Friday, April 14, 2017

How Geography Influences Settlements in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania

This past weekend marked the 88th annual meeting of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. Individuals from The State Museum of Pennsylvania presented on a variety of topics ranging from using LiDAR to document archaeological and historic sites; attribute analysis of 18th century ceramics; examination of a contact period collection and an analysis of Washington Boro face effigy pottery.

This got me thinking - what is it about south central and eastern Pennsylvania that has drawn people here for thousands of years, a trend that is especially visible since the arrival of Europeans to the area. The answer lies in the geography of the region. Harrisburg is situated at the crossroads of the Susquehanna River and the Great Valley, which have been major trade routes since prehistoric times. This region of Pennsylvania is also situated just west of the fall line, which divides the Piedmont physiographic province from the Atlantic coastal plain. These geologic features have affected human settlement patterns throughout the past, and they continue to do so today.

The geologic feature known as the fall line acts as a natural barrier between the coastal plain and the regions to the west; It is most visible in rivers where waterfalls mark the location of this geographic feature throughout states along the East Coast. At these locations, fish migrating upstream to spawn are slowed and easily trapped in nets. The falls at Trenton on the Delaware and at Conowingo on the Susquehanna during the Late Archaic through Early Woodland periods were heavily occupied by Indians exploiting this resource. In addition, at the fall line, prehistoric settlements and historic cities would have served as a transitional point for goods being transported inland. The Great Valley Section of the Ridge and Valley Province has been an important north-south trade and migration route since before the arrival of Europeans.

The division between the Coastal Plain and Piedmont physiographic sections and an illustrated cross section of the fall line.
Source: (top) The National Atlas of the United States, (above) Encyclopedia Britannica

The Great Valley

Contact Period Settlements in Southeastern Pennsylvania
The Susquehanna River provides a passage to the west from settlements on the East Coast through the Appalachian Mountains. The Late Woodland (1550 AD-1000 BP) and Contact period sites (1780 AD – 1550 AD) located on the Lower Susquehanna River acted as a hub for trade between European settlements on the coastal plain, and regions controlled by native populations further inland. The Susquehannocks, a contact period tribe, used their strategic location in the Lower Susquehanna Valley (in the area between what is now called Harrisburg and Safe Harbor, PA) to control the fur trade in the region. The Iroquois Confederacy, who were competing with the Susquehannocks for the fur trade, realized the strategic significance of this location and in the 1670’s attacked and eliminated the Susquehannocks from the trade.

Indian paths of Pennsylvania overlaid on a digital shaded relief map of Pennsylvania
Source: Paul Wallace, Indian Paths of Pennsylvania overlaid on DCNR digital shaded relief map

The Effects of Geography on Modern Settlements
Many of the East Coast’s largest cities (historic and modern) are located along the fall line, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City and Washington D.C. to name a few–It’s no coincidence that these locations were used by prehistoric people prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of the cities mentioned above still serve as ports. Baltimore and Philadelphia both played major roles on settlements in the Lower Susquehanna Valley.

Harrisburg which, as previously mentioned, is located at the crossroads of the Great Valley and the Susquehanna River still sits at a strategic location for the transportation of goods throughout the region. The path that existed in prehistoric times through the Great Valley followed a route that is very similar to the modern corridor for Interstate 81. There are many other considerations that have factored into human settlement patterns in the Lower Susquehanna Valley, but the area has proven to be a strategic trade location abundant with natural resources.

Prehistoric trade routes and modern interstates show the role that geography plays in navigation.
Source: (top) Encyclopedia of North American Indians, (above) Google Earth

A basic understanding of the natural forces that shape where we live adds context and helps us to understand the ways in which human habitation has been shaped by our natural environment throughout time. Archaeologists examine these landscapes to better understand settlement patterns of the past and predict future settlement patterns.  Although much has changed since Europeans landed on this continent, the geography remains much the same. As a result, modern populations are still being shaped by their surrounding landscape.

We hope you have enjoyed this discussion of our rich Pennsylvania landscape and the impact of land formation on settlement patterns.  We invite you to consider the geography of your community and consider its natural resources.  This is your heritage and embracing the cultural and environmental resources of our earth are an important part of Preserving the Past for the Future

Jennings, F. (1966). The Indian Trade of the Susquehanna Valley. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 110(6), 406-424. Retrieved from

Kent, B. C. (1984). Susquehanna's Indians (No. 6). Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission

Merritt, J. T. (2011). At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763. UNC Press Books.

Wallace, P. A. (1993). Indian Paths of Pennsylvania. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

No comments:

Post a Comment