British Association for American Studies


Of the History of Pennsylvania, Part. 1: Pennsylvania Past

This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies

Whatever discoveries are made in the future that complicate what we know of human antiquity, the “New World” will always be new. No anthropoid species existed in the Americas before Homo sapiens. No land mass bears our tool-marks quite so clearly.

Following the Last Glacial Maximum, twenty thousand years ago, the globe warmed rapidly, and the Wisconsin ice sheet receded northwards. Millions of square miles of ancient glacier melted away. The Beringia land bridge, which had served as refugium for many mammal species during the ice age, was consumed by rising seas. The Americas were orphaned once more.

The Tazewell, the Cary, and the Valders ice retreated, inland glacial seas disjoined, and the modern Great Lakes took their places. Mile by mile, the area that would become the northern states of America was exposed. Pennsylvania emerged, rutted and cold, in the ice’s trail.

Homo sapiens fled sinking Beringia a generation’s trek at a time. They spread through the tundra and the boreal forest, down from the north and the west.[1]

The earliest human group to leave a trace in Pennsylvania stayed for some time in its southwest corner, at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter. These pre-Clovis Paleoamericans passed through the site at least 16,000 years ago.

These men, women and children ate corn, harvested wild squash, and picked fruits, berries, and nuts. They traded with westward-travelling groups for Atlantic shells and precious rocks not native to the region: jasper for jewellery, flint for biface axes. They hunted for caribou with fluted lanceolate arrowheads in a landscape that was sylvan, or wooded, in part, but which was not at all the one that the Englishman William Penn later claimed for his own. That first forest archipelago had only recently burst into dripping, evergreen life—holts of spruce, alder, birch, fir, and pine stood out dark, on low hills, above a semi-arid plain.

Once the Holocene epoch arrived around 10,000 years ago, Earth became the world we know.

The mid-Atlantic region of eastern America warmed up, moving ever closer to the temperate ideal for year-round human habitation. Consistency was possible. The many rivers of the land found their current courses, sliced out their steep narrow valleys, and so reformed the world. Softwood hemlocks and hardwood white oaks and beeches flourished in the warmer, wetter spring, and behind them came the birds and mammals that fed upon their fruits.

Among this plenty, thousands of humans made permanent homes. Tribes and nations grew in size and number along the valleys of the Ohio, Allegheny, Delaware, and Susquehanna rivers.


The Lenni-Lenape settled in and dominated the basin of the Delaware River, along the eastern border of modern-day Pennsylvania. They spoke a distinctive dialect of the Algonkin language, as did most nations around them. Their forest would have been foreign to the Meadowcroft people, dominated as it now was by enormous white pine and hemlock trees. Between 90 and 95% of the land that would become Pennsylvania was covered in this dense forest layer, and the “real men” lived inside it. This was their sakimawangan, their kingdom.

The trees themselves were a primary source of shelter and food. To chop down even one tree was to reduce next year’s foraged harvest. Women farmed the Three Sisters—corn, winter squash and climbing beans—in gardens between groves. Open space was naturally rare, and without crops to plant on a large scale, it would have served the people little purpose. So they were tender with the trees, careful where they chopped, how often. They travelled, hunted, and trapped along their great, slow river, brown with sediment near the ocean but clearer-running in its upstream tributaries. They built houses and canoes of bark, worked wood with stones, and fought for their sakimawangan with the bows they made.

The Lenni-Lenape lived and thrived in Pennsylvania for 10,000 years.

The Swedish found the New World in 1638. They settled the Delaware River basin, moving gradually upriver towards the Schuylkill, and Lenni-Lenape land. The leader of the colony, Johan Printz, founded a fortified village on Tinicum Island in 1643, near the present site of the Philadelphia International Airport, and named it the colonial capital of New Sweden. Tinicum Island was the first permanent home for white people in Pennsylvania. It was governed under the laws of the Swedish mainland.

In 1655, the Dutch came down from New Amsterdam, seeking new waterways to plunder for lucrative beaver skins and furs. The Swedish by then were weak, cut off from reinforcement. The Dutch seized their land along the Delaware. Among their number were some of the first generation of enslaved Africans in America. While this southern spur of Dutch territory fell under the jurisdiction of colonial leaders in New Amsterdam, local courts were established as needed to deal with all “rather trivial matters.” This was the first attempt to determine localised law in Pennsylvania.

The Dutch would hold this land for less than ten years. In 1664, Charles II, finally settled on the restored English throne and keen to display the power of the King’s word, granted the territory of New Netherland (the coastal areas of modern-day New York State) as a protectorate to his brother, the Duke of York, by summary royal decree. The English and Dutch were not even at war at the time.

