Frequently Asked Questions
What is a longhouse?
Longhouses were long, narrow, single-room buildings constructed by Native People in North America and by other groups around the world. Longhouses varied in size and style depending on when, where and by whom they were built. In the eastern part of the United States and Canada, they often had curved walls and a roof made of tree bark stretched on a framework of bent saplings, all supported by log posts and beams. Multiple families lived together in each house. Archeological digs in places like Washington Boro in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, show evidence of thousands of people living together in towns filled with longhouses—many more than 100 feet long. Longhouses were typical housing for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived in North America, and would have been a familiar sight for early European settlers in Pennsylvania.
Why is a longhouse at the Hans Herr House?
The Herr family was part of the first group of Europeans to settle in Lancaster County. Inevitably, Native Americans were among their closest neighbors.
There is an old family story that Christian and Anna Herr, who built the 1719 Hans Herr House, woke up one winter morning to find some of their Native American neighbors in their kitchen. The night had been bitterly cold and they had come in to get warm by the fire. According to the story, Christian’s only objection was that the house smelled like bear grease (which some Native People used to weatherproof clothes or protect exposed skin).
Three centuries years later, the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum includes the oldest building in Lancaster County and two other homes built by descendants of the Herr family—but there are few reminders of the Native People who lived here for hundreds of years. A longhouse on the grounds of the 1719 Herr House enables the museum to tell the Lancaster County story from the 16th century to the turn of the 20th century.
The Longhouse is also a tangible expression of one community’s respect for another. At a service of honor and healing in Lancaster in 2010, Presbyterian, Mennonite and Quaker leaders and local and state officials recognized three hundred years of misunderstanding, neglect and abuse of Native Americans in Lancaster County.
Leaders recounted the infamous massacres of Conestoga Indians in Lancaster in 1763 and the establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School nearby in 1879, as well as a series of insidious offenses: Europeans encroaching on Native land, poaching game, failing to aid Indians in need and imposing their cultural standards on Native groups.
“The fact that all of you would come here, assemble here, to say these things is what I would consider a legitimate act of contrition,” Curtis Zunigha (Delaware) said in response to the church and government statements. “I look forward to … joining you all in an effort to make great change so that we may never feel like this again.”
The Lancaster Longhouse is part of this community’s “effort to make great change” in the way we think and talk about the history of this land.
What tribe does the Lancaster Longhouse represent?
Longhouses varied in size and style depending on when, where and by whom they were built. Tribes with central Pennsylvania connections include the ancient “Shenks Ferry” civilization, the Conoy, Lenape (Delaware), Nanticoke, Shawnee and Susquehannock (including the Conestoga) people and Mohawk and Seneca groups (both part of the Iroquois Confederacy). The Lancaster Longhouse is not be modeled after any one group, but recreates features common to Eastern Woodland Indian construction in the late 17th century.
The overall dimensions (20 ft. wide x 62 ft. long) are based on a Susquehannock longhouse that archeologist Barry C. Kent excavated in Washington Boro, Lancaster County in 1969.
Members or descendants of several Native American tribes—as well as local authorities such as archeologist Fred Kinsey and construction manager Ned Pelger—served as technical advisors for the project.
How was the Lancaster Longhouse built?
Volunteers helped many aspects of the project—from preparing saplings to providing furnishings. The framing and roofing was done by Native American volunteers and professional contractors.
Log posts and beams form the interior supports. A lattice of bent saplings arches over the interior structure to make a single curved roof and walls. Sheets of bark material are lapped over the sapling frame like shingles. There is a doorway at each end of the house and two fire pits and smoke holes. Two wide shelves—supported by log posts on one side and the wall saplings on the other—run the length of the longhouse on both sides of the room inside. (These shelves would have been used as both sleeping and storage areas.)
The Longhouse Project is committed to historical accuracy but builders made several adjustments to improve the building’s safety, durability and utility as an educational exhibit. For example, many Eastern Woodland longhouses were covered with elm tree bark. Large sections of bark would be peeled off standing trees and tied to the sapling framework. This method killed the tree. With respect for longevity, aesthetics and the environment, we will be using Flex-Bark, a high-quality synthetic material manufactured by Replications Unlimited (replicationsunlimited.com).
How will the Longhouse be furnished?
The longhouse is being furnished with reproductions of articles that would have been used by the multiple families who lived in each house. Reproductions include clothing, pottery, baskets, gourds and tools used for hunting, cooking, food preservation and farming. Some of these items are made by local Native American artisans and donated to the Lancaster Longhouse; others will be purchased.
The interior of the longhouse is divided into two distinct parts representing Native American life before and after European contact. The pre-contact area features 16th through early 17th-century replica artifacts, such as distinctive clothing and pottery. The post-contact area illustrates the lives of Native Americans from the mid-17th to mid-18th century. This area includes metal pots and European clothing, such as linen shirts and pants.
In 2011, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society and the 1719 Hans Herr House acquired a collection of more than two hundred Native American tools and vessels connected to Lancaster County. After evaluation and cataloguing, a portion of this collection will be displayed in the Visitor’s Center at the museum. No original artifacts will be stored in the Longhouse.
What educational offerings are available?
Native American artisans and educators demonstrate the crafts, customs and life skills of 17th and 18th-century Native Americans at regular educational events held on the grounds.
Tours of the Longhouse are incorporated into the current 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum tour offerings. With the help of local historians and Native Americans, a handbook has been written for tour guides. It includes a comprehensive outline of information on the Longhouse and Native American life, culture and customs, as well as a brief history of Native American tribes in Pennsylvania. This handbook is used by both Native American and non-Native volunteer guides.
We invite you to give a meaningful gift to the Lancaster Longhouse and become part of this important initiative.