Native American life revisited

ALLENSVILLE – “Kishacoquillas is a Delaware name, meaning ‘snakes are already in their dens,’ Steve Runkle told a crowd of at least 75 gathered at the Allensville Community Hall on March 25. “And there were a lot of rattlesnakes and copperheads in the lower Susquehanna basin at that time (around 1600).”

Runkle, a Lewistown native now living in Mechanicsburg, is a volunteer speaker with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission Speakers Bureau. He was speaking at the annual meeting of the Kishacoquillas Valley Historical Society, on the topic, “Native American Life in the Susquehanna River Basin.”

He noted that the Susquehanna basin, which runs from Cooperstown, N.Y, through central Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, includes 17 sub-basins, and 15 of those sub-basins have Native American names.

“So we have a rich legacy of Native American place names,” Runkle said.

Some of those include Susquehanna, “long reach river, muddy river or winding river;” Juniata, “projecting rock or standing stone;” Mattawana, “fine furs;” Cocolamus, ” likely from a species of hawk; Tuscarora, “hemp gatherers;” and Aughwick, “brushy or overgrown with brush.”

Runkle used maps and artwork to illustrate his talk. He also brought a display of about 30 furs, artwork, trade goods and artifacts through which visitors could browse.

Runkle’s wife, Janeann Runkle, also a Lewistown native, appeared in a two-piece Native American dress that she made from three deer hides, tanned in the preferred way at that time, with animal brains. The skirt was dyed with walnuts. She noted that hides were smoked after tanning, for waterproofing and repelling insects.

Her moccasins were made in the Eastern Woodlands style, by a Cherokee Indian. Her jewelry consisted of accurate copies of jewelry worn by French Jesuit priests who came to the area about 1600. Her large earrings, she said, would have been worn by a man, since Indian women wore only very small earrings.

Runkle spoke briefly about Chief Logan, who lived in the Reedsville area for six years, 1765 to 1771. Logan moved on to Ohio and later, when his family was massacred, turned to a murderous rampage against the whites, leaving a war club on the doorstep as his calling card. He eventually reconciled with the white settlers, Runkle said. He is remembered for his famous “Logan’s Lament.”

Runkle’s presentation focused on the period around 1600, which he called “first contact” with the white man – at that time explorers and, soon after, French Jesuit and Moravian missionaries as well as Conrad Weiser, an interpreter and colonial ambassador to the Native Americans. He also referred to this time as the “historical period.”

The Native Americans had no written language, so information about life in the tribes around 1600 is largely gained from missionaries and other white men who came into the area and interacted with them – first-hand accounts of what they looked like and how they lived – Runkle said, adding that these things are well-documented.

The Susquehannocks, who inhabited the lower Susquehanna Basin, were extinct by 1675 – due to disease, alcohol and war -and the last of the tribe were wiped out in the Lancaster area in 1763, Runkle said.


At the time of first contact, Runkle said, one could not tell the tribes by appearance.

But they quickly got “trade goods,” anything metal, and matchlock guns.

By the 1700s, the men plucked the hair from their heads except for the scalplock, which ran from the top of the head down the back to the nape of the neck. They also wore earrings and nose rings.

“The men were very much into jewelry and makeup,” Runkle noted.

Many wore full face paint. Black and red were the favored colors – black for death and mourning and red for life and blood. White, yellow and green were also used, “but not so much blue,” he added.

Tattoos were also common in the 1700s, he said, accomplished by a painful procedure of pushing charcoal under the skin. The most popular tattoos were animal shapes and geometric designs.


Nine months of the year, the Native Americans traveled lightly and dressed lightly, Runkle said. The men wore only moccasins with leggings and breechcloths. The leggings were essential for the men to move about, he said, noting, “without them the briars and brambles along the watercourses would tear you up.” Women’s leggings came only to the knee.

In winter the men donned deerskin shirts, and bear skins in extreme cold.

Housing and family

The Iroquois and Susquehannocks lived in longhouses, multi-family dwellings made of hardwood saplings tied together with plant material and covered with elm bark, which was easy to peel from the trees. These long houses had holes for cooking fires every 25 feet.

These were matriarchal societies where the family line was traced through the woman’s family. Iroquois women elected the chief and could fire a chief, Runkle noted.

When a man married, he moved into his wife’s family’s longhouse and became a member of her clan. The children also were reckoned in the mother’s clan. Individuals never married within the same clan, Runkle added.

