History of the Lena'pe Nation


The Lena'pes were once sovereign over a vast domain stretching along the Middle Atlantic coast from New York Bay to Delaware Bay, between the Hudson and Delaware river valleys. They called their homeland Lenapehoking "Land of the Lena'pes." In their language, their name means "ordinary people" or "common people." They are also sometimes known as Lenni Lena'pe, which translated roughly as "we, the people." Lena'pes have always thought of themselves as members of a single ethnic group sharing a common sense of identity and heritage.


When the first European colonist settled on their lands in the early 1600s, there were between 8,000 and 12,000 Lena'pes, according to conservative estimates. Most recent studies, however, strongly indicate that their population was probably twice as large. The Lena'pe at that time were divided into as many as 20 different groups variously referred to as bands, villages, or tribes. Traditional Lena'pe social and political life has always been organized around a complex but flexible network of closely related independent communities. When Europeans first met the Lena'pe, these Indians asked who or what they were; they usually would identify themselves as inhabitants of a particular place, members of a certain family, or followers of an influential leader. Thus, place names such as Manhattan, which means "island," had social and political as well as geographic significance.


Lena'pes believed that their history began when Kishelemukong, the Creator, brought a giant turtle up from the depths of a great ocean. The turtle grew until it became the vast island now known as North America.


Most Europeans believed that the Lena'pes and other Indians originally came from Asia. Archaeological evidence in the form of stone tools, clay pots, and other remains indicates that the Lena'pes came to the Middle Atlantic region nearly 3,000 years ago. Oral traditions, linguistic evidence, and archaeological remains from more recent sites suggest that the Lena'pe way of life observed by the early colonist developed more than 1,000 years ago. In addition to archaeology, comparative linguistics, and Lena'pe own oral accounts, other sources of information about their past include documents written by the Europeans who visited and settled along the Middle Atlantic coast of North America. Where direct documentation for the Lena'pes is lacking, the known practices and oral traditions of neighboring groups provide clues.


When Europeans first came among them, most Lena'pes lived in bustling communities made up of one or more bark and grass covered longhouses. Their life centered around the close bonds of kinship and family. All rights to land and livelihood were held by the family, and people's sense of identity came from their family membership, clans, or groups of related families that traced their origins to a common ancestor, served as links among relatives living in different communities.


The Lena'pes lived in a varied land of ocean beaches, vast marshlands, deep forests, fertile river valleys, and rocky highlands. Their land provided all the necessities of life. What little their land did not provide, they obtained peacefully by trade.


Lena'pe life followed the seasons. Every spring Lena'pes living along the coast came together in large camps near waterfalls and rapids. There they trapped, netted, or speared salmon, herring, and other migratory fish swimming upriver. Other Lena'pes living farther inland gathered in small camps to collect wild strawberries, hunt deer, or surprise bears as they sluggishly emerged from their dens after their long winter hibernation.


As spring edged into summer, many Lena'pes moved to small communities located on rich soils, where they planted crops of corn, beans, and squash in garden clearings.


Summer was given over to tending crops, gathering berries and other wild foods, fishing. Summer also was the time for trading. Evidence from archaeogical sites and historical records documenting journeys of adventurous men and women to the Carolinas and the Mississippi Valley suggest that Lena'pe traders and hunters were accustomed to traveling long distances in search of game and goods.


In autumn, Lena'pe harvested and dried their crops. Drying preserved much of the food supply for the winter. Hundreds of deer and other animals were taken during fall communal hunts.


At the approach of winter, people returned to their longhouses in the heart of their respective territories. Congregating in council houses and feasted upon the bounty of the preceding year, told stories, sang, and danced in thanksgiving.


The egalitarian nature of their society enabled the Lenapes to respond flexibly to changing conditions.


Lena'pe survival has depended upon an extraordinary ability to whittle away between these possibilities. In the process, they created a society intensely responsive to individual needs and desires. The respect accorded individual Lena'pes by family members and fellow tribes people in turn encouraged them to act loyally and responsibly toward their own communities. Traditions of tolerance, respect, and flexibility thus created a generally harmonious society. These traditions helped the Lena'pes survive the shock and stress of European invasion followed by 200 years of dispossession and poverty.


Their descendants continue to carry on these traditions. Their original territory is now a part of the United States. Western Connecticut, southern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and all of New Jersey and Delaware occupy their ancient homeland. Lena'pe who live on their ancestral lands are regarded as legal residents of their respective states, and all Lena'pes living in the United States or Canada are citizens of their respective nations.


Separated by vast distances and divided by international borders, most descendants of the Lena'pes continue to recognize a common identity and history marked by hardship and struggle. The story of their survival is a testimony to the strength of their traditions. It is also a testimony to the human will not just to survive but to preserve a unique sense of identity and purpose in a changing and often hostile world.


