The Place of Tunkhannock in the Cultural History of the Susquehanna River

Yesterday I made my way up roads that were once Indian paths to one of my favorite places in North East Pennsylvania, Tunkhannock (click for ppt presentation).  The invitation to speak on the cultural history of Tunkhannock and its place on the Susquehanna River came from Margie Young, Program Coordinator of the Wyoming County Cultural Center/Dietrich Theater and was supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

We were thrilled to see the theater fill up (about 90 people in the audience) and the technology worked wonderfully.  I had wanted to show the audience the difference between the static maps we had created early on in the cultural inventory of the Susquehanna  and the interactive ones that we have online now.  But, Margie informed me, the theater does not have wifi.  So, undaunted by this, I turned my iPhone into a hotspot and tethered my laptop (much to the glee of the audience members who tried to go online during the presentation and found “Katherine’s iPhone”).  Thanks to the deft manipulation of multiple media, Esther was able to click on the laptop screen as I pointed on the cinema screen and we called up the Online GIS maps from Bucknell.

But this talk was not just about the wonders of the digital world. It was also intended as an invitation to those in the audience to become authors of their own place.

What is a place?  Is it just constituted by co-ordinates on a map made up of two or three  dimensions of Cartesian space, extensions of length, breadth and height?  Or, for those  cultures that had not read Descartes, is it a point, a cross, a smudge on a buckskin map,  multiple traces of paths across territories that are bounded only by mountains, water, oceans?  Or is it a place defined by a convergence of sky, earth and water?  For example, the petroglyphs on the main stem of the Susquehanna River by Safe Harbor have been cut into the bedrock of the river.  They are immovable (unless dynamited out, as was done with the Bald Friar petroglyphs downstream of them).  The place that they constitute consists of far more than the confluence of the Conestoga Creek with the Susquehanna River; it is a place that maybe was possible to visit only because the water levels of the river went down because of a dry period in North America’s climate 1000 years ago.  Maybe they are signs in the river of human connectedness to nature.  We don’t know.  But we can try to recreate a mapping of these sacred places in this river by uncovering a history that has been sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, submerged for centuries.

The Susquehanna River has been the cradle of human creation for thousands of years, and Tunkhannock is one of those places that shows up in the archaeological record since the Paleo-Indian period.  From excavations done here along the river and the creek evidence has shown that Tunkhannock has been a site of human activity for 14, 000 years.  Blood found on fluted projectile points in these sites indicates the hunting of deer, elk and caribou in this area.  Deer and elk, yes.  But caribou?  Cool!!

The same archaeological digs have shown that, in the Archaic period, Tunkhannock was  a place where humans have lived, hunted, made projectile points (the atlatl, for example). That is, this place has been inhabited for 10,000 years.  Archaeological evidence shows four sites from the Archaic period here in Tunkhannock. Evidence from the Woodland period shows the cultivation of maize, beans and corn in the area.  Populations sustained themselves through seasonal hunting, fishing, planting, collecting wild fruits and berries and nuts, and also making the lithic points needed for hunting.  People during this period lived in small, dispersed, seasonal and  semi-sedentary communities in this area.  Evidence that points to this includes the discovery of postholes, waste pits, and even some fire rings.  As we can see from this slide, these small communities grew into fortified settlements about 750 years ago.

To quote from an archaeological source…

“According to the available evidence, the early Late Woodland period (ca. 1,100-750) was characterized by small, dispersed settlements with one house or cabin (farmsteads) and/or small, multiple house hamlets located predominantly on floodplains of the Susquehanna River and its major tributaries. These habitation sites were surrounded by a network of small, scattered, seasonal procurement and processing camps, which were sited in both lowland and upland areas, as required. Even multiple house hamlets may have been very loosely organized and dispersed across the landscape, in the manner of some historic period villages. Larger, nucleated, more permanent, and fortified settlements, or villages, emerged through an apparent coalescence of these smaller sites, but not until the end of this period.”

And it was these settlements that caught the imagination of the first Europeans to visit this area, just over 400 years ago.

Danckers’ circa 1690 publication of Novi Belgii was his second and beautifully colored issue of the very important Claus Visscher map of New York and New England. With its inset drawing of New York, the original 1656 map gave Europeans their first view of New Amsterdam and its location in America, just three decades after the Dutch began to settle Manhattan in earnest in 1625.

Today, it provides a fascinating window into late 17th century political ‘spin’. This beautiful and important map served as a ‘recruiting’ poster: depicting the English-dominated regions of New England and New York as predominantly Dutch, Novi Belgii was designed to attract Dutch colonists to bolster Holland’s claim to the region.  If we look at the details from the map, we can also see how the area along the Susquehanna was marketed to prospective European settlers.

In 2009, through a group called the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, led by Skip Wieder, and in partnership with the Eastern Delaware Nations, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a team of faculty and students at Bucknell, Bloomsburg and SUNY Buffalo, prepared a report on the feasibility of extending the Captain John Smith Trail up the Susquehanna River from the Bay to Cooperstown.  The main thrust of the argument to do this lay in the mapping work done using GIS and linking this powerful digital tool with the scholarly evidence and manuscript maps from the 17th and 18th centuries.  The team at Bucknell has worked hard for the last five years to produce both reports and data layers for the web maps that you can find a few examples of here, on the Bucknell Online GIS page.

But now, in partnership with the Chesapeake Conservancy and its Envision the Susquehanna initiative, we are looking for more local involvement with the interpretation of place.  Join us!


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