Families usually had five children, two of which would survive to adulthood. Average life span was about 40 years.

The longhouses – essentially apartment houses – provided “a good place for families to gather and fellowship on winter nights,” Runkle said.

The longhouses were grouped together within a stockade for protection, a practice that fell into disuse soon after the arrival of the white man.

When the Susquehannocks were gone from the lower Susquehanna basin, Algonquin, Delawares, Nanticokes and Conoys moved in, along with some Shawnee from the south.

These people used wigwams, single family or, at most, two-family dwellings, beehive shaped and constructed with the same materials as the long houses. These dwellings were portable, easily taken down and reassembled at another location. This could be for a variety of reasons such as floods, or simply moving to the sugar maple or red maple forests at maple sugar time.

The villages usually consisted of 30 to 35 wigwams, and were moved about every 20 years, due to depletion of the soil and the firewood supply.

The only domesticated animal was the dog.

Ohesson, the Native American village on the Juniata River at the mouth of Kishacoquillas Creek at present-day Lewistown consisted of about 30 to 35 wigwams and lasted about 10 to 15 years, Runkle noted.

He added that Native Americans bathed daily, unlike the Europeans who bathed once or twice a year. It was said they could smell a European coming.


Native American trails crisscrossed Pennsylvania, with highways and railroads eventually following paths similar to them.

“The term, ‘Single file, Indian style,’ is absolutely correct,” Runkle said. “The Indian paths were about 18 inches wide, and two could not walk abreast.”

The Indians knew where the fords were and where they could wade across the watercourses- including the Susquehanna River, Runkle said.

They traveled light and could make 25 miles a day, “40 miles if they were pushing.”

They ate two cooked meals a day, breakfast and about 4 p.m when they stopped to camp for the night. Lunches were a “power bar” of parched corn and maple sugar, as well as nuts and berries.

Water travel was faster than on foot. Horses arrived with the Europeans.

There were three kinds of watercraft used by the Native Americans.

First were elmbark canoes (birchbark farther north), constructed of the same materials as the dwellings, except spruce roots were used to tie the saplings together, and they were caulked with pitch for waterproofing.

Next were dugout canoes, made from a single tree, hollowed out by the chip-and-burn method. These were used mainly for fishing but also for carrying burdens. “They were virtually unsinkable, but very unwieldy in rapids,” Runkle said.

The third type of boat was a round vessel made from a single bull elk skin. These were documented in Montoursville in 1737, he said. This type also was used on the American Plains, where large animal hides such as buffalo were available.

It was documented by two Cayugas testifying before a judge in Albany that they made the trip from Lake Otsego, the headwaters of the Susquehanna at Cooperstown, N.Y., to the Lancaster area in 10 days in a canoe; the return trip upstream took 17 days.


Roles were very defined within Native American society, and life was hard.

As a matriarchal society, women were the most important, Runkle said. They took care of the children, farmed, preserved food, gathered firewood and cared for the family.

Men hunted and fished, field-dressed game, made weapons and hunting and fishing equipment, and cleared ground for farming.

Women carried their loads suspended from a strap – “tump line” – around their foreheads. Men’s burdens were suspended from a strap around the neck.

Runkle noted that a Moravian missionary had recorded in his journal that a Delaware woman did not consider a 100-pound load too heavy, suspended from her forehead.


Crops the women grew were known as the “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash. They were planted in hills, with corn in the center, acting as a bean pole for the beans planted around it, and the squash covering the area in between, keeping the soil moist and keeping weeds down.

“It was very efficient,” Runkle said, adding that the Native Americans had 15 varieties of corn, 60 varieties of beans and eight species of squash.

Hoes for cultivating were made from the shoulder blade of a deer.

They also gathered nuts and berries in season. Meat, fish and fowl completed the diet.

The tail meat of a beaver was a special delicacy.

Food was smoked and dried to preserve it. The one sweetener available to the Native Americans was maple sugar.

Hunting and fishing

The favored way of hunting for the Native Americans was baited traps, Runkle said. That translated to baited snares for turkey and small game and sometimes deer. They also used deadfall to construct baited traps for large animals such as bear.

The deer drive was a community hunting effort. Deer were driven into a V-shaped chute made of brush, which ended in a trap at the point of the V; those that escaped were snared.

