Native Americans in Early America and Pennsylvania

Native Americans Before the 1780s

William Penn & Indians

Before its founding, Pennsylvania was inhabited by Native Americans for 12,000 – 18,000 years. Fast forward to the 17th century, by the  time William Penn began establishing his “experimental” colony at least six tribes were already settled onto the land. These tribes included the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware) who lived near the Delaware River. The Susquehannocks which lived further west near the Susquehanna River. The Shawnee in the Ohio Valley and the Eries located on Lake Erie. These tribes had established their own culture which dated back to the late stages of the Stone Age and when William Penn came upon them, not much had changed. Said to be kind and paternalistic, William Penn decided he wanted to deal with the Native Americans as such and even dictated a regulation of trade which set up a type of protection for the Indians. Besides his regulation on trade William Penn also established a policy which extended equal rights and privileges under English law to the tribes in the area. Due to his kindness and patience to attempt to understand the natives and even attempt to learn some of their language, William faced very little native resistance during his colonization of the southeastern portion of Pennsylvania.


Native American Relations After 1780

During the 1780s the general attitude across early America both outside and within Pennsylvania was very different than William Penn’s original thoughts and ideas towards Native Americans. Tensions were high on both sides Americans did not want to learn the ways of the Native Americans they wanted fertile Indian land and wanted finally to get rid of them. The United States policies towards Native Americans was not based on William’s idea of treating them as equals but instead based on American fears of the alliances between the Indians and the British and Spanish. American policies were also based on relentless pressures from American settlers itching to settle further West and more importantly based on racial attitudes of superiority over the Indians. One of America’s strategy came under Washington’s administration when they attempted to attract Native Americans away from British and Spanish influences and alliances by offering to buy Indian land and then allow the Indians to integrate into American culture. While this did not work the American government tried desperately to assert its authority by acquiring land through treaties however these treaties made no difference to American settlers who defied said treaties and simply went and settled Indian land without the consent of the American government nor the Indians themselves.

By 1783 the Treaty of Paris had ended the American Revolution and the British were required to give back the land they were in charge of and occupied. One of the situations that complicated this treaty was the absence of the Indians whose land was now handed over to the Americans without their consent. This caused further tension among the Indians and Americans and in order to restore some type of peace the U.S. created the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix with the Six Nations (Iroquois League). The preamble, considerably harsh towards fighting tribes, required that warring tribes provide hostages until all American captives were returned unharmed. Probably the most important part of the document and the article that mattered the most to the American government was Article III which required that the Six Nations were to surrender their land claims to the Ohio Valley. However Pennsylvania was able to deal with the Iroquois and convinced them in giving up land settled within the state. This was how Pennsylvania was able to acquire such a vast amount of land and were able to claim almost the whole northwest quadrant of the state.

Indian tribes and their locations within Pennsylvania



Allison, Robert J., American Eras: Development of a Nation 1783-1815 (New York: Gale Research, 1997), 199.

Illick, Joseph E., Colonial Pennsylvania: A History, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 22-23, 26, 28.

Starna, William A. “On the Road to Canandaigua: The Treaty of 1794.” American Indian Quarterly 19, no.4 (1995): 467-469

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