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New York Headwaters

Susquehanna River History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of  Scenic

Headwaters of the  Susquehanna River

 History of the Headwaters of the Susquehanna River...


ORIGIN OF THE NAME -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.

EARLY INHABITANTS - During the period 1400 - 1525 the Susquehanna River Valley was inhabited by Iroquoians 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 the colonists, and shortly thereafter began occupying land further west as they were forced from their homelands.


COLONIAL SETTLEMENTS - Early in the 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 of Wyoming, Pennsylvania (also known as the Wyoming Massacre) was an encounter during the American Revolutionary War between American Patriots and British Loyalists where more than three hundred Patriots were killed in the battle.  After the battle, settlers claimed that the Iraquois raiders had hunted and killed fleeing Patriots.

In the summer 1779, the Sullivan Expedition, commissioned by General George Washington, 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.

General Clinton's Dam

in Cooperstown at Otsego Lake

In mid June, 1779 General James Clinton led an expedition down the Susquehanna River after making the upper portion navigable by damming up the river's source at Otsego Lake, allowing the lake's level to rise, and then destroying the dam and flooding the river for miles downstream to provide sufficient draft for the heavily laden supply boats.


The freshet caused by the sudden release of the pent-up water swelled the stream for a distance of more than a hundred miles. The rise in the water was great enough to flow back into the western branch, causing the Chemung River to reverse its course.


At Tioga, NY, Clinton met up with General John Sullivan's forces, who had marched from Easton, Pennsylvania. Together, on August 29, they defeated the Tories and Indians at the Battle of Newtown (near today's city of Elmira, NY). This became known as the "Sullivan-Clinton Campaign".


By the end of the expedition, Sullivan's army had destroyed over forty villages and many isolated homes. They had destroyed at least 160,000 bushels

•••clinton rock.png

 of corn, and an untold number of other vegetables and fruit, with the loss of only 40 men. Noticeably missing however, was the presence of any Indian captives, one of the main goals of expedition.

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.    •

•••Sullivans monument.png

Sullivan's Monument

Lowman, NY

Chemung River History

The Name?

How was the Chemung river named?

The facts seem to be that the

Delaware Indians moved into this

area in 1756, found a mastadon tusk

near the river and named the area

and river Chemung - a Delaware

meaning "Horn in theWater." It

is recorded that this tusk was found

near the area where the Riverside

Cemetery is in the Town of Chemung.

The Delaware Indians built a village

just a stone throw from the area

that the Mastodon tusk was found,

and called it Chemung.

CivilWar Era History

The Chemung Basin featured a vast

amount of arable land. Once soldiers

recognized the area during the RevolutionaryWar,

Europeans began settling

in the area. Dairy, lumber, wool,

and tobacco were primary industries.

Farmers used the waterways within

the Chemung Basin to ship their

goods as far as Baltimore on wooden

river arks.

Chemung Canal

The canal, and the railroad system all

influenced the development of the

Chemung Basin. The construction of

a local canal connected the Chemung

River to Seneca Lake and the Erie

Canal. The canal allowed for increased

freight trade, but it was costly

to maintain. By the mid-1800s, the

railroad systems were the dominate

trade route in the area and the canal

became less important.



Due to the variety of transportation

routes in the area, a military base

was established in Elmira. Soldiers

from across New York State came to

Elmira for training before their regiments

were transported south. In the

1860s, a prison camp for Confederate

solders was established in Elmira.

Underground Railroad

The transportation opportunities in

the area made the Chemung Basin an

important destination for many

slaves seeking freedom. Many local

people harbored escaping slaves in

homes, churches, cellars, and barns.

Baggage cars departing from the railroad

station in Elmira toward Niagara

Falls often carried escaping

slaves with the approval of abolitionists.

Mark Twain

The famous writer Mark Twain was

influenced by the Chemung River

and the abolitionist history of Elmira.

Twain enjoyed a view of the river

from his summer study as he wrote

many of his famous novels that frequently

related to the issues related

to abolitionist activities in Elmira at

the time. •

•••mark twain.jpg
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