The Customs and Lifestyle of the Susquehanna Indians

The Customs and Lifestyle of the Susquehanna Indians
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Noble and Heroic Nation

Through many primary sources, historians have pieced together the customs and lifestyle of the Susquehanna Indians. Once described as a “noble and heroic nation” in A Character of the Province of Maryland by George Allsop in 1666, the Susquehannock commanded a deep respect from the other Native Nations around them.

Capt. John Smith of Pocahontas fame, referred to these Native People as Sasquesahannocks after the river on which he met them_._ In his writings, he tells of a mighty people – warriors – who he found to be “great and well-proportioned.” The Susquehannock men that Smith met were “like giants to the English.”

Many Names

Another factor in causing confusion for historians researching the Susquehannock is that there are many names for them. Susquehanna is Alquonquin for “people of the muddy river.” They were also known as:

  • Andaste by the French
  • Minqua or Mingo by the Dutch and Swedes – Minqua is Delaware for “stealthy”
  • Conestoga derived from Kanastoge (place of the immersed pole) by the colonist of Pennsylvania

References to the Native Peoples occupying the vast territory of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, from what is now New York, across Pennsylvania, to Maryland, by various names is not always accurate. For instance, the Mingo, or Ohio Seneca, lived in eastern Ohio. While related to the Iroquois of New York, the Mingo were not necessarily the same nation as the Susquehannock.


From all accounts, the Susquehannock were fierce warriors. They were enemies of the Iroquois. Colonial records detail many wars and uprisings. In the end, many Susquehannock died as a result of warring, while many others succumbed to smallpox brought to the New World by the Europeans.

The Susquehannock lived in approximately 20 fortified villages along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries. The villages were large with palisades to keep enemies at bay. While little is known about the politics or social customs of these people, we do know that, according to Allsop that, “…men, women and children in both summer and winter went practically naked; that they painted their faces in red, green, white and black stripes; that their skins were naturally light in color, but were changed to a dark cinnamon hue by the several dyeings of roots and barks; that the hair of the head was black, long and coarse, but that the hair growing on other parts of the body was removed by pulling it out hair, by hair; that some tattooed their bodies, breasts and arms with outlines of beasts and other objects."

Susquehannock farmed, similar to other Iroquois peoples, planting the Three Sisters – corn, beans and squash. During the summer months, they would move closer to the sea to fish, returning in the fall to harvest and hunt.

A matrilineal people, the Susquehannock had clan groups. Within some of the surviving sources, clan names of Turtle, Wolf and Fox are mentioned. Women in the clans chose the chiefs and medicine men, they also decided when to harvest, as well as when to go to war.


Archeological records show that the Susquehannocks descended from the Iroquois Mohawks in about 1300 BCE. It is safe, therefore, to believe that, while we have little evidence to corroborate it, the Susquehannocks had the same or similar traditions as their Iroquois ancestors.

However, in their excavations and research, the archeologists have proof that the Susquehannocks had the tradition of pottery making. Pottery vessels with effigies found in Pennsylvania date back to the first part of the 17th century. As trade with the Europeans became more popular, this craft seems to have disappeared due to brass kettles replacing the clay vessels.

Beading, a women’s tradition, began with the making of beads from bone, shells and porcupine quills. Again, with the advent of the Europeans, Susquehannock beading traditions incorporated glass beads.

There is a lack of evidence as to the ceremonial traditions; however, we do know from primary sources that the Susquehanna had a lively trading tradition, especially in furs, which the European settlers appeared to desire.

Tragic Ending

After years of war, disputes with colonists and broken treaties, the Susquehannocks were few in number. Historical records state that Quaker missionaries converted the remaining 20 Susquehannocks, who, at that time, lived in Conestoga, Pennsylvania. After a brutal uprising by the Pontiac, hatred of all Native Peoples culminated in the massacre of the remaining Susquehannock by a group known as the Paxton Boys. Thus, the customs and lifestyle of the Susquehanna Indians passed into obscurity.