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Main Flow

Susquehanna River History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of  Scenic

Main Flow of the  Susquehanna River


Local legend claims that the name of the river comes from an Indian phrase meaning "mile wide, foot deep," referring to the Susquehanna's unusual dimensions, but while the word is Algonquian, it simply means "muddy current"  or "winding current”. The Susquehanna river has played an enormous role throughout the history of the United States.


During the period 1400 -1525 the Susquehanna River Valley was inhabited byIroquoians whose descendants would be known as the Susquehannocks. Their name meant “people of the muddy river”, from the Lenape name of the Susquehanna River, Siskuwihane (sisku ‘mud’, have ‘river’).

The lands of the Susquehanna River Valley became occupied by the Munsee of the Lenape (or Delaware) and were under the control of the Five (later six) Nations of the Iroquois nations. In 1608, Captain John Smith became the first European explorer known to travel the river. He quickly found it unnavigable above the fall line and abandoned his plan to journey further upriver. In the 1750s,         many Lenni Lenape from eastern Pennsylvania joined

the Shawnees, having been driven from their

homeland in the Delaware River Valley.

The Lenni Lenape became known as the

“Delawares” by thecolonists, and shortly thereafter

began occupying land further west as they were forced from their homelands.


18th century, a treaty negotiated by William Penn opened up the area to European settlers, angering many Shawnee and Lenape who lost their lands. This led to raids and abductions of white settlements in 1755 to 1756.

Susquehannock indians susquehanna river

WYOMING MASSACRE - The Battle ofWyoming, Pennsylvania (also known as theWyoming Massacre) was an encounter during the

American RevolutionaryWar between American Patriots and British Loyalists where more than three

hundred Patriots were killed in the battle. After the battle, settlers claimed that the Iroquois raiders

had  hunted and killed fleeing Patriots.

In the summer 1779, the Sullivan Expedition, commissioned by General GeorgeWashington, methodically destroyed 40 Iroquois villages and an enormous quantity of stored corn and vegetables throughout upstate New York.


The Iroquois never recovered from the damage, and many died of starvation that winter. The tribes allied with the British continued to raid Patriot settlements until the end of the war. Many resettled in the area after the war had ended.


The burning of the Columbia -Wrightsville

bridge on the afternoon of June 28, 1863. Its destruction by Union militia kept the Confederates from crossing to the eastern side of the Susquehanna, which would have given them swift access to Harrisburg and eastern Pennsylvania. It also cut a major line of trade within Pennsylvania until it could be rebuilt.

Wrightsville bridge burning susquehann river history



The virgin forests of Penn’sWoods held some of the finestWhite Pine ever seen.

This species of tree was invaluable to

the American settlers.

White pine floats very well and was also used to transport goods from the frontier to the markets downstream sometimes as far as Baltimore, Maryland.

THE RAFTS - There were four kinds of rafts. The first was a “spar raft” which was made by lashing tall straight tree trunks together. Other raft types included a “timber raft” which was made of squared

logs, a “lumber raft” which consisted of logs that had already been sawed into lumber, and lastly “arks” which had a flat bottom and was constructed in a manner to allow for carrying cargo such as coal,

grain or other goods from the interior.

logging history susquehanna river

By 1796, rafts from both the North

and West branches of the Susquehanna

were making the trip downstream, some traveling as far as Norfolk, Va. The industry quickly escalated over the next decades until the river became a super-highway of rafts.



CANAL - As a result of efforts from Baltimore merchants, funding was raised to build a canal

fromWrightsville, Pennsylvania, south to Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Built between 1836 and 1840, the construction of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal ran 43 miles along the west bank of the river and rendered obsolete

an older shorter canal on the east bank. The new canal paralled the Susquehanna and was 50 feet wide and approximately 6 feet deep. To overcome the river’s steep 233-foot drop from Columbia to the bay, engineers designed 28 lift locks. The locks made it possible for vessels to carry lumber, coal, iron, fertilizer, grain, and passengers to the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore. 

Of its total length, 30 miles were in Pennsylvania and 13 miles in Maryland. The finished canal

brought increased shipments of coal and other raw materials to Baltimore and Philadelphia from Pennsylvania's interior. By 1855, more than 8,000 canal boats used the canal, but eventually,

competition from the expanding railroad industry soon threatened the entire canal system. Boat traffic

declined rapidly, and by 1894, the                                   canal was abandoned. •

susquehanna and tidewater cannals on the susquehanna river


Molten rock, ruptured glacial lakes

and thousands of years of erosion

have left behind a huge rock garden

of potholes in the Susquehanna


Upriver from Smith’s Falls between

Dauphin, Lancaster, and York

Counties are two fields of literally

thousands of potholes.

The first is just downstream of

Three Mile Island, and is known as

the Conewago Falls near Falmouth

and the York Haven Dam.

The second, just above the Mason-

Dixon line is the Holtwood Gorge.

In both, the Susquehanna has

drilled through solid rock to make

some really odd shapes, with much

of these boulders stretching to and

across the river.

susquehanna rver potholes
•••2 potholes.png
•••3 potholes.png
Captain john smit and the susquehanna river history


In 1608 Sir John Smith, explorer and

leader of the Virginia Colony (Jamestown), sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Susquehanna River, then turned up

river as far as an area of huge boulders

strewn across the river that blocked his path.


Today the Conowingo Dam and hydroelectric generation plant are built at this spot. SMITH FALLS -He called this area Smyth Fale (Smith’s Falls), near present day Port Deposit, Maryland, where he persuaded a group of sixty Susquehannock warriors to

come down from their upriver settlement to meet him.

Farther upriver - It is very probable , also that Smith was upriver still farther either on land or in an indian canoe. The number is islands in the river, which he had marked on his

map, and the cross mark denoting the highest point reached by him on the

river, being by the scale at least fifteen

miles, seem to require that Captain Smith was actually as far as the PA state line.

He may well have been the first white

man that ever trod the soil of Pennsylvania.

So far as we have any definite accounts, he was the first white man that met indians who reached within the limits of Pennsylvania.

With the use of native interpreters who spoke the language, Smith persuaded the Susquehannock natives to meet with him at the mouth of the river. When they met three days later, the natives brought with them gifts of venison, tobacco, pipes three feet

long, baskets, targets, bows and arrows.

They lived on the "chief spring" coming in at the head of the bay from "the north-west from among the mountains".

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