The Penn’s Creek Massacre: Part Two

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Monuments for the Penn’s Creek Massacre (left) and The Albany Purchase (right)

The first part of the Penn’s Creek Massacre can be found here: The Penn’s Creek Massacre: Part One

Hidden along Penn’s Creek, near the spot where it empties into the Susquehanna River, are two markers hidden from view although they are a very short distance from a number of major roads – Route 522 terminates less than a mile south at the junction with Routes 11/15. In the past I had driven past without realizing of their existence and had they not been brought to my attention by a friend who knew I was researching the Penn’s Creek Massacre, they would have continued to evade me.

The two monuments stand at the southern end of South Old Trail on the northern bank of Penn’s Creek. Arriving at the monuments, I studied them and the surroundings, realizing for the first time the bridge for Routes 11/15 can be seen from this spot. If I did not realize these stone memorials existed, I could not help but wonder how many of those passing knew of them.

The first of these monuments recognizes the Albany Purchase. The plaque on the monument states that this is a replacement plaque – the original was stolen when the stone stood on the Albany Purchase line, roughly a mile north of this location. Note: Interestingly, the monument stone was brought to this location from Henry Shoemaker’s estate in McElhattan.

The Albany Purchase was the land deal was between Pennsylvania’s Provincial Government and the Six Nations in 1754. This land deal would cause a rift between the Delaware Indians and settlers, and also between the Delaware and the Six Nations. The Six Nations had prevented the Delaware from selling their lands previously, but with this treaty, they sold the lands that had traditional belonged to them. This sale of the Juniata and Susquehanna Valleys was done without allowing the Delaware any voice in the decision. This betrayal, along with the defeat of General Braddock, would be influential in causing the Delaware to abandon the British and join the French on the American frontier.

The second monument at this spot has two plaques on it. Together the plaques continue story of the Penn’s Creek Massacre.

One of the first people to record the details of the Penn’s Creek Massacre was John Harris, who operated a ferry downstream from the massacre site. John Harris would later have a city named in his honor – Harrisburg. However, Harris almost lost his life near the location of these monuments for the Penn’s Creek Massacre.

On October 20, 1755, Harris wrote to Governor Morris reporting the known details about the massacre on Penn’s Creek. In a postscript to his letter, he recorded that the Six Nations were urging for the Province of Pennsylvania to be put on defense. Conrad Weiser reported the same events to Governor Morris on October 22, stating six families had been murdered and twenty-eight people were missing.

On October 23, John Harris led a group of men between forty and fifty in strength, up the Susquehanna to investigate the claims of the massacre. It is recorded that upon their arrival, the group discovered signs of a massacre and the dead had already been gathered and buried. Though the group wanted to return to Paxtang, they were urged by John Shikellamy to continue to the Indian town of Shamokin (present-day Sunbury) which was about five miles upstream from their location.

Note: I find John Harris’ testimony of finding the dead already buried odd. This leaves the question of who buried the victims of the massacre? There are a couple possibilities: 1) Survivors returned and buried them. I find this the least likely scenario, though some have suggested this as a possibility. I personally doubt this because those living on the frontier were fleeing for their safety. 2) Some have suggest friendly Indians arrived and buried the dead. It is possible that those Indians still friendly towards the colonists, and who had relayed information of the massacre to Conrad Weiser, had taken the time to bury the dead.  3) The party led by John Harris buried the bodies. This would go against Harris’ claims that he found the bodies buried. 4) The party discovered the bodies and left them there. Honestly with warriors raiding the frontier, this option seems most likely, but there will probably never be a clear answer about the dead of the Penn’s Creek Massacre.

Upon arriving at Shamokin, Harris and his men immediately noticed a number of strangers painted completely in black. Among these strangers were Indians Harris and his party were familiar with, including Andrew Montour, who often served as an interpreter. Harris records that these strangers had come from the Ohio and Allegheny River Valleys to tell their brothers in the Susquehanna River Valley they should join them in their fight against the settlers.

The morning of October 25 John Harris and his men left Shamokin, heading down river to the safety of the settlements. The group was advised by Andrew Montour to stay on the eastern side of the river on their return journey. Harris and his group decided to ignore the warning and instead returned southward on the western side of the Susquehanna.

The group had only gone a short distance, arriving at the mouth of Penn’s Creek, when they were ambushed by a group of Indians between twenty and thirty strong. The ambushers waited until the Harris’ men started across Penn’s Creek before opening fire upon the unsuspecting party. Shots were exchanged and Harris lost three of his men, while four of the ambushers were killed. Harris and his men retreated through the woods for half a mile before deciding to cross the river.

While in the process of crossing the river, one man was shot and four men drowned. The man who was shot was a doctor described as a large, fat man, who was mounted on the same horse as Harris. Upon entering the river, the doctor was shot in the back and killed, saving Harris’ life. Part way across the river, Harris abandoned his horse which had previously been wounded, and swam the rest of the way across.

While Harris and his men staggered back to Harris’ Ferry, a group of friendly Delaware Indians who had been living in Shamokin followed and went after the ambushers. They returned with information – a large group of French soldiers, combined with a a number of Indian tribes, were preparing for an attack on the settlements.

Armed with this information, John Harris prepared for the worst and prepared his trading house for an attack. While others were fleeing the frontier, he remained steadfast and determined. As he prepared for war, he spent word to the Provincial Government, and also others on the frontier, to prepare for the worst – war was coming to the Pennsylvania frontier.

As I stood there in the heat and humidity, I was overcome by emotion. The air was mixed with the anger of the Delaware Indians, the terror of the victims, the fear of the captives, and the sadness of the innocents. The frontier that was dangerous in the past was suddenly hostile and violent.

Nothing would ever be the same again on the Pennsylvania frontier.

Note: I cannot help but wonder ‘What if John Harris had fallen that day?’  John returned to his home at Harris’ Ferry and prepared it for any attacks.  Not only would history have changed if John Harris would have died during this bloody ambush, but possibly the face of Pennsylvania. Harris’ Ferry would grow and the town would eventually be known as Harrisburg. It is very likely if John Harris had fallen that day, Pennsylvania’s capital would be known by another name or even possibly located at a different location in the state altogether.

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