Evidence of the past can be found throughout Pennsylvania, often in closer proximity to us than we may realize. Sometimes, these clues may be found in the names of the roads we travel daily or in the creeks we take for granted. A little bit of curiosity and research can reveal little-known truths about an area. What began in March as a creek-side escape along the Yellow Breeches Creek from the stresses of lockdown, inspired me to want to learn more about the area and led to surprising revelations about the area directly across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
In the 1730s, when colonial Pennsylvania was negotiating its boundaries with adjacent colonies and worried about the French expansion in the Allegheny Valley, the land along the Susquehanna River between the Conodoguinet and the Yellow Breeches creeks was part of a little known incident that reflects the complex political environment of the Pennsylvania frontier. The colonial government proposed to give this tract of land to the Shawnee, a Native American tribe who had migrated into the Commonwealth from the south.
A little background is necessary to put this story in context. The invasion of North America in the 17th century by various European countries resulted in disease, warfare and the displacement of Native American tribes from their homelands. By the late 17th century, many tribes were searching for new homes. The Susquehannock Indians had controlled the Susquehanna Valley for more than a century but their power was broken by disease and a war with the Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois) and by 1680 a political vacuum existed in the region. The Haudenosaunee recognized this issue and allowed the Susquehannocks (significantly reduced in numbers) to stay in the region with the promise they would not be involved with the fur trade. The Susquehannocks were not the only tribe suffering from the chaos caused by the European invasion. The Shawnee, originally living in Florida, had been moving north for several decades. The Haudenosaunee allowed them to move into the lower Susquehanna and also encouraged other tribes such as the Conoy and Nanticoke to do the same. There is some evidence that the Shawnee settled at the mouth of the Yellow Breeches Creek across from Harrisburg in what is now New Cumberland in about 1699. It is not clear how long they stayed at this location, maybe as late as 1728, but they eventually moved west to the Allegheny River as an increasing number of German and English immigrants moved into the area (Beckley 1973:8).
Throughout the early 18th century, the French and English were colonizing lands around the world and competing for resources. During this time, world-wide tensions were building between France and Great Britain, eventually leading to the French and Indian War of 1756-1763. As part of that tension during the 1730s, the Pennsylvania colonial government was concerned with the activities of the French on their western border. Control of the Allegheny River Valley was crucial for the French to transport supplies and goods between the Louisiana Territory to the south, which they controlled, and Canada. The pacifist Quaker government did not believe in a standing army or militia. However, they did seem to be willing to attract Indian allies to do their fighting for them or at least act as a political barrier. In the winter of 1731, a communication was relayed to the Shawnee in the Allegheny Valley that a “large and convenient” tract of land (Lowther Manor) had been set aside for their accommodation. Lowther Manor (sometimes spelled Louther) was a 7551-acre area of land that was bound on the north by the Conodoguinet Creek, on the east by the Susquehanna River and to the south by the Yellow Breeches Creek. A straight line between the two creeks along St. Johns Church Road in modern-day Mechanicsburg formed the western boundary. This was an effort by the Pennsylvania colony to entice the Shawnee to return to the region that they had occupied many years earlier.
This offer is considered to have been a bribe, in exchange for the Shawnee’s de facto alliance with the English Crown by way of proximity. This is no more clearly stated than in the Minutes of the Provincial Council, August 10, 1737, “all possible means ought to be used to prevent their defection and to keep them attached to the British Interest” (p.235). At the conclusion of this 1737 meeting, it was decided to send a present, valued at 10 pounds, to further entice the Shawnee (ibid). However, the Shawnee seemed to be satisfied with their home in Allegheny where they had independence and the French were supplying them with all they needed including muskets and gunpowder. An alliance with the Shawnee would reduce the number of Native Americans who supported the French and help the British to strengthen their defense against the French. The offer was not formally declined by the Shawnee until 1762, the reason for the 25-year delay is unknown.
Today, not much more than a street name (Lowther Road) offers a clue to the largely forgotten past and its role in negotiating an effort to win the allegiance of the Shawnee. As a footnote of this event, Peter Chartier, a notable half-Shawnee/half-French trader and Shawnee leader, was given rights in 1740 to purchase the plot of land indicated on the above map encompassing modern-day New Cumberland, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. According to Beckley (1973:11), this was one of the early settlements on the West Shore of the Susquehanna River. Over the next several years, Chartier occasionally returned to this area, although his primary settlement was in the Upper Ohio valley. In 1745, Chartier was referred to as a “Rebel against the King of Great Britain” as recorded in Minutes of the Provincial Council. Peter Chartier accepted the “French hatchet” and moved further west with the Shawnee. There is no record of him after 1759 (Beckley 1973:10). Chartier’s trading post in Lowther Manor was likely a safe distance from the river located between modern-day 15th and 16th Streets in New Cumberland (Beckley 1973:11).
|Nearby creeks, such as the Yellow Breeches provide an escape from the rigors of the “new normal” and a chance to imagine the resources that attracted people to this area. (image: Melanie Mayhew)|
The Yellow Breeches remains a popular destination for fly fishing, bird watching, boating and tubing, with most modern visitors being unaware of its rich past. The land between the Conodoguinet and Yellow Breeches Creeks continues to be a major transportation corridor, rich with resources and providing easy access to trade routes.
We hope you have found this post regarding community and local history of interest and encourage you to explore your own community. Preservation of our natural/historic resources begins with an appreciation of their origins and the impact those resources have had on our growth as a community and a Commonwealth.
Beckley, Gilbert W. New Cumberland Frontier. New Cumberland Old town Association.
Crist, Robert Grant (1993) Lower Allen Township: A History. Planks Suburban press, Camp Hill, PA
Donehoo, G. Patterson. (1995, 1928). Indian villages and place names in Pennsylvania. Baltimore: Gateway Press.
Hanna, C. A. (1911). The wilderness trail: Or, the ventures and adventures of the Pennsylvania traders on the Allegheny path (Vol. 2). GP Putnam's sons.
Pennsylvania Archives, Colonial Records, Volume IV, Minutes of the Provincial Council, Page 236
Pennsylvania Archives, Maps, Draughts of the Proprietary Manors in the Province of Pennsylvania, Page 35
For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .