Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sharing the Legacy of the Steve Warfel

Our blog for Memorial Day 2019 was written as a tribute to Barry C. Kent, former Senior Curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. In that blog, we identified the history of Memorial Day as a time to honor those men who had died in the Civil War, but it has since become a day to remember all those whom we have lost from our lives. It is with a heavy heart that we share our news of the passing of another former Senior Curator and archaeologist, Stephen G. Warfel on May 14, 2020. Once again, we have lost a friend, a colleague and a talented archaeologist far too soon. This blog will share some of Steve’s significant contributions to archaeology, and his legacy as an educator and mentor for so many archaeologists.

Steven G. Warfel at Franklin & Marshall College 

Steve’s career in archaeology began at Franklin & Marshall College (F&M) (1967 - 1971) in Lancaster, PA. It began, as with many of us, at a summer field school. An investigation conducted by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and F&M at the Strickler site (36La3), Lancaster County exposed him to the fascinating heritage of the Susquehannock Indians. Under the guidance of Dr. Kent, Steve discovered a passion for archaeology. In his words- “Archaeology is fascinating because it involves true detective work and problem-solving. It also provides a perspective on the past which is not solely dependent on documentary sources.” Steve continued to work with Barry Kent during the 1970’s on many of the Late Woodland/ Contact period Susquehannock investigations conducted through this period. Steve’s graduate training at Brown University concentrated in historical archaeology and when an opportunity to join Barry at the State Museum arose in 1980, Steve was quick to accept a curatorial position in the Section of Archaeology. 

Byrd Leibhart, Susquehannock site,1970

His first field project as a curator was part of an ongoing interest by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) in French and Indian War period sites.  In addition, a desire at the local level to discover and preserve the fort, led to an investigation at Fort Loudoun in Franklin County. The excavations under Steve’s direction led to the uncovering of the entire stockade, interior building and  the discovery of a well with preserved contents dating it’s use to the period of the fort.  These artifacts and the information gleaned from the investigation led to the first installation of exhibit space focused on historical archaeology in the gallery of the State Museum.

Field crew at Fort Loudoun

Fort Loudoun bucket, 36Fr107

Steve’s interest in historical archaeology was an asset to many of the historical sites operated by the Museum Commission (PHMC) including French Azilum in Bradford County, Old Economy Village in Allegheny County, Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland County and his long-term research interest at Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County. Steve’s passion for archaeology and his willingness to share his knowledge with others made him an ideal educator for students, volunteers and visitors to his excavations. Most of these projects incorporated a summer field school for college students, providing them with the training and experience necessary to become an archaeologist.  Steve’s incredible patience, his meticulous excavation and documentation methods and his encouragement of individual talents and abilities were essential to these successful programs.

Field School in cellar at Ephrata Cloister, 36La981

Archaeology at the JosephPriestley House produced broken fragments of laboratory test tubes that contained residues directly linking their use to testing Priestley was conducting relative to his discovery of oxygen before immigrating to Pennsylvania from England. These fragments were recovered in an area just outside of the laboratory window and door, indicating discard of the broken test tubes at the time of use. These tubes are the tangible evidence of the activities of Priestley and an important contribution to the interpretive story at this historic site. This is but one example of a site that benefitted from Steve’s expertise in uncovering the archaeological record and enhancing or correcting the historic interpretation.

The curatorial duties of the Section of Archaeology were rapidly increasing due to changes in preservation laws which required investigations of known or potential archaeological sites and the curation of these collections. These changes resulted in an influx of archaeological collections and required an organized approach to the curation process and the ability to provide research material for scholars. Steve reorganized the entire assemblage of artifacts by their recorded archaeological site number and began reviewing and recording collections submitted for curation. When Barry retired in the mid-1980’s, Steve was appointed to the position of Senior Curator.

Curatorial tasks benefited from Steve’s organizational talents and he oversaw numerous changes and improvements to the exhibits in the State Museum including updates to content, lighting and presentation. Efforts to make the exhibits more engaging included audio presentations in the Susquehannock case and tactile content for the popular Schultz diorama.  Steve’s thoughtful approach in discussions concerning changes to the museum was acknowledged as an important asset by colleagues, he was known for his knowledge of the history and archaeological heritage of the Commonwealth and the mid-Atlantic region.  

Student Visitors at Ephrata Cloister

Public programs expanded under Steve’s direction and he often provided programs sharing the results of archaeological investigations and the subsequent research associated with these projects. Publication of his investigations in journals, books and annual reports of his work at Ephrata Cloister were important in informing the public of his findings and increasing their awareness and appreciation for these sites. Steve’s support of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA) was important at a critical time in that organization. His contributions in organizing and leading the group through a difficult time both in membership and financially were crucial to its survival.  His creation of the Workshops in Archaeology program at the museum became a popular event to disseminate information, and except for a brief hiatus has continued to provide registrants with comprehensive discussion of various topics in archaeology.

