’s Road, as it is still known in parts of Lancaster County, was the French and Indian fur trading route linking Philadelphia to Bainbridge. This road was built by Peter Bezaillion who, in partnership with the British, challenged France’s control over the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, a struggle which helped precipitate the French and Indian War.

The French found the Algonquin tribes their allies, while the Iroquois sided with the British. Raids of British colonists occurred on both sides. By 1743 the Piscataway tribes had moved away from Elizabethtown, migrating north along the Susquehanna River settling in Shamokin. British victories in Quebec (1759) and Montreal (1760) led to France surrendering all of New France to the British. The British took over all French forts on the frontier and became the new authoritarian power for the tribes in these regions.

The Conoy tribe, featured in the WPA mural in the Elizabethtown post office were last noted in the historical record in 1793 at Detroit. In 1793 a conference in Detroit reported the Piscataway people had settled in Upper Canada, joining other Native Americans who had been allies of the British during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Today, descendants of the northern migrants live on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation reserve in Ontario. For thousands of years they lived along the Potomac and its tributaries. For twenty-four years, from 1719-1743 they lived along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries in Elizabethtown.

Let us remember the Conoy tribe played an important role in Elizabethtown with the French fur trade, which was later taken over by the British. Also, the Susquehannocks and later the Conoy made Elizabethtown and Lancaster County very wealthy from the cultivation of tobacco domesticated from the Amazon. The Piscataway people taught the Palatine Mennonite farmers of Elizabethtown how to cultivate and process numerous varieties of maize, beans, squash, and various plants developing them for taste and other characteristics.

Remember all of this on Thanksgiving Day when you gather around a table laden with Autumn’s harvest bounty and think about this in the weeks which follow, when you are in the post office, looking at the mural “Squaw’s Rest,” while you mail your holiday greeting cards.

Remember the contributions of the Piscataway people to the heritage of Elizabethtown.


This monthly column about historic structures in Elizabethtown is written by Jean-Paul Benowitz, president of the Elizabethtown Historical Society, who teaches courses on local history for the honors program at Elizabethtown College. It is illustrated by Shanise Marshall, a 2015 graduate of Elizabethtown College.

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