Introduction to the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians
Along the creeks and streams that traversed the Middle Atlantic States, and in particular the Delaware River, lived the Lenni Lenapes, a group of Algonquin-speaking Native Americans. From northern Delaware to southeastern New York and from the Atlantic Ocean to the forests of eastern Pennsylvania, the Lenni Lenapes made their home.
The Lenapes are also known as the Delaware Indians. They acquired this name from the English colonists of the Delaware River Valley. Captain Samuel Argall is credited to be the first European to discover a large bay of water in the year 1610. Argall named this large bay of water the “Delaware Bay” in honor of Sir Thomas West, Third Lord de la Warr, who at that time was the governor of the colony of Virginia. The name Delaware was then used for the river that fed the bay and givento the Lenni Lenape Indians that inhabited the Delaware Valley.
The Lenni Lenapes were not one single tribe, but made up of three groups. In the northern areas of their territory were the Munsee, “the people of the stoney country.” In the middle, or central area where Philadelphia came to be located was the Unami, or the “people down river.” South of the Unami were the Unalactgio, or the “people near the ocean,” who were also known as the Nanticokes.
The Unami tribe, or “people down river” as the name translates, is the group that lived at Shackamaxon, this location being just one of the settlements that they occupied, but apparently one of the more important. The full boundaries of the Unami homeland were the northern two-thirds of New Jersey (including what would become New York’s Staten Island) and the adjoining parts of eastern Pennsylvania woodland, down to just below the future city of Philadelphia.
Besides the three territorial groups with their three lingual dialects that comprised the Lenni Lenapes, there were also three different matrilineal clans that were present in the groups; the Turtle, Wolf, and Turkey. The Turtle Clan was the most important and usually the sachem, or chief of the tribal councils was from this clan. Tammanend, the head sachem that made the peace treaty with William Penn was from the Turtle Clan of the Unami.
Decimated in the 17th century by warfare with other Native American tribes and epidemics brought by the Europeans, the Lenni Lenapes were only a remnant of a once larger and greater people when William Penn arrived in 1682 to make his treaty of peace.
Shackamaxon, the setting of Penn’s Treaty, was a special place for the Unami, as well as all the Lenapes and their neighboring tribes. It was here that they would gather in the summer months to fish, retreating into the woods to hunt when winter came. It was also considered a “neutral ground,” where “representatives of all the tribes on fresh water and east of the Alleghenies between the Potomac, the Hudson, and the lakes, – the Iroquois, the Nanticokes, the Susquehannocks, and the Shawanees, – were accustomed to kindle their council fires, smoke the pipe of deliberations, [and] exchange the wampum belts of explanation and treaty.” It is no wonder then that it was at Shackamaxon that William Penn made his peace treaty with the Lenni Lenapes.
The Homeland of the Lenni Lenape
The Lenni Lenapes originally inhabited the Delaware River Valley from Cape Henlopen, Delaware, northward to include the west side of the lower Hudson Valley in southern New York. The Lenapes were not migratory people, and historians and archeologists think they occupied their homeland for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.
For three centuries (1600-1900) the Lenapes were battered with warfare from other Native American tribes, European colonization, and the expansion of the growing American nation. These events forced the Lenapes to relocate and move continuously. Over the years the Lenapes migrated out of their original homelands, winding up in West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Wisconsin, and Kansas, before most of them finally settled in Oklahoma and Ontario, Canada.
The northernmost group of the Lenapes, the Munsee group, occupied the area where the Delaware River begins, or where Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York come together, including the Catskill Mountains on the western side of the Lower Hudson Valley.
The Unami, the central group, occupied the northern region and central New Jersey, including the island later to be called “Staten Island, NY” and the adjoining portions of eastern Pennsylvania woodland along the Delaware River and parts inland. The Unami southern border reached to an area just below the future city of Philadelphia.
The southern most group, the Unalactigo, inhabited both sides of the lower Delaware River below Philadelphia including the Delaware Bay area and what would currently be northern Delaware, southeast Pennsylvania, and south Jersey.
