This building is called a longhouse. Though it’s new — just recently built at the Hans Herr Museum — in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, it represents a restored memory of many similar dwellings 1550-1700.
Before the “white man” came to the place we call Pennsylvania, the longhouse was the prevailing way to shelter families. You lived together with your people.
My original ancestor in this country, Christian Hirsche (Hershey), docked in Philadelphia in 1717. His land was purchased from Quaker William Penn, who had a dream of a “peaceable kingdom” in America. Quakers and Mennonites did not see themselves as conquerors. They wanted to live quietly, worship without persecution, and subdue the land. They accomplished their goals. They built dwellings that started not with trees but with the earth itself. The arch cellar was the first step. You built it to shelter your own family unit.
But what about the woodland families that lived in longhouses? Within fifty years, the Conestoga, Lenape, Delaware, Nanticoke, or Susquehannock Indian tribes either moved on, died of diseases, were murdered by vigilantes like the Paxton Boys, or were removed to the West.
All, that is, except for two elderly Conestoga Indians named Michael and Mary. After the Indian massacre of 1763 by the Paxton Boys, they were hidden in an arch cellar by Christian and Anna Hershey. Michael and Mary remained with the Hersheys until they died. Their graves, are the only Indian graves marked in all of Lancaster County and perhaps all of the colonies.
Christian and Anna were my great-great-great-great-great grandparents.
Their son Benjamin built this house, using the plans and technology developed in Switzerland and Southern Germany, the places from which the Hersheys came:
When I look at these two houses, the longhouse and the limestone house, I see two cultures, two places of spiritual and physical sustenance. Americans have told themselves stories that made the supplanting of native cultures by Europeans seem natural, just, and inevitable. Today descendants of both groups are beginning, at long last, to recognize the need to heal from the wounds caused by these stories and the violence that enforced them.
I chose to give the royalties from my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World to the Longhouse Project, a cooperative effort of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, the Hans Herr Museum, the First Nations People’s Circle Legacy Center, and individual descendants of local Native Americans.
More than two hundred and fifty years ago, Michael and Mary were sheltered in an arch cellar that probably looks a lot like this one. We know this happened because two graves with sandstone markers still exist and because the Colonial Assembly noted the harboring of two Indians by the Hersheys. A website set up to gather stories of the Susquehannocks also lists Michael, Mary, and the Hersheys.
Do you know the stories of the Native Americans of your area? Do you have a metaphorical or real arch cellar — a place of shelter for your family or for others? How have you attempted to repair old wounds?