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LEWISBURG, Pa. – A drive to the local mall doesn’t usually involve a trip back in time almost 300 years. But for me, the short journey from Lewisburg, along the Susquehanna River and past Tedd’s Landing, down Route 15 to Shamokin Dam, has become resonant with words and images from the early 18th century.
It was a time when today’s Sunbury was colonial Pennsylvania’s Shamokin, the most important Indian town in the province, a trading post and the “capital of the Woodlands Indians.”
Although I have lived in the Susquehanna Valley for nearly 25 years, until just a few years ago I was unaware of the rich and untapped history of local Native peoples captured in the settlement diary of Shamokin written by Moravian missionaries.
Settlement diary Chief Shikellamy, the Iroquois regent overseeing the human and material commerce of the confluence of the river, invited the Moravians to Shamokin, and the Moravians kept an account of day-to-day happenings in a settlement diary.
Three years ago, Jenny Stevens ’07, a student working with my colleague Alf Siewers, on a project to create an online mapping of Sunbury, approached me and asked what I knew about the Moravians in Sunbury – nothing, but my curiosity was piqued. The online catalogue of the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem confirmed that there was material there, and off I went to hunt it down.
What I found completely redefined my own research.
Colonial period During the Colonial period, Moravian missionaries from a small Protestant church founded in 1722 by the charismatic Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf were known as friends of the Native Americans and, therefore, suspect to the British. Arrested on charges of spying for the French and aiding and abetting Native peoples against the British, at least five of the missionaries who lived in Shamokin were adopted into the Iroquois nation in 1745.
David Zeisberger, one of the most famous missionaries and early ethnographers of the Native Americans, was given the name Ganousseracheri, meaning “On the Pumpkin,” and adopted into Turtle Clan of the Onondago [sic] in 1745. Early entries of the Shamokin diary written by the young Zeisberger during his first mission reveal an emerging fascination and sympathy for Native American culture and language.
The settlement diary from Shamokin is in bad shape. Some of the pages are crumbling, the manuscript writing is, in places, indecipherable and there are big gaps in the years of the mission’s existence (1744–55). But when I think back to the conditions of its production, written by the light of a candle or tallow lamp, in a tent or a hut, no desk with an ink well or blotter, after a day’s ride or walk through the forests and snow, my frustration melts away. What remains is amazement that we have this record of daily life here at the confluence. And what did that life look like?
Shamokin diary The Shamokin diary is unique among the mission diaries of the 18th century in that Shamokin itself was not a mission settlement built by the Moravians, but rather represented a surprising moment of enterprise and entrepreneurship in the Moravian mission to the Native Americans. The Indian town of Shamokin pre-existed the advent of the Moravians as a trading post. In the first half of the 18th century, it was also the seat of Chief Shikellamy, the Oneida vice-regent sent by the Iroquois to oversee political treaties with the British as well as the trading post. Initial attempts to establish a mission there, undertaken by Christian and Agnes Post in 1743 and Martin and Anna Mack in 1744, were difficult in that the nature of the place, a confluence of trade and cultures, meant that the population was not stable.
Repeatedly, the mission diary of those first years tells of bands of warriors passing through who disrupted the quieter lives of the Delaware men and women occupied with hunting for skins and meat and growing corn on the island in the river (today, Packer Island). The near failure of the mission was averted through the agreement between Mack and Shikellamy that the Moravians would establish a blacksmith’s shop in Shamokin to service the guns of the Indians.
The diary of the mission station in Shamokin tells a vivid story of the confluence of cultures. It describes the missionaries’ regular visits to the settlements of Delaware women on Packer Island, daily suppers with Shikellamy in the Moravians’ log home (built where the present day Northumberland Historical Society now sits), trips up and down the Susquehanna and its islands to speak with the men of the Delaware, the Tutelos and the Shawnee, whose lives were regulated by hunting for meat and skins to trade.
Passing of time The passing of time was marked not by the Gregorian calendar but by the shedding of bark (a good time to build a hut or a canoe), the presence or absence of food, the height of the water, the depth of the snow. An earthquake in the early hours one January morning in 1750 shakes Shamokin’s inhabitants out of bed. The dearth of seed drives families back into Iroquoia, away from the encroachments of the Europeans into hunting grounds.
The diary also casts light on the more personal side of colonial life. Whereas the printed records of the Pennsylvania Archives reveal the official workings of the colonial governments’ agents, mediators, interpreters and traders among the Native people of the area, the words of Native Americans are recorded in the daily log of the Moravian settlements, as they come to the missionaries with their concerns, their petitions, their advice and their plans.
Notably, as Chief Shikellamy lay dying, David Zeisberger remained at his side, recording his last moments. In addition, the lives and words of women, both European and Native, which have long been excised from accounts of European negotiations with the Native Americans, are detailed here in accounts of the conversations, primarily pastoral in nature, with the Delaware women who lived and farmed on Packer Island.
Repeated requests for help There are repeated requests for help with food, seed, lodging, the building and maintenance of fencing, and plowing the fields, all of which are answered. With an empathy uncharacteristic for many European settlers, the Moravian men and women shared their resources of food and knowledge with the Native people, just as the Native people did with them.
But most startling are accounts of cultural encounters that occur between the parties on an equal footing. In 1754, when, just months before the outbreak of the French-Indian war, the missionaries describe their journey along the North Branch of the Susquehanna, the river is seen as a place of cultivation, plenty and great natural beauty. Here, the Shawnee come to greet their European visitors, invite them to a sweat lodge and conclude the evening with songs and music from Europe. The words are translated into Delaware and Mini sink; the music, performed on two violins, is contributed by the Shawnee.
At night, as I squint and pore over the scribbles and scrawl of a manuscript that often resists decoding, pictures, words and sounds come alive again, and stay with me whenever I look at the landscape of the confluence, a landscape that now presents itself in four dimensions, with the echo of the past hovering there, revealing a life of complexity and community on the river.
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