Shenks Ferry -The Lost People

The Conestoga Area Historical Society

Shenks Ferry -The Lost People

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When Donald Cadzow of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission excavated a Native American village near Shenks Ferry, Conestoga Twp, he uncovered a people who had been lost for almost 400 years. Even Cadzow hadn't realized that he had uncovered a new Native American group until much later, at first he thought he had found some unusual Susquehannock material..

This new group was given the name Shenks Ferry people because that is where they were first discovered, at a place in Conestoga Township where the Shenk family operated a ferry 150 years ago. No one knows what they called themselves. Evidence at this site suggests it has been used as a hunting camp by different Native American groups for about 4,000 years or 2,000 years before Christ. Archeological evidence suggests that the "Shenks Ferry culture (their culture is seen as the pots, arrow heads and the burial practices they used) first appears in this area about 1300 AD"1.

The Shenks Ferry people are identified as pre-historic, which means that no was around to write down their history. They didn't have a written language and they disappeared before any Europeans were in the area. The advantage of a written language is that your history, religion and culture can survive you, the next generation can read it even if they didn't have a chance to talk to you about it. Most Native groups, like the Shenks Ferry People, passed their history and culture down orally, so when the last Shenks Ferry person died this information died with them. It wasn't until archaeologists began studying their villages that his lost history began to reappear.

Not much is known about the history of the Shenks Ferry people, no one knows where they came from although there are several theories. One has them as part of the Clemson Island Culture, first located on an island in the Susquehanna River, near Harrisburg. Another finds "resemblances to earlier cermics of the Maryland and Virginia Piedmont areas, and this has led some archeologists to believe that the Shenks Ferry may have migrated into this area from the south"4. Unfortunately, there isn't enough evidence to prove a definite connection to either group.

Without a written history of the Shenks Ferry people all we know about them is what can be learned from material dug up by archaeologists at their villages. Typically they find pits filled with trash and garbage, broken pots, arrows and stone tools. The most interesting of these are the pots, Native Americans spent some time in preparing their pots, decorating them with lines, dots and distinctive tops to make them unique. In addition, different groups used different clays found in the soil near their villages, all of this led to a distinctive kind of pot for each group. Archaeologists can tell these pots apart and not only tell who made them but also see what Native group was influencing another native group, as shown in their pots. After the Susquehannock defeated the Shenks Ferry people2 the change was marked in the pottery made by the remaining Shenks Ferry people, it became a cross between the Shenks Ferry style and the Susquehannock style.

In addition to looking at their trash, archaeologists can examine their villages and find areas where the ground is compressed, indicating a house may have been at this location. While the wooden posts that supported their houses would have long ago rotted away, they would have left rings in the soil that would indicate the outline of the house, how large it was, etc. From all this information archaeologists can make estimates of how many people lived there, (based on the size of the houses) what they ate (by examining the bones, vegetable cores, nut shells, in the trash pits) and pots and arrows can suggest what other native groups the Shenks Ferry people might be related. In addition, there are often burials at the villages and archaeologists can distinguish between if the Shenks Ferry Indians and the Susquehannock, based on their skeletons. Shenks Ferry people had a different body type than Susquehannock, they were thicker boned and larger than the Susquehannocks. According to Hiesey and Witmer, "everyone who has worked with Shenk's Ferry skeletal remains agrees that the physical types are more robust and larger than the gracile Owasco and Iroquois (Susquehannock) types."3.

The Shenks Ferry people earned their living by hunting, fishing, farming and gathering wild foods. The men did the hunting and fishing while the women did the farming and wild food gathering. The crops they grew were squash, corn and beans. They also collected nuts, berries and roots for food. Their favorite meat was deer (based on bones found in their trash piles) but they would eat lots of other forms of wildlife. Native American groups began using agriculture about 1000 BC and this allowed them to increase their numbers, the population increased since agriculture was a more reliable way of earning a living than hunting and gathering nuts and berries.

They didn't stay in a village very long, after about 10 years they would have burned all the nearby firewood, the soil in their gardens would be less productive and so they would move their village to another site a few miles away.


Shenks Ferry sites have been found in Lancaster, York and Lebanon Counties. Generally they lived along flood plains of the Susquehanna and other rivers. One of the reasons the Shenks Ferry people and Susquehannocks were hard to tell apart was that they both often settled at the same places. The large Susquehannock village near Washington Boro had been a Shenks Ferry village site earlier.
The Shenks Ferry villages have to be divided into two periods, one before about 1450 and the second after1450. The big differences between these two periods are the use of stockades, defensive walls around the village, and also villages had more people. It's known that these defensive posts were used after the Susquehannocks began moving into the area but it now looks like there use began about 100 years before that date. An article on the web page of the Lycoming County Historical Society suggests that there was a war between the Shenks Ferry people and a group further up the river called the Clemson Island people. To read this article click here. The article is "A PATH OF DISCOVERY: REEVALUATING PENNSYLVANIA PREHISTORY{", by Mark E. Stamm.