Steve retired in 2007 from the museum, but certainly not from archaeology. He excavated the French & Indian War site of Fort Morris in Shippensburg, Cumberland County. Here he was able to locate evidence of foundations and supplies used by the troops stationed here and correct conflicting documents as to the site location. He returned to the site of a Revolutionary War period prison camp in York County. Camp Security had been previously recorded by Barry Kent and Steve had participated in early efforts to discover foundations or artifact concentrations relative to the site, but none had proven successful. Threatened by development and supported by local citizens to preserve the site, Steve researched archival records, interviewed local residents and employed new investigative techniques in his search for physical remains of the camp. Unfortunately, no foundations were discovered but his methodical approach laid the groundwork for future investigations at this site and provided an increased appreciation for the site to countless volunteers and visitors.

Steve had an ability to bring archaeology to everyone and his passion encouraged others to see the value of our profession in their communities.  He inspired so many people with his enthusiasm and love of archaeology and the discovery of the past. Volunteers from his projects, students from his field schools and colleagues from the Commission all benefited from his expertise and the ability to share it so passionately with others. He was a mentor for many of us throughout our careers. We benefited from his expertise and thoughtful perspective, but beyond that we knew him as a good people person. His laughter, compassion and understanding of others are qualities to live by and strive to replicate.

Presentation at Workshops in Archaeology Program

For many of us the COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on our lives and has given us a reason to pause and evaluate and prioritize our needs. What was important to us 3 or 4 months ago may not seem so significant now. Communities are coming together in new ways to restore social activities. Steve was a people person- he loved being with people, talking, laughing, enjoying food and drink in social settings. Evaluating what is important to me during this pandemic has reminded me of people I value in my life that are still with me and those I have lost. Steve’s passion for life and community will be remembered and missed by all for a very long time. His legacy as a teacher and mentor in the archaeological community will endure as evidenced in the many archaeologists whom he inspired and loved. 

Steve and Barry were excellent mentors and great resources for archaeology but at their core was the fact that they were good people. They cared about others and inspired others to care about community and heritage. Take a moment today to think about your heritage and appreciate the work conducted by archaeologists in your community in our efforts to preserve the past for the future. 

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

Monday, May 11, 2020

Archaeology in the time of Quarantine — A Virtual Tour of Pennsylvania

While our current outreach is limited by social distancing and travel bans, this week’s blog will focus on ways to explore the diverse and rich archaeological resources of Pennsylvania from the comfort and safety of home.

Petroglyph tour of Pennsylvania. Image: PHMC Petroglyphs Brochure

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), like many other public and private entities, has turned the negative of COVID-19 related museum and site closures into a positive opportunity to re-double efforts on long-term virtual access initiatives. The Commission as a whole has greatly increased available online exhibits, archives, and collections by adding new records and interactive web-based tools as part of our greater telework mission. We strongly recommend checking out our new and improved offerings, but we also want to share a handful of additional online resources produced by a variety of academic, professional, local non-profit, state and federal institutions. 

To begin our virtual tour of PA’s archaeological resources, we’d like to highlight the recent soft launch of an online Argus object search engine for The State Museum and Trail of History Sites and Museums. The Section of Archaeology has added new artifacts every week to this database during the office closure. To quickly access archaeological objects in the Search Collection tab, use the wild card symbol (*) with the keyword search term (*Archaeology*) or (*Archeology*). We further recommend taking a brief side trip on the Pennsylvania Trailheads blog of the Bureau of Sites and Museums. This week’s post has more information about the PHMC’s new collection search tool. 

Archaeology Object Search Example, Sandstone Petroglyph, Schuylkill County, PA

In addition to the Section of Archaeology’s bi-weekly blog, This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology, and Sites and Museums, Pennsylvania Trailheads,  the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) also posts updates on a regular basis in their equivalent forum, Pennsylvania Historic Preservation. Again, using the search term “Archaeology” or “Archeology” you can read more about on-going archaeological projects throughout the state. Here’s a link to an archived blog about Shawnee-Minisink, a National Registered Paleoindian and Archaic Period site in the Upper Delaware Valley moving your virtual travel to the northeast.

Following the Delaware River downstream, Philadelphia is a treasure trove of history and archaeological resources. We recommend a visit to the Philadelphia Archaeology Forum, a one stop shop of information, and the Digging I95 interactive website administered by AECOM in collaboration with the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot).  Expanding the exploration beyond the confines of Pennsylvania you can also visit the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. Their Daily Dig series features a new artifact from their world-wide collections every day during the coronavirus shut down. A virtual visit to Philadelphia would not be complete without a stop at Independence National Park, Preservation-Archaeology

Next, take a virtual tour of Pre-Contact archaeological heritage districts through a PHMC Historic Marker Search. Select a county and search category “Native American” to discover prehistoric and Contact Period local cultural resources. We would recommend heading west from Philadelphia to Lancaster County in southcentral, PA.  Pick a marker and enter the provided GIS coordinates in google earth to get a birds-eye or street-view of locations marking the former village sites of the Susquehannock and other Native American groups that lived along the Susquehanna River.

