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Summer Project Helps Rewrite History of “Cannibalistic” Tribe

A Vassar anthropology professor and two of her students visited several museums this summer in hopes of unraveling a centuries-old mystery about a tribe of Native Americans.

Anthropology professor April Beisaw, left, URSI Scholar Michael Carraher ’14, and Ford Scholar Sarah Mincer ’15 conduct research at the Robert S. Peabody Museum.

As it turned out, the research team—Assistant Professor of Anthropology April Beisaw, anthropology major Sarah Mincer ’15, and geography major Michael Carraher ’14—helped two of the museums unravel some mysteries of their own. And Beisaw says the new information they unearthed should help debunk some myths about the Susquehannocks, a tribe that lived in what is now Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Beisaw says she had a hunch the Susquehannocks had been unfairly depicted by some historians as brutal, even cannibalistic, warriors who slaughtered a neighboring tribe. But the artifacts and documents she and her students found at the museums told a different story.

“The data doesn’t match up with the stories of the massacre,” says Mincer, who worked on the project under the auspices of Vassar’s Ford Scholars Program. Mincer and Beisaw were joined by Carraher, a participant in the college’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI). Mincer helped Beisaw analyze documents and artifacts they found in the museums. Carraher used GIS (geographic information system) technology to plot the findings on maps of the region.

Some of the most important information for the project came from the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archeology, located at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. The Vassar team found photographs of pottery recovered from what Beisaw says was the most comprehensive study of Native American artifacts along the Susquehanna River—an archeological dig in 1916 called the Susquehanna River Expedition. The team’s analysis of photographs from that dig led to the rediscovery of more than 2,000 artifacts from that expedition.

Carraher, right, was tasked to create accurate maps of where relevant 17th century artifacts were found.

The artifacts had been transferred to the Smithsonian when it acquired the National Museum of the American Indian, but information on their origin had been lost. The records Beisaw and her students discovered at the Peabody Museum helped reassociate the objects with the expedition, and the Smithsonian provided Beisaw with photographs of every object.

Mincer says those photographs helped convince her that the supposed massacre of the Shenks Ferry people by the Susquehannocks never happened. “The artifacts we saw suggest the two tribes probably lived together for a time; there was no evidence of any violent intervention,” she says.

Beisaw and her students also visited the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C.; the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg; the Luzerne and Lycoming County historical societies in Pennsylvania; and the Tioga Point Museum near the New York–Pennsylvania border.

“I’m working on a book questioning the theory of this tribe being so big and bad, and it was nice to have these students travel to so many places to gather the data I needed,” Beisaw says. “I could not have done it so quickly without them.”

The erroneous information about the Susquehannocks probably originated with exaggerations by white settlers about their size and ferocity, Beisaw says. “Europeans at the time were much shorter than most Native Americans, so everybody they encountered here looked big to them,” she says. 

Mincer examines artifacts from the Susquehannock tribe.

The false legend was also convenient for white settlers who later slaughtered some members of the tribe, Beisaw says. There is some evidence to suggest the Shenks Ferry people became members of the Susquehannock tribe, she adds, but the data is not sufficient to confirm any single theory conclusively.

“One thing you learn when you do research is that you run into dead ends all the time, and it was useful for the students to see that,” she says. “It’s something we don’t teach much—that some explorations lead to a failure to reach a definitive conclusion.”

Mincer and Carraher both say the skills they gained this summer will help them in future academic pursuits.

“I’d never taken an anthropology course, and Sarah had never taken a geography course, so we each brought some strengths and weaknesses to the project,” Carraher says, adding he learned a lot more about GIS technology as well.

“I knew the basics, but I ran up against a lot of problems I had to solve along the way.”

Mincer says her experience as a Ford Scholar will enable her to tackle challenging research projects when she gets to graduate school. “This project gave me the confidence to realize I can test a theory,” she says. “We were thrown into the middle of a pile of data and had no idea about the outcome, and we created something other people can learn from in the future.”

Beisaw will present the research team’s findings next April at a conference of the Society for American Archeology in Austin, Texas. She says she enjoyed working with the students to “rewrite history.”

—Larry Hertz

Photos courtesy of the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archeology

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, August 12, 2013