LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — November is Native American Heritage Month, and the Friday after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day. This is a time to honor the culture, heritage, and contributions of Native people. It is also a time to reflect on our nation’s history and the Native land on which we live.
The Lenni-Lenape, Susquehannock, Shawnee, and Seneca were among the Native people in Pennsylvania when the English King Charles II granted the area to William Penn in 1681, says Gettysburg College history professor and author Timothy Shannon.
Barry Lee, executive director of the Circle Legacy Center and Munsee American Indian, says that Penn and other colonists had a peaceful relationship with the Native people in Pennsylvania during Penn’s lifetime. As a Quaker, Penn was a pacifist, and he preferred to purchase land from the Native Americans rather than taking it.
“[Penn] is a colonial proprietor, so he’s mostly interested in getting title to Indian lands when he enters into these treaties with them, but he does kind of develop this reputation as kind of a friend of the Indians,” says Shannon.
Lee made a replica of a wampum belt said to have been given to William Penn by the Lenape in 1682 at the time of a treaty. It symbolizes “friendship, love, and brotherhood” between the colonists and the Native Americans, says Lee.
Penn visited the Conestoga, who were the descendants of the Susquehannock and lived in Lancaster County, in 1701.
While relations between the colonists and the Native Americans in Pennsylvania may have been peaceful during William Penn’s lifetime, things changed after his death. When Penn’s sons inherited the colony, they engaged in a series of fraudulent land deals with the Native people in the area, explains Shannon.
Then a series of violent conflicts and wars, starting with the French and Indian War in 1754, further dispossessed Pennsylvania’s Native people from their homes, Shannon says. “The most egregious example of this dispossession occurs in December of 1763 at the Conestoga Indian Town,” says Shannon.
Jack Brubaker is a freelance writer and the author of “Massacre of the Conestogas: On the Trail of the Paxton Boys in Lancaster County.” He explains that while the Conestogas were never very populous, by the end of 1763, there were only 20 Conestogas left in the Conestoga Indian Town. The Paxton Boys, or Paxton Rangers as they were called at the time, murdered them all. The Paxton Rangers were never brought to justice.
“Some will say that when they slaughtered the Conestoga people…[it] brought an end to this belt,” says Lee, holding up the William Penn wampum belt that symbolizes brotherhood between the Native Americans and the colonists. “The belt in my mind — in our minds — never ended. We still have this agreement,” Lee says.
If the Lenape leader and William Penn came back today, says Lee, “It would be like…’Hey, Bill, look! Look at all these people living together just like we thought they would.'”
There are currently no federally recognized or state-recognized Native nations in Pennsylvania, but there are many Native people living in the state.
Brubaker says that several people and organizations in Lancaster County and elsewhere are acknowledging the role their ancestors played in harming Native people, as well as acknowledging that they reside on Native land.
“It’s important to know this past,” says Lee. “It’s important to know all of our past.”