PHMC Historical Marker Search Example

You can continue your virtual journey through the Susquehannock Native Landscape at The Zimmerman Center for Heritage.  Part of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area, this National Park Service (NPS) cultural center serves as the Trailhead of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, another resource worth exploring. Video content on the site allows you to fly over the Susquehanna River from Columbia Crossing to the Zimmerman Center. 

Then check out other local history venues with archaeological collections using the museums’ listing links on the archived PHMC Pennsylvania Archaeology website. 

PHMC Pennsylvania Archaeology  

Not listed in the PHMC guide is the new home of the Westmoreland Historical Society, Historic Hanna’s Town. This site takes our tour west of the Allegheny Mountains to a frontier town, established in 1773 by the British colonial government. Hanna’s Town played an important role in the American Revolution and was burned down by a Seneca raiding party in 1786 towards the end of the conflict. It’s reclamation from early Republican county seat to farmland in the early 19th century encapsulated in the archaeological record a turbulent time in our country’s history.

To read more about recent archaeology conducted at the Hanna’s Town, follow Ashley McCuistion’s blog, Digging Anthropology, tales from the sandbox. This is an archived website dedicated to her Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) graduate student investigations at the DuPont Powder Mill site, Fayette County, PA; field schools at Hanna’s Town, Pennsylvania and Ferry Farm, Virginia; and undergraduate work with the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

Dr. Bernard Means 3-D scanning turtle carapace, Image: The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology Collections. 

Incidentally, VCL’s director, Bernard Means, has worked extensively with archaeological collections held at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, primarily from Monongahela Village sites in Somerset County. His research has been featured in our past blogs about Somerset County and Sharing and Preserving the Archaeological Record. IUP also has a dedicated archaeology blog that is regularly updated, Trowels and Tribulations, that is worth a view.

Continuing in Southwestern Pennsylvania, you can visit the earliest documented archaeological site in North America, Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella, Washington County. The park and several other museums in the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area are administered by the Senator John Heinz History Center. The History Center’s online offerings are outstanding and include many interactive ways to explore its exhibit and site holdings. 

The Fort Pit Museum in downtown Pittsburgh, part of the PHMC Trail of Military History, is also administered by the Heinz History Center. The site has a long history of archaeological conservation and investigation through the efforts of The Fort Pitt Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Visit the Fort Pitt Block House website for more information about past excavations and additional interactive resources. 

 Heading north to Lake Erie, you can dip your toes into Marine Archaeology through the Pennsylvania Archeology Shipwreck and Survey (PASST). Then dry off and head back east for stops along the northern tier to search the collections at the Thomas T. Taber Museum in Williamsport, Lycoming County, and the Tioga Point Museum in Athens, Bradford County.

Here are a few resources to help you turn this tour into a virtual family vacation. The National Park Service (NPS), Educator Resources, and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), Teaching Archaeology, websites have a number of options for those of us struggling to find creative ways to engage our school-aged kids during stay-at-home orders. Heading back southwest to Cambria County, the NPS has Kindergarten through Sixth grade lesson plans for the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. Or you can travel back in time across central Pennsylvania on the historic Allegheny Portage Railroad which connected the Midwest to the eastern seaboard between 1834 and 1854.

Finally, you can round out your experience at a virtual excavation with the Archaeological Institute of America and Archaeology magazine’s interactive digs. None of the available excavations are located in Pennsylvania, but it’s worth mentioning as a fun way to cap off our tour. 

Most of us are itching to get on the road and have a change of scenery after two months of quarantine. The global pandemic has given us all opportunity to reflect on what we value and how an understanding of our past can help us better plan for the future. It is still safest to stay home and follow recommendations of Governor Wolf and the CDC. A few PHMC sites are moving from red to yellow phase restrictions in the northwest and northcentral health districts at the end of this week. Drake Well Museum and the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum are in the planning stages of re-opening their grounds, but not their facilities, to visitors soon. Please continue to visit online resources and call ahead for up-to-date COVID-19 health and safety restrictions as part of any travel plan in the near future. In the meantime, we hope you are able to fulfill some of your curiosity and wanderlust with a few of our recommendations for travel down a virtual archaeological rabbit hole or two. 

Online Resources

2014      Home Page, Digging I95. November 14, 2014.
Archaeological Institute of America and ARCHAEOLOGY magazine
2019      Interactive Digs.

Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums (PHMC)
2020      Curating from Home, Pennsylvania Trails of History Trailheads. Blog Post, May 8, 2020.

Bureau of The State Museum of Pennsylvania (PHMC)
2017      Home Page,

Bureau of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology (PHMC)
2013      Somerset County, This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology. Blog Post, August 16, 2013.
2018      Sharing and Preserving the Archaeological Record, This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology. Blog Post, August 13, 2018.

Fort Pitt Society
2020      Fort Pitt Block House, Archaeology.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Archaeology
2020      Trowels and Tribulations: IUP’s Archaeology Blog.

