Lancaster’s Longhouse: Discovering Native American culture in PA

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Longhouses were common to the Eastern Woodland Indians between 1570 and 1770. The Lancaster Longhouse, as it’s known, is based on a Susquehannock longhouse that was excavated in 1969 in nearby Washington Boro, Lancaster County.

Lancaster's Longhouse with a lady standing in the doorway to show height perspective.

When visiting the Hans Herr House in Lancaster, PA, admission includes a tour of a Native American Lancaster Longhouse.

The longhouse was the heart of Native American culture for hundreds of years. And the tour really helps visitors understand the culture better.

I have to be honest, I didn’t expect to learn much. I have toured other longhouses and museums focused on Native American history, so I thought this would be a repeat of all that.

Of course, I was wrong.

Our tour guide walked us to the longhouse, which is across a country road from the Hans Herr House. You cross a wooden bridge over a creek to the field where the longhouse sits.

Country road that separates the Lancaster Longhouse from the Hans Herr House.

How the Lancaster longhouse was built

Our guide began the tour explaining how a longhouse was built.

She explained that, while there were slight variations among each Eastern Woodlands Indian tribes, they all shared similar characteristics to the Lancaster longhouse.

Longhouses were built to last about 7-10 years.

Native Americans understood that farming the land sucked the nutrients from the soil, so these nomadic people settled in an area for a short time and then moved along when the soil “wore out.”

Modern farming is similar, except rather than move along, we know to rotate crops so we don’t deplete the soil. And we allow fields to lie fallow from time to time.

Building the frame of a longhouse

A “typical” longhouse was built to be 62 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet high.

They would burn the trees at the base to “cut them down.” Amazingly, this charring insect proofed the wooden poles used to form the skeleton of the longhouse.

I guess bugs don’t like the taste of charcoal!

Also, the stumps would burn into the ground, fertilizing the soil.

We use chemicals today to treat any wood that comes in contact with soil to keep insects out. Native Americans knew to do it naturally.

To hold the skeleton structure together, they would wrap any intersecting area (vertical post and horizontal beam) in wet hickory bark.

As the bark dried, it would shrink to tighten and strengthen the structure.

We use nails, screws and metal joist hangers to accomplish the same thing today. Of course, our structures are also built to last decades, not years.

Keeping warm and dry in the Lancaster Longhouse

Once the skeleton was finished, they covered it in elm bark. They preferred elm bark to other types of tree bark because it pulled away from trees in large sheets.

Three smoke holes along the center of the roof provided good ventilation for the fire pits below.

Then, they insulated the structure by hanging reed mats stuffed with leaves and mud along the outer walls.

Sleeping bunk inside the longhouse

Bunks were built along the full length of each side of the longhouse, six pairs to each side.

The bottom bunk would be four feet off the ground and the second would be eight feet off the ground allowing for storage below and headroom between the bunks.

They lashed bunks together with horehound, a plant from the mint family.

What it’s like to live in a longhouse

Twelve families lived in each longhouse, and each family got one pair of bunks (an upper and lower). Every family was related to the matriarch of the longhouse.

Believe it or not, Native Americans relied on arranged marriages!

When a son married, his mother would select his wife from another clan to keep the gene pool healthy. Of course, they didn’t know about genes, but they understood the importance of not marrying a sibling or cousin.

The son would then move in with his wife’s clan.

In general, the women farmed the land. The core crops were corn, beans and squash, called the three sisters. Deer shoulder bones served as hoes, and deer antlers were used to rake the soil.

Clever, eh?

The Eastern Woodlands tribes also grew tobacco to burn as an offering to the gods. They also smoked tobacco.

Clever cooking in the longhouse

As our guide went on, I learned so much!

These tribes respected the earth and the animals, wasting nothing.

They made knives from animal jaw bones. To hang things, they used deer antlers as hooks.

Native American knife made from deer bone

They cooked in gourds.

The guide explained thatto make turtle soup, they added all the ingredients to the gourd and then tossed in a soapstone that had been heated over the coals.

Each hot soapstone boiled for about five minutes.

They would replace the stones until the soup was done.

Obviously, they couldn’t cook in gourds directly over the fire because the gourd would burn.

Cooking gourd used by Native Americans to make soups and stews.

To keep bugs and critters from eating their herbs, they stored them in skunk skin pouches. Basically, they skinned the skunk and dried the fur, creating a pouch. Animals recognize the skunk markings so they steer clear.

Baskets woven from bark, sweet grass and pine needles stored other things. Rye is naturally insect resistant, so they used it often. 

They used large turtle shells as platters and as shields. Small turtle shells became bowls and drums. And, wasting nothing, they used turtle claws as combs!

turtle claw comb used by Native Americans who lived in longhouses

Native Americans and William Penn

When Penn settled the area, he made an agreement with the Native Americans, respecting their need for land while also allowing European settlers to have sufficient land.

A peaceful treaty, they sealed the deal with a handshake and a wampum belt signifying the handshake.

white wampum belt with blue beading showing two people shaking hands

Europeans traded black powder and rifles for animal hides, especially beaver pelts.

They also traded linen clothes, particularly the fancy French clothes with ruffles and ribbons in bright colors.

The Europeans also traded glazed pottery and cast iron cooking utensils.

cast iron cookware over a fire pit in the Lancaster longhouse

Two European trades that backfired

Unfortunately, when the Europeans traded wool blankets, they introduced smallpox to the Native Americans, which led to smallpox epidemic.

While they didn’t mean to do it that time, the Europeans remembered what happened and used wool blankets as germ warfare during the French and Indian War. 

A second trade that backfired was alcohol. The Eastern Woodland Indians lacked an enzyme to process alcohol. Without the enzyme, alcohol becomes toxic leading to easy addiction and, often, death.

Visiting the Lancaster Longhouse

Admission and tour of the Lancaster Longhouse are included with admission to the Hans Herr House.

The tour lasts about 45 minutes.

Note: There is a short walk over uneven terrain to get to the longhouse.

After the short walk to the longhouse, visitors sit on the bunks (which are lower than what the Eastern Woodlands Indians built them to be used as benches) while the guide shares the history and explains the items.

Many of the items in the longhouse that are used for the tour were actually donated by local Native Americans.

Tours are offered at 10:00 a.m., Noon and 2:00 p.m. to coordinate with the house tour schedule.

The tour is suitable for everyone (as long as you can handle the short walk through the grass to the longhouse). For lack of a better word, the cool factor is pretty high!

My thanks to Discover Lancaster and Hans House for arranging my visit. While I received complimentary admission, all opinions are mine.