Selling History in Browntown, PA: LNG Plant Plans to Cut Through the “Jewel of the Susquehanna”

Back in 2013, I wrote a short piece about the site of the Moravian Indian mission town of Friedenshütten which is in what is today known as Browntown just off Route 6 outside Wyalusing, PA. In that blog, I tried to explore the problems of making invisible history visible to local people in the face of the growing fracking industry in North Eastern Pennsylvania. At that point, the major concern was the rail traffic trundling past the site of the Moravian Indian town that had been dubbed “The Jewel of the Susquehanna” by contemporary luminaries and had inspired the world-famous German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write a poem about these banks of the Susquehanna River, even though he had never been to America.

Today the threat to this jewel is far more immediate. The land on which the site lies has been sold to New Fortress Energy as part of a proposed LNG plant in Browntown, a plant that will bring huge amounts of truck traffic to the site, both while the plant is being constructed, and beyond, as the liquefied natural gas is transported out of town for export. Currently under public comment, partial plans have been posted to the PA Bulletin by the DEP, and show the extent to which just one of the natural resources (water) in this area will be impacted (see PA Bulletin for May 4, 2019 here). The summary statistics in the report state that the project “will result in 203 linear feet of permanent stream impacts, 18,449 ft2 (0.42ac) of permanent floodway impact, 2,427 ft2 (0.06ac) of temporary wetland impacts, and 28,615 ft2 (0.66ac) of permanent wetland impact.” The original (December 2018) planning application that also lists projected air pollution amounts can also be found on the DEP website.

Anyone who has kayaked this part of the river knows its beauty. Hills rise up on either side of the Susquehanna, eagles circle overhead, and in late summer the current carries you over the riffles of the river bend, downstream towards Laceyville. However, soon this glorious landscape will be overshadowed by the steam (and other less pleasant) gas emissions, truck traffic, and profile of a huge LNG plant (for an interactive overlay map of the site, click here). Since December, when the plan was put before the public, some local citizens have expressed their deep concern about the environmental effects of the plant, the direct destruction of Native American and Colonial American historical sites, and the lack of transparency in the permitting process. This concern has been met with an unwillingness on the part of Fortress Energy to discuss openly these issues.

Golkowsky’s 1768 map of Friedenshütten, near Wyalusing. From the Unity Archives, Herrnhut TS 213.13. All rights reserved. An interactive version can be found by clicking here.

Part of the land on which this plant will stand was once the Moravian Indian town of Friedenshütten, a thriving, busy, and strategically important village from 1765-1772. But like any site where material traces of human culture have been erased, it is difficult to imagine the life that was lived in this place, an enterprise that brought together European settlers and Native Americans (Mahicans, Lenape, and members of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee) in the confusing and tumultuous period around American independence. Manuscript diaries kept by the Moravian missionaries reveal many details that help paint a rich picture of life on that field. From its beginnings in the spring of 1765, when food was scarce and the bears were not, to its dissolution in the summer of 1772, the town supported itself with its gardens of produce, and seasonal hunting and shad fishing.  It hosted numerous parties of visiting Indian nations, some very large and very hungry, many coming for a political parley, some coming to visit their family members who had converted to Christianity. Reading the mission diaries that still exist only in manuscript form, a picture emerges of a vibrant community with a multi-lingual school, a Gemeinhaus (church) complete with oil paintings and a bell, log houses with glass windows, bark houses for those who preferred them, fertile kitchen gardens, and canoes tied up along the river bank.

As we look at the empty field today, it is hard to envisage the multilingual and multicultural celebrations that took place here. The Moravian Indians who came here had already endured terrible hardships, as we can read in the detailed account by the missionaries Johannes Schmick and David Zeisberger, now published in the Journal of Moravian History. In the very first year of the mission, 1765, in this soon to be destroyed field, as many as 120 people attended a midnight Christmas Eve service at which the gospels were read in the Lenape language to an attentive congregation.  For the next seven years, Christian feast days were celebrated with liturgies in the Lenape language, beeswax candles, and musical accompaniments.