McCuistion, Ashley
2016      Digging Anthropology, Tales from the Sandbox. Blog, last post January 22, 2016. See Hanna’s Town.;

National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
2016      Independence National Historical Park, Pennsylvania. Archaeology at Independence. September 6, 2016. Learn About Park, History & Culture, Preservation, Archaeology.

2019      Captain Johns Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, VA, MD, De, DC, PA, NY. March 12, 2019.

Penn Museum

Pennsylvania Department of Health
2020      Health, All Health Topics, Disease & Conditions, Coronavirus.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,
2015      Pennsylvania Archaeology, Resources, Museums and Tours. September 10, 2015.
               Petroglyphs Brochure, pdf.

               Marker Search,
Museum Collection, Search Collection, Archaeology,

Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (PHMC)
2020      Pennsylvania Historic Preservation, Blog Homepage.
2014      Spotlight Series: The Shawnee-Minisink Archaeological Site. Pennsylvania Historic Preservation.      Blog Post, March 12, 2014.

Philadelphia Archaeology Forum
2020      Home Page,

Sea Grant Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University
2016      The Pennsylvania Archeology Shipwreck and Survey Team (PASST).

Senator John Heinz History Center
2019      Exhibits, Meadowcroft Rockshelter.
               Fort Pitt Museum,

Society for American Archaeology
2020      Education and Outreach, K-12 Activities & Resources.

Susquehanna National Heritage Area

2020      River History, Susquehannock Native Landscapes.

Thomas T. Taber Museum
2020      Explore the Museum, American Indian Gallery.

Tioga Point Museum
Virtual Curation Laboratory, Virginia Commonwealth University
2015      Discoidal from Peck 2. Virtual Curation Museum. Blog Post September 18, 2015.

Westmoreland Historical Society
2018      Home Page, Historic Hanna’s Town,

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

Monday, April 27, 2020

Archaeology...Under Quarantine

Welcome to the Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania under quarantine. 

Just like many of you during these strange times we too are struggling, trying to figure out the conundrums of working from home.  We thought some of our followers might be interested to see what we’ve been up to; and how we are staying productive promoting Pennsylvania archaeology and the State Museum.

Staying “in touch” is difficult when under quarantine, but thanks to modern technology like Skype and Zoom, it is possible to meet and coordinate activities.

Archaeology Zoom Meeting

Individual projects continuing for the section staff include:

Andrea Carr:

Andrea Carr

The Archaeology Lab was processing Veigh Collection artifacts from Washington County archaeological sites when our offices closed in March. Andrea Carr, one of our lab assistants, has continued to partner with the PA State Historic Preservation Office (PA SHPO) to update Pennsylvania Archaeology Site Survey (PASS) reports through their online platform, Cultural Resource Geographic Information System (CRGIS).  

This year so far, the lab has processed, added and updated (45) PASS site records from Washington County representing a total of (32,872) artifacts in the collection. Andrea is now entering a backlog of Veigh-related PASS updates from previously processed sites, spanning 15 counties in Central and Western Pennsylvania. Many of these sites have been featured in past blog posts due to their archaeological significance—Nash (36Cn17), Snaggy Ridge 2 Quarry Pits (36Ad153), and Bonnie Brook (36Bt43) to name a few.  When this telework project is finished over the next few weeks, an additional 79 PASS recorded sites will have updated artifact information in a public and searchable online platform. 

 Callista Holmes:

Station data from the 2019 Fort Hunter field season

Calli has been working on using the total station data from the 2019 Fort Hunter field season to add and update features to the field maps. She is also working on updating the artifact distribution maps in hopes of finding high concentrations of 18th century artifacts to help us better understand and interpret the historical landscape at Fort Hunter. This information is important as we proceed with our excavations in planning which areas to investigate next.

Melanie Mayhew:

Melanie has been taking partial leave due to childcare, therefore working reduced hours. Among the many things occupying her time, she is working on the Archaeology Month Poster. She is also typing artifact inventories that until now have only existed in paper form; and preparing records for entry into Argus.

In addition to work she has also been spending time foraging for wild plant foods, gardening, and making cloth face masks (She made over 80). “I know the second part isn't work related, but I've raised nearly $300 for the Central PA Food Bank and have donated masks for the homeless. One of the best ways I've found to manage the stress of this situation is through generosity”.

Kim Sebestyen:

Kim has been doing research on blacksmithing/gunsmithing in the 18th century in primary documents and reading through archaeological reports on excavations that have been completed at many of the French and Indian War forts. Since most of the larger forts would have had a blacksmith to repair guns and other equipment and to make bullets, some of these forts should have evidence of this activity. 

She has also been completing data entry for various old projects, including the Memorial Park site in Clinton County. This was a very large and important prehistoric Indian site in Lock Haven and by updating the artifact inventory into a searchable format, this information can now be used by researchers and staff. 

