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Retracing history: Making long-forgotten fur trade portage

Don KAUTZ/LNP via AP Adam Zurn, left, and Ben Webber push a canoe across Pine Creek in Berks County towards the headwaters of the Conestoga River, a route fur traders and Native Americans used 250 years ago.

LANCASTER, Pa. — On a cold and sunny winter day on Dec. 30, six local residents gathered at a rural road near the Lancaster-Berks line and unloaded a wooden canoe, a faux fur and an old jug of the kind that once held rum.

The ensemble began pushing the 85-pound canoe through knee-deep swampy mud, at one point having to hoist the canoe over a turned-off electric fence. It may have seemed somewhat comical, but the group may have been retracing an arduous and important fur trade portage for the first time in 250 years.

This “bit of frivolous adventuring and historical reenactment” as co-organizer Ben Webber of Manheim Township called it, began when Webber, one of the contributors to Uncharted Lancaster, a history and travel website, crossed paths with Don Kautz.

Kautz, a software engineer from East Lampeter Township, had been doing research for his upcoming book, “The Conestoga River: A History,” and came across multiple accounts of a 17th-century fur trade route through Lancaster, Berks and Chester counties used by Native Americans and early Colonists.

Native Americans would paddle canoes loaded with beaver and deer hides from their villages along the Susquehanna the length of the Conestoga River. When the headwaters of the Conestoga became too shallow to be navigable, they would have to carry their canoes a couple miles to the headwaters of Pine Creek, which flowed into French Creek and on to the Schuylkill River where trading posts were located.

According to historical accounts, they would trade their deer hide and fur pelts for items manufactured in Europe such as axes, knives, glassware, iron cooking ware, wool cloth and sometimes Jamaica rum, then retrace their route back to their villages.

White fur traders also used the then-overgrown path to carry their wares directly to the Native American villages along the Susquehanna, including settlements at Conestoga, Washington Boro and Conoy Township.

The fur trade was one of the early economic drivers in the fledgling colonies at the time. Fur-lined coats and hats lined with beaver fur were all the rage in Europe, and North America was a big source.

Early traders

Some of the earliest and most colorful inhabitants of Lancaster County were involved in the fur trade.

Anne LeTort and her husband Jacques, French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, established a Native American trading post next to the Conestoga Indian Town near present day Conestoga around 1700.

Unlike many fur traders, Anne did not try to swindle Native Americans. According to one historical paper, she once used a horsewhip to drive away two traders who tried to ply her friends, the Susquehannocks, with rum to make it easier to swindle them.

A later business partner, Peter Bezaillion, another Frenchman, knew Native American culture well and helped lock up the fur trade with the Shawnee tribes on the upper Delaware.

Bezaillion had an important trading post along French Creek in Chester County and near Harrisburg. His expansion of the fur trading business in the Philadelphia area laid the groundwork for that city becoming the financial center of the new world.

He died in 1742 at the age of 80 and is buried in Pequea. A later fur-trading road he established between his trading posts, called Peter’s Road, served as the boundary between five townships when Lancaster County was formed.

Pennsylvania founder William Penn banked heavily on the fur trade to recoup his expenses for the grand experiment of providing a Quaker refuge for the politically persecuted.

Search party forms

Kautz suggested to Webber that they try to locate the old portage section. Webber upped the ante and said they should do the search with a canoe and small re-enactment group.

And so it was that the six modern-day explorers and history buffs gathered on the edge of a farm field near Elverson. Besides Webber and Kautz, the portage group consisted of Adam Zurn, founder of Uncharted Lancaster and a technology education teacher at Lampeter-Strasburg High School; Sheldon Esch, a Manheim Township resident and publisher of several local publications; John Naylor, a York County resident who picks up plastic litter along the Susquehanna several times a week; and Allyson Gibson, coordinator of Lancaster Clean Water Partners, a private-public group to improve water quality in Lancaster County.

The group was clad mostly in jeans, although there was a long coat, Colonial tri-corner hat and a shawl in a nod to the era. After unloading from a car, the canoe was pushed and pulled upstream along the trickling headwaters of Pine Creek, a Schuylkill tributary.

The group soon encountered a farm fence, a quick reminder that they weren’t in the 1600s anymore. Wisely, Webber had arranged for the farmer to turn off the electricity to the barrier.

Wading through mud

This being headwaters country, much of the route was through boot-sucking bogs. One member did a face-plant in mud after sinking to his knees and had to be extricated by the others.

After a slow push across a cornfield, the adventurers arrived at a soggy area marked by cattails and phragmites wetlands grasses, the beginning of the east branch of the Conestoga.

They had traveled about a half-mile. Native Americans would have had to push their heavy canoes another mile or more through forested and brushy terrain before the river would have gotten deep enough to paddle.

The journey concluded with an exchange of a faux fur for a clay jar that might have carried rum back in the day.

“It’s amazing the things we lose to history,” Zurn said of retracing, however briefly, the steps of forefathers.

“I’m sure this reenactment won’t add to any academic historical value,” Webber added. “It was a stunt to raise awareness of what is a watershed and how close they are together.”

Webber hopes digging up Lancaster County’s forgotten past will get people thinking about their home’s history as the county’s tricentennial approaches in 2029.

“My hope with the tricentennial is that it will spark interest and excitement about our community and how we’re connected to our past and each other. And also a sense of hope that things aren’t always going to be the way they are today, so let’s get together and figure out how we want them to be.”

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For more accounts and photos of the reenactment, go to the Uncharted Lancaster Facebook page or @unchartedlancaster on Instagram.

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