Portage Party: Retracing the path of early fur traders between the Conestoga and Schuylkill watersheds

How did you spend your holiday vacation?

I spent one day of mine lugging an 85-pound canoe over 200 yards across swampy manure filled fields in Berks County. Why I did this is a fascinating story.

In late November, Benton Webber emailed a group of us with a unique request:

I’d like to carry a canoe or kayak from the Conestoga watershed roughly 700 feet over to a tributary of the Schuylkill. This would be a re-tracing / exploration of my suspected route that fur traders used in the early 1700s. Would you like to come along?

I quickly responded, yes.

Background

According to Don Kautz, co-founder of this portage party expedition, the fur trade was big business during the 1600s. Click here to read his more detailed account of our reenactment.

Routes through the wilderness were used as early as 1654, when the Minquas or Susquehannocks transported thousands of beaver skins across a series of nearly interconnected waterways. Author John Landis Ruth of The Earth is the Lord believed that one such canoe path led from the Susquehanna up the Conestoga to Pine Creek then down French Creek to the Schuylkill River.

Later fur traders used these same routes in reverse traveling from seaports like Philadelphia to Indian towns in the interior. These bold Europeans traded manufactured goods with Native Americans for beaver and deer pelts.

Armed with this knowledge, Webber and Kautz were intrigued to see if they could locate the place where the portage between the two watersheds occurred. After some investigation, the researching dynamic duo settled on a likely location and thought it would be fun to recreate the portage with an actual canoe.

Map courtesy of Benton Webber

Portage Party

On December 30 at 2 pm, “a group of intrepid history buffs” met at the corner of Cold Run Road and Hopewell Road to attempt the portage reenactment. Here are several photos by Don Kautz documenting the reenactment.

The trickle of water shown below is Pine Creek and the first leg of our journey. Google Maps depicts a small pond in the background. On the day of our expedition, it was a swampy bog.

Photo by Don Kautz.

Here are Webber and I crossing Pine Creek. If you scrutinize the picture, you will see the mud going up my pant leg is almost to my knee.

Photo by Don Kautz.

Webber and I continue the portage. Thick mud made it difficult going. Our 700-foot crossing was brutally tough and slow going. According to Kautz, early fur traders likely had to travel a mile under similarly difficult conditions to reach water capable of transporting a canoe.

Photo by Don Kautz.

In the photo below, John Naylor, Allyson Gibson, and I have crossed Hopewell Road and are now walking through a slightly less muddy cornfield inside what is now the Conestoga Watershed. In the foreground, you can see the beginning of the Conestoga East Branch.

Photo by Don Kautz.

The photo below shows the East Branch Conestoga River’s head and the field we had just trekked through minutes earlier.

Photo by Don Kautz.

Despite being in mud up to my shins and nearly losing my boots…twice, it was an amazing experience. Retracing the path that Native Americans and early European traders once took more than 350 years ago felt like once in a lifetime opportunity and a great way to spend an afternoon!

Shown left to right, Benton Webber, Adam Zurn, Sheldon Esch, Allyson Gibson, and John Naylor. Photo by Don Kautz.

The Google Map shown below displays where the portage took place. Please keep in mind that the portage party took place on private property. Webber secured permission for all three property owners before attempting.

Interesting Facts

While the so-called “portage party” took place in what is today Berks County, at the time the fur traders were using this route, it was actually Chester County. Chester is one of the three original counties in Pennsylvania. It was erected in November of 1682. Kind in mind that in the early 1700s, Chester County had no actual westerly boundary. It spread as far west as Pennsylvania did.

Forty-seven years later, in 1729, this same spot stopped being part of Chester and became Lancaster County. The reason might surprise you. Click here to learn why. Finally, in 1752, the area where we met became Berks County.

Map showing county formation in Pennsylvania.

Want more information?

Be sure to read’s photographer and portage party co-founder Don Kautz’s account of the expedition. Kautz provides more historical context and background on the venture. It’s definitely worth a read.

2 thoughts on “Portage Party: Retracing the path of early fur traders between the Conestoga and Schuylkill watersheds

  1. Chris and Jack Brubaker are definitely interested in this account. Chris wishes she attended!

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