Delaware Indians on Pennsylvania’s colonial roads

It seems that I promised way way back in the day (okay, February) that I’d share any updates on the Pennsylvania rivers/roads project, not just to provide more fodder for students to give me a hard time about how much I love diplomatic metaphors and landscapes, but more because I shared some of this work at a department event (Talking History) and got to kick around some ideas with students and colleagues. Some of those ideas wound up in a proposal, and subsequently the paper I presented at the Pennsylvania Historical Association’s 2014 meeting in Philadelphia.

The resulting paper took a sort of interesting turn as I wrote. The earlier stages of this project had more of a regional focus, thinking about Native Americans along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, and how waterways functioned in their diplomatic metaphors. At that point, I was thinking more regionally rather than about particular groups of people, and I started this section with a similar approach. After compiling a bunch of material, I went through and pulled out the instances that struck me as the most unique, and about which I’d have the most to say, and started working with them. It pretty quickly became apparent that most of what I’d selected involved people coming in the early 18th-century to be known as Delaware Indians (actually a more diverse population, speaking several dialects, who shared the experience of removing from the Delaware Valley into more western regions, in the process beginning to develop a common identity). That left me in a bit of a scramble to make sure I had a good sense of the location and political conditions of these various Delaware bands, but I think I managed well enough for this stage–albeit with a sense I’m going to need to develop a better understanding of each band’s unique situation and the relations amongst them.

[Side note: one thing I’ve realized as I’ve worked on this project is that there seems to be some standardization of diplomatic language in the northeast, which I’m guessing is at least partly attributable to the ability of the Iroquois to claim to represent so many other native groups, an assertion made possible by English acknowledgements, and a situation which seemingly established certain conventions. That’s going to wind up as another aspect of this larger project.]

Anyway, here’s a couple of modified excerpts from the introduction that should give a sense of this latest stage of the project:

When in 1768 “the Delawares, Shawanese, Munsies, Mohickons, Wyandotts, and our Uncles the Six Nations” asked Pennsylvania’s governor to “take hold of the end of this Belt, which we stretch along the Road between him and us, in order to clear it of the Briars and Brush that have grown up in it, that we may travel it in Peace and Safety,” they drew on a long tradition of using figurative, and especially geographical, language to describe intercultural relations. But they also selected a particular metaphor, the road, with its own unique significance in 18th-century Pennsylvania’s shifting intercultural landscape.[i]

Considering what he calls “geographies of encounter,” Tracy Neal Leavelle has called on historians to more carefully consider the connections between perception and the physical manipulation of space in the creation of new geographies during first encounters and subsequent interactions.[ii] I am asking us to consider the changing contexts for these geographical expressions as the grounds for metaphors shifted with historical development, paying particular attention to discussions of roads and paths in intercultural exchanges recorded in Pennsylvania Provincial Council records between the 1680s and early 1760s. Though hardly alone in using paths and roads as metaphors for intercultural relations, the Delaware Indians are notable in their attempts to use the distinctive features of colonial Pennsylvania’s transforming physical landscape to claim/maintain a position of power—namely as middlemen between Pennsylvania’s provincial government and Indian nations further to the West and North—as they relocated from the Delaware Valley into the Ohio region and grappled with shifting geopolitical contexts across the 18th century.

[i] Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania from the Organization to the Termination of the Proprietary Government, ed. Samuel Hazard (Harrisburg, PA: Theo. Fenn & Co., 1851-1852), 9: 525 [cited hereafter as MPCP].

[ii] Tracy Neal Leavelle, “Geographies of Encounter: Religion and Contested Spaces in Colonial North America,” American Quarterly 56, no. 4 (2004), 914-5.

I’m interested enough to keep working on this anyway, but I’ve also talked with a couple of other scholars who’ve encouraged me to keep working, which is always a positive. More to come, I’m sure.

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