A Few Notes On the American Indian Presence in the Juniata Valley

by Paul Heberling, professor emeritus of anthropology, Juniata College

The Prehistory

There is abundant archaeological evidence of Indian occupation and activity in the Juniata Valley during prehistoric times (B.C. 7000 to A.D. 1500). Although the earliest secure date has been derived from samples recovered at Sheep Rock Shelter on the Raystown, the broad pattern of events makes it almost certain that there was some earlier activity by paleo-indian big game hunters on nearby waterways, e.g., Yellow Creek, Dunning Creek, Penns Creek, Casselman River. A glance at a contour map will do much to explain this long Indian concentration in central Pennsylvania. For people who had no draft animals nor wheeled vehicles, passage was pretty much confined to level river terraces and to northeast / southwest valley routes paralleling the mountains. At only a few points in Pennsylvania were the vast mountain ranges cut by river routes providing access from east to west – one of these was the Juniata. The intersection of these north/south and east/west routes was squarely in the Juniata Valley, and thus would have been the focus of persistent cultural exchange which is heavily documented in the archaeological record.

Of course, being prehistory, there is no idea what these people may have called themselves or what languages they may have spoken, but there is good evidence to tell us about their physical types and lifestyles (big game hunting, then hunter-gathering, then horticulture). In this region, their social organization for a long time was probably based on kinship bands rather than tribes, and it seems to have been the tendency for these early societies to be generally non-aggressive, and seldom to engage in anything resembling warfare. However, that pattern apparently changed around A.D. 500, after the shift to more sedentary settlement. Whether there was increased competition from population growth, or from the intrusion of new cultures is not clear, but something caused movement of less dominant groups from the river valleys to the uplands.

The Historic Period

After the Iroquoian invasion of central Pennsylvania, which may have occurred around
A.D. 1450, even the archaeological record is rather ambiguous, it appears that the remaining indigenous people living in unprotected little hamlets in the valley were either destroyed or assimilated, and the region may then have been dominated by a single powerful tribe, possibly the Iroquois-speaking Susquehannocks, who are known to have been expanding along the smaller river valleys at that time. Whatever the reason, it certainly appears that populations dwindled drastically, and the Juniata Valley became quiet for awhile.

This episode came to an end with the annihilation of the Susquehannocks in 1676. The Iroquois Confederacy, though none of their tribes were in residence here, saw the territory as their buffer zone, and took proprietary action to control its use. The Confederacy encouraged first the Tuscarora, another Iroquois tribe then being hounded out of North Carolina, to occupy the frontier. Although they were here only a few years before they moved further north to become the sixth member of the Confederacy; their contributions, particularly to place-names, were considerable. Their successors were the Shawnee, who were also a displaced tribe from the south; these folks also made an impact, but it was overwhelmingly negative, as they acted out the classic renegade pattern of an alienated and marginal population. After a very ugly decade (the 1750’s) the Indian era was essentially over as remnants drifted, or were forced, westward.

It is clear that the intensive Indian occupation of this valley was concentrated in the prehistoric, rather than historic times. In the later years, the land was often a killing field, but it was not much involved in the political and military machinations that so marked eastern and western Pennsylvania. The exceptions to this remoteness were the several diplomatic visits of the great ambassador Conrad Weiser, and the profound influence of the remarkable Irish trader George Croghan, who probably did more than any other person to reduce conflict and eventually open the Juniata Valley to European settlement. Certainly, the influence of notable Indian leaders like Shickellamy ( a Cayuga), Scaroyady (an Oneida) and even the Delaware Teedyuscung should be recognized for the spin-off effect of their work, although none of them were ever here in person.

What of the Lenni Lenape?

In view of the recent local interest in this tribe, a few additional comments might be useful. The Lenape, largest of the Algonian-speaking tribes, were generally the dominant native culture east of the Susquehanna, and especially in the Delaware Valley, during the seventeenth century. Their ancient associations are not clear, nor is their origin or time of arrival. If they had Pennsylvania roots, the archaeological record does little to confirm them.

However, the Lenape were very much involved in the complex relationships with the early English establishment during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although this probably earned them moderately preferential treatment by the Pennsylvania “proprietors,” they dispersed rather rapidly to the west. Especially during the period 1725 to 1758, they drifted across the frontier, probably through this region, settling eventually in the Pittsburgh area. There is no indication that they were ever a significant tribal presence in the Juniata Valley, although raiding parties under the Delaware war chiefs Shingas and Captain Jacobs joined with Shawnee renegades to terrorize the frontier settlers during the late 1750’s. These attacks resulted in the construction of a line of security forts, but still caused the Juniata Valley to be almost deserted until after the close of the French and Indian War.

Bits and Pieces of Information

The Standing Stone: Yes, its existence is well documented, although contrary to legend, it was not likely a “sacred” object. It was customary among Iroquoian tribes to mark the location of their settlements by “beacon stones,” and most of these people, whether Oneida, Tuscarora, Seneca or Susquehannock, came to be identified as “the standing stone people,” and at least one of their locations, Onajutta Haga, was translated as “the land of the standing stone people.” Some have suggested that this might have been the origin of the Anglicized word Juniata.

Chiefs: After organization into tribal units which exercised control over scattered bands, it was common to elect one or more “chiefs” to carry out particular responsibilities. Frequently, among Plains and Eastern Woodland cultures, there would be a “talking chief” and a “war chief,” who were seen to possess certain talents. Outside of their specialties, the chiefs had little independent authority, and had to be guided by council decisions (rather like the mayor-council relationship in our borough government). In some Indian societies, there were exceptions, like the great chiefs Powhatan in Virginia or Montezuma in Mexico. Among the Iroquois, who were matrilineal and usually matriarchal, the women could appoint the chiefs or influence the vote and sometimes the chief might indeed be a woman.

Kings, half-kings, queens and princesses: Terms like these were usually European innovations. There was nothing in the social organization of eastern Indians which would correspond to royal titles (although there certainly was in Mississippian and Meso-American cultures). In spite of this, our literature, even serious records, referred to “the Half-king Teedyuscung,” “Queen Aliquippa,” “Princess Pocahontas,” Captain Jacobs,” “King Philip,” and others – maybe like “Princess Nita-nee!”

Speaking of Aliquippa: She was a minor Seneca chief who was associated with a small society in the Three Rivers area. Although she pops up from time to time in the histories, and is reported to have associated with William Penn and George Washington, there is no evidence that she had any influence in our area. As an old person, confused and seeking protection from frontier wars, she apparently found security in friendly white settlements, and was at Aughwick (Shirleysburg) when she died in 1754.

Huntingdon: It is well established by reliable eye-witness reports and historic records that the city of Huntingdon was built on the site of an earlier Indian settlement, but in no case is the precise location confirmed. One of the locations suggested is at the junction of Standing Stone Creek and the Juniata River, but this is in the frequent flood zone, which ancient people were usually smart enough to avoid. A more likely site is on the crest of the hill between Second and Willam Smith Streets where the later Fort Standing Stone is reported to have been, and where the courthouse now stands. Sadly, development and redevelopment of the area have continued without a single systematic archaeological test directed at the question. Urban disturbance has been so severe that even the most sophisticated investigation would be difficult, but stone artifacts have been recovered beneath the courthouse pavement, and human burials have been exposed nearby, so there is still a chance for some diagnostic information. For some time, it was popular to identify the Standing Stone site as the village of Achsinnink,but that name appears in several places across the state, so it cannot yet be positively associated with Huntingdon.


Paul M. Heberling
Huntingdon, PA
August 31, 2007

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