Reexamining the Story Behind Indian Hannah

Early Chester County settlers did not treat the Native American figure as nicely as local legend recalls.

Massachusetts has Native American chief King Philip, and Pennsylvania has “Indian Hannah” Freeman. Here in the Quaker state, we’ve long prided ourselves on the difference, but probably shouldn’t. Both lost their land.

King Philip was a chief of the Wampanoag people who, after daring to lead a 1675 rebellion against European encroachment, ended up with his head on a pike outside Plymouth, Mass. Freeman was a Lenape who, in local lore, lived here peacefully until 1802, when she died in the county poorhouse, lovingly cared for by white neighbors. She was “the last of the Indians of Chester County,” according to a historical marker near Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

“The power of this communal memory, the extent to which the region’s residents continue to protect, commemorate and preserve that story, begs to be re-evaluated,” wrote Dawn G. Marsh, a history professor at Purdue University.

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According to Marsh, the Indian Hannah story served the purpose of white conquest. First, it confirmed the property rights of those who took her land. Second, it flatters their descendants that William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” was really better than what happened in other colonies.

Born in Chester County about 1730, Hannah had some other name as a child, but it doesn’t seem to have been recorded. Freeman was a surname occasionally assumed by freed African slaves, but Hannah had no known relationship with African- Americans. Native Americans sometimes acquired English names when converting to Christianity or to commemorate a relationship, but neither applied to Freeman.

The name Hannah, however, is more revealing. It was one of the most popular female names among local Quakers. In the Lenape language, it translates as “river.” (Susquehanna, for instance, translates as “muddy river.”) Hannah spent most of her life living along the Brandywine Creek, so she may have chosen the name for herself.

Freeman’s mother was Sarah. There were also two younger brothers—both, like Hannah, born along Bennett’s Run, a small tributary of the Brandywine that flows east from a point near Longwood Gardens. Grandmother Jane, maternal aunts Betty and Nanny, and Freeman’s father—whose name is unknown—rounded out the family.

When Freeman was a young woman—say, about 1750—life for the family took an abrupt turn. As she put it to a white man near the end of her life, her father “went to Shamokin and never returned.” Her brothers, whose fate is unknown, may have gone with him. All Freeman could say was that her father left when “the country [was] becoming more settled, [and] the Indians were not allowed to plant corn any longer.”

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At the time, Shamokin (modern-day Sunbury) was Pennsylvania’s largest Indian town, founded early in the century and known for good hunting—a traditionally male role. It was also a rather violent place, a contact point between a variety of Native American tribes and colonists. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, many other Indians disappeared about this time. “Many found their ability to hunt, fish and plant their gardens hampered by the fences, dams and livestock that the European settlers introduced to the region,” wrote Marsh. “Fish camps were abandoned on the southern reaches of the rivers because gristmills and dams prevented the shad from making their way upstream.”

The Lenape were experiencing the full impact of deals made with William Penn 70 years earlier. Penn always played nice with the Native Americans. Significantly, neither he nor his colonists used force to move the natives off their land.

But they did move the natives off their land.

In November 1683, Penn signed a treaty for land between Chester Creek and the Christina River. This area included the Brandywine Valley, which would be Freeman’s home. For that sale, Secetareus, the principal sachem of the local Lenape, would accept payment that included “a very good gun, some powder and lead, two pairs of stockings, one matchcoat and 10 bits of Spanish money.”

The Lenape didn’t give away everything for trinkets. They retained a strip of land extending one mile on either side of the Brandywine, from its mouth at the Christina River to its origin at Welsh Mountain near Honey Brook. “Penn guaranteed that Hannah’s people would ‘not be molested … from generation to generation,’” wrote Marsh. “Secetareus, understanding how vital the river and its fertile bottomlands were to his people, did not sell those lands to William Penn or his agents.”

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The treaty also stipulated that the river would remain open—a promise broken almost immediately. By 1690, some settlers had built dams to power lumber mills and grist mills. The Lenape complained and—true to their word—authorities in Philadelphia ordered them demolished.

Penn had a wider perspective. All his treaties specified that “unoccupied” land would revert to inventory and could be sold. There was no definition of what “unoccupied” meant, and there were numerous incidents of Lenape— who moved seasonally—returning to traditional settlement sites to find that they had been sold and occupied by settlers.