The Lena'pes spoke a language belonging to the widespread Algonquian linguistic family, one of the major groupings of languages in the world.


The Lena'pes have long lived in a complex social and political environment in which names often signify different roles and values. For this reason, the Lena'pes as ancestors have been known as "Grandfathers" by many neighboring Eastern Alonquian speaking people. Other Algonquians living to the west of the Appalachian Mountains refer to the Lena'pes as Woapanachke, "Easterners."


Dutch, Swedish, and English colonists moving into Lenapehoking during the 1600s knew the Lena'pes as "River Indians."


The southern group of Lena'pes in southern New Jersey, southeast Pennsylvania, and Delaware diverged not only in speaking Unami, their social organization also differed from their northern neighbors. These Unami speakers dispersed themselves into a large number of small, independent villages. Among the better known of these were the villages of Sanhikan, Rancoca, and Narraticong, in southern New Jersey; the villages of Playwicky, Passayunk, Tulpehocken, and Qukehocking, in southeast Pennsylvania; and the villages of Quenomysing, Minguannan, Shackamaxon, and Sickoneysinck, in Delaware.


The Lena'pes' location initially gave them a certain advantage. Their beaches were particularly rich sources of the clamshells used to make small, tubular, purple and white beads known as wampum. Produced in quantity after Europeans introduced metal drills that allowed quick mass production, wampum became a highly prized commodity in colonial and Indian communities. Indians, for their part, had long used shell beads for sacred rituals and diplomatic maneuvers. Short of coins. Europeans soon used wampum as currency.


The Lena'pes tried to exploit this resource. Working industriously, they manufactured millions of shell beads for trade.


To prevent competition in the fur trade, Lena'pes moved nearer to the colonist' towns to take advantage of closer trade and social contacts.


By the 1630s, many Lena'pe living around the mouth of the Schuylkill River were driven east, into what became New Jersey. Most of these people settled along the many small creeks flowing through the Jersey pine lands. Most later moved north to central New Jersey or to the Lehigh River country above Easton, Pennsylvania, and farther west to Tulpehocken (Turtle Place) upon the upper Schuylklll above Reading, PA. Others later moved south of Philadelphia to communities located at Okehocking (Surrounded Place) on Brandywine Creek.


Lena'pe communities located between major European settlements generally maintained a surprising degree of independence. Indians living in the Raritan River country of central New Jersey, between Manhattan and Philadelphia, took advantage of the intense rivalries dividing the colonial governments. Frequently switching loyalties, the Lena'pes would play contending provinces against one another.


Most Lena'pes, however, simply protected their own interests by allying themselves with their closest neighbor, Those to the south, along the lower Delaware River, looked for allies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


This complex system of interlocking alliances uniting Lena'pes and colonies throughout British North America became known as the Covenant Chain, after the agreements, or covenants, among the involved parties. Membership in this alliance provided important benefits to the Lena'pes. First and foremost, Covenant Chain allies provided military protection against the French and their Indian allies to increasingly weak Lenape communities. Covenant Chain allies could also make available better and more plentiful trade goods while providing limited legal and political safeguards for Lena'pe lands, lives, and livelihoods. Colonial authorities tended to deal justly with Covenant Chain Indian allies so long as their demands did not conflict with government policies.


Lena'pes and colonist held different views of land ownership and use. The Lena'pes faced a dilemma. How could they appease Europeans without losing everything. Wiser Lena'pe leaders, with their time honored traditions of subtlety, moderation, and compromise, did their best to slow down land transfers. Whenever possible, Lena'pe leaders steered European purchasers away from their lands to those of other tribes. For example. in 1663, the Hackensack chief Oratam, explaining that his elders did not want to sell their lands near Newark, New Jersey, told prospective Dutch purchasers that better lands were available in Esopus country. Knowing that the Esopus were then at war with the Dutch, Oratam broadly hinted that it might be easier and cheaper to seize their lands than to force reluctant allies to sell inferior lands closer to home. Oratsm's ploy evidently worked, as the Dutch never did buy the Hackensack lands. 


Such stratagems did not always succeed. When purchasers insisted on acquiring land, Lena'pe leaders did their best to limit the area they were forced to sell and restrict it to less desirable locations. They further delayed being evicted from lands already sold by using the European legal system. Although they did not fully understand the intricacies of the law, they did know enough to tie things up in court. Exploiting the widespread knowledge that Indians were often victims of land fraud, Lena'pe leaders often challenged the legal validity of deeds to their lands. Taking advantage of unclear wording and vague boundary descriptions, they also played rival landowners against one another. Years passed before some conflicts were resolved; one dragged on in the courts for more than 50 years, through the American Revolution.


