- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - Donny Witmer isn’t sure why everyone’s making such a fuss.

Witmer owns a chunk of land off Indian Marker Road in Manor Township, an area that was once part of Conestoga Indian Town - land given to the Conestogas by William Penn himself in the early 1700s. Last week, Witmer took a bulldozer to some “scrub” trees atop a hill on the property, thinking he’d clear the site and plant grasses to produce hay.

“I’m a farmer,” Witmer said. “I’m doing exactly what the Indians did.”

But some historians and Native American activists are incensed, saying Witmer’s bulldozer may be churning up a lot more than tree roots.

They believe the hill on Witmer’s land, known as “Indian Round Top” or “Chief’s Hill,” was a Native American burial mound, and possibly the site of Conestoga Indian Town - one of the most culturally significant Native American archaeological/historical sites in all of Pennsylvania.

Witmer’s bulldozer, they fear, could be tearing up that heritage. And the activists want him to knock it off.

But Witmer has the law on his side.

While Conestoga Indian Town, including the small hill on Witmer’s land, is registered with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, “It’s (Witmer’s) property and he’s doing it with private funds, so he can do whatever he wants, whether it’s recorded or not,” said Howard Pollman, the commission’s director of external affairs.

That’s not good enough for some who believe irreplaceable history and heritage is being churned up in the interest of making hay.

“There would be a huge outcry if someone were to bulldoze the pyramids, but this is kind of the same thing,” said Darvin Martin, an amateur historian who has written several books about local history.

Burial mound?

Martin said there’s “pretty strong evidence” the hill was a burial mound. Records from 1714 show Conestoga leader Chief Togodhessah, also called Chief Civility, telling Pennsylvania state government leaders that “our old queen,” named Conguegos, was buried in the mound. The chief himself is thought to be buried there, said Martin, though there’s no proof.

Witmer says that’s ridiculous. The soil atop the hill is inhospitable; “It’s way too rocky to bury anyone up there,” said Witmer, who insisted he never even heard anyone refer to the rise as “Chief’s Hill” until the past few years.

“My grandmother was born” on the site, he said. “No one called it that.”

The hill is a focal point of Conestoga Indian Town, a 16,000-acre tract - later whittled down to 414 acres - given to the Conestogas by William Penn in 1717. It’s unclear how many burial sites, if any, have been discovered on the hill itself; Witmer said he’s never dug up artifacts or bones there.

The last major archaeological dig in Conestoga Indian Town happened in 1972, when a state archaeologist found 90 graves on five separate cemeteries, along with the remains of three houses.

Activists say they think federal legislation, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, could stop work on the project. But it’s unclear whether the act protects remains found on private land.

A message seeking comment from the National Park Service, which facilitates the government-wide implementation of the act, was not returned.

Passed by pipeline

In recent weeks Conestoga Indian Town has been a focus of anti-pipeline activists, as the Oklahoma firm that’s asked federal regulators for permission to build a natural gas pipeline in western and southern Lancaster County initially planned to route the project through Conestoga Indian Town. However, in its formal application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, filed last week, Williams Partners opted to move the route to the west, away from Indian Town.

Activists who thought they’d won a small victory as a result were aghast late last week to discover that bulldozers were out on Indian Round Top, working the land.

But they weren’t surprised.

Robin Maguire, a local anti-pipeline activist, said she met with Witmer last year and that he told her he planned to cut all the trees and bulldoze the hill flat so he could farm it.

Witmer denies that he ever planned to remove anything but the trees from the site. “They’re all scrub trees, none of them are more than 75 years old,” he said.

He said he was flabbergasted at all the furor over what he sees as a rocky, insignificant little hill.

“This wasn’t where Conestoga Indian Town was,” he said. “I know where the village was, down in the flats,” the valley beneath the hill.

Not everyone is convinced.

“He doesn’t care about history, he doesn’t care about the bones in the ground,” said David Jones, who has worked to document native American sites in the region.

“We fought the pipeline but now it’s turning into this, and we’re all sitting back wondering what to do,” said Jones.

“We need to do what we can to protect our history.”

___

Online:

https://bit.ly/1yaC6q8

___

Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide