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Susquehanna River, Ancestral Home of the Susquehannock, Receives Historic Designation

Bucknell University has helped get Susquehanna River get historic designation. The river was once home to the Susquehannock, a Native American tribe who were the first to live on the river.
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Katie Faull, a Bucknell University professor of German and humanities, wasn’t expecting this result when a student asked what she knew about early Moravian missionaries along the Susquehanna River, but after six years Faull’s work to find and translate 18th century mission diaries that detail relationships between missionaries and Native American peoples in the area, has led to the river getting a federal designation as part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

“This marks an important moment in the history of the Susquehanna River and the communities that have lived along its banks for thousands of years,” Faull said in a release. “Rather than being America’s forgotten river, the Susquehanna will now take its place as America’s mother river, the location of human history and cultural contact.”

That history began with the Susquehannock, an Algonquin name meaning “people of the Muddy River,” which refers to the Susquehanna River. They lived along the river in as many as 20 villages across Pennsylvania and into southern New York. The tribe’s population was decimated by a smallpox epidemic that hit in 1661. But they held on to fight a bitter battle with the Iroquois. By the fall of 1669 they were down to only 300 warriors and had to ask the Iroquois for peace.

"The Iroquois response to their offer was to torture and kill the Susquehannock ambassador who brought it," says the website "It took the Iroquois until 1675 to defeat the Susquehannock." The were driven from Pennsylvania to Maryland where they were resented by the local colonists. Many more of their tribe was killed as they tried to move north. Some did make it to safety with the Meherrin in North Carolina. Others surrendered to the Iroquois and were settled with the Mohawk and Oneida.

At this time missionaries were trying to convert Indians to Christianity. "By 1763 there were only 20 members (all Christians) of this last identifiable group of the Susquehannock," the website says. "They were totally peaceful, but atrocities committed by others during the Pontiac Uprising of that year outraged the white settlers in the vicinity who just wanted to kill Indians—any Indians—in revenge." Any remaining Susquehannock descendants were those who made it to safety with the Meherrin tribe or settled with the Mohawk or Oneida.

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But the river flowed on; it’s the longest river on the east coast, with its origin at Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York. The river then flows more than 440 miles through Pennsylvania before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

“Incorporating these river segments into the national historic trail will increase public access, provide important recreation and tourism opportunities, and enrich exploration of the water routes in the entire Chesapeake watershed,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said during a public ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland, in May.

This project has brought people together. Bucknell has developed a relationship with leaders of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy with the help of former Bucknell lacrosse coach Sid Jamieson, a Haudenosaunee chief.

There are now three new courses that focus on the river being taught at Bucknell as well as several students spending their summer researching the river’s history. Faull has even developed a kayaking tour that focuses on the 18th-century relations between Moravian Christians and Native American communities on the river.

“This is a unique learning and research opportunity in which students and faculty are able to participate in efforts to examine the connection between storytelling and environmental conservation on the Susquehanna River,” said Alf Siewers, an associate professor of English at Bucknell.