Upper Delaware River Basin

The subbasin includes all of Pike and parts of Lackawanna, Monroe, Northampton, and Wayne Counties. The region is mountainous with many small streams flowing east and southeast into the Delaware River. The largest of these streams is the Lackawaxen River. The major archaeological investigations in this basin occurred in the 1960s and 1970s in preparation for the Tocks Island Reservoir. Numerous stratified prehistoric sites were excavated during this project. These sites greatly increased our understanding of the Paleoindian, Late Archaic, Transitional and Late Woodland Periods

Approximately 637 archaeological sites are recorded in the Upper Delaware River subbasin although only 237 can be assigned to a specific time period.

Map illustrating the location of the Upper Delaware River Subbasin

Paleoindian Period

The Paleoindian period represents the earliest occupation of the region, during which the Upper Delaware River subbasin was sparsely occupied by small groups of foragers. The climate was evolving from Ice Age conditions and plants and animals were very different in the Upper Delaware than they are today.

Only five Paleoindian sites have been recorded in the Upper Delaware River subbasin. However, one of these is the Shawnee-Minisink Site, one of only three Paleoindian sites in the Commonwealth that is in a stratified (layered) context. It was found approximately ten feet below the surface, buried by three feet of flood-deposited sand. Radiocarbon dates place the occupation at about 10,900 years ago, making it one of the oldest Clovis dates in the eastern United States. Tools included over 100 end scrapers and a variety of side scrapers, knives, and other tools. Many of these were used to scrape wood and bone to make handles for stone tools. Some of the scrapers were also used to clean hides for clothing and shelters. A Clovis point was found, made from a tannish pink chert that originates in what is now New York State. However, most of the stone tools were made of a black flint that was found approximately one mile from the site. Shawnee-Minisink is one of the few sites that has provided evidence of foods used during this early period. Carbonized grape, plum, and hackberry seeds, as well as fish bones represent an example of a Paleoindian meal. Shawnee- Minisink probably served as a base of operations during the Paleoindian Period in the Upper Delaware Valley.

Early and Middle Archaic Periods

During the Early and Middle Archaic periods people lived in small groups, moving their base camps frequently to hunt, fish, and gather wild plant foods. Territories were somewhat smaller. The climate and vegetation gradually took on its modern characteristics by Middle Archaic times.

Twenty-seven Early and Middle Archaic sites are recorded in the Upper Delaware River subbasin. The cold climate of the glacial period continued to warm, and oak, which provides food for both humans and the deer they hunted, was an increasingly important part of the forest. Two Early Archaic occupation zones were found at Shawnee-Minisink, between two and four feet below the surface. The occupants used a greater variety of tools than during the Paleoindian period, including scrapers, drills, gravers, knives, and axes. During the Early Archaic, Shawnee-Minisink probably served as a base camp for extended families in the Upper Delaware Valley. During the Middle Archaic, the groups visiting the site were smaller and the site was less intensively occupied.

Another deeply stratified site in the Upper Delaware is the Sandts Eddy site (located just north of Easton, Pa.) where the earliest occupation dated to between 9,300 and 9,420 years ago. The associated artifacts have been dated at other sites to Middle Archaic times, (circa 8,300 to 8,900 years ago) so there is some debate concerning these dates. The occupation zone produced only a few artifacts and was similar to the Middle Archaic occupation at Shawnee-Minisink. Most artifacts were related to stone tool manufacturing, but one point had evidence of use both as a spear and as a knife for butchering meat. A Middle Archaic component dating between 7,080 and 8,450 years ago contained tools used for plant food processing, carving bone or antler, and fresh hide scraping. The site was a base camp during the Middle Archaic, but the small number of artifacts indicates that it was occupied for only a short period and probably by nuclear family-sized groups.

Late Archaic Period

Population density increased during the Late Archaic. Groups of related families established base camps, which they moved less frequently than in earlier periods. Band territories seem to get smaller. Seed grinding tools and fishing equipment are more common. The climate, flora, and fauna were similar to the present.

Approximately 100 Late Archaic sites are recorded in the subbasin, which represents a significant increase over Early and Middle Archaic times. Late Archaic occupations are found buried on floodplains at the Egypt Mills site, the Faucett site, the Brodhead-Heller site, and the Shawnee-Minisink site, all of which are along the Delaware River. Few fire pits and only a small number of tools have been found at these sites. This suggests nuclear family sized groups occupied them for short periods of time. In other river valleys of Pennsylvania, larger Late Archaic base camps have been found but thus far they do not seem to exist in the Upper Delaware Valley.

Transitional Period

Approximately 68 Transitional Period sites are recorded in the subbasin. These sites contain evidence for the intensive processing of food resources in the form of large roasting pits and/or stone boiling pits. Carved stone bowls are made and represent the first portable cooking containers. There is some evidence for a change in climate in the form of a warm, dry period, which may have been a motivation behind the changes. Trade and burial ceremonialism are suggested throughout eastern Pennsylvania.

Transitional period occupations are found buried at many of the same sites as the Late Archaic period but the tools and technology are usually very different.The tool kit is characterized by distinctive broad bladed spear points and knives along with the extensive production of roasting and boiling features.The Transitional Period component at the Peters-Albrecht site, the Brodhead-Heller site, and the Faucett site contained net weights, indicating that nets were used as an efficient method of catching large numbers of fish. A roasting pit and two steatite bowl fragments were evidence of food preparation and indicated that the site was a base camp. All of these sites contained large amounts of rock fractured in fires and these could be the result of roasting hearths, stone boiling pits (heating water through the introduction of heated river rocks into holes dug into the ground and lined with skins) or sweat lodges.

