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York County Native American Sites Finally Saved

The last two known York County Susquehannock Indian sites have recently been safely preserved.
The illustration above is from Herman Moll’s 1720 map of North America, in the collection of the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives. It is very similar to, and probably based on, Augustine Herrman’s 1670 contemporary illustration of the Oscar Leibhart fort.
The Oscar Leibhart site was purchased from the Grove family by The Farm and Natural Lands Trust of York County with funds provided through both a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grant and from the Archaeological Conservancy. The tract has been transferred to the Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit group, for preservation. (I’m proud to be a member of the FNLT board, and that we could play a role in saving this irreplaceable historical site.)
The nearby Byrd Leibhart site, also in the Long Level area of Windsor Township, was acquired by York County last year from the owners of Lauxmont farms.
These two sites can now continue to yield more information, telling the story of the real first settlers of York County and how their contact with the European immigrants ultimately led to the Native Americans’ downfall and near decimation.
In addition, the Oscar Leibhart site is also important because its location was probably supposed to mark the northern boundary of Maryland. Witnesses for Pennsylvania, however, convinced the court in London that the Indian fort referred to was further south. The Mason-Dixon Line survey came out of that case. If Maryland had prevailed, the city of York would now be in Maryland, as would the original part of Philadelphia.

See my recent York Sunday News column below for more on the Susquehannocks of York County.

Why the Long Level Susquehannock Indian Forts are Significant

Wonderful news–the two Susquehannock Indian forts in York County are going to be preserved. The 12.3 acre Oscar Leibhart site was purchased from Donald and Teresa Grove by the Farm and Natural Lands Trust of York County with funds from both a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grant and from the Archaeological Conservancy. The tract has been transferred to the national nonprofit Archaeological Conservancy for preservation. (Disclosure: the writer of this column is a member of the board of the Farm and Natural Lands Trust.)
The other Susquehannock fort site, the Byrd Leibhart site a short distance away in Lower Windsor Township, was part of a York County acquisition from the owners of Lauxmont farms.
Let’s look at the history and significance of these sites:
John Smith ventured up the Susquehanna River in 1608. He did not get as far north as present day York County, but he did meet some of Susquehannock Indians, which at that time lived on the eastern shore of the river.
The Susquehannocks lived in large long houses, about 20 by 90 feet, constructed by driving two sets of parallel poles into the ground and then bending them together to form a roof. Each house could house about five families and 10 houses could be situated comfortably on an acre of ground. The groups of houses were surrounded by more poles driven closely together into the earth, forming a palisade for protection from enemies.
The Susquehannocks could live in the same place for about 15 to 25 years before they needed to seek a new site. By then the ground would be depleted by crops and the wood necessary for fuel would become further away as the trees were harvested. The long houses themselves would also be nearing the end of their usability.
About 1665, after living at several sites on the eastern side of the Susquehanna, a group of approximately 1,200 Susquehannocks abandoned their Fort (the Strickler site) below Washington Boro, where they had lived for about 20 years. They moved across the river to what we know as the Upper (Oscar) Leibhart site, where they constructed long houses within a palisade on a hill.
The Indian population in the area had already been declining due to disease and fighting with other Native Americans about fur trade with the Europeans. It is estimated that this particular site had less than 1,000 people when they were driven out by Seneca Indians about 1675.
It is not certain where all of the Susquehannocks were for the next year and a half. Some moved to the Potomac area, where they figured into the hostilities known as Bacon’s Rebellion. By late 1676 many returned to the Long Level area and constructed a new fort a short distance south of their former home. That is now known as the Lower or Byrd Leibhart site. Also a palisaded village of long houses, it was occupied at its peak by as many as 900 people. Trade items found here suggest that the site was abandoned around 1680.
It is unknown where the Susquehannocks went then. Some were probably assimilated into the Senecas to the north and some may have gone to Maryland. Around 300 returned to the area again around 1690, establishing their town in Lancaster County, where they became known as the Conestogas. The last remnants met an outrageous fate at the hands of the Paxton boys at Lancaster in 1763.
The preservation of the sites and continuing study of the Susquehannock Indians are important for several reasons. The examination of artifacts unearthed at the sites over the years, some scientifically, but many unfortunately not, shows the growth of widespread trade of European items for furs, primarily beaver, during the seventeenth century. John Smith wrote that the Indians had iron hatchets and knives by 1608. (Probably from French-Canadian fur traders.) Jesuits said the Dutch traded firearms with the Native Americans as early as 1623. By 1633 the Swedes, and then the English, were trading many items with them, such as beads, looking glasses, clay pipes, copper kettles and blankets. Even clothing was traded later. A variety of trade goods was found at the Leibhart sites, especially the Upper Leibhart site: copper kettles, flintlock gun parts, iron tomahawks, glass beads and other trinkets. Indian made pottery and stone arrow points and tomahawks were also found at the Leibhart sites, but few native crafted items have been found at the later Conestoga town, indicating that in a short time home manufacture was abandoned to trade.
Those of us living south of the 40th parallel in York County are directly affected by the London Court of Chancery’s decision on the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, which hinged on testimony of the location of one of these Susquehannock forts. William Penn claimed the land north of the fort and Lord Baltimore the land to the south. Maryland granted patents on land Pennsylvania claimed. By the time the proprietors of those colonies got around to fixing the location of the fort, it was long gone. The case dragged on for nearly 75 years. Although Augustine Herrmann’s map of 1670 shows a Susquehannock fort on the west side of the river near the 40th parallel, probably the Oscar Leibhart site, Pennsylvania’s witnesses were more skillful at confusing the fort with one purportedly located on the east side of the river at Octoraro. The result was the Mason-Dixon Line, surveyed 1763-1767 about 16 miles south of the fort. Otherwise, that stretch of Pennsylvania, including York and part of Philadelphia, would be in Maryland.
For more details, consult Susquehanna’s Indians and Jacob, My Friend, both by former Pennsylvania State Archeologist Barry C. Kent, from which much of the information above was taken.