July 16, 2013


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By Matt Hughes

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Like the Susquehanna itself, whose two branches and many tributaries gather in a common course, Bucknell University educators and students from diverse disciplines are lending their talents to build a more complete historical picture of the river.

"It's not just one project, it's sort of like this web that's spreading and spreading in a great way," said Katie Faull, professor of German and humanities and one of the project's leading researchers.

Faull is working with Professor Alf Siewers, English, Place Studies Initiative Coordinator Brandn Green and five Bucknell undergraduates to build layered cultural and historical maps of the North and West branches of the Susquehanna River using GIS software, as well as written and multimedia materials providing depth and context. Funded by the Chesapeake Conservancy ($40,000) and the John Ben Snow Trust ($15,000), the project will chart historic and cultural sites in a corridor covering five miles on each side of the river and extending from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Maryland.

The researchers plan to send finished map layers to National Geographic and the National Park Service, who will use them in creating internet-based interactive maps. Work on the project is expected to continue through summer 2014. Some of their historical research will also be incorporated into educational materials for the National Park Service, which in 2012 added the Susquehanna River to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, a 3,000-mile series of water routes extending from the Chesapeake Bay. | Bucknell's role in securing the designation.

Siewers said the research will also aid the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley book series, published by Bucknell University Press. The first volume of that series, Native Americans in the Susquehanna River Valley, Past and Present, was published in June. Faull, Siewers and other Bucknell professors will edit future volumes.

"This is actually a very historical place," Faull said of the confluence of the Susquehanna near Sunbury. "It's not only the heart of the Susquehanna River, it's also one of the places we can think about as a crucible of early American history." But much of that history is not well known outside the region, and much of the area's early history was forgotten or marginalized as America spread westward and the area developed, the researchers said.

"In a lot of ways the Susquehanna Valley is a kind of lost valley, historically, in the sense that it was so much a part of the formation of early America that it was later, ironically, lost sight of as America developed further," Siewers said.

In Wyalusing, for example, a Moravian Indian graveyard was buried beneath a canal and later a railway, Faull said. In Sunbury, the final resting place of Chief Shikellamy, a prominent leader sent by the Iroquois League to observe American Indian resettlement in 18th-century Pennsylvania, lies near to an abandoned factory being redeveloped as a water treatment plant.

Histories of the region, especially from the Contact Period through the 18th century, also fall short of modern academic standards.

"One of the problems that we've had is that the books on the Susquehanna are not as up-to-date as we'd like," said senior Abigail Mills, who is focusing her research on 19th-century nature writer Susan Fenimore Cooper. "There's a lot of political incorrectness and inaccuracy, and we're working to remedy that through all of our efforts, mapping the river geographically and culturally."

Siewers said the student researchers benefit from their roles in the project as much as faculty, and the students agreed.

"A lot of research I've done has been just for a class, but this is something I know is going to be useful for a lot of people someday," said senior Maddie Lawrence, who is organizing and plugging gaps in historical data about the river. "It's great to know I will have played a part in that. It's really exciting."

"This is a great way for me to get in touch with my surroundings, where I've been living for the last couple of years," added Courtney Nelson, a junior studying a local utopian community envisioned by English theologian and chemist Joseph Priestley.

The students said they hope the project will provide local communities, including the Bucknell community, a deeper understanding and appreciation of the river. Siewers said that's exactly the point, and that the project also advances the University's mission.

"These projects really involve a sense of reconnecting the liberal arts, and the humanities in particular, to the environment and the world at large," Siewers said, "to get back to what the ancient sense of the liberal arts involved, a sense of connectedness."