You are here

Beyond Blue Mountain to the Northern Tier

-A A +A

Pennsylvania's Frontier

And when I asked the name of the river from the brakeman, and heard that it was called the Susquehanna, the beauty of the name seemed to be part and parcel of the beauty of the land. That was the name, as no other could be, for that shining river and desirable valley.

—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, Across the Plains  (1879)

Providing fertile land on its alluvial plains, the Susquehanna River determined the location of human settlements for millennia. At Canfield and Clemson islands in the Susquehanna, Halifax in Dauphin County, and Academia in Juniata County, archaeologists have excavated the oldest built environments in the region. Constructed by the Clemson Island culture during the Late Woodland era (700–1300), these farming villages had small ovalshaped houses, earthen ovens, and storage pits. The inhabitants built conical burial mounds, a type of funerary architecture also found at Adena Culture sites on the Ohio and Monongahela rivers in western Pennsylvania. Eastern Pennsylvania's mound-builders were succeeded by Native Americans who constructed longhouses in fortified towns along the riverbanks.

In the third quarter of the sixteenth century, Iroquois-speakers from the north migrated downstream into Pennsylvania and gave the river its name. Captain John Smith, observing that “upon this river inhabit a people called Sasquesahanock,” recorded this Algonquian word in his Map of Virginia With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (1612). Thereafter the English called them “Susquehannocks,” while the Dutch and Swedes knew them as “Minquas” and the French as “Andastes.” In the eighteenth century they were sometimes known as “Conestogas,” the name of their town in Lancaster County. The word “Susquehannock” has been variously translated as “long, crooked river” and “muddy river,” but historian William Egle understood it to mean “people of the falls river,” a reference to the rapids in the lower Susquehanna.

When William Penn arrived in America in 1682, the region between the Delaware and the Susquehanna was known as “Lenapehoking,” the land of the Lenape. After the Lenape signed their celebrated treaty with Penn, they gradually withdrew from the Delaware River and joined the other native peoples in the Susquehanna Valley. Long after Penn's arrival, the Susquehanna remained the frontier of British North America. The natural boundary line was the long ridge of Blue Mountain running diagonally from northeastern to central Pennsylvania that is sliced by the Susquehanna above Harrisburg. West of Blue Mountain, rising steps of ridges climbed to the Allegheny Front and the French possessions in the Ohio Valley. Penn himself had only secondhand information about this region, relying almost exclusively on Indian accounts for his tantalizing but vague description in Some Proposals for a second Settlement in the Province of Pennsylvania (1690) of “many fair rivers,” large amounts of “oak, ash, chestnut, walnut, cedar, and poplar” trees, and an abundance of “Elks, which are much bigger than our Red Deer.” No serious effort was made to survey the Susquehanna until 1743.

In The Lackawanna Valley, the Hudson River School artist George Inness contrasts the sweep of the Susquehanna Valley with the stumps of cut trees in the foreground and in the middle ground the plumes of smoke of the railroad and the iron works, which would soon transform the beauty of the land into one of the great industrial centers of the United States.

That year, in preparation for his General Map of the British Middle Colonies, Welshman Lewis Evans explored the Upper Susquehanna Valley, together with Quaker botanist John Bartram and German Indian negotiator Conrad Weiser. Evans's map indicates they traveled through “St. Anthony's Wilderness,” a densely wooded valley named by Moravian church leader Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in honor of fellow missionary Anthony Seyfert, who had accompanied him on a peace mission to the Indians in 1742. Evans was particularly fascinated by the long ridges the Indians called “The Endless Mountains.” “These mountains are about 900 miles in Length, and back of Pensilvania from 70 to 100 miles right across,” he wrote, “scarce an Acre of 10 of which is capable of Culture. They are not confusedly scattered, but stretch in long uniform ridges, scarce half a mile Perpendicular in any Place I saw them.” Evans's measurements were quite accurate; the highest elevations exceed 2,000 feet.

When Evans discovered “Bones and Shells … elegantly preserved in the loose Stones and rocky Bases of the highest of these Hills,” he reasoned that the “Mountains existed in their present elevated height before the Deluge, but not so bare of soil as now.” Observing that the soil was richer on the ridgetops than in the valleys, he concluded that their height preserved them from inundation. In fact, the region was indeed a seabed four hundred million years ago in the Devonian period. Pennsylvania bluestone, a type of sandstone found only in Susquehanna County, was formed from the delta of an archaic river that emptied into this Appalachian sea. Some one hundred million years later, pressure from the African tectonic plate in the southeast caused the crust of the North American plate to buckle into long, parallel folds of rock. These ridges were layered with various colors of sandstone, limestone, and shale with seams of iron ore and anthracite, the future building blocks of Pennsylvania's architecture and economy.

Evans's theory that the ridges were shaped by “the slow, inexorable weathering of rock” was correct. Erosion had sculpted the softer layers of shale and limestone into valleys, leaving the more resistant sandstone standing as ridges. During the last ice age, the terrain was further modified by glaciers that extended as far south as Northumberland, Union, and Snyder counties. When the ice sheets receded about fifteen thousand years ago, the deluge of their meltwaters rounded the Pocono Mountains and tore gaps through the sandstone ridges. The confluence of two streams running from the north and the west formed a single river flowing south, giving the Susquehanna its characteristic Y-shape. Thirty miles downstream from the union of the main branches, on the western shore, the Juniata River added its waters to the main branch as it continued on to Chesapeake Bay.

