When Captain John Smith first met the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock Indians on his 1608 voyage up the Chesapeake Bay, he described them as giants. Smith claimed one warrior’s calf measured 27 inches in circumference.
When we read Smith’s account, it’s easy to picture seven-foot-tall Native Americans roaming the forests surrounding the Susquehanna River, especially when many of you reading this are six feet tall yourself.
So the question is, were the Susquehannocks true giants?
Marshall Becker’s 1991 research does confirm that the 16th century Susquehannocks were, in fact, taller than most Native Americans of their time; however, they were not nearly as large as Smith leads readers to think.
Becker conducted a forensic analysis of 13 complete Susquehannock skeletons plus long bones from 18 other individuals. The investigation revealed that the males in this skeletal population were, on average, around 5 feet, 7 inches. The women were 5 feet, 3 inches tall.
By modern standards, this is not exceptionally tall. Today in the United States, the average height of a male is 69.1 inches. That’s around 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
However, the Susquehannock’s average 5 feet, 7 inch height is nearly four inches taller than the average Englishman in the 1600s. It is Becker’s belief that the Susquehannocks’ high protein, maize-based diet was responsible for their greater height. The idea of the Susquehannocks being giants was likely further enhanced when the malnourished Europeans stood next to the well feed Indians.
While it’s true that Smith and his men were probably looking up at the natives they met, the Susquehannocks were probably only true giants in John Smith’s imagination.