As I’ve commented before, it’s hard to find materials which help you understand what this continent was like politically before the Europeans arrived on the scene. We still tend to think that Prehistory is “No History”. But one book which does a decent job is Indians in Pennsylvania by Paul A. Wallace, a volume I happened to pick up in one of the Pennsylvania museums.
Book Product Details (from Amazon.com)
Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission; 2 Rev Sub edition (April 2000)
As the book title suggests, the focus is on the tribes who inhabited Pennsylvania at the time when Europeans were beginning their settlement. However, because the Native American political geography differed from later U.S. geography, the content actually covers activity in a larger part of the region including New York, Maryland, Ohio, New Jersey and sometimes further afield. It’s actually a decent introduction to what cultures were inhabiting the entire region.
The map alone of “common trails” crossing multiple state boundaries makes it clear how much inter-tribal contact there was in that era.
The first section describes the culture and traditions of the different tribes. Most of the attention in this section is given to the Delaware (Lenape) peoples, but there is also quite a bit of information about the Iroquoian Confederacy, the Susquehannocks, the Shawnee and other tribes. However, I would say that this volume is centered on the fate of the Delaware peoples.
Like many other Eastern tribes, the Delaware generally lived in settled villages and practiced agriculture. Wallace also notes that they were a group of culturally affiliated tribes sharing a similar heritage/language. The rest of the section describes what is known of Delaware spirituality, child rearing, marriage, entertainment and other aspects of culture.
The second section provides a chronological account of known Native political events as recorded by European settlers and tribal memory. It’s as well that the Delaware were a primary focus, because although they were settled in New Jersey, southern New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, they were eventually persuaded to migrate westward to Ohio and beyond.
Interestingly, the pressures on the Delaware were sometimes from other tribes as from Europeans (although multiple unfavoriable treaties with European powers did not help). At this time, the Iroquoian Confederacy was coming into its own as a regional superpower and expanding south, all of which caused a certain amount of political instability (for instance, although the Delaware were recognized by the Iroquoian as a “respected nation”, they were not full members of the Confederacy). Wallace’s thesis is that a lot of William Penn’s Native American policy was actually geared towards détente with the Confederacy. The Confederacy, in turn, was trying to negotiate their sphere between France and England – it sounds positively Balkan.
Eventually, of course European-native relations completely broke down in the region, but this book argues that native politics had a role to play.
The main point to consider is that this volume was written in 1981, which is definitely “a while ago” (over 25 years), was based on the first volume from 1961 (45+ years). As a result, this volume misses newer findings, such as the Paleoindian sites like Meadowcroft from (ca. 14,000 BCE). I would assume that there have been advances in studies of the Delaware, Iroquoian Confederacy and other tribes of the Mid-Atlantic. Still, I suspect this is as good a place to begin as any.
Also, it is worth remembering that it is a “Delaware-centric” work. That’s not to say that the information is inaccurate, just that there may be pieces about the other tribes missing.