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Pa. man traces Indians through artifacts

November 15, 2000

Pa. man traces Indians through artifacts



By STACEY DANZUSO / Staff Writer, Chambersburg


CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Gene Niswander has hunted up and down every river and stream in Franklin County, Pa., much like the American Indians who settled the same riverbeds thousands of years ago.

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Niswander's pursuits have yielded between 8,000 and 10,000 artifacts that are remnants of the Indians' existence.

An American Indian enthusiast, Niswander has scoured the county and surrounding area for nearly 30 years, continually adding artifacts to his collection.

The St. Thomas Township man has uncovered thousands of arrowheads, tomahawks and other tools from the Indians that settled the area dating back 7,000 years.

"I enjoy looking into the past of things underground," he said.

He has combed Franklin, Fulton and Adams counties over and over, but Niswander said he never knows what he will find.

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"Freezing and thawing works artifacts out. It also happens when farmers plow their fields," he said.

Shelves in his home are lined with skinning and scalping knives made from stone. He has arrowheads from every state in the country and has things labeled and ready to go for his many speaking engagements in schools.

Niswander said the last Indians, mainly Delaware, Tuscarora and Susquehannock, left the area about 180 years ago. The earliest settled between 10,000 and 8,000 B.C.

They were mostly farmers who plowed and cultivated fields for centuries before Europeans arrived, he said.

Niswander, an orchardist, has turned his hobby into a lifetime passion and livelihood.

He publishes The Historical Indian Newsletter of Franklin County and the Surrounding Area, which has several hundred subscribers.

For the last three years he has organized an Indian Summer gathering in October, which includes an authentic Indian meal, displays and demonstrations.

This year about 500 people attended the day-long event at the St. Thomas Sportsman Club.

Popcorn and succotash were on the menu and children used the same tools the Indians did to grind corn, Niswander said.

Indians from Montana traveled to Franklin County to demonstrate rug-making, he said.

Next year, he plans an ax-throwing demonstration and model tee-pees for people to inspect, although the local Indians lived in longhouses.

Niswander's wife, Connie, has joined him in his pursuits, and together they have found thousands of items they distribute to family members and others equally interested in the artifacts.

He goes out almost every week to hunt for more artifacts, but he admits he often comes back empty-handed.

Niswander found a "nutting stone," a round stone with a circular indentation in which Indians placed butternuts and acorns before smashing them open with another rock.

He also has in his collection a stone chipped into the shape of an Indian foot used as a model to fit moccasins.

Niswander said artifacts are often grouped.

"Indians in our area buried their dead beneath their homes. In the winter they couldn't dig in the frozen ground," he said. "They also believed in the hereafter and buried their loved ones with all of their possessions because they believed they would need them."

Niswander said while many artifact hunters like to keep everything a secret, he wants to share his knowledge and experiences. He offers to take any of his newsletter subscribers on searches to the former Indian villages to find their own artifacts.

"It's an amazing thing to pick up a stone and know the last person who touched it was an Indian," he said. "I believe there are still a lot of things underground."

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