A few days ago, I hiked to the site of the last known Susquehannock Indian tribe village, the site of which is now part of the Native Lands York County Park. Located near Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, history and nature converge. The site is on top of the hill behind the Zimmerman Center (former Dritt Mansion) at Long Level. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Byrd Leibhart site, the National Park Service recognizes it as worthy of nomination for National Historic Landmark status—America’s highest heritage honor. Although it’s a peaceful scene today, this land has seen much controversy, including battles for possession between the Seneca and the Susquehannock.
For Native peoples, sacred sites and other traditional cultural properties are of critical importance to the preservation of their culture, society, and overall tribal sovereignty. Often these traditional cultural resources are part of present-day national park landscapes. A sense of place provides all people with an understanding and appreciation of themselves, their past, and their relationship with the natural world. So, too, for tribal people, land constitutes cultural identity. Many tribes identify their origin as distinct people with a particular geographic site, such as a river, mountain, or valley, which becomes a central feature of the tribe’s cultural worldview, traditions and customs.
The Native Lands Heritage Trail is a lightly trafficked 2 mile out and back stretch of the Mason-Dixon line that passes through the park’s woodlands and scenic meadows. Hikers can take a self-guided tour through the past and experience along the way several vistas overlooking the Susquehanna River. The park is a 187-acre property of which 160.5 acres are designated as park land with a 6′ wide mowed trail traversing the property from north to south. The mowed trail serves the park users in accessing the property from three different trailheads. The path also includes the ruins of an 1800s farmstead, an old family cemetery with plots dating to 1824 and then continues on to Kline’s Run Park.
Visitors should park at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage to enter Native Lands County Park from the trailhead located there. Restored and renovated by John and Kathryn Zimmerman in the late 1990s, this historic riverfront home dates to the mid-18th Century. The Zimmermans donated the property to Susquehanna Heritage in 2007, when the home was opened to the public and officially dedicated as The John and Kathryn Zimmerman Center for Heritage in honor of their many contributions to our community and region. Native Lands Park was created after the land was purchased by York County in 2008.
The center is the headquarters of Susquehanna Heritage and serves as Pennsylvania’s Official Visitor Contact and Passport Station for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, part of the National Parks system. Visitors can have their National Park Passport stamped here and explore Susquehanna Indian artifacts, river art and more before setting off on the hiking trail.
The Zimmerman Center once belonged to the Tritt family, who came to America from Switzerland in 1739, moving here from Lancaster County about 1750. Johann (Jacob) Tritt, born in 1746, later took the name ‘Dritt’ and married Elizabeth Boyer. Jacob served as a captain in the local militia when the Revolutionary War began, spent two years as a British prisoner, and was later a Major General in Pennsylvania’s militia. Jacob was a farmer, miller, sawyer, wine merchant and ferry operator. He also laid out the original lots for the village of Washington Boro. In 1783 Jacob bought the stone house, the “Dritt Mansion” and property known as “Pleasant Garden”, originally settled by Marylander Thomas Cresap in 1729, who operated a ferry here. Cresap was arrested in 1736 and driven away after skirmishes known as “Cresap’s War – a dispute finally resolved in 1784 when the Mason-Dixon line was established. When Jacob drowned in the river in 1817, his daughter Margaret (Dritt) Bonham bought the home. It remained in the family until 1851. The Dritt Family Cemetery sits on a hill behind the mansion and overlooks the Susquehanna River. The earliest known grave in the cemetery dates to 1824, the last to 1879. Jacob Dritt is not buried in the cemetery, but his wife and some descendants were laid to rest here.
During the sixteenth century and carrying forward into the first decades of colonization, the Susquehannock were the most numerous people in what is now called the Susquehanna Valley. It is likely that the Susquehannock had occupied the same lands for several thousand years. They were an independent people and were not part of any confederacy into the 1600s. The Susquehannock people, also called the Conestoga by English settlers, were Iroquoian-speaking Native Americans who lived in areas adjacent to the Susquehanna River. The name Susquehannock is thought to have been an Algonquin word meaning the “people of the Muddy River.” These people, however, were not Algonquians, so we don’t know what they called themselves. Regionally Susquehannock was not the agreed upon name. The Lenape called them “Minquas,” which translates to “treacherous,” which was an obvious reflection of the raids the Susquehannocks had made on the Lenape during the 17th century.