Staking out the drainage ditch at Friedenshütten, May 13, 2019. Photo courtesy of David Buck.

The building in which these remarkable occurrences took place stood at the point at which today we see the historical monument, dedicated to the memory of the Moravian Indian village. As we look westwards, we might have seen a street lined with those log houses and Indian bark dwellings, in which men and women and children lived, and worked, and prayed, and slept. Yesterday, as I walked through the misty rain, I saw the stakes already planted in the ground to mark off the edges of a 50′ wide trench to drain stormwater from the site. This ditch will cut straight through the site of the historical village (for a detailed map, click here).

So why should we care about what looks like just a point on the map, an empty field with a simple obelisk in the middle, marking the site of this Moravian Indian village from the last half of the 18th century? First, history matters. An important part of what makes us human is our ability to learn from the stories of the past, to read and listen to the memories of others, to think about the lives that they led, perhaps to better understand our own. And when those people are no longer here to tell us these stories themselves, our communities need to curate and incorporate them into an understanding of where we are from. If we erase those places and their narratives, we are in danger of not only flattening the land around us, but also diminishing our understanding of ourselves.

Moravian Historical Society monument in Browntown, PA. Photo courtesy of David Buck.

Second, the Native Americans who lived here both before the Moravians came and while they were here have descendants among the current-day Lenape nations in Canada and Oklahoma. Tracing one’s roots back several generations is notoriously difficult for displaced peoples, as anyone who has explored their ancestry knows. Destroying this site will further erase the past of Native peoples who were pushed out of Pennsylvania by Sullivan’s march, the final military act of forced removal of Indians from this state. Mach’wihilusing (the Indian village’s name) and Friedenshütten mark the place of people’s pasts, of their lives and in some cases their deaths. Recognized by the state’s historical commission, this is a place we must work to preserve, this Jewel of the Susquehanna. If we care about the past, a past that brings together settlers from Europe and Native American nations, in order to build a better future, then we need to make our voices heard and write to the newspapers, write to our political representatives, write to the DEP, and demand that a full historical site survey be carried out on this important place in American history.


On using ArcMap Collector as a mobile app for SSV

Since its inception, Stories of the Susquehanna has been a collaborative, interdisciplinary Screenshot 2014-05-08 21.41.18digital project that has at its core a geospatial interface. What started out as historical/cultural mapping of the Native American landscapes of the Susquehanna in ArcMap Desktop with maps published in static image format (as discussed in the interviews of me and Emily Bitely) has evolved through the iterations of ESRI’s software development.

About a week ago, one of our Digital Scholarship Coordinators and SSV  project manager, Diane Jakacki pointed to to the fact that ESRI was now publishing apps. photoAt first skeptical, I proceeded to delve further into the Collector app and battled my way through tutorials designed for insurance adjusters gathering data in the field (no, I don’t need fields labeled “Habitable” or “Partially Destroyed”) to create a feature layer that could be added to any map in ArcMap online. This feature layer was supposed to be able to both locate you in the field and allow you to input field data in real time at the same time as giving you access to the rich data associated with points and lines in pop-ups. The new feature layer could also permit the attachment of photos and video.

My co-PI, Alf Siewers and I had been discussing over the last few months how we could best create this kind of mobile interface and had been in long discussions with both Diane and Andy Famiglietti as to how this might happen. This app seemed to me to offer us a ready made way to send our students out into the field to collect data, upload it, and also see it within the context of the historical information that had already been collected.

Add Feature window showing the fields and photo upload option

After some tussling with an outdated version of ArcMap (10.0 vs. 10.2) and successfully navigating our excellent ArcMap Online resources, I was able to author and upload a prototype of a multi-layered interactive map of the Susquehanna watershed that had the mobile features I wanted (well, almost). However, one field caused the app to crash repeatedly and I knew I had to re-author it in Desktop.

