Pre-1681: Pennsylvania on the Eve of Colonization

Prehistoric Origins of the Environment

Approximately 12,600 years ago ice glaciers had receded from the area that became Pennsylvania, and about 10,000 years ago (8000 B.C.) a period of warming began in which the rivers and coastlines of Pennsylvania started to take their modern form. The earliest known human remains have been found at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, thirty miles southwest of Pittsburgh. They are evidence of a food gathering culture in operation probably between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago.

The Native Americans, Our Indigenous People

When first discovered by Europeans, Pennsylvania, like the rest of the continent, was inhabited by groups of people of Mongoloid ancestry long known as American Indians. Today they are proudly designated the Native Americans. The culture reflected their Stone Age background, especially in material arts and crafts. Tools, weapons, and household equipment were made from stone, wood, and bark. Transportation was on foot or by canoe. Houses were made of bark, clothing from the skins of animals. The rudiments of a more complex civilization were at hand in the arts of weaving, pottery, and agriculture, although hunting and food gathering prevailed. Some Indians formed confederacies such as the League of the Five Nations, which was made up of certain New York-Pennsylvania groups of Iroquoian speech. The other large linguistic group in Pennsylvania was the Algonkian, represented by the Delawares (or Lenape), Shawnees, and other tribes.

Lenape or Delawares

The Lenape or Delawares, calling themselves Leni-Lenape or "real men, originally occupied the basin of the Delaware River and were the most important of several tribes that spoke an Algonkian language. Under the pressure of white settlement, they began to drift westward to the Wyoming Valley, to the Allegheny and, finally, to eastern Ohio. Many of them took the French side in the French and Indian War, joined in Pontiac's War, and fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War. Afterward, some fled to Ontario and the rest wandered westward. Their descendants now live on reservations in Oklahoma and Ontario. The Munsees were a division of the Delawares who lived on the upper Delaware River, above the Lehigh River.


The Susquehannocks were a powerful Iroquoian-speaking tribe who lived along the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and Maryland. An energetic people living in Algonkian-speaking tribes' territory, they engaged in many wars. In the end, they fell victim to new diseases brought by European settlers, and to attacks by Marylanders and by the Iroquois, which destroyed them as a nation by 1675. A few descendants were among the Conestoga Indians who were massacred in 1763 in Lancaster County.


The Shawnees were an important Algonkian-speaking tribe who came to Pennsylvania from the west in the 1690s, some groups settling on the lower Susquehanna and others with the Munsees near Easton. In the course of time they moved to the Wyoming Valley and the Ohio Valley, where they joined other Shawnees who had gone there directly. They were allies of the French in the French and Indian War and of the British in the Revolution, being almost constantly at war with settlers for forty years preceding the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. After Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers (1794), they settled near the Delawares in Indiana, and their descendants now live in Oklahoma.

Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy of Iroquoian-speaking tribes, at first known as the Five Nations, included the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. After about 1723, when the Tuscaroras from the South were admitted to the confederacy, it was called the Six Nations. The five original tribes, when first known to Europeans, held much of New York State from Lake Champlain to the Genesee River. From this central position they gradually extended their power. As middlemen in the fur trade with the western Indian nations, as intermediaries skilled in dealing with the whites, and as the largest single group of Native Americans in northeastern America, they gained influence over Indian tribes from Illinois and Lake Michigan to the eastern seaboard. During the colonial wars their alliance or their neutrality was eagerly sought by both the French and the British. The Senecas, the westernmost tribe, established villages on the upper Allegheny in the 1730s. Small groups of Iroquois also scattered westward into Ohio and became known as Mingoes. During the Revolution, most of the Six Nations took the British side, but the Oneidas and many Tuscaroras were pro-American. Gen. John Sullivan's expedition up the Susquehanna River and Gen. Daniel Brodhead's expedition up the Allegheny River laid waste to their villages and cornfields in 1779 and disrupted their society. Many who had fought for the British moved to Canada after the Revolution, but the rest worked out peaceful relations with the United States under the leadership of such chiefs as Cornplanter. The General Assembly recognized this noted chief by granting him a tract of land on the upper Allegheny in 1791.