The Susquehannock consisted of up to 20 smaller tribes, who occupied fortified villages along the Susquehanna River. They were described as noble, heroic, aggressive, warlike, and imperialistic. For years, before Europeans arrived, they were bitter enemies of the Iroquois Confederacy and were also thought to have warred with the Mahican from the central Hudson Valley.
Their first European contact was in 1608 when Captain John Smith, from Jamestown, Virginia, was exploring the northern end of Chesapeake Bay. This first meeting was friendly, but Smith was wary because he already heard of the Susquehannock’s warlike reputation. Smith was especially impressed with their size, deep voices, the variety of their weapons, and was awed by their height, describing them as giants. They seem to have been taller than the Europeans, with some standing perhaps around six feet or a little more–tall enough to impress Smith and his companions.
The Susquehannocks lived in large, long houses, about 20 by 90 feet, constructed by driving two sets of parallel poles into the ground and then bending them together to form a roof. Each house could house about five families and 10 houses could be situated comfortably on an acre of ground. The groups of houses were surrounded by more poles driven closely together into the earth, forming a palisade for protection from enemies.
The Susquehannocks could live in the same place for about 15 to 25 years before they needed to seek a new site. By then the ground would be depleted by crops and the wood necessary for fuel would become further away as the trees were harvested. The long houses themselves would also be nearing the end of their usability.
About 1665, after living at several sites on the eastern side of the Susquehanna, a group of approximately 1,200 Susquehannocks abandoned their Fort (the Strickler site) below Washington Boro, where they had lived for about 20 years. They moved across the river to what we know as the Upper (Oscar) Leibhart site, where they constructed long houses within a palisade on a hill. The Indian population in the area had already been declining due to disease and fighting with other Native Americans about fur trade with the Europeans. It is estimated that this particular site had less than 1,000 people when they were driven out by Seneca Indians about 1675.
By late 1676 many returned to the Long Level area and constructed a new fort a short distance south of their former home. That is now known as the Lower or Byrd Leibhart site. Also, a palisaded village of long houses, it was occupied at its peak by as many as 900 people. It is believed that the Seneca Indians drove the last of the Susquehannock south into Maryland around 1680, suggesting that the site was then abandoned.
This site demonstrates how Native life had been dramatically altered after Europeans arrived just seventy years before. In this short time, the Indians of the area would go from self-sufficiency to inextricable involvement with the land’s new inhabitants. They returned to their homeland in Lancaster County several years later, becoming known as the Conestoga Indians.
By 1700 there were only 300 Susquehannock remaining, and their rapid decline continued until the last 20 were massacred at the hands of the Paxton boys at Lancaster in 1763. There are, however, known descendants among the Iroquois and Lenape today.
In 1731, fifty years after the Susquehannock departed, Marylander Stephen Onion received a patent for 600 acres around this site, which he called “Canhodah”, the Iroquois word for “town”. Over the next two centuries, the land was developed into a traditional Pennsylvania farmstead.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, the Leibhart family farmed most of what is now the park, cultivating apples, corn, cantaloupes, berries, asparagus and hay. Remnants of their extensive complex of farm buildings, orchards and fields are still hidden in the landscape today.
The remains of the 1800’s-era farmstead, are located behind the fence line to the southwest, it is the most visible reminder of this land’s rich agricultural heritage. A spring flows very nearby—a feature that has attracted people for centuries. This land’s farming legacy likely dates back 500 or more years. Growing food was part of Susquehannock life, and of the Shenks Ferry people before them. Patches of paw paws, a native tree cultivated for its fruit, still grow here.
The grounds of the Zimmerman Center are open every day from dawn to dusk. House and galleries are open to the public 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Guided tours of the historic house are offered throughout the day on the weekends.
Tuesday through Sunday
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
(Closed on major holidays)
1706 Long Level Rd, Wrightsville, PA 17368