Enter my Presidential Fellow, Steffany Meredyk. Today, as almost a final collaborative act after four years of working together, Steffany and I worked out the problem;  now we can test out an interactive crowdsourcing feature layer for online maps of the Susquehanna this weekend on the North Branch Kayaking Sojourn. Whoops of joy were detectable…. but not uploaded…

photo-1The Collector app has a rich potential for data gathering in the field. Whether to record information on bird populations, the state of repair of the rail-trail, tracking  plant coverage, or encouraging crowdsourcing of local history, this is an exciting and versatile digital step forward in our work of bringing the Stories of the Susquehanna alive.

The Limits of Cartesian Space

Steffany Meredyk ’14/Profs. Katherine Faull (German/Comparative Humanities) and Duane Griffin (Geography) (Bucknell), ‘Not Merely Overrun, But Destroyed: The Sullivan Expedition Against the Iroquois Indians, 1779‘
Steffany Meredyk ’14/Profs. Katherine Faull (German/Comparative Humanities) and Duane Griffin (Geography) (Bucknell)

Over the last three and half years, I have been working with Steffany Meredyk, Class of 2014, on the Cultures at the Confluence project.  What started out as a mainly textually based project to transcribe and translate the Moravian mission diaries from Shamokin, Pa has turned into a far more complex and rewarding investigation into the limits and challenges associated with spatial representation in historical narratives.  In our collaboration, Steffany and I have grappled with the question of how to represent cartographically the lived experience of those who traversed the Susquehanna Country in the mid-18th century. While I was working on creating the textual edition of the diaries, Steffany started taking courses on GIS.  One of the first maps she produced, in a class with Prof. Duane Griffin, shows her early engagement with critical GIS, following the models presented by Margaret Pearce in her work on indigenous mapping.[1]  Steffany drew on archival materials to embed the observations of Sullivan’s troops into the map she drew to depict the advance of the campaign to eradicate the Iroquois along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River in 1779.  As she writes: “During the American Revolutionary conflict, the Iroquois Indians gave divided military support to American colonists and the British loyalists. As a result General George Washington ordered General John Sullivan in May 1779 to invade Iroquois Country, destroy Indian villages, and burn all food crops or potential resources for Indian war parties or communities. Sullivan’s troops destroyed nearly 60 Indian villages from June through October 1779. Behind him, he left not only a path of physical destruction but also a decimation of Native American communities and cultural systems that can be argued to be systematic genocide… “This map represents where Sullivan’s main army marched and the villages and places that it decimated in the summer of 1779. The troops began their march in Easton, Pennsylvania and follow the North Branch of the Susquehanna River up to the Finger Lakes area in present-day New York. Journal entries of military officers in Sullivan’s army embedded along the war path tell narratives of the journey and shed light on the perspectives of the men during the American Revolutionary Era. Through the journal entries, of Sullivan’s warpath, and the inclusion of quotations, this map provides insight into the great devastation of Iroquois country and the minds of the men who ravaged it.”

Steffany Meredyk ’14, Bethany Dunn ’14/Prof. Katherine Faull
Steffany Meredyk ’14, Bethany Dunn ’14/Prof. Katherine Faull

In the summer of 2012, supported by funds from the Chesapeake Conservancy, Steffany and another student, Bethany Dunn ’14 worked on a mapping project on the main stem of the Susquehanna River between Harrisburg and Sunbury.  This project was far more ambitious: to map the river not as a continuous geographical feature but rather as a segmented and complex corridor of fear.  The mid-eighteenth century saw the multiple murders of both Indians and settlers along the river, the most notorious of these being the Paxton Boys massacre of the Susquehannock Indians at Conestoga and the Frederick Stump murders on Middle Creek.  Steffany set out to represent the increasingly racialized politics of the Pennsylvania Backcountry, again drawing on manuscript maps, archival materials, journals, letters, and broadsheets to map the complexity of human experience.  This draft is currently the subject of Steffany’s Honors thesis in Geography at Bucknell University.  

          [1] M. Pearce and R. Louis. Mapping Indigenous depth of place. American Indian Culture & Research Journal, Special Issue, “Mainstreaming Indigenous Geographies,” 32 no. 3 (2008), 107-26.

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.

Continue reading “The Place of Tunkhannock in the Cultural History of the Susquehanna River”