As to the Brandywine, Penn’s agreement lasted two years. In 1685, a year after Penn returned to England, officials ordered surveys and sold parcels on both sides of the river. “There is no evidence to explain why they took actions that directly impinged Penn’s agreement regarding the Brandywine reserve,” wrote Marsh.

Among the purchasers, however, were the names that would later determine Freeman’s fate: Harlan, Barnard, Chandler, Peirce, Webb and Marshall.

The sales were not initially a problem. Settlers bought land in parcels of 100, 200 or more acres—well in excess of what they could clear and farm with the technology of the time. Most farmed only part of their acreage, intending to give the surplus to their children or sell it as demand rose. “The newer local residents had little option except to accommodate the original owners,” Marsh wrote. 

“The pacifist Quakers could not physically raise arms against their persistent Lenape neighbors, and they had failed to legally evict them from their lands.”

After the disappearance of Freeman’s father, her life became more woman-oriented, though still a life of labor. Among her people, Freeman was a physician who used natural remedies. It was a profession passed down through families, often through the female line. Most likely, her potential had been recognized—possibly by an older woman—and nurtured through a long apprenticeship. “Her apprenticeship was no small undertaking,” wrote Marsh. “It suggests that Hannah was not only a very bright young woman but also one of deep convictions.”

Freeman’s healing skills were respected among the colonists. When the family of Quaker minister John Parker suffered dysentery—which, left untreated, can kill young children—she administered a tea made of local plants. Parker returned to her for other remedies, once paying her five shillings for a prescription. This was a time, remember, when European physicians’ best remedy for many ailments was to use unsterilized instruments to cut into the vein of an ill person and bleed out the so-called bad “humors.”

In 1763, when vigilantes in central Pennsylvania massacred peaceful Indians and promised to come east for others, Freeman and her female relatives fled to New Jersey with papers guaranteeing their noncombatant status. They stayed seven years before returning home, probably living near Woodbury.

As her older relatives died, Freeman found herself interacting more with colonists than with other natives. She wore European-style clothing and, during a visit with an elderly aunt, discovered she had almost forgotten how to speak “Indian” and no longer liked their manner of living.

Freeman spun flax and made brooms and baskets. She laughed when shown a machine-stitched broom, considering it inferior to her own. She also cared for local children.

Eventually, she grew old. She had rheumatism and, increasingly, lived with neighbors rather than in her own cabin on the Brandywine. In the Lenape world, old women were sought out for their wisdom. In a different era, with her knowledge of herbal medicine, Freeman would probably have had several apprentices. Among whites, however, she was not seen as a treasure. “To her neighbors, Hannah was a destitute, sick Indian woman who deserved sympathy and kindness,” wrote Marsh. “But she was arrogant in her land claims and foolish in her refusal to abandon her cabin.”

A plan was hatched. A new county almshouse—or poorhouse—was planned (on Lenape land) in West Bradford. Summoned for an interview by Moses Marshall, Freeman identified herself as a resident of Newlin Township. Marshall was justice of the peace, superintendent of the poor for his district. He was also a descendant of Abraham Marshall, who’d purchased part of the Brandywine reserve that Penn had promised wouldn’t be sold. A meeting of Freeman’s neighbors—the Barnards, Harlans, Hayeses, Peirces and other heirs of the purchasers—produced a contract. As she was “unable to support herself” and “the only person of the [Delaware tribe] left amongst us,” they would pay for her upkeep at the almshouse and for her eventual burial.

The Quakers knew Freeman was not the last of the Lenape. There were natives throughout the region, many living independently of tribal communities that had moved west. As late as 1909, noted Marsh, a local newspaper reported the death in Newlin Township of Lydia Sharp, “the last of the Lenni Lenape tribe.”

Declaring Freeman the last, however, had the distinct benefit of leaving the tribal land along the Brandywine—according to the terms of Penn’s treaty— finally “unoccupied.” The Quaker settlers would no longer have to worry about their property rights being contested.

So, it was done. In November 1800, Freeman became the first resident of the newly completed almshouse. She survived 16 months, then was buried in an unmarked grave at the adjacent potter’s field—not, as she had wished, in the nearby Lenape burial ground.

A century later, in 1909, a plaque was placed on a boulder near the site of the almshouse to keep the legend alive. After another century, in 2009, a second plaque was placed on another boulder close to Route 162, so motorists can feel good about Hannah’s story without getting out of their cars.

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