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A Case Study of Wilderness and Wild Indians in Pennsylvania



The conquest of the Western Frontier was one of the most important moments in American history, but the situation of white penetration into Pennsylvania was more problematic than any other state in America. Pennsylvania reflects, so it seems to me, the paradigm of difficult relations between Indians and settlers in Western Frontier.

The settlers both of all Western countries and Pennsylvania soon had to deal with the natives, who were accustomed to the life of roving hunters, and were free to move into large parts of the territory. White settlers were almost all farm workers, and, therefore, they needed to work on a well-defined land that must be protected from natural events, human intruders and wild animals.

Extreme efforts were required to women and men settled in Western colonies, who both must work very hard, and defend themselves against the “wilderness,” a word whose meaning indicated not only a very large forest areas around the farms, but also the “wild Indians.” The forts, which were widely spread in the territory of Pennsylvania by the French during the wars against the British, were one of the means used by the first settlers to defend themselves and their families from Indian raids. But it’s not so much about the settlement’s defense systems where to focus our attention as on the relationship of farm families with the Indian tribes.

A mixture of reality and legend characterized these relationships.

“Do, therefore, lose no time to get us assistance. The Assembly may learn from this work, what kind, and fine friends the Indians are!, ” Peter Spycke, exclaimed in 1844. According to the testimonies of the time, it’s pretty hard to deny that the Indians were not a serious problem for Frontier settlers. I could fill a dozen books with examples of Indian attacks that resulted in the death for settlers, women, men and children. Between the various testimonies, Peter Spycke appeared to me that he was the most worthy of credit.

“John Anspack and Frederick Reed came to me and told me the miserable circumstances of the people murdered this side the mountain. Yesterday the Indians attacked the Watch, killed and wounded him, at Derrick Sixth, (Dietrich Six) and in that neighborhood, a great many in that night. This morning the people went out to see, and about 10 o’clock came to Thomas Bower’s house, finding a man dead, killed with a gun shot. They soon heard a noise of firing guns; running to that place, saw four Indians setting on children scalping the three of the children are dead; two are still living, though scalped.” (1).

So there was fierce rivalry between people of very different identities. A lot of testimonies denounced the difficult conditions of the settlers and the continuing loss of life due to the incursions of the Indians. Some settlers were then captured, but also here too, as seems to me, there are conflicting testimonies. The basic problem is to determine how white captives were treated by the Indians. The problem is not simple. On the one hand, several survivors and witnesses at the time had suffered traumatic experiences during their periods of captivity, and there is no doubt that their testimony was true and worthy of to be received.

On the other hand, however, we have information suggesting that the Indians were not always willing to exterminate their enemies, but sometimes they attempted the “integration” of the withe captives into the Indian society especially towards women and children. Their effort was sometimes successful, so much so that several captives, even after their release from detention, voluntarily agreed to stay with the Indians who sometimes “adopted” their prisoners of war, several of them also married squaws (2).

Underlying difficulties arose mainly from both the different conception of society and property of land (3). The situation of white penetration into Pennsylvania was more critical than other States. While in other Frontier regions the native Indians sold their lands rapidly to the settlers, the Indian tribes of Pennsylvania were completely different with regard to the definition of property. They were very far from the concept of “absolute ownership” that, on the contrary, was the central concept of the white men (4).

This event is a relevant fact about the cultural differences between settlers and Indians. So many differences and often bitter conflicts were a constant in the relations between the colonists and the Indians. But often the fights between the settlers and the Indians came from linguistic misunderstandings. Settlers soon realized the importance of interpreters in their relationship with the Indians. Bad interpreters had often caused serious damage in relation to Indians, who in turn were equally aware of the importance to not only understand the language of the settlers, but also the absolute need to be understood by them.

However, the primary concern for the Indians was the continuation of their traditional way of life, to be able to hunt, fish and roam their territories as they always had done. For the settlers the primary concern was the extinguishment of any underlying Indian rights to land and the opening up of the area to settler populations and industrial exploitation. Treaties were agreed and signed despite these contradictory objectives, and so negotiations between settlers and native Indians weren’t worthy of trust, because the Indians never broke their habits and means of subsistence relative to hunting and fishing rights (5).

So an astonishing event had occurred. American Indians today are claiming property of the whole territory of the United States. Wilcomb E. Washburn (Director, Office of American Studies, Smithsonian Institution) explained the enigma of the unusual request:

“Few people realize that American Indians comprise the only minority group which possesses a special legal status within the United States. Although they are citizens like everybody else, they are also, by virtue of their tribal affiliations, possessed of special rights. This special status has puzzled and sometimes irritated white Americans. Indeed, so august a body as the Supreme Court of the State of Washington, in ‘Makah Indian Tribe v. Clalla County’ observed:
‘Although the natural dignity of the American Indian as a person and a citizen, his valor as a warrior, and his contributions to this country, military and civil, cannot and ought not be denied, one wonders, as he reads the case law on Indian matters, whether the law has not conferred upon tribal Indians and their descendants what amounts to titles of nobility, with all that entails, in contravention of Article 1, § 9, of the United States Constitution prohibiting such titles. But this is a question beyond our jurisdiction.’
While strong support for this special legal status of the American Indian is not immutable, Indian tribes presently enjoy what can be described as ‘internal sovereignty’ or ‘local autonomy’ in their respective jurisdictions. This paper will attempt to show how this status derives directly from the peculiar historical experiences of Indians and whites in the New World […] The legal relations of the United States with the American Indians reinforces Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dictum that ‘[t]he life of law has not been logic: it has been experience.’” (6).



1) “History of the Counties of Berks and Lebanon: containing a brief account of the Indians who inhabited this region of country, and the numerous murders by them; notices of the first Swedish, Welsh, French, German, Irish, and English settlers, giving the names of nearly five, thousands of them,” Lancaster, 1844.
2) S. J. Buck & E. Buck, “The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania”, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, First edition 1939. Third Paperback Printing 1995, p. 36. See also J. H. Bausman, “History of Beaver County, Pennsylvania and its centennial celebration,” New York, The Knickerbocher Press, 1904. Vol. I, p. 117; and J.H. Beers, “Historical and biographical annals of Columbia and Montour counties,” Chicago, J.H. Beers & CO., 1915, p. 9.
3) R. Laubin & G. Laubin, “Indian Dances of North America: Their Importance to Indian Life,” Norman and London, University of Oklaoma Press. First Edition 1977. First Paperback Printing 1989, p. XV.
4) D. W. Miller, “The Forced Removal of American Indians from the Northeast: A History of Territorial Cessions and Relocations, 1620-1854,” Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011, p. 46.
5) R. Price, “The Spirit of the Alberta Indian Treaties,” The University of Alberta Press, 1999, p. 76.
6) Wilcomb E. Washburn, “The Historical Context of American Indian Legal Problems.” Link: s://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3470&context=lcp.






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