David Burke:

State Museum of Pennsylvania

Fortunately, Dave’s proximity to the museum allows him to keep a literal eye on it.  He has also been doing data entry, digitizing older collections like F.E. Walter Dam and Memorial Park in Lock Haven.  Digitizing the inventories of these older collections, that were submitted long before the increased use of technology in archaeology, makes them searchable for both staff and researchers. Researchers typically are looking for specific artifact types and this process of converting our old data into searchable databases is a great aid in assisting with locating these artifact types.  The collections number in excess of approximately 8 million artifacts and without location data, our task of locating artifacts would be impossible.

Elizabeth Wagner:

One of Liz’s responsibilities is maintaining the small research library in the Section of Archaeology.  Over the past few years the section has received several large book collections, donated by friends of the Section.  She has been spending her time cleaning, organizing, assigning catalog numbers, and updating the various databases used to keep track of library materials, in order to incorporate them into our library.  She has also been working on Argus entries.  Argus is the software system used to maintain museum collections and to provide some of that information to the public online.  As you can see, her new manager closely monitors her progress.

Janet Johnson:

Just like in the office, Janet is busy working on multiple projects.  She has been keeping up with a myriad of correspondences including CRM inquiries, invoicing requests, general artifact questions from the public, and staff emails.  She has also participated in many meetings involving the State Museum’s Master Plan, Collections Committee, and Nature Lab Planning.  All while developing Argus templates for staff to assist in making our collections available to the public on the internet. Organizing work-flow files and our shared electronic folders to make this possible in a telework environment.  Also reviewing these processes and our various projects to identify potential for improving efficiency.  One of her many responsibilities in the Section is the maintenance of the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) files which she has been reviewing and updating specific to the Delaware Nation.  Last, but certainly not least, she has been reviewing and editing the blog and providing valued technical support to staff.

Kurt Carr:

Kurt Carr
Kurt has also been busy with various meetings, including the State Museum’s Master Plan, Nature Lab planning and other senior staff meetings.  He too has been keeping up with information requests from the public and staff.  Kurt has also been working with Janet to implement the Argus work and reviewing our progress via work logs that we send to him at the end of each week.

Each of us has experienced changes in our work places and spaces, some of us are struggling with technology, some of us are trying to juggle family time with small children or school age children who have homework and their own technical challenges, and some of us are just dealing with isolation and a sense of loss for those around us and our previous lifestyle. Collectively we will continue to carry on and serve our community and the Commonwealth.

This would also be a good time to announce that the “millennium book” is an actual tangible thing!  The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania, Volumes 1-3, has been published and is available at University of Pennsylvania Press.  This three-volume set is a comprehensive guide to the archaeology of Pennsylvania but encompasses much of the prehistory of the mid-Atlantic region. As some folks in the archaeology community know, this has been a long and arduous process and finally being able to hold it in our hands is extremely exciting.  Congratulations All!!

We hope you enjoyed this post about how we are coping with the new work environment. Archaeology and our training in anthropology is important in understanding cultures and people. This pandemic has been an opportunity for people to demonstrate humanity and humility, something that is repeatedly demonstrated in cultural survival. We look forward to our eventual return to the office and our public programming, but we can take with us lessons learned from this pandemic. We can compare and evaluate human and social behavior with past pandemic episodes to increase awareness of these events and how cultures adapted and changed. Our social practices will undoubtedly change, we will work together to create a “new normal”.  Please continue to practice social distancing and follow the CDC Guidelines so that we get through this as soon as possible.

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

Monday, April 13, 2020

Pandemics among Native American Populations in Pennsylvania and Surrounding Regions

Like many of you, the archaeologists at the State Museum of Pennsylvania are telecommuting from home working to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Across the North American continent, we know that millions of Native Americans died as the result of diseases introduced by the invading Europeans. This week’s blog is a brief overview of pandemics that affected Native American populations in Pennsylvania and the surrounding regions. This will include the types of diseases, their immediate effects on native populations, how Native populations responded and the broader effects on societies during the time that Europeans moved into the region. 

A pandemic is defined as a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world. To a Delaware or Susquehannock Indian, smallpox must have felt like it was affecting their whole country and essentially their whole world. An epidemic is a widespread outbreak of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time and has been commonly used to describe widespread diseases in Native populations. Depending on the context, local versus regional, we will use both terms.  

It is difficult to identify disease in Native Americans prior to European contact. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, existed in Native American populations prior to European contact, but they require detailed osteological analysis to identify. These studies have not been undertaken regularly until recently. Therefore, it is difficult to investigate how prevalent they were because we don’t have the information. We know that diseases of pandemic proportions arrived with the Christopher Columbus sponsored by Spain in 1492. There is some debate, but it is thought that Hispaniola was his first stop and diseases spread quickly throughout the West Indies. The Native American population consisting of approximately a million people in the West Indies was exterminated quickly. Not all died from disease, many were enslaved, died in warfare or were causally killed (Diamond 1999:373). 