White deer were considered sacred and were not killed, similar to the way white buffalo were regarded on the Plains, Runkle said.

The Native Americans sometimes used camouflage -deer hides with the heads on, but horse chestnuts in the eye sockets – “hence the term buckeye,” he said.

The men could mimic the movements of the deer and their efforts were very effective, Runkle observed.

He added that Native Americans sprinkled tobacco – a crop cultivated by the men -on harvested animals, because they believed that every creature had a spirit.

Bear could be smoked out of their dens, snared outside the den, then shot.

Spring and fall, the woodland bison (extinct today) migrated through the Susquehanna basin on their way between the Great Lakes and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. These also were an important food source and were hunted in their migratory season.

The Native Americans, who invented snowshoes, Runkle said, used them in hunting in snow. It was much easier to kill an animal bogged down in snow.

Or the animals could be herded into water and speared from a canoe.

Turkey hunting was by means of decoys and turkey calls made from bone. Runkle demonstrated a turkey call made from a wingbone of a turkey.

Migratory birds were taken from roosting spots or netted. The passenger pigeon, now extinct, numbered in the millions in the Susquehanna Valley. When they migrated in March it was well-documented that the sky would be dark for two to three weeks with their passing. The pigeons, about twice the size of a mourning dove, also were an important food source. It is documented that two Onandagas captured 1,600 pigeons in one netful.

Fishing also was important. Atlantic sturgeon 9 feet long came up the Juniata; they and large fish such as walleyed pike, were caught at night- lured to the surface by a fire in the bow of the boat and speared.

The shad run in the spring saw as many as 12 million fish coming up the Susquehanna to spawn in fresh water, and in fall, vast numbers of eels migrated to the ocean to spawn. These were also caught in V-shaped traps, the shad in “keyhole traps ” and eels in “eel weirs.”

The favored way to shoot ducks and geese was to skip an arrow across the water as they swam, rather than try to shoot them on the wing. “On the water, you can skip an arrow accurately and kill a bird,” Runkle noted.


There were no large armies among the Native Americans, Runkle said. They were hit-and-run war parties, who generally were more interested in scalping than killing.

The Native Americans believed that the spirit entered and left a person through the top of the head, and to take a scalp was to inherit the victim’s bravery and prowess in battle.

Boys were raised in the warrior tradition and, by age 11 or 12, accompanied hunting or war parties.

Runkle added that by the age of 5 or 6, mothers would require their sons to shoot an arrow through a hoop before they could have their supper.

Almost all the tribes used the gauntlet, whereby by captives were forced to run between two lines of men wielding fists and switches.

“The Native Americans could not tolerate cowardice,” Runkle explained. “If they showed great courage (through the gauntlet), they were adopted into the tribe with full rights of a tribal member. If they did not show courage, they were killed.”

He also noted that torture and burning at the stake “did happen at that time but, with the coming of the white man, it was worse.”


The Native Americans had a representative form of government. At the Great Conference of the Iroquois at Onandaga, N.Y., 50 delegates gathered to make decisions. Each of the Six Nations of the Iroquois had a number of delegates proportionate to their population. They debated and then made decisions, Runkle said.

In the villages, there were two chiefs, the peace chief and the war chief. The peace chief was in charge most of the time and the war chief led only in time of war. Third in line was the medicine man or shaman. There could be a medicine woman if she was deemed to have the best skills.

Recreation and amusements

Native Americans had very little time for recreation or amusements in the first-contact days in the Susquehanna Valley, Runkle said.

They enjoyed storytelling and – since they had no written language – a good storyteller was revered.

All the tribes liked to dance, Runkle said. They usually danced in concentric circles, with the women in the outer circle. The only music was by drum and wrapped gourd.

“They actually had flutes, but they were used for special occasions and the Delawares used them for courtship,” Runkle noted.

They also liked running, jumping and wrestling, but these still were individual competitions.

The Native Americans of this area had one team sport, what the French called lacrosse, as it is still called today. The Indians had another name, “baggayaway,”which means “little brother of war,” and was “a very rough game that could go on for days,” Runkle said.

He added that, 100 years later, Native Americans returned to Pennsylvania when the Carlisle Indian School was established in the Susquehanna Valley and the Indians of that day excelled in another team sport – football.

As he closed his presentation, Runkle said the Delawares didn’t have a word for “goodbye;” their word, “Ona”(two syllables, long o and long a), meant “stay well.”