I have studied the history of missions, particularly in what is now Papua New Guinea, but I have also been interested in the missionaries who might have pioneered near an area of Pennsylvania where I grew up. My homestead was about 8 miles from the Susquehanna River and the town of Shickshinny (many of the towns along the river have “Indian” names).
The Susquehannock people, also called the “Conestoga” by later British colonists, were Iroquoian Native Americans who lived in areas near the Susquehanna River. This river begins in the upper area of southern New York and continues through eastern Pennsylvania (west of the Poconos) and the upper Delaware River, extending to Maryland at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Susquehannock language, once spoken by Native Americans, was part of the Iroquoian family, but little is known of it. The Swedish Lutheran missionary Joannes Campanius compiled a vocabulary of it called Vocabula Mahakuassica in 1640. It comprised about 100 words, showing that the people were a part of the Onondaga Nation, which was extinct by 1763.
Campanius first served near present-day Wilmington, Delaware (where the King’s College was once located and which Joice and I attended). He worked with the Lenape Indians and was effective in learning the language in that he eventually translated Luther’s Small Catechism into Lenape. It is one of the first attempts (but also see information on John Eliot and the Massachusett Bible) to translate a document into an American Indian language. He was also one of the first weathermen and kept a daily record for what was then New Sweden (the Delaware valley, comprising parts of what is now Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania—New Sweden was conquered by the Dutch in 1655).
This was all interesting to me, but I wondered “Did any early missionaries come to the area near Shickshinny or other areas along the Susquehanna River?” I have a small book (117 pages) my mother gave me called “The Story of Wyoming: From the Earliest Indian Settlement to the Year 1800” by Louis Frank, copyrighted in 1930. It is mainly about the “Battle of Wyoming” and the Wilkes-Barre area, which is just north of Shickshinny. This area was first visited by the Moravian missionary, Count Zinzendorf, a German, and when the Indians attempted to kill him, they saw a rattlesnake near him and took it as a sign of his protection. He left soon afterward.
There were many Indian villages along the low river lands, occupied by small groups and the first group described in my mother’s book is about the Shawanese, who came from the Ohio River area sometime between 1700 and 1735. This group was also part of the Iroquois Nation and some of the Delawares also moved to the Wyoming Valley in 1742.
Just south of Wilkes-Barre and closer to Shickshinny is the town of Nanticoke where, as a young lad and in a hospital, I had my appendix removed. This town, like many towns along the Susquehanna River, was later best known for anthracite coal mining.
The Six Nations and the French Indian War broke out in early 1756 and ended with the Grand Indian Council at Easton in 1758. Peace prevailed for a time and missionaries and hunters made their way up and down the Susquehanna River. However, missionaries had been there much earlier and one of them may have been David Brainerd, who lived from 1718 to 1747.
Brainerd was a Presbyterian minister and missionary from Connecticut, who worked primarily among the Delaware Indians of New Jersey. He was kicked out of Yale, because of his spiritual enthusiasm and comments about the staff. Brainerd had a desire to reach the Indians on the Susquehanna River, and on his 27th birthday, Brainerd and his Indian associate Tattamy left for their first major trip to the Indians along the River. They eventually reached Shamokin, the headquarters for several tribes of Indians, then visited other settlements before returning home. A report says that “The 340-mile journey left Brainerd weak and dejected, depressed and disillusioned about the prospects among the Indians in that area.”
Brainerd attempted two more trips, each west of the Susquehanna River, going as far as what is now Lockhaven, Pennsylvania. However, this was his last trip and he died soon afterward. Johnathan Edwards has written about him, and I have a book, Flagellant on horseback by Richard Ellsworth Day that outlines his life in some detail.
According to Day, the story does not end pleasantly: “The journey was over. He had proposed to tarry a considerable time long among the Indians upon the Susquehanna, but he must quit…his extraordinary weakness, great nocturnal sweats, this coughing of blood the whole journey.” He died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis.
Although there is no clear evidence that Brainerd visited Indians near my home area of Shickshinny, there is no doubt that he had the vision and desire to do so. I have long been inspired by what I have read about him.
Today there are no federally recognized Indian tribes in Pennsylvania, although the state holds an Indian population of more than 12,000. The Lenape continue to preserve their heritage as an Algonquian-speaking tribe of eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.