It took the Duke twelve years to take an active interest in his new kingdom and establish a set of laws. This code was based on the one already enforced in the New York colony. The Duke’s jurisprudence was considered “mild” in comparison to the codes of Puritan New England to the north. Despite this reputed leniency, both the cursing of a parent and the denial of the existence of God were deemed capital crimes, while the lesser offence of perjury was punishable by the boring of a hole in the tongue.

Nevertheless, the laws the Duke enacted in his fiefdom lacked the vision to either encourage the improvement of the land, and so make it yield more than “subsistence to a handful of Europeans”, or spread the Word to the “inconsiderable number of wild and untaught inhabitants” of the unknown wilderness west of the Delaware and the Schuylkill. The directionless territory and its people soon found a namesake and a saviour, an English Quaker named William Penn. In repayment of a debt the King owed to Penn’s father for his staunch support of the crown in Civil War days, a charter for establishing a new province was granted to the young man in 1681.

As a royal agent, William Penn’s claim granted him unqualified dominion over all designated territory, whether Englishmen knew it or not. The beneficence of the King’s grace shone upon freeman, indentured servant, enslaved and indigenous person alike. God’s light had come.

Philadelphia was founded in 1682 by Penn and his forthright band to be a city of tolerance and good nature, where the punishing morality of the Puritans would not apply, where free men could pursue a life of religious liberty and those in bondage could work their way towards the same. Philadelphia quickly became the heart of the New World order, a white man’s sakimawangan in which trees were useful insofar as they performed a function, upright or felled.

From the port of Philadelphia, the Quakers set forth on missions inland along the rivers in search of salvageable souls, another of the essential raw materials for growth.

Roughly 600 years before colonial invasion, the indigenous populations of the east reached new frontiers in their own development. From the Archaic period, they moved into what is called the Woodland Period, in which people gained greater agricultural understanding and developed more refined tools for hunting and building. Now that a crop surplus could be grown and stored to sustain a large group through the winter, permanent settlement of fertile land was possible, and villages took root. Paths were cut and maintained, providing a hundred fast new routes through the wilderness. For the first time since the land was settled, the swampy river-basin lowlands of the state’s interior were traversable. Travel was simpler, and so was intercultural exchange.

It was along these paths, under increasing pressure from English territorial expansion, that the Delawares and the Munsee Senecas would march away from their ancestral homelands for good. From the Delaware basin, the Lenni-Lenape also took flight. They were first driven north to the Wyoming Valley, then west and west and ever further west, hundreds of miles, to the Allegheny and even the Ohio.

To the west of the Delaware basin, though, in the enormous interior between ocean and inland sea, lived the Susquehannock. They were an Iroquoian-speaking island of people in a sea of Algonkiphones. Their cultural and physical isolation might have made them easy fodder for conquest, yet they successfully defended the narrow river valleys between the anthracite ridges of the Allegheny mountains for millennia.

These people were the subject more of legend than understanding. Fables of the extrahuman strength and stature of Susquehannock men flowed along the waterway, down toward the ocean, unimpeded by intrusive truth.

The Susquehannock were feared in the colonial centres, and why not? In the margin of one early map of Pennsylvania, “Sasquesahanoug” man, that remarkable species, is drawn in detail. “Gyant like,” the caption calls him, “and thus atired”: in a two-piece outfit of elaborately fringed leather loincloth and thick fur jersey (with each of the dead beast’s paws still attached and draped down the warrior’s chest). He wears a woven hair necklace and a shrunken boar’s head pendant around his neck. His hair is cut in a kind of mohawk-mullet. In his right hand, he carries a longbow as tall as him, with three carefully flighted arrows in a quiver on his back and a leather bracer at his wrist to protect it from the rebounding bow string. He stands in a casual posture, leaning on the patellar end of a walking stick made of some beast’s femur.

The men of the interior were fantastic in the European imagination, and so was the fauna. Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German, wrote a tell-all account of his years as an indentured servant in colonial Pennsylvania. In it, he tells of an English explorer, just returned from a mission into the heart of the forest, who claimed that “they had encountered an animal that had a smooth and pointed horn an ell and a half long and pointing straight out of its head. This animal was as big as a medium-sized horse, but could run faster than a stag.” Mittelberger notes that “[t]he Europeans in Pennsylvania had taken this animal for the unicorn.”

But neither their imposing appearance nor their supernatural protectors could save the Susquehannock. Unknown European diseases arrived along the miasmic waterways in summer to decimate pockets of the population far more effectively than any colonial militia could have done in that terrain. Small villages, reliant upon the labour of each member of their small community for subsistence, could not survive these losses. And so the remaining Susquehannock joined the Lenni-Lenape in their search for new refuge, supermen and real men alike marching west, together, along the Great Shamokin Path.