While infecting the West Indies, the Spanish brought diseases such as smallpox to the mainland of Central America. Cortez is credited with conquering the Aztec in 1521, however there is a more interesting back story. Arriving in 1519, Cortez heard stories of great treasures held by the Aztec empire.  Along with an army of 250 Spanish soldiers, he was invited into the capital city of Tenochtitlan by the emperor Montezuma who believed this was the best way to control the Spanish. Relations between the Spanish and the Aztec quickly broke down; Montezuma died, killed by the Spanish or his own people is unclear, but Cortez was driven out of the city escaping back to the coast. A year later, after the Aztec population was decimated by smallpox killing millions, Cortez returned with an army of Indians and the city, in its severely weakened state, was horribly pillaged. His victory was more a result of the disease rather than his military ability. A similar sequence of events occurred across South America including the pillaging of the Inca empire. 

Aztec suffering form smallpox pandemic 

Additional Spanish incursions into the American Southwest and the Southeast were economic failures but spread diseases and millions of Native Americans died. In the Southwest, several expeditions were initiated but met resistance from local Indian populations. The Coronado expedition in the 1540s was especially brutal but was one of the last until the late 1500s. In the Southeast, the De Soto invasion cut a deadly path through a large number of Native American towns, brutalizing the population and infamous for spreading disease. 

In the Northeast, it is difficult to identify when the first epidemics struck Native populations. European fishermen were exploring the North Atlantic coast; the French were exploring the St. Lawrence basin and the Spanish were exploring the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (O’Brien 2008: 47, 60). The Indians were interested in European goods and the Europeans were interested in natural resources such as the gold being exploited by the Spanish. Based on our knowledge of pathogens such as the coronavirus or even the common flu, disease was almost certainly exchanged in these early trading events, but we don’t have the historic records to determine either way. 

Prior to the Europeans, there were probably epidemics among Native Americans, but they are difficult to identify. However, some archaeologists have explained gaps in the archaeological record (time periods when there are no archaeological sites) by suggesting devastating epidemics. Stewart Fiedel (2001) has argued that the low number of recorded sites during the Early Woodland period (2800 to 2000 BP) in the Middle Atlantic region could be explained by a pandemic that significantly reduced Native American populations to the point that they were barely visible in the archaeological record. Barry Kent (1984:123) has suggested that the sites on the West and North branches of the Susquehanna River cease to be occupied around 1525 and the reason was that an epidemic had devastated the population with the survivors moving elsewhere. A similar scenario has been suggested for the seemingly sudden end of the Monongahela culture in the upper Ohio Valley of western Pennsylvania. There are a small number of Monongahela sites with a low density of European trade goods, but no sites with large numbers of European materials similar to the Susquehanna or Delaware valleys. After 1635, the Monongahela culture seems to disappear and one of several possible explanations is a major pandemic (Johnson and Means 2020; Wallace 1968: 14).

James Herbstritt (2020), also follows this logic suggesting that pathogens were responsible for the collapse of the Shenks Ferry people in the lower Susquehanna River Valley. Shenks Ferry villages and hamlets dating from the 13th to the early 16th century are found along the major streams of Lancaster County. Over time, according to Herbstritt, their population seems to expand into the adjacent Schuylkill drainage to the east and later it retracts back into the major streams of Lancaster County. In the early 1500s, a time of early Spanish and French exploration in the surrounding region, their sites had retracted to along the Susquehanna River. This last retraction may be the result of diseases contracted during contact with coastal Algonquians who had acquired pathogens from Dutch, Swedish and English sailors. When the Susquehannocks migrated from the north to the lower Susquehanna valley 1550s, the Shenks Ferry population had been decimated by pathogens, causing their social and political system to collapse. The survivors either moved or more likely were assimilated by the Susquehannocks. The latter explanation, according to Herbstritt (2020), is supported by Shenks Ferry and Susquehannock ceramic vessels in the same pit features.

As for well documented pandemics, they are first noted in the 1630s in New England. The Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts numbered approximately 12,000 prior to their meeting with the Puritans in the 1620s. “Because of their frequent and sustained contact with the whites” European diseases reduced their population by 90% by 1675 (Treuer et al 2010:26). Disease completely disrupted basic life functions resulting in poverty, political upheaval and disillusionment in their spiritual leaders. They were the first tribe in the region to feel the effects of devastating epidemics and their old enemy, the Narragansetts (who had maintained “social distancing”), forced them to cede territory. 

In 1634, William Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts reported that 95% of a tribe along the Connecticut River died of smallpox and many of the dead were unburied (Kraft 2001:389). While on a map making survey, van den Bogaert recorded eight Mohawk villages in the Hudson valley. These were affected by a devastating smallpox epidemic. Approximately 4000 died and it spread via community contact, a term that we know so well today, to adjacent tribes killing thousands more. Snow (1995) conducted a detailed analysis of this incident and noted that the Mohawk subsequently formed four smaller villages. Snow (1995:36) estimates that there was a mortality rate of 63% during this epidemic. At the time of European contact, the Five Nations numbered approximately 20,000 people. By the 1640’s, the Iroquois population was half its pre-contact level. As unfortunate as the number is, it is believed that coastal populations were reduced by 90%. 
The smallpox pandemic of 1660-1663 began in New Amsterdam, spread to the Susquehannocks in 1661 and to the Lenape (Delaware) in 1663. This was bad timing and as noted by Willem Beeckman, it caused “great mortality” among the Susquehannocks who were being pressed by the Seneca Indians from the north. In addition, it was bad for trade indicating there were economic impacts. The Lenape suffered additional smallpox epidemics in 1677 and 1694 (Kraft 2001:431). By the end of the 1600s, the Lenape  population had been reduced by 90%, much of it from diseases, and were outnumbered 20 or 30 to one by their Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English neighbors (Kraft 2001:389). Throughout the 1600s, the Lenape had good relations with their European neighbors and had a great deal of control over the fur trade and their territory. However, with their population severely reduced, and the Europeans greatly increased, this situation changed. By the 1700s they began moving west. 