In his survey Evans observed that the “Susquehanna River, tho' the largest in the British Dominion, affords no Sea Navigation, for the Falls below Bar the Mouth.” The treacherous Swatara and Conewago falls in Dauphin County limited most river traffic to the floating of lumber and flour downstream on rafts and flatboats to Baltimore or to Middletown where goods could be transported overland to Philadelphia. Nonetheless, repeated attempts were made to navigate the river. As late as 1826 the specially designed steamboat Susquehanna and Baltimoresucceeded in transporting passengers all the way up the North Branch before it was wrecked trying to cross the rapids at Nescopeck Falls.

European settlement of the Susquehanna Valley was frequently a violent affair. The charter William Penn received from Charles II was contested on each of its four boundaries—the north by New York, the south by Maryland, the east by Connecticut, and the west by Virginia. To make matters worse, the French, who had explored the Susquehanna River as early as 1615, claimed the river valley by right of discovery, while the Iroquois Confederacy claimed the Susquehannocks' territory in 1675 by right of conquest. Penn's generally evenhanded dealings with the Indians had prevented conflict but his heirs were not so scrupulous.

After 1717, Scots-Irish Presbyterians immigrated in large numbers to Pennsylvania. To relieve congestion in Philadelphia caused by this immigration, the provincial secretary, James Logan, informed Penn's sons in 1731 that he was allowing the Scots-Irish to settle in the “back parts,” where they could serve “as a frontierin case of any disturbance.” Knowing the Scots-Irish would not hesitate to defend their turf, the proprietary authorized Samuel Blunston, Quaker magistrate of Lancaster County, to issue them licenses to occupy and “improve” the land. They quickly moved to the edges of the Penn holdings where their early settlements are identified by Ulster place-names such as Donegal, Londonderry, and Paxton in Dauphin County; Fermanagh in Juniata; and Derry and Armagh in Mifflin County. Scots-Irish settlements along the frontier inevitably created conflict with the already displaced native peoples. To placate the Iroquois who had formed an alliance with the British against the French, Thomas Penn was compelled to accept the terms of the Purchase of 1736, which had restricted settlements to the south of Blue Mountain. But the provincial government did not enforce the agreement and landless Scots-Irish and German immigrants continued to trespass on Indian territory. After a decade of escalating violence in the frontier settlements and threats of reprisals from the Iroquois, Richard Peters, the provincial secretary, arrested squatters and burned their cabins in the Juniata Valley in 1750.

While the colony was distracted with backcountry politics, the French built a string of forts from Lake Erie to Pittsburgh to prepare for an advance on the British interests in Pennsylvania. Facing imminent attack, the British colonies strengthened their alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy by purchasing the disputed Susquehanna lands at the Albany Treaty of 1754. When the Delaware and Shawnee discovered that the Iroquois had sold their hunting grounds to the Penns without their consent, they considered the founder's “Chain of Friendship” broken and threw their support to the French. After General Edward Braddock's defeat in the autumn of 1755, the French and Indian War roared into the Susquehanna Valley and the Delaware took their revenge on the settlers living on Penns Creek. Reluctant to renounce its seventy-five-year-old policy of pacifism, the provincial assembly, still dominated by Quakers, refused to militarize until Britain declared war on France a few months later.

In 1756, Pennsylvania mobilized rapidly to build a line of fortifications at ten- to fifteen-mile intervals along the length of Blue Mountain from the Delaware River to the Susquehanna and along that river and its branches. Unlike the pentagonal French plan of Fort Duquesne, Fort Augusta and Fort Halifax on the Susquehanna and Fort Granville on the Juniata were square with bastions in each corner. They consisted “of a stockade of heavy planks ... on which were built one to four blockhouses, pierced with loop holes for musketry, and occupied by the soldiers and refugee settlers,” according to a report of 1896. But these garrisons offered the widely dispersed settlers little defense against the Native Americans. To protect themselves they constructed stockades around large buildings such as mills, built blockhouses, and improvised by cutting loopholes into the walls of their residences. A few months after Britain and France signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Chief Pontiac's forces burned out the settlers in the Juniata and Wyoming valleys. In revenge, the “Paxton Raiders,” a Scots-Irish paramilitary organization, murdered a group of unarmed Susquehannocks living with Moravian missionaries at Conestoga. Condoned in the backcountry but condemned in the security of Philadelphia, the Paxton Massacre polarized the province. Benjamin Franklin fired off an anonymous broadside declaring that the Susquehannocks “would have been safe in any part of the known world, except in the neighborhood of the Christian white savages of Peshtang and Donegal!” Despite attempts to apprehend the Paxton Raiders, they were never brought to trial.

Plan of Fort Augusta, from Report of the Commission to Locate the Site of the Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg: Clarence M. Busch, 1896), vol. 1, facing p. 354.

Not until the end of the eighteenth century were the boundaries of Pennsylvania settled. With the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, the Penns made their final “New Purchase” from the Iroquois, acquiring all the territory from the New York boundary line to the forks of the Susquehanna. The last dispute resolved was with Connecticut, which smoldered on as the Yankee-Pennamite War from 1771 to 1784, when the Continental Congress finally confirmed Pennsylvania's title to the Northern Tier. Almost a century after Penn had projected his “Holy Experiment,” his utopian colony at last achieved its definitive form.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.