Friday, March 2, 2018

Earliest European Trade Goods and the Susquehannock Indians

Archaeologists typically spend the winter months processing and cataloging collections. Along with this comes research which will result in presentations, papers and publications. Current research of the Susquehannock culture period has provided the subject of this week’s blog in which we explore early Indian-European trade in the mid-Atlantic.

Although the Vikings first established their settlement at L’ Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland around 1000 AD, it was another 500 years before regular contact between Indians and Europeans occurred. By the late 1400s, Basques and English fishermen began harvesting cod and whales from the coastal waters around Newfoundland and Labrador (Kraft 2001: 355-357).

 Exploitation of these maritime resources required a land base of operations for processing the fish and rendering oil in large cauldrons for later transport back to Europe. It was probably during these times that they began to trade European-made goods for meat and animal furs. One of these places was Red Bay, Labrador located at the north end of the Straight of Belle Isle (Tuck and Grenier 1989).

Red Bay, Labrador Canada

Interaction with foreigners, who, to the local native groups, dressed differently and spoke a strange language, would eventually culminate in the exchange of trinkets such as glass beads, colorfully woven cloth and metal objects for beaver skins. Initially, these commodities were traded face-to-face.  Eventually, as trade relations developed, native traders began acting as middlemen between Europeans and other native groups. Some of these objects would survive for centuries to be rediscovered by archaeologists.

In northern Pennsylvania, the earliest European derived trade goods are attributed to the Susquehannocks who, by the mid-16th century were living in small communities around the confluence of the Chemung and the Susquehanna’s North Branch rivers. At these places, trade items are extremely rare, consisting principally of metal ornaments crafted from copper and brass. Among these items are spirals and tubular beads made by annealing , then rolling, these metals into shape. A few glass beads of greenish-blue color, an occasional fragment of wrought iron and plaited textiles have been found that indicate some level of variety in the trader’s trade inventory.

By the late 16th century and into the early 17th century, the Susquehannocks were receiving a wider variety of European manufactured goods that suggests these interactions with traders was on the rise as the result of the Susquehannock’s participation in the beaver skin trade . By then, Europe had depleted their supply of beaver for the hatting industry.

This was also the period in history when the Susquehannocks began adopting the pattern of communal life in large fortified villages with many houses. A major shift of their settlements to the lower Susquehanna valley around Washington Boro, Pennsylvania occurs where the environmental setting is more conducive to a longer, frost free growing season for crops, access to a more direct migratory fowl route as well as a more strategic position for trade with the English on Chesapeake Bay. With these advantages then, it comes as no surprise to us that the quantity and quality of trade goods grew by leaps and bounds.

Although the Susquehannocks continued trading beaver skins and other furs for many different varieties of glass beads and copper/brass ornaments they also were successful in obtaining axes, hoes, knives, harpoons, chisels and other useful tools of iron from European sources and this is reflected in the archaeological record of  their settlements. Around 1630 the Susquehannocks began obtaining guns. Although guns and gun parts are present they are by no means common until the 1640’s when flint lock fowling pieces show up as important trade items on their sites.

 Bastion mounted swivel cannon were also desirable weapons of warfare for the Susquehannocks. In fact, iron and stone cannon balls were discovered at the Strickler site which was one of their villages of the 1640-1660 period (Kent 1984). One explanation frequently cited is the hostility that developed between the Susquehannocks and other northern Iroquoians for control of the beaver skin trade. Another is that small munitions were more effective in taking more beaver in less time than would have been possible with trap sets alone. 

Trade between native groups and Europeans began once the New World was recognized as a valuable source for beaver skins and other commodities that previously had been exhausted in Europe. The gold, silver and emerald resources of Central and South America were never to be found along the northeast coast of North America. Instead, in a sense the fur trade made up the difference. In both cases, however, it was the Europeans who benefitted most.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this examination of early contact amongst Europeans and Indians in the Susquehanna valley. It was a complex period of culture change and an important period in the development of our Commonwealth. If you’d like to learn more about the Susquehannocks we encourage you to refer to the references below and visit the Anthropology and Archaeology gallery of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Visitors to our museum can view some of the spectacular trade objects referenced in this blog and gain a sense of the importance of preserving our past for the future.

Kent, Barry C.
1984       Susquehanna’s Indians. Anthropology Series Number 6. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Harrisburg.
Kraft, Herbert C.
2001       The Lenape-Delaware Heritage: 10,000 BC to AD 2000. Lenape Books
Tuck, James A. and Robert Grenier
1989       Red Bay, Labrador: World Whaling Capital A.D. 1550-1600. Atlantic Archaeology Ltd. St. John’s Newfoundland.

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

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