Europeans carried many infectious diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, plague, tuberculosis, typhus, cholera, malaria and others. Kraft reports (based on Dobyns 1983:8-26) that tularemia may have affected animals as well as people. As another consequence of the European invasion, tularemia may have exterminated Indian dogs. Early explorers and traders frequently mentioned how common dogs were in Indian villages. However as argued by Largent (2020: 1-4) their genome is not found in our modern dog population suggesting that they were somehow eliminated. They seem to have been replaced by Old World dogs, possibly because of this disease. In addition, most European dogs were larger and specialized, trained for specific duties. 

Epidemics not only caused death, depending on their severity, they caused a great disruption in the basic functions of tribal societies.  People were unable to care for the sick: subsistence activities were impacted causing hunger and dehydration; mothers infected their babies; and there was a loss of faith in healers and spiritual leaders causing stress in traditional ideological systems. The young and the old were the first to succumb, resulting in a loss in traditional knowledge and leadership. As populations decreased, they were susceptible to domination by their enemies such as the Narragansett in New England, the Iroquois in New York, the Susquehannocks in the Middle Atlantic or the Europeans wherever they could take advantage of the situation. When tribal boundaries began to break down, warriors from different tribes joined together for defensive or offensive measures or allied with the Europeans, and when they contracted diseases, they were transmitted back to their home villages.

The driving economic force of the 17th century in Pennsylvania and the Middle Atlantic region was the “fur trade” – the exploitation of natural resources by the Europeans in exchange for superior technological items by Native Americans. Both sides understood this system and adapted to preserve it. However, epidemic diseases were a destabilizing factor for a variety of reasons such as reducing the flow of furs or requiring Europeans to find new trading partners. Adding to the instability was the practice of “mourning wars”. In response to death in a family, morning wars involved capturing enemies, torturing some to replenish the community spirit and adopting others to replenish loved ones. This was especially common among the Iroquois and Susquehannock resulting in a constant low level of violence, but it was also practiced by the Lenape (Soderlund 2015: 106). As the Lenape increasingly blamed the Dutch, Swedes and Finns for their problems and their epidemics, they became the object of their morning war acts threatening the stability of the fur trade. 

One outbreak of smallpox illustrates the complexity of the fallout from epidemics. In 1654, a Swedish ship landed in the lower Delaware River near Tinicum with much needed supplies. Unfortunately, a hundred passengers had already died of smallpox and more died on land. This resulted in an epidemic in the local Lenape population, killing more. Lenape sachems complained to Swedish Governor Risingh, accusing him of intentionally infecting the Lenape people. The Swedes and the Lenape had recently signed a treaty of mutual respect and assistance. This incident could jeopardize the agreement. Risingh sympathized with the Lenape and suggested they should turn to God. The Lenape had a history of not converting to Christianity and quickly disregarded his suggestion. Both groups wanted to preserve the treaty and the Lenape knew that “morning war” would be a problem. Risingh showed empathy and the sachem convinced their people not to participate in morning war (Soderlund 2015: 83). 

Self-righteous Europeans saw epidemics as acts of God – “Where the English come to settle, the Devine Hand makes way for them by removing or cutting of the Indians either by wars with one another or by some ravaging mortal Disease (Denton 1845:6,7) Reported in Kraft (2001:390)

Smallpox was the most common pathogen, but other diseases had significant impacts. It is not known if venereal disease was in the pre-contact Lenape population, but syphilis was present in the West Indies. Columbus brought it back with him and it spread quickly throughout Europe and the British Isles. Syphilis was recorded in Boston in 1646 but the Lenape could have already been infected by sailors along the Atlantic coast.

It is often asked “Why were Indian populations so susceptible and Europeans not? The standard explanation is that they had no immunity to these diseases while Europeans had been living with them for thousands of years. But why did Europeans have these diseases and the Indians did not? According to Diamond (1999:357) many of these diseases were viruses that started with domesticated animals and were eventually transferred to humans. In the early Middle East and Europe, many animal herders lived with their animals. These living conditions were ripe for animal viruses to mutate and move to humans. Native Americans had very few domesticated animals. The North American horse went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene and the American bison did not have the temperament for easy domestication. The llama/alpaca and guinea pig were restricted to South and Central America. In addition, the Americas only had a few “cities’ with high concentrations of people where these diseases could develop whereas the Old World in Asia, the Middle East and Europe had many cities with concentrated populations for the virus to spread.  

