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FROM INDIAN TRAIL TO URBAN HIGHWAY

Roland Williams

Travel north or south on Frankford Avenue and you are retracing a route which is at least a thousand years old.

Long before asphalt and concrete, long before William Penn traveled this way between his newly laid-out town and his Bucks County home, long before even the earliest European explorers came here, this north-south route was being used by Native American People.

The present-day Frankford Avenue follows the route of the old "Falls Path", the Indians' route to the "Falls of the Delaware", the first set of rocky rapids on the river at Trenton. This was where the Indians crossed the river on their way north to what are now New York and New England. Coming south, the Falls Path passed through villages near present-day Philadelphia

Archeologists believe that Native American People came into what is now Pennsylvania around 12,000 years ago. For many thousands of years these earliest people lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They did not build villages or cultivate crops, as did the later Indian people. They depended solely on what Nature had to offer. Hunting provided meat and animal skins for clothing. Gathering wild plant foods rounded out their diet.

These people made distinctive types of spear-points for hunting. These spear points are found here along the Pennypack in Holmesburg, showing that these people hunted and gathered wild foods here thousands of years ago.

Eventually, Indians in this area began to live more settled lives. By about two thousand years ago they had learned to use the "Three Sisters" plants - corn, beans, and squash - which they planted together in garden-fields cleared from the forest. Once these fields were cleared and planted the Indians were committed to staying to cultivate and harvest the crops. Now small villages were established often at the point where streams such as the Pennypack join the Delaware.

Of course these people were also hunters. But instead of spears the new hunting tool was the Bow-and-Arrow, the arrows being tipped with small triangular stone points. These points are also found here along the Pennypack, showing that this was part of their hunting territory.

The village-dwelling, corn-growing people were the ones who greeted the first Europeans who sailed up the Delaware. Naturally, the Europeans called them the "Delaware Indians", although their name for themselves was Lenape. Their homeland was Lenapehoking "Land of the Lenape". In their language our creek was called something like Pemapeek or Pemapaki meaning "lake land" or water which flows like melted bear fat".

Passing through Lenapehoking were many trails running from village to village or to strategic points on the land. One of these strategic points was the river-crossing at the "Falls of the Delaware", reached by the Falls Path.

The first Europeans in this area realized the practicality of the Falls Path route and they widened the narrow woodland path and made it their "King's Highway", the major over-land route between the growing colonial towns of New York, Philadelphia and Wilmington.

Despite the new name, people still crossed the Pennypack in the old way, splashing through the water at the shallow fording-place. We know that Penn's annoyance at this inconvenience led to his decision to build a bridge. Locating it at the old creek-crossing made sense. The Falls Path/King's Highway parallels and is close to the Delaware but is far enough inland to avoid the lower, tidal area of the creek which goes through a twice daily cycle of low and high water as tides shift on the Delaware. High water would have been too deep to wade safely. The Indians knew this and so located their crossing-place just above the high-tide line. Following the Indians' lead, the European settlers continued to cross at this point and this was where Penn had his bridge built in 1697.

In choosing this crossing-place and laying out their trail, the Indians used their age-old knowledge of this land and its waters. They freely shared their knowledge with William Penn and this gave his followers a head-start on developing settlements and commerce in this area.

Penn's philosophy of respect for the Indians meant that relations were good between Indian and European. In 1683 Penn was able to purchase from the Indians the land between the Pennypack and Neshaminy Creeks including the land where Holmesburg now stands. Over the next three-hundred years, civilization radically changed the face of this land and in time the ancient woodland trail of the Native American People became the busy urban highway we know as Frankford Avenue.