PORT DEPOSIT — When Capt. John Smith explored the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River in June 1608, he made special mention of the Native Americans he encountered.
He gave a detailed description of the Susquehannock in his account, and went so far as to draw “the greatest of them” for illustration on his 1612 map of the Chesapeake Bay region.
Called the “Conestoga” by the English, this Iroquoian-speaking tribe lived in the areas along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries in southern New York throughout Pennsylvania to the mouth of the Susquehanna at Port Deposit. They also lived, for a time, along the west bank of the Potomac River at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay, and possibly in West Virginia in the area of the Nemacolin Trail.
No record exists to tell historians what the Susquehannock called themselves, as the Susquehannock name is what the Algonquian-speaking tribes called them. The Huran called them Andastoerrhonon, the French called them Andaste, the Dutch and Swedes called them Minquas, while the Algonquian pronunciation was Sasquesahanough, meaning “people at the falls.” In Pennsylvania, the English called them the Conestoga in reference to the village of Conestoga Town where they lived, which was based on the Pennsylvania Dutch term “Kanastoge,” meaning “place of the immersed pole.”
While no one knows the original population of the Susquehannock for sure, the best guess estimates are between 5,000 to 7,000 in 1600 as they were capable of holding off the massive Iroquois Confederacy for a time. The Susquehannock tribe was really itself a confederacy of up to 20 smaller tribes in scattered villages along the Susquehanna River. About 1677, their confederacy and power changed, as they were decimated by disease and war, and merged with their former Iroquois enemies, the Five Nations, based in New York.
Among those wars was the 1642 war in which the English Province of Maryland, in league with the Swedes, declared war on the Susquehannock. The tribe prevailed against the English in 1644, but remained in an inactive state of war with Maryland until 1652, when they concluded a peace treaty with Maryland in return for arms and safety. In this treaty, they ceded large territories on both shores of the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland.
On May 17, 1666, three Susquehannock war captains traveled to Maryland’s council at St. Mary’s to express their desire to remain in league with the English. To prove their good faith, they offered to turn over a Native American named Wanahedana, who had murdered men at a mill in Baltimore County. (It should be remembered that Baltimore County, at that time, included all of Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties, and beyond.)
The treaties, promises and merging with other tribes, however, could not stave off the inevitable for the once proud tribe.
Around 1677, the tribe was a pale shadow of its former strength following the early 1670s disease epidemic. Remnants of the tribe ended up in New York, some along the southern shores of the Susquehanna, others went to the upper Delaware River. In about 1697, a few hundred remaining Susquehannock settled in a village in Lancaster County, Pa., called Conestoga Town. (Yes, the village gave rise to the name Conestoga River under Gov. William Penn and to the famous Conestoga wagon familiar in so very many western movies).
In this village the remnants of the tribe, then converted to Christianity and making a hard scrabble living as artisan basket weavers, were decimated when a gang known as Paxton Boys attacked them in response to Pontiac’s Rebellion — a rebellion in which no Susquehannock took part.
In two attacks in Lancaster, the Paxton Boys killed 20 Susquehannock, or Conestoga as they were then known. A remnant of the tribe migrated to Ohio in the early 1700s and merged with other tribes to be known as the Mingoes, thus losing their identity as a distinct nation. Indeed, the Susquehannock are listed as “an extinct tribe,” related to the Tuscarora and Iroquois ethnic groups, and have been since about 1750.