At the Zimmerman site, tools such as drills, knives, and choppers were found. Pit hearths were associated with Susquehanna broadspears, a spear point style common in the Susquehanna River drainage between 3,000 and 3,800 years ago. A somewhat later and very intensive occupation revealed ornamental artifacts such as pendants and beads, along with celts and adzes for woodworking, grinding stones, and net weights. Large roasting features and fire pits were also found.

The Transitional period occupations at the Sandts Eddy site contained large amounts of chipping debris of jasper, a stone that comes from Lehigh and Berks County. In contrast to the Zimmerman and Faucett sites, no fire pits and only a few tools were found, suggesting that Sandts Eddy was probably a small camp for short-term hunting trips.

Excavation of a Transitional Period hearth at the
Excavation of a Transitional Period hearth at the Brodhead-Heller Site in the 1960s.

Early and Middle Woodland Periods

The Early and Middle Woodland periods in the Upper Delaware River subbasin are not well understood because few sites from these periods have been found. People began using pottery and probably stayed in one place for longer periods, They continued to hunt and gather for their food resources but there is some evidence that they began to intensify their exploitation of plant foods.

Only 47 Early and Middle Woodland sites are recorded in the Upper Delaware River subbasin, and most are located along the Delaware River.

Early Woodland occupations at the Zimmerman and Faucett sites were similar to the Transitional period. The Zimmerman site produced scrapers, drills, net weights, hammerstones, celts, and adzes. At the Faucet site, this time period also contained gorgets, pendants and caches of unused tools that probably had decorative or ceremonial value. Three fire pits with charred walnut shells, three large platform hearths, and a number of fire pits were found. Steatite bowls were replaced with pottery.

Excavation of the Middle Woodland occupation at the Faucett site and the Brodhead site revealed no fire pits but a circular pattern of postmolds, indicating the presence of a house. The pottery was impressed on the outer surface with nets or fabric and a large section of a pot was found at the Brodhead site. Interestingly, several groups of bola stones were found at the Faucet site. These are baseball size rounded river cobbles with a grove incised around the middle. It is assumed that these were used for hunting waterfowl along the river.

Stone tools and pottery from Middle Woodland
Stone tools and pottery from Middle Woodland sites in the Upper Delaware River Valley

Late Woodland Period

The Late Woodland marks the beginning of more sedentary lifestyles, the use of domesticated plant foods, and the widespread use of improved pottery.

In all, 108 Late Woodland and Contact period sites are recorded in the subbasin. Although most are located along the Delaware River, there is an increase in the number of sites in the uplands and along streams such as the Lackawaxen River. These sites may represent seasonal camps related to hamlets on the main river.

Late Woodland sites in the Upper Delaware drainage usually have large numbers of pits, used for food processing, storage, and trash. At the Kutay site, numerous pits over four feet deep were found full of fresh water mussel shells. Obviously, this food became more important during Late Woodland times. As early as 1972, it was estimated that over 3,000 pits had been excavated in the region. Unfortunately, many of these have no artifacts, and their functions cannot always be determined. Many were likely food storage or trash pits, and their contents have completely decayed. Pottery styles exhibit characteristics similar to those of Late Woodland populations in what is now New York State. Tool use is largely unchanged from earlier periods, but decorative and personal artifacts such as bone and clay beads, turtle shell rattles, and clay pipes are sometimes found.

The Padula site, located along the Delaware River, produced tools specifically for hunting, as well as tools with evidence of use for butchering, hide preparation, and cutting/sawing of bone. The tools were centered around a fire pit. The site was interpreted as a camp for hunting parties and was probably a common type of site in the Delaware drainage. Although small, these types of special function sites complete the story of the Late Woodland adaptation in the Upper Delaware Valley.

Although there is little information on house types in the region, circular houses have been found in association with pottery characteristic of the early part of the Late Woodland period. A somewhat later Late Woodland occupation at the Shawnee Minisink site revealed evidence of a longhouse, which was likely occupied by related family groups. Longhouses from this time period have also been found at the Lee's Terrace site and at sites in New Jersey.

At the Faucett site, a comb carved from deer antler was found. It was decorated with an oval human face. The comb was found with two rims of a pottery style from the New York coastal plain, indicating that trade was taking place between the two regions. Other non-utilitarian artifacts found on Late Woodland sites include tubular beads of bird bone, shell and clay beads, turtle cups and rattles, and clay pipes, often with bowls in the form of animals. Although, many sites have been extensively excavated along the Delaware River, no villages have been found and, at most, two or three houses are found together. This is in contrast to the other river systems of Pennsylvania and suggests a very different lifestyle consisting of groups of extended nuclear families but not villages or tribal organizations.

There are only a few historic Indian towns in the Upper Delaware and they seem to have abandoned or been driven out of the region shortly after European contact.

Historic Period

The Historic Period followed European contact with Native Americans in the Upper Delaware drainage.

There are approximately 135 recorded historic archaeological sites, including farmsteads and industrial sites such as the Boulton Gun Factory, Henry's Forge, and the D&H Gravity Railroad at Prompton.

*Photographs from Archaeology in the Upper Delaware Valley, by Fred Kinsey. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Anthropological Series No. 2, Harrisburg (1972).