AT thru-hikers say that what they remember most about making their way through Pennsylvania is the painfully rocky trail. This orange-blazed Conestoga Trail upholds its AT cousin's reputation. The House Rock formation is the focus of this hike and, as an archaeological site, it has always held a fascination for me. This huge shimmering schist and metaconglomerate outcrop stands high above the river and is visible to boaters and visitors to the Indian Steps Museum on the York County shore when the trees are bare.
|A mile in is the welcome sign.|
House Rock is part of a large list of known Pennsylvania rock shelters that were in use during the Early to Middle Woodland period, 3000 BC to 1000 AD. Finds at the cave beneath the overlook indicate that the shelter was sparsely used, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence as the pro diggers like to say. (Mick Aston)
Archaeologists know that this landscape was important to post-glacial communities who followed herds of animals on migrations through the ridge and valleys system. Occupied for a short time, and only as a temporary site, House Rock was home camp to small groups of hunter-gatherers But suddenly chronological evidence of occupation - pottery bits, burnt seeds, and incised bones - simply stops. The site is never used again. Archaeologists suggest that this may have indicated the impact of an epidemic.
Rock shelter sites are common throughout Pennsylvania and sites like House Rock usually held no more than a few family groups for seasonal stays. The gap at House Rock occurs at other sites and I wonder if small tribes of related kin were trading with other cultural groups as far away as the Atlantic where very early presence of European fishing explorations occurred. Increased interactions may have helped spread disease. We'll never know how they became sick but we do know how quickly disease can spread through groups that lived in close proximity.
|20th century graffiti gives the outcrop its name.|
People eventually repopulated the land, but as pressure from outside cultural groups created competition for resources, loosely connected seasonal camps and villages began to gather together for protection and defense throughout the Lower Susquehanna Valley. House Rock and its environs may have served as a focus of gathering places. Small protected villages were built at the mouths of creeks on the riverside by 1200AD. The Shenk's Ferry people (named for the family mill on that site in the 1800s) maintained a walled village just upstream from House Rock. Called conestogas - "buried-post villages" - these small communities of less than a hundred people were surrounded by timber walls.
|View downriver, Pinnacle Overlook in distance, left.|
In the 1300s the Susquehannocks were just beginning to claim lands along the river. Again a gap in the archaeological evidence occurs - another wave of disease? This may have made Susquehannock occupation easier with weakened resistance from the Shenk's Ferry culture.
|Glimmering phylite schist make House Rock shimmer in sunlight.|
By the 1600s the Susquehannock people were the predominate cultural group of this region. In response to greater pressures from expeditionary forces, coveted trade routes, and the steady influx of settlers to the east, the size of stockade villages increased and up to 2,000 people occupied the larger fortified towns. Though no large ships could move north past the rapids at Conowingo, House Rock served as an important look-out for canoes and small craft navigating the channel both north and south. By the end of the 17th century another rapid decline in native population occurred. The large conestoga villages began to empty out. This was most certainly the result of yet another epidemic.
Archaeological records don't show what has long since decayed away. So much of what early people made was of organic materials like bone, shell, fiber, and leather, so a few flakes of flint, charred nut shells, and a strand of cordage discovered at House Rock don't tell us a whole lot about those very early people. But the gaps in the records do tell us that they suffered massive loss.
|Yellow Wood -Sorrel.|
The native Rattlesnake Weed is in full blossom along the rocky ridges and while it's name comes from its preferred dry ledge habitat shared with its namesake the Timber Rattlesnake, the milky sap was a popular folk medicine treatment for bites of any venomous animal, insect, or spider. As it goes with many epidemics and pandemics, those who hold the wisdom of plant medicines were always causalities as, like today, they were the first to aid the sick and dying.
|Dry, ledge habitat along the ridges.|
By the time of the Wampanoan pandemic, the first documented mass dying of native people in the Northeast in the 1630s, disease historians say smallpox had already swept through Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Northeast in successive, horrible waves. By then there were no survivors of the Shenk's Ferry people. Captain John Smith encountered the Susquehannocks in 1608 and historians suggest that by then up to 90% of Eastern indigenous people had been killed by European small pox. The Susquehannocks were already in steep decline by the time Smith met them at Conowingo.
Many of the plants I passed on the double blazed trail - blue for the preserve loop and orange for the thru-Conestoga trail - are documented as medicinal in the anthropological records. Their uses are gleaned from interviews with elders and practitioners at a time when European settlers thought to learn from native healers. Many of these plants, like the Black Huckleberry, used for pre-natal care and cardio-vascular health, were familiar to European folk who had plant family equivalents in Ireland, Scotland, and England.
|False Solomon's Seal|
Tea made from the roots of False Solomon's Seal stopped coughing and cleared the lungs. Soothing "soft" drinks ( steeped in warm water and served cool as compared to hot-brewed drinks) were made from birch and sassafras and used to clear congestion and heal sore throats. Journal accounts of the 18th century show that mistranslations or language barriers had been a persistent problem while gathering information and the record is not complete on the extensive uses and preparations of these plants. Sometimes important information was left out entirely.
|Yellow Birch and Sassafras (behind) supplied two important tea flavors|
Sassafras is a known carcinogen when used improperly and this small fact was learnt the hard way when demand for the plant in Europe skyrocketed and a mistranslated warning was ignored. The root tea, according to a Lenapi healer, could only be consumed as cool liquid not hot or fermented, while smoke or fumes from burning bark was best avoided at all costs. But that tidbit of information didn't make it to Europe and even as recently as the 1970s people were learning the hard way how dangerous sassafras can be. It is now labeled highly toxic in the USDA plant database.
The trail runs up and down and around two muscular hills and while huffing and puffing, I wondered how much plant wisdom was lost to those gaps? I wonder, too, about the healers we have lost in this most recent experience of pandemic, doctors, nurses, first responders, family care-givers.
|Reed Run and the nice, gentle trail uphill to end the hike.|
In the quiet rise of trail that led away from the Conestoga Trail at the intersection with Reed Run, Amos and I spent some time exploring the the cold waters, little rapids, and lush herb beds. Hiking further on the blue blazed trail to complete our loop we crossed a beautiful expanse of conservation farmland, where the farmer is maintaining a native meadow of milkweed and other important butterfly host plants, another aspect of the native pharmacy we may never truly know.
I will argue that our fitness and fulfillment as individuals and as a society require ongoing
physical and psychological connection to the nonhuman world.
If we deny or subvert our inherent need to affiliate with nature, we invite our decline
every bit as surely as we do with the more obvious threats of war and disease.
- Stephen R. Kellert
Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World (2012)
Pennsylvania has a rich history of rock shelter cultures. See this State Museum of Pennsylvania blog post about Sheeprock Shelter on the Juniata River, a tributary Susquehanna.
Also see this blog post on the pandemic history of Pennsylvania, emphasis on native cultures.