A Brief History

October 7, 2014

The Susquehanna is one of the oldest rivers in the world. Spanning more than 700 miles from its headwaters in Cooperstown, New York, to the end of the West Branch, and down to its connection with the Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace, Maryland, the mighty Susquehanna has been the lifeblood of communities and wildlife for centuries. To travel its length is to take a journey through endless forests, wilderness areas, and rolling farms; past flocks of migrating waterfowl and historic towns; and along unique geologic features in the Appalachian Mountains.Photo courtesy of Susquehanna Greenway Partnership

Today, the Susquehanna continues to be a vibrant place for commerce, recreation, and wildlife. Yet this scenic river drains more than 27,500 square miles of land, accumulating pollutants and sediments from an area roughly the size of West Virginia and Delaware combined!

The River-Bay Connection

Although the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay do not share a name, they do share an ancient past. The Bay is actually an extension of the lower Susquehanna, a valley that has been flooded by the Atlantic Ocean for the last 15,000 years. Moreover, the Susquehanna is critical to the health of the Chesapeake. Delivering nearly 20 billion gallons of freshwater into the Bay each day, the Susquehanna provides nearly half of the freshwater entering the Chesapeake and provides crucial habitat for countless species of iconic Bay wildlife. The fate of the Bay rests heavily on the fate of the Susquehanna.

Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Conservancy

Native History

Centuries before the arrival of Europeans, American Indians traversed the Susquehanna for trade, transport, and warfare. In fact, the name ‘Susquehanna’ is derived from the Delaware Indian name “Sisa’we’had’hanna,” which means River Oyster. Ancient Petroglyphs found along the lower Susquehanna serve as a testament to the river’s long history as a sustaining resource for its inhabitants. In addition, the boundaries of the Susquehanna watershed represent the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – a league of five nations that largely came together in the precolonial era. Today, their culture remains vibrant and is guided by an environmental philosophy “to harvest only what you can eat or use, consider Seven Unborn Generations, and give thanks.”


In August 1608, Captain John Smith traveled the length of the Chesapeake Bay in search of the Northwest Passage. After sailing past Havre de Grace, Captain Smith and his crew encountered an unlikely foe on the lower Susquehanna; the impassable Smith’s Falls, as they came to be known. Though Smith’s journey never located a route to the Pacific (his original goal) he did meet and trade with the Susquehannocks, who remain immortalized on his famous map.

Established by Congress in 2006, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail (the nation’s first historic water trail) honors Captain Smith’s journey. Further, it celebrates the American Indian culture along the Susquehanna and throughout the river’s watershed.Photo courtesy of Susquehanna Greenway Partnership

Modern History

The Susquehanna’s beautiful landscape and fertile agricultural soil attracted European settlers throughout the 18th century. During colonial times, the river became an increasingly important transportation corridor, and in the 19th century, a westward canal system (with over 100 locks) was built, providing quick transport of goods up and down the river. The canal was later abandoned after more efficient rail lines were constructed.

With the discovery of anthracite coal in the upper reaches of the mountains, industrial centers grew and flourished–often with minimal knowledge regarding the long-term environmental impact on the Susquehanna.

Helping the River of our Forefathers

For thousands of years, the mighty Susquehanna provided food, transportation, commerce and recreation for millions of people. Unfortunately, the river’s health and beauty has diminished. Though more concentrated effort is needed, the conservation community is making progress in bringing back the Susquehanna to its historical grandeur–a river that teems with wildlife, provides drinking water, powers commerce, and is freely accessible for everyone who lives, works, or plays in the river’s watershed. Together we can Envision the Susquehanna—a healthy, restored river for generations to come.

BaldEagle photo by Cody Goddard_credit

Leave a Reply