The Population of the Lenni Lenape
Historians have estimated that in the year 1600 there may have been upwards of 20,000 Lenni Lenapes living in their ancestral homeland. However, during the 17th century there were several intertribal wars among the Native Americans and a number of epidemics brought on by the arrival of the Europeans. These events reduced the Lenape population to about 4,000 at the time (1682) William Penn arrived. The worst decline in population occurred just before Penn’s arrival, during the fifteen-year period of 1655 and 1670.
For nearly the entire 18th century the numbers of these people remained fairly constant, even after they absorbed peoples from several other Algonquin-speaking tribes. By the middle of the 19th century (1845) the population fell even more, with approximately 2,000 Lenapes living in both the United States and Canada.
The U.S. Federal Census of 1910 taken sixty-five years later shows similar numbers. However, during the 20th century the tribe has stabilized and it is currently estimated to be almost 20,000 strong..
The bulk of these nearly 20,000 tribal people live in Oklahoma. Approximately 10,000 Lenape live in eastern Oklahoma and until recently were considered to be a part of the Cherokee Nation, having long ago lost their independence. After waging a long legal battle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Lenape finally regained federal recognition as an independent group in 1996. Today they maintain their tribal office at Bartlesville, Oklahoma. According to their website, their official name is the Delaware Tribe of Indians, Lenni Lenape.
Since that time a second group of Lenni Lenapes have also gained full recognition. This group is called the Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma. They have been referred to in history as the “Absentee Delaware,” as they broke off in 1784 from the main body of Lenapes that were then in Ohio and moved to Missouri. In 1794 they relocated to Texas at the urging of the Spanish Governor who gave them land because he wanted to use them as a buffer between the encroaching white settlers and other more hostile neighboring tribes. This group has about 1,000 members, many of whom reside near their tribal headquarters at Anadarko, Oklahoma.
There currently are said to be about 2,000 Munsee on several reservations in southern Ontario; the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown and the Munsee-Delaware Nation. In the United States, there are about 1,500 Munsee descendants said to be living among the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe in northern Wisconsin. It is reported that there is a mixed Munsee-Ojibwe community near Ottawa, Franklin County, Kansas.
Approximately 1,000 Nanticokes, or Unalactigo, the “southern offshoot” of the Lenapes are said to inhabit the state of Delaware.
The Lenape tribes in Oklahoma only recognize two groups from their old homeland of the Delaware Valley. Those two groups are the Sand Hill Band of Lenape and the Nanticoke-Lenape. For some reason they are less clear about the two tribes that are recognized by the State of New Jersey;the Ramapough Mountain Indians (Ramapo Mountain People) in the north and the Powhatan-Renape Nation at Rancocas. The Ramapough Mountain Indians have approximately 2,500 members, with the Powhatan-Renape Nation having approximately 600 members.
The Language of the Lenni Lenape
Lenape, sometimes called Unami Delaware, was the language of the native inhabitants of the Delaware Valley. Spoken in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, northern Delaware, and southeastern New York. Lenape was part of the larger Algonquian language group.
Lenape had three distinct dialects: Unami, Munsee, and Nanticoke, the three groups that comprised the Lenapes. Unami was the oldest group with Munsee and Nanticoke being almost separate languages because the dialects were so disparate. Historians of the language have said that Nanticoke was last spoken in the middle of the 19th century, but Munsee is still spoken by some of the elder generation in Ontario, Canada.
Today the language would appear to be all but dead, with some interest in trying to revive it. This movement is focused on combining all three dialects to create one Lenape, or Delaware language.
A common tradition that most of the Algonquin speakers maintain is that the Lenape, Nanticoke, Powhatan, and Shawnee were, at some point in history, a single tribe that lived in the Lenni Lenape homeland. The available linguistic evidence that has been produced, as well as the migration patterns that have been determined, would seem to support these ideas. No one has yet placed this possible event in a historical timeline.
Linguists say that more words have been assimilated into the English Language from the Algonquian Language, than all of the other Native American languages combined.