During the French and Indian War of the 1750s and ’60s, central Pennsylvania was contested territory.

In modern-day Québec and Ontario, without the same squabbling contest for possession that had caused the Delaware basin to change imperial hands almost every decade in the mid-1600s, the French were well settled in a territory that they called New France. They now saw the opportunity to expand their lands to the south, where beaver and other natural resources remained plentiful. So from the northwest, via Lake Erie, the French descended. They found ready allies in the aggrieved nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, who had suffered greatly by the actions of the British. From Fort Duquesne (on the site of modern-day Pittsburgh), they jointly pressed eastward into the virgin woods, staking a claim to the territory.

The British staked their own claims to the east, beginning in Philadelphia and a series of riverbank fortifications. Wary of the tales of Susquehannock giants and appalling woodland beasts, but committed to expanding the King’s dominion, brave men in uniform were dispatched inland, upriver. They were to travel the territory in canoes, and survey the land around the waterways. They were to determine the strength of the local indigenous population and assess the potential for profitable acquisition.

In the spring of 1757, a band of ten English soldiers were sent by order of Ensign William Patterson on a reconnaissance mission up the West Branch Susquehanna. When they reached their pre-determined terminus at a point where the river meanders south and cuts across the Great Shamokin Path, they found only fresh ashes of huts, no settlement, no people. For fear of pillage at the hands of just such marauding invaders, villagers had burned their own homes on their own terms, unnerving rather than satisfying their enemies.

Under orders to make contact, the English soldiers nevertheless pitched camp, preparing for engagement. It had been a bitter winter, during which the river had frozen over completely in those inland reaches, and game was still scarce. The only food to be found by the riverside, where the foreigners felt safest, was walnuts. They ate nothing else for three days while they sat and waited for something to change, for some purpose to emerge from the ashes of the village. None did. They left the way they had come, nothing with them but a story to tell.

Frederick Post, a preacher from the Unitas Fratram Church (a Bohemian Protestant sect), was similarly sent upriver in 1758. He was to wield the soft power of Christ in securing the support of native groups not yet loyal to the French. Reaching the same spot as Patterson’s men had a year before, Post came across “a disagreeable and melancholy sight.” Far from being deserted, there were now several places in the resurrected village at which “two Poles Painted Red, were stuck in the ground, in order to tye the [native people’s] prisoners.” This was taken as a sign of primitive hostility to the white man.

Displays of resistance to British rule like these would not be enough, however, to win the war. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, “many serious blow[s] to the savages” had already been struck, and the full-scale flight of the living remainder was in motion. In 1760, the allied French and native forces surrendered.

Still, the victorious British were not so bold as to immediately extend their grasping hands into the land they might have claimed as the spoils of war. Central Pennsylvania remained impenetrable, and freakish tales abided.

As expedition scouts returned east to British forts near the coast, they brought with them the story of a wild man downriver. No two of them could agree upon the spelling of his name, but in every telling the man would rise early each morning to adorn himself in an animal mask and a frightening outfit of his own fashion, crafted from bear hides, turkey feathers, whatever he could kill, then lie down to wait in a hide on the bank for his quarry to cross his path. He might wait hours for prey. Local traffic of dug-out canoes, carrying subsistence farmers and hunters to and from their necessary work, was allowed to pass unhindered. But when a French fur trapper or British big game sportsman approached, on the way to the safety of a fort bearing the spoils of the forest’s fertility, the hermit’s eyes opened wide. As soon as the white man edged too close to the shore, the hermit leapt out from his hiding place, screaming and waving. In fright, the hunter or trapper was likely to drop his burden and flee, feeling fortunate to have escaped such a beast with his life.

The hermit—Chinclacamoose, Shinglimuce, Shinglaclamush, Shinglecalamouse—was feared by all explorers and would-be invaders. Locals, though, were proud to own the reputation that this one man lent them all. Which is why, on colonial maps of forest lands along the Susquehanna, the village takes the commonest form of the hermit’s name: Chinklacamoose, or, “No one tarries here willingly.”

The small American city of Clearfield was finally founded on this site in 1805, some years after the hermit’s death.

[1] A bibliography is appended at the end of Part Two, containing many of the sources consulted in the writing of this piece.

About the Author

Samson Thozer is a first-year PhD student in American Studies at the University of Manchester. His research concerns the formation of Black identity in interwar Detroit. He has a BA in English Literature and American Studies, and an MA in English, both from the University of Manchester. Between 2017 and 2021, he lived in the USA, teaching at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College and working with kids at the YMCA. He recently self-published a book called Halfway to Everywhere.