Other Lena'pes learned to manipulate European land laws to further their own people's interests. They transformed Indian deeds from simple contracts into legal devices approaching the status of treaties, often allowing them continued hunting and fishing rights on the land, or continued possession of land while cases dragged on in court.


Such leaders, both men and women, were able to attract great numbers of followers. Seen as cooperative by colonial authorities, they were also able to increase their influence among Europeans. In this way, Lena'pe leaders such as Oratam and Sassoonan, who repeatedly affixed their marks to Indian deeds, were more than mere figureheads. They safeguarded their people's life and property under extremely difficult conditions, such leaders came to be chosen by a consensus of both the Lena'pe and the colonist. In early Pennsylvania, for example, the power of the near legendary chief Tammamend was enhanced by his 1683 treaty of friendship with William Penn (1644-1718), Quaker founder of that colony. (Tammamend, celebrated for his wisdom and virtue, would become the namesake of New York City's Tammany Hall political organization in the 1800s.) As the colony grew, so did the power of Tammamend's successor, Sassoonan, would rule through the tacit consent of PA authorities.


Weequehela was the son of an important sakima, and many of his brothers were chiefs of Lena'pe villages between Delaware Bay and New York Bay. Weequehela respected the traditions of his ancestors. He also, however, adopted many European customs. He is known, for example, to have dressed in the high style of the period breeches, linen shirts, and buckled shoes and lived in a wood frame house containing fine china and elegant furnishings. He also was said to have been an owner of black slaves and a bootlegger of illicit alcohol as well as a mill operator. An influential leader, he often successfully defended his people in colonial courts against charges of theft, assault, and murder.


Many Lena'pes settled in or near reservations of a few hundred acres of poor land such as Ockehocking, south of Philadelphia. Others moved to remote and inaccessible swamps, pine barrens, or mountain ridges. Unable to make a living farming their small plots, they traveled from one place to another gathering food, hunting game, and visiting relatives. Many worked for colonists as farm laborers and servants, or sold homemade splint baskets, straw brooms, and herbal remedies. Others found employment with whaling fleets and merchant vessels that sailed from colonial ports such as New York and Boston.


Hundreds joined mission communities. Missionaries had been in the region since the early 1600s, working with little success to convert Lena'pes to Christianity. They had better results during the 1740s, when they built new mission communities in and around Lenapehoking and around the forks of the Delaware River at Bethlehem, PA. Many of these missions were established by Moravian Protestants.


Every Lena'pe community experienced profound change during these years. Influenced by the colonists' way of life, increasing numbers of Lena'pes chose, for example, to build log cabins. Wooden rail fences surrounded their homesteads and fields. Formerly unacquainted with domestic animals, many Lena'pes now raised chickens, horses, hogs, and cattle. Large cornfields and orchards of apple, cherry, and peach trees were planted.


The new influx of settlers provided opportunities to many Lena'pe. Wage labor became important; many Lena'pe men found employment as farm hands, and Lena'pe women worked as dressmakers, house servants, and nursemaids. Lena'pe also found work as laborers in the towns and cities that sprang up in or near their own communities. Lena'pe workers now came to depend, like their non-Indian neighbors upon supplies obtained in local stores or through mail-order catalogs, buying seeds, flour, sugar, tea, tools, and other items. Although they continued to decorate their clothing, tools, and weapons with traditional Indian designs, Lena'pe now purchased most of these objects. Increasingly, people wore ready-made suits and other garments as the animals needed to make hide and fur clothing disappeared as a result of over hunting.


By the 1860s Lena'pe lived in a culture that had undergone profound changes since Europeans had first come among them 300 years earlier. Their numbers had been dwindled disastrously from as many as 24,000 people in 1600 to a total of 2,000 in 1866. A few hundred more were scattered in remote settlements among New Jersey to the western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.


Scattered as they were, it was difficult for Lena'pes to find spouses among their own people. They increasingly married members of other tribes. No matter where they moved, however, they maintained their traditional kinship system of three clans -Turtle, Turkey, and Wolf. These clans lost their matrilineal emphasis, however, as increasingly, both men and women came to own land and share labor, and increasing numbers of Lena'pe would trace decent from the father's side as their greater participation in the mainstream economy emphasized male job holding.


Lena'pes across the continent took more than kinship customs from the mainstream culture during the 19th century. Many adopted the dominant culture's dress, manners, and attitudes. Many learned to speak, read, and write English. A number received college educations.


Lena'pe traditions of tolerance and flexibility helped them survive. Lena'pes have served with distinction in the U.S. military, and many have found positions in education and government. Tribal enterprises, such as gift shops and dance troupes have been established in many Lena'pe communities. Young Lena'pes show a growing interest in their traditions in recent years, and elders continue to pass on the old ways to new generations.