Other Tribes

Other Tribes, which cannot be identified with certainty, occupied western Pennsylvania before the Europeans arrived, but were eliminated by wars and diseases in the seventeenth century, long before the Lenapes, Shawnees, and Senecas began to move there. The Eries, a great Iroquoian-speaking tribe, lived along the south shore of Lake Erie but were wiped out by the Iroquois about 1654. The Mahicans, an Algonkian-speaking tribe related to the Mohegans of Connecticut, lived in the upper Hudson Valley of New York but were driven out by pressure from the Iroquois and from the white settlers, some joining the Lenapes in the Wyoming Valley about 1730 and some settling at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Two Algonkian-speaking tribes, the Conoys and the Nanticokes, moved northward from Maryland early in the eighteenth century, settling in southern New York, and eventually moved westward with the Delawares, with whom they merged. The Saponis, Siouan-speaking tribes from Virginia and North Carolina, moved northward to seek Iroquois protection and were eventually absorbed into the Cayugas. In the latter part of the eighteenth century there were temporary villages of Wyandots, Chippewas, Mississaugas, and Ottawas in western Pennsylvania.

European Background and Early Settlements

The rise of nation-states in Europe coincided with the age of discovery and brought a desire for territorial gains beyond the seas, first by Spain and Portugal and later by England, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Wars in southern Germany caused many Germans to migrate eventually to Pennsylvania. The struggle in England between the Crown and Parliament also had a pronounced effect on migration to America. The Reformation led to religious ferment and division, and minorities of various faiths sought refuge in America. Such an impulse brought Quakers, Puritans, and Catholics from England, German Pietists from the Rhineland, Scotch Calvinists via Ireland, and Huguenots from France. Also, great economic changes took place in Europe in the seventeenth century. The old manorial system was breaking down, creating a large class of landless people ready to seek new homes. An increase in commerce and trade led to an accumulation of capital available for colonial ventures. The Swedish and Dutch colonies were financed in this way, and William Penn's colony was also a business enterprise.


The English based their claims in North America on the discoveries of the Cabots (1497), while the French pointed to the voyage of Verrazano in 1524. The Spanish claim was founded on Columbus' discovery of the West Indies, but there is also evidence that Spanish ships sailed up the coast of North America as early as 1520. It is uncertain, however, that any of these explorers touched land that became Pennsylvania. Captain John Smith journeyed from Virginia up the Susquehanna River in 1608, visiting the Susquehannock Indians. In 1609 Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the Dutch service, sailed the Half Moon into Delaware Bay, thus giving the Dutch a claim to the area. In 1610 Captain Samuel Argall of Virginia visited the bay and named it for Lord de la Warr, governor of Virginia. After Hudson's time, the Dutch navigators Cornelis Hendricksen (1616) and Cornelis Jacobsen (1623) explored the Delaware region more thoroughly, and trading posts were established in 1623 and in later years, though not on Pennsylvania soil until 1647.

The Colony of New Sweden, 1638-1655

The Swedes were the first to make permanent settlement, beginning with the expedition of 1637-1638, which occupied the site of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1643 Governor Johann Printz of New Sweden established his capital at Tinicum Island within the present limits of Pennsylvania, where there is now a state park bearing his name.

Dutch Dominion on the Delaware, 1655-1664, and the Duke of York's Rule, 1664-1681

Trouble broke out between the Swedes and the Dutch, who had trading posts in the region. In 1655 Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Netherlands seized New Sweden and made it part of the Dutch colony. In 1664 the English seized the Dutch possessions in the name of the Duke of York, the king's brother. Except when it was recaptured by the Dutch in 1673-1674, the Delaware region remained under his jurisdiction until 1681. English laws and civil government were introduced by The Duke of York's Laws in 1676.