 As a final indignity, the earliest recorded example of germ warfare is found in 1763 when English Lord General Jeffery Amhurst and Colonel Henry Bouquet conspired to infect the Delaware with smallpox. Two blankets and a handkerchief from smallpox victims were given to friendly Delaware’s at Fort Pitt. However, as noted by Kraft (2001:464), this was unnecessary as the damage had long been done and the population had been reduced by 90% from pre-contact times. The 17th century in Pennsylvania was a tumultuous time beginning with two powerful Native American tribes totally engaged in the “fur trade’ and ending with decimated populations and the fur trade passing them by. 

Finally, Engelbrecht (2003), Snow (1995) and Dobyns (1983) suggest that European diseases spread far inland well before interior tribes made direct contact with Europeans. Obviously, these epidemics were not restricted to the initial contact along the Atlantic coast. In 1801, a group of Pawnee returning from New Mexico, infected their homeland along the lower Platte River and lost half of their people (Andrist 1964:14). The worst of the smallpox epidemics on the Great Plains occurred in the 1830s. The Mandan were almost wiped out when they were visited by a steamboat; of an estimated population of 1500, only 31 survived. Their neighbors the Arikara and Hidatsa were reduced from 4000 to 2000. The pandemic spread north to the Crows, Assiniboine’s and Blackfeet. It is estimated that 6000 to 8000 Blackfeet died. Tribes attempted to escape but continued to die, leaving their dead unburied and teepees standing (Andrist 1964:14). 400 Sioux died in the spring of 1838. The Pawnees returned home with captured Sioux and 2000 Pawnee died. From there it spread to the Osage and from there to the Kiowa and Comanches in the winter of 1839 – 40. The virus eventually ran its course in the early 1840s, but unknown thousands were dead.

Image of Mandan Village after the epidemic of 1837. 

 Epidemics have continued in Pennsylvania with devastating epidemics such as the great yellow fever plague in Philadelphia in 1793 (Powell 1949); the typhoid epidemic in Harrisburg in 1916 and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919 just to name a few. We are now experiencing a new pandemic. It will be devesting. It will be hard, but we will get through this one also. With all the incredible developments in medicine, we may have become complacent. Hopefully, this will result in better preparations for future pandemics.

We hope you have found this presentation interesting and will join us in future blogs. It is important to remember that examining the past through the archaeological record has provided an opportunity to examine how cultures changed and adapted to these pandemics. It helps us to see that adaptation and change are often necessary in survival and we can all understand the need to adapt to new ways of working, social engagement and subsistence as we move forward. Please continue to practice social distancing and follow the CDC Guidelines to ensure the passing of this pandemic is as soon as possible.


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1964    The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indians, Macmillan Company, New York.

Diamond, Jared
1999    Hemispheres Colliding: The Histories of Eurasia and The Americas Compared. in Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

Dobyns, H. F.
1983    Their Numbers Became Thinner. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Engelbrecht, William
2003    Iroquoia: The Development of a Native World, Syracuse University Press.

Fiedel, Stuart
2001    What Happened in the Early Woodland. Archaeology of Eastern North America 29:101-142.

Herbstritt, James T.
2020    The Late Woodland Period in the Susquehanna and Northern Potomac Drainage Basin AD 1100 to 1575. in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania edited by Kurt W. Carr, Christopher Bergman, Christina Rieth, Bernard K. Means, Roger Moeller and Elizabeth Wagner. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Johnson, William and Bernard Means
2020    The Monongahela Tradition of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Periods, Twelfth to Seventeenth Centuries AD, in the Lower Upper Ohio Drainage Basin. in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania edited by Kurt W. Carr, Christopher Bergman, Christina Rieth, Bernard K. Means, Roger Moeller and Elizabeth Wagner. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Kent, Barry C.
1984    Susquehanna’s Indians, Anthropological Series no 6. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Kraft, Herbert C.
2001    The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage 10,000 BC to AD 2000. Lenape Books

Largent, Floyd
2020    America’s Lost Dogs, Mammoth Trumpet 35(1):1-4.

O’Brien, Greg
2008    The Timeline of Native Americans: The Ultimate Guide to North America’s Indigenous Peoples. Thunder Bay Press, San Diego.

Powell, J. H.
1949    Bring Out your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. The University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Snow, Dean R.
1995    Mohawk Valley Archaeology: The Sites. The Institute for Archaeological Studies, University at Albany, SUNY.

Soderlund, Jean R.
2015    Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Treuer, Anton, Karenne Wood, William W. Fitzhugh, George P. Horse Capture, Sr., Theresa Lynn Fraizer, Miles R. Miller, Miranda Belarde-Lewis, and Jill Norwood
2010    Indian Nations of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.

Wallace, Paul A. W.
1968    Indians in Pennsylvania, third printing. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

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