Subdivisions of the Lenni Lenape
Delaware Indian Fort from Campanius New Sweden
Occupying the area between northern Delaware and New York, the Lenni Lenape were not one single tribe, but three distinct groups with sets of independent villages, or bands, that lived together cooperatively. There was no central political authority, and Lenape sachems (chiefs) controlled only a few villages usually located along the same creek, stream, or river. The three traditional Lenape divisions, the Munsee, Unami, and Unalactigo, were based on the differences in the dialect of the language they spoke, as well as their geographic location. It is thought that there was a common sense of being “Lenape” because they did have a shared system of three matrilineal clans, which transected all of the groups’ villages and bands. The three matrilineal clans were Turtle, Wolf, and Turkey. Among the Unami and Unalactigo, the Turtle clan ranked as the most important, followed by Wolf and Turkey.. It is alleged that the Munsee group did not include any Turtle clan, only Wolf and Turkey. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Unalactigo had been all but absorbed by the Unami. The Munsee is said to have evolved into a separate tribe as well.. The European colonists saw no difference in the three groups and assumed that they were one tribe. The Lenapes were not a unified tribe at all and did not come together until after they migrated to Ohio in the 1740’s. Even then their tribal organization followed the pattern of their traditional clans. The tribal council was composed of three sachems, or chiefs, with one selected from each of the Turtle, Wolf, and Turkey clans. The head “sachem” was almost always a member of the Turtle Clan. These positions were hereditary and involved specific selected families, although they still needed to be confirmed for election.
The History of the Lenni Lenape
The Lenni Lenape Indians, or Delaware Indians as they came to be called, were the original inhabitants of the Delaware Valley before the arrival of the Europeans. The name Lenni Lenape is said to mean “true men” or “original people.” The Lenapes original homeland was all of the area of the present state of New Jersey, the southeast section of state of New York, the northern areas of the state of Delaware, and the eastern part of the state of Pennsylvania.
The Lenapes appear to be called the “original people” because many of the oral traditions handed down over the years by the Algonquin Indian tribes, of which they are part, state that the Lenape’s homeland was the original birthplace of the Algonquins, hence the reason why many of the various tribes see the Lenape as their “grandfather.”
The Lenape were divided into three groups, based mainly on geography and dialect. The Munsee tribe was in the north, the Unami occupied the middle portion, and the Nanticokes lived in the southern region. The Unami tribe, or “people down river” as the name translates, is the group that lived at Shackamaxon, the site where William Penn’s treaty would take place. Shackamaxon was just one of the settlements that the Unami occupied. The full boundaries for the Unami homeland were the northern two-thirds of the state of New Jersey (including New York’s Staten Island), the eastern parts of Pennsylvania south to the area just south of the present city of Philadelphia.
The Lenapes are also known as the Delaware Indians, a name given to them by English colonists because they lived along the Delaware River which was named to honor the governor of Virginia.
As European colonization continued, and the Lenapes suffered losses to other tribes, and finally as the American nation was founded and began to expand, the tribal peoples began their long trek westward.. They would eventually settle primarily in the state of Oklahoma and the province of Ontario in Canada. However during their 130 year history of migration to these destinations, the Lenapes stayed for varying amounts of time in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Some stayed permanently in these locations, but the largest contingent eventually went to reservations in Oklahoma and Ontario.
The tribal organizations had acouncil with three sachems (chiefs), one each from the Turtle, Wolf, and Turkey clans, the three clans that ranged across the three subdivisions of the Lenape: the Unami, the Munsee, and the Unalactigo. The Turtle sachem was always the “head chief,” and thus Tammanend, the chief that made the treaty with William Penn, was from the Turtle clan of the Unami. Shackamaxon, the place where the treaty was held, was part of the Unami homeland.
The settlements of the Lenapes have been described as a “series of small autonomous communities situated on navigable streams” on each side of the Delaware River, each with its “own town chief, or king, and his great men.” A settlement would typically have a rectangular council house and various types of wigwams. Some villages of the Munsee tribes were “palisaded” because of their proximity on the southern border to the Mohawks and thus warring was more common to them than the Unami and Unalactigo.
