The Susquehannock Indian nation were located along the Susquehannock River, from the north end of Chesapeake Bay in modern day Maryland across Pennsylvania and into New York. By the time of first European contact there were between five and seven thousand Susquehannock. By 1763, however, the Susquehannock had been wiped out by the white man’s disease and inter tribal warfare.
The word Susquehannock is Algonquin and apparently means ‘people of the muddy river,’ in reference to the Susquehanna River. The Susquehannock people spoke a derivation of the Iroquois language, which is very similar to that spoken by the Huron tribe. The Susquehannock were a confederacy of five tribes, scattered around twenty or so villages.
Little is known about the culture of the Susquehannock. Prior to the major decimation of their villages in 1675 by epidemic and fighting with the Iroquois. It is apparent, though, that these people were aggressive and warlike, being feared by many of the surrounding tribes. As with many other tribes of the Atlantic Coast they were the bitter enemies of the Iroquois. Captain John Smith met with the Susquehannock in 1608. He noted that he was impressed by their large stature, their deep voices and their dexterity with the array of weaponry that they displayed to him.
The Susquehannock villages stretched along the banks of the Susquehanna River. They were the trading partners of the Erie in northern Ontario and the Huron in southern Ontario. The Susquehannock were farmers, fishermen and hunters. In the spring they planted corn, beans and squash. After the planting had been completed they would move to temporary camps on the Chesapeake Bay where they would hunt and fish. In the fall they would return to harvest the crops and to hunt.
The Susquehannock people moved into the Susquehanna valley from northern regions around 1150 C.E. Originally they occupied areas to the north of the Susquehanna valley. Wars with the Iroquois, however, drove them south. Here they drove out other Algonquin tribes and set up their own permanent villages. First European contact came in 1608 when Captain John Smith from Jamestown came across the Susquehannock along the Chesapeake Bay. He described them as giants.
The French were the next Europeans to make contact with the Susquehannock. They convinced these people to side with the French and the Huron against the Iroquois in their bitter warfare of that time. The Dutch, however, sided with the Mohawk in their battle against the Susquehannock in 1615. Despite this the Susquehannock were able to maintain trading relationships with all of the European nations who had interests in the Atlantic coast.
The Atlantic Coast tribes engaged in rivalry during the 1600s over the right to trade with the French and the Dutch. The Susquehannock attacked the Delaware over the privilege of trading with the Dutch. After four years of fighting the Delaware were driven south to New Jersey. The Dutch were pleased to find that their new trading partners, the Susquehannock, were better hunters and trappers than the Delaware and therefore produced better furs.
The Susquehannock also extended their dominion south, pushing aside the Powhatan. They were soon trading with the English in Virginia. Encroaching European settlement, however, strained the friendly relations and soon there was outright hostility between the Susquehannock and the white man. But this rivalry was overshadowed by the inter tribal warfare between 1630 and 1700 that has become known as the Beaver Wars. The Susquehannock, who had obtained armaments in abundance from the European trading partners, were to cause havoc among their enemies.
In the 1650’s warfare and epidemics decimated the Susquehannock. Around this time they also ceded lands in the lower Susquehanna Valley to the English. Another epidemic in 1661 lowered their number of warriors to just 300. By 1675 the Susquehannock had been defeated by the Iroquois. They were now prisoners of the Iroquois and were adopted into that nation. In 1706 the Iroquois allowed about 300 Susquehannock to establish their own village in the Susquehanna Valley. They were still, however, under the dominion of the Iroquois. Many Christian missionaries moved into the area and made converts. In 1763 the surviving 20 Susquehannock had become peaceful Christians. Despite this they were all slaughtered by an angry mob who had been incited by some recent hostilities committed by an unrelated tribe. The Susquehannock were no more.