A few of my oldest friends and I were out on the Susquehanna River on Monday in a pair of battered canoes. Partly to decompress after our 20th high school reunion in Delaware, partly because you never get to spend quality time with the people you still really care about at those things, four of us got together in Lancaster, PA before dispersing for opposite ends of the country.
The Susquehanna is one of several major rivers draining the interior of the eastern states south to the sea. The Connecticut, Hudson and Delaware are familiar acquaintances of mine, but the 27,510 square mile basin of the Susquehanna, whose name to Algonquin peoples means "Muddy River", had prior to this week been experienced only in passing. Like the other great waterways of the East, the river has long been a transportation corridor and foundation for regional settlement. Ewell's Confederates threatened Harrisburg from the west bank of the river before withdrawing to another high water mark at Gettysburg. During the Revolution it was an invasion route for Butler's Tories and native allies in the Cherry Valley and Wyoming Massacres, and the path followed by General Sullivan's punitive expedition against the Iroquois that they provoked - in which my Ogden and Dayton ancestors participated. A freight line runs along the eastern shore of the lower Susquehanna today, and we drove between the rails and the bluff overlooking the river to the point where we put in our canoes.
When Europeans first explored this region, they encountered a fierce nation of between 5,000 and 7,000 Iroquoian speaking people who seemed giants and impressed the colonists with the variety and quality of their weapons. The Susquehannock, "the people of the muddy river", where known and feared by the Algonquin tribes of the Delaware and the Chesapeake, which itself is the drowned river valley of a far longer Susquehanna that once ran white with glacial flour from the inland icecaps of the last ice age. The wagons that conveyed fur traders to the Susquehannock fortified town of Conestoga in the early 1700s would give name to the prairie schooners of the western pioneers.
The wars of the European powers for control of the continent and conflict with the Iroquois were eventually the undoing of the Susquehannock as a tribal entity. Smallpox took its toll as well, and by 1700 there were just 300 Susquehannock, living in the vicinity of Conestoga. Quakers evangelized among them and they adopted the pacifism of the christian missionaries that was not shared by fellow settlers on the frontier. During Pontiac's War, in which the Susquehannock at Conestoga did not participate, a mob of Scots-Irish settlers called the Paxton Boys slaughtered six members of the tribe that they found in the village, and then broke into the Lancaster gaol where 14 others had sought protection and bludgeoned them to death. Only two Susquehannock, who had been away from the village where the slaughter occurred, remained of the tribe, and although efforts have been made in modern times to reconstruct some of the vocabulary of the Susquehannock language, the tribe itself was finished in 1763. Benjamin Franklin wrote of the massacre; "THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT WILL CRY TO HEAVEN FOR VENGEANCE!"
The broad river was a rich, muddy brown when we unloaded our canoes and lowered them down the embankment over mats of mile-a-minute vine. A bald eagle flew low over the water. The water was wide, with a pump storage facility powering a generator upriver and a nuclear plant downstream, but here in the channel were numerous islands, rocky and tree covered, waiting for us to explore. We paddled against the current in a freshening south breeze that contended with the current, passing along sheer cliff walls where Mountain Laurel blossoms flashed brightly in the cool of the trees. We disembarked at Sicily Island, where an acquaintance has a lone cabin and pitchpines cling to outcrops at the northern end. There was a small strand of beach, a great fallen tree with a diving board fixed far over the water, and we spent an hour or so exploring the island and eating our lunch by the water.
I had been told to look for arrowheads, as these islands were frequented by native Americans, and as I passed a wind-thrown tree and its great tip up mound, I thought this might be a good spot to investigate. Right away I spotted a round river stone jutting from the root mass, about the size of a baseball and bearing the telltale flutes and chip marks that could only have been made by repeated striking. It proved to be a stone hand ax, smooth on the top and flaked and tapered to a dull edge beneath. Such tools are very primitive - the first tomahawks- globe shaped and sometimes tied to handles. I marveled at the antiquity, both of the tumbled stone and its first human usage, thrilled by this sign of the Susquehannock. We paddled to other islands before driving up the gorge to the Amish farmland above, thinking about those who once knew the river, and what its future may hold.