The villages of the Lenape were often occupied by several hundred in the summer months and fewer in the winter months as many departed for the interior to hunt. They used dugout canoes for transportation, with the men responsible for hunting and fishing.. Most of their diet was sustained by farming, which was the women’s job. The Lenape diet consisted of many vegetables that we eat today, such as beans, squash, corn, and sweat potatoes. They also cultivated tobacco for their peace pipes. It was not uncommon to see a farm of 200 acres.
In the early parts of the 17th century, records show there were hostilities between the Iroquoian speaking Susquehannock (Minquas) and Algonquin speaking Lenapes. The warring increased when the Europeans arrived, as the Minquas tried to “eliminate the Lenni Lenape and monopolize trade with the Europeans.”
The competition and warring that existed north of the Lenni Lenape tribal areas between the Mohawk and Mahican also affected the Munsees. In the second decade of the 17th century, the Mohawk had already begun taking control of the hunting territory of the Munsees that had been previously shared among the tribes. As a result, some Munsees supported the Mahicans during their war against the Mohawk, and by the end of the 3rd decade of the 17th century, a number of Munsee groups were conquered by the Mohawk and forced to pay tribute.
In the south, the Unami and Unalactigo also were affected by these rivalries. Beginning about 1626, they were attacked by the Susquehannock (Minqua) from the Susquehanna Valley to the west. Long-time enemies of the Iroquois, the Susquehannock not only sought better access to the Dutch trade in the Delaware Valley, but were concerned that if the Mohawk defeated the Mahican who were aligned with the Munsee in the north, then they would also perhaps try and seize the territory in the Delaware Valley. There had been wars between the Lenape and Susquehannock before the Europeans came, but because the Lenape greatly outnumbered the Susquehannock, they were able to keep them in check. The value of the Dutch trade and the threat of Mohawk conquests made it more desirable and necessary for the Susquehannock to war with the Lenape.
These factors motivated the Susquehannock to attack the Lenapes with unprecedented ferocity. The five-year period of 1630 to1635, witnessed the Susquehannock attacks on Lenape villages throughout southeast Pennsylvania, ultimately forcing the Lenape to retreat across the Delaware River and into South Jersey, or to the south in Delaware. The brutal war helped the Susquehannock to take full control of the both the Dutch and the emerging English trade along the lower Delaware Valley. At the same time that this war was being perpetrated on the Lenape, there was an outbreak of smallpox along the Hudson and Delaware Valleys. The Lenape, having lost half of their original population to war and disease,became a defeated and subject people, forced to abandon most of their homeland west of the Delaware River.. When the Swedes first arrived in the later 1630’s to establish their colony, the Lenape needed permission from the Susquehannock to sell their land to the Swedes.
The Lenape Unami and Unalactigo were able to avoid being drawn into the Esopus Wars that took place between 1659 and1664. These two wars were fought between the Dutch in New York who allied themselves with the Mohawks and Senecas, and the Esopus tribes of the Munsee. While the Unami and Unalactigo sympathized with the Munsee, they were too occupied helping the Susquehannock in their war with the Iroquois to take any action. As a subject people, they were required to assist the Susquehannock.
The Iroquois first attacked the Lenape villages in the Delaware Valley during the 1660’s. In 1661, another outbreak of smallpox hit the Susquehannock and they were devastated. Soon after, the epidemic spread with similar results to the Lenape. War and epidemics caused great population losses for the Lenape between the years 1660 and 1670. Eventually, by the year 1675, when the Iroquois finally defeated the Susquehannock, the terms of their surrender mandated that the Susquehannock’s control of the Lenape revert to the Iroquois. After this event the Lenape were made to pay a yearly tribute to the Iroquois. They became part of the “covenant chain,” which was an unequal association in which the Iroquois had power to speak in council and the inferior Lenape had to do the bidding of the Iroquois.
During the time of the wars between the Susquehannock and the Iroquois, the Lenape Unami had absorbed the Lenape Unalactigos to the south. When the Lenape were finally allowed to return to the west side of the Delaware River during the 1660’s, the three subdivisions of the Lenape were reduced to two, the Unami and the Munsee. With the war’s destruction and the severe reduction of the population from disease, by the time William Penn arrived in 1682, he “inherited the remnants of the wasted Lenni Lenape tribe.”