Before the villages were stockaded the Shenks Ferry villages were small, with circular, bark covered houses. This suggests they did not feel threatened by other native groups. Later, their villages became larger and had stockaded walls to help make it easier to defend and it also had a larger population to defend it. Their houses in the second phase were "rectangular approximately 24 by 12 feet with rounded ends"5. In the second phase the village might have housed 500 to 600 people. The village at Slackwater that was excavated in 1991 by the University of Delaware is typical of this second stage, before the Susquehannock came, about 1450. it had 56 houses and a ceremonial building and covered about 2 acres. It had a two layer defensive stockade of about 5000, 1 foot thick poles, and a population of about 500 to 550 people. The cermeonial structure was located in the exact center of the village and in the center of that structure was a large hearth. Around this hearth were posts marking north, south east and west. Also in this circle was poles marking the location of sunset on the summer (June 21/22nd) and winter soltice (December 21/22nd). (The solstice markes the the most northern and southern location of the sun, the exact date varies between the 21st and 22nd.) There were other posts that indicate other important dates were marked at the site. Apparently the Shenks Ferry people used the sun to tell them when it was time to plant their crops, and used the cermonial structure to hold cermonies to encourage their gods to give them a good crop year. Jay Custer, the head of the group from the University of Delaware, called this "one of the most spectacular far as the eastern United States"6 is concerned. What makes this site unique are the solstice markers that indicated the Shenks Ferry people also had some appreciation of the relationship of the sun to the seasons.

Even after their defeat by the Susquehannock, there is some evidence the Shenks Ferry people continued to have their own villages. Generally when one Native group conquered another they didn't kill all the losers but saw it to their advantage to "adopt" some of them, this provided them with more soldiers to deal with their enemies. Others probably ran off and joined other native groups.


Shenks Ferry burials sites are different than Susquehannock, this is one of the ways archaeologists can tell Shenks Ferry and Susquehannock villages apart. In addition to their body types, Shenks Ferry burials were inside the village while Susquehannock burials were outside the village, this pattern continued even after the Susquehannock conquered the Shenks Ferry people. "Burials continued to be made in the village and under the hearth, while the Susquehannocks on the same site had out of the village cemeteries".7.
One of the interesting aspects of Shenks Ferry culture is their relationship with the sun, in addition to marking the passing of the seasons in their villages, it also had an effect on their burials. "Without exception the graves were dug on a northwest-southeast axis 8. Burials are positioned so that the vertebral (backbone) column is along an east to west axis with the head to the east 9. So, in addition to the sun playing a role in when they planted their crops, it also played a role in how they buried their dead.

It's unfortunate that the Shenks Ferry people have disappeared, as far as I've seen they are the only Native American group in our area who had an appreciation for the sun and stars. It would be interesting to know who they were, what they called themselves and where they came from. All we can hope for is that future archaeological excavations and historical research will answer these questions and answer more of the secrets of the Shenks Ferry people.

1 Discovering Pennsylvania's Archeological Heritage" by Barry C. Kent, p. 35

2Their former homeland (the Shenks Ferry people) was not controlled by the Susquehannocks, all or most of whom-still at war with their northern neighbors-had moved south to a single heavily fortified village in present day Lancaster County, from which they enjoyed unimpeded access to sources of European goods on the Chesapeake Bay. A Framework for Pennsylvaina Indian History, Daniel K. Richter, Pennsylvania History, Vol. 57, Number 3, July 1990, p. 243

3 Foundations of Pennsylvania Prehistory, The Shenks Ferry People by Henry W. Hiesey and J. Paul Witmer.The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, 1971 p. 490)

4 Discovering Pennsylvania's Archeological Heritage, by Barry Kent, p. 35

5 Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, Vol. 99 #4, 1998, "Lancaster Before History Began, by W. Fred Kinsey. p. 159

6 Lancaster New Era, February 15, 1993, "Major Indian village found on golf course site near Millersville" page 1.

7 Foundations of Pennsylvania Prehistory, The Shenks Ferry People by Henry W. Hiesey and J. Paul Witmer.The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, 1971 p.491

8 Foundations of Pennsytlvania Prehistory, Edited by Barry C., Kent, Ira F. Smith and Catherine McCann, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pa. 1971 p. 487

9Pennsylvania Archaeologist, Vol. 41, #4, 1958

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