Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

« David J. Schmidt Collection

The Lenape gave much better than they got

By David Schmidt
Special to the Main Line Life

The were proud, happy people, these Lenape. But for the white man they were savages to be exploited in order to gain wealth and power. All this made no sense to the Lenape. All they saw were strange, but powerful, people who were not only different from them, but groups of them were totally different from one another.

Meeting with the Dutch, Swedes, Germans, English, and Welsh confused the Lenape because each of these groups had a different language, culture, religion and purpose for being there. Why they couldn’t speak the same language and worship the same gods was lost on the Lenape.

Not Europeans, so they were savages

While the Lenape were confused, the Europeans were parochial – the Indians were different and that was bad. Jerry Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society is a local expert on the Lenape in the Main Line area. He puts it simply “To the Europeans the Lenape had to be pagans: they weren’t Christian or Jewish, so they had no religion, which wasn’t true. They also had to be “savages” because: they had no culture or society, again untrue, but in fact didn’t use metal tools/implements nor did they have a written language,” Francis says.

In another example of applying their own perspectives, Europeans observed the Lenape drinking water from the streams and rivers. They knew that this was unsafe so the Lenape had to be savages. It never occurred to the white men that, over the centuries, Europeans rivers and lakes had become so polluted people were no longer accustomed to fresh drinking water.

In spite of what the white men thought, the Lenape traditions and beliefs stretched back into the misty darkness, kept alive by the ‘Wisdom Keepers’ who, as with other cultures without a written language, maintained an exact oral tradition of the tribe’s history, customs, culture and religious practices from generation to generation.

The Europeans clumped them together with other area tribes and called them all The Delaware, because most of them lived along the river, or in its valleys. That name comes from a Virginia seafarer Samuel Argall who in 1610 discovered the bay and named it in honor of Sir Thomas West, Third Lord de la Warre and the first governor of Virginia. English colonists later used the term Delaware for the bay, the river and the native peoples who lived there.

In fact, the word Lenape means ‘the people.’ They were a part of a larger group called the Algonquin. This Algonquian civilization considered the Lenape to be the ‘grandfathers,’ a term of great respect stemming from the widespread belief that the Lenape were the original tribe of all Algonquin-speaking peoples, and this often gave the Lenape the authority to settle disputes between rival tribes.

Earlier colonists from Asia

A common tradition shared by most Algonquin maintains that the Lenape, Nanticoke, Powhatan, and Shawnee were, at some point in the past, a single tribe which lived in the Lenape homeland. Linguistic evidence and migration patterns tend to support this, leaving only the question of ‘when.’ They are thought to have been migrants from a similar habitat in Northeastern Asia, having crossed to North America and moved south to the Great Lakes and eventually into the Northeast. Most likely, they have been in the Northeast area for at least 11,000 years. The climate during this movement produced severely cold winters and brief summers.

Adding to this discussion, in 1836 Constantine Rafinesque published a book in which he described the Walam Olum, pictograph-etched wooden sticks he says were used by the Lenape to record their history. This history begins, with their departure from Siberia and follows their movement across North America until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. Rafinesque’s reputation has ranged from pioneering genius to charlatan, and the sticks have since disappeared. The question is whether an oral tradition like the Walam Olum could have survived for 14,000 (perhaps 40,000) years, and most scholars (primarily Europeans) question its authenticity.

Lenape society

Occupying the area between northern Delaware and New York, the Lenape were not really a single tribe in 1600 but a set of independent villages and bands. There was no central political authority, and Lenape sachems, or chiefs, controlled only a few villages usually located along the same stream. There were three traditional Lenape divisions (Munsee, Unami, and Unalactigo) which were based on differences in dialect and location. Local tribes were Unami, but there was, a common sense of being “Lenape” from a shared system of three matrilineal clans which cut across their village and band organizations. There was no formal marriage ceremony, but the Lenape were usually monogamous.

They were a warm and hospitable people. The Lenape tended to be accommodating and peaceful, but this masked a temper which, if provoked, could react with terrible violence. There was no concept of individual land ownership, but Lenape separated to defined family hunting territories (sometimes community owned) in the winter.

They used three types of wigwams; round with dome roof, oblong with arched roof, and oblong with a ridge pole. Instead of the birch bark canoes of other eastern Indians, they used dugout canoes, fashioned from a single tree trunk. They were hunters and gatherers. Men did the hunting and fishing, but most of the Lenape’s diet came from farming, which was solely the responsibility of the women. Corn, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, and tobacco were grown, and fields often covered more than 200 acres. Because of the richness of the Eastern Seaboard, they lived well.

Within 100 years of colonization their culture was no longer seen, and the few remaining Lenape were on the run west. When the first European colonists appeared it’s estimated there were between 8,000 and 12,000 Lenape people.

What they looked like

Men removed all facial hair and the women often colored their faces with red ochre. Tattooing was common to both sexes. Older men wore their hair long, but warriors usually had a scalp lock greased to stand erect. Although this hairstyle is often called a “Mohawk,” it was common to most of the eastern tribes. William Penn describes them in this manner in Albert Cook Myers’ (editor) book. William Penn’s Own Account of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians:


“For their Persons, they are generally tall, streight, wellbuilt, and of singular Proportion; they tread strong and clever, and mostly walk with a lofty Chin: of Complexion, Black, but by desiqn, as the Gypsies in England: They grease themselves with Bears-fat clarified, and using no defence against Sun or Weather, their skins must needs be swarthy …”

By 1750 the Lenape had appropriated many of the Europeans’ traditions, wearing silver nose rings and clothing decorated with bright cloth.

White men brought death

The clash of cultures between the Indian and the European worked both ways, and by the time Penn’s Quakers arrived on the scene most of the damage had already been done. By then there were perhaps 10 to 15 bands consisting of 25-30 members roaming roughly the area we now call the Delaware Valley.

Several factors had caused this. First and perhaps most vicious, smallpox and European diseases had ravaged a population undefended from Western diseases. Second, long before the coming of Penn, the Lenape and other tribes competed to the point of war for the right to trap and sell beaver pelts. Between 1630 and 1635, the Susquehannock attacked Lenape villages in southeast Pennsylvania and drove them across the Delaware River into New Jersey or south into northern Delaware. They had to get permission to cross over to the west and pay for the privilege.

By the time the Swedes arrived on the lower Delaware River in 1638, the fighting had ended. Lower Merion was a wooded area and was familiar ground to at least several Swedish fur traders and hunters. Both the Lenape and traders traveled by water. But there were paths leading to other villages and between tribal areas. For instance the Allegheny Path linked the Lenape with their western neighbors, the Susquehannock. It followed Old Lancaster and Montgomery Avenues, eventually ending up where Lancaster Ave. is now.

“There was a trading post at 610 Shady Lane [off Montgomery Avenue in Narberth] that lies on this pathway,” Francis says. “Traders gave ‘silver’ beavers to both Native American and European trappers in exchange for beaver pelts. Since the trappers didn’t have pockets, they would string them together through the ring on the beaver’s nose and carry them around their neck,” he says.

Then the Quakers came

The Quakers, of all the settlers to come from Europe, perhaps best understood the Lenape philosophy, because theirs was much the same. “The Lenape lived in unprotected villages, and unlike anywhere else in the original colonies the Quakers didn’t have to live in fortified settlements,” Francis says. “Also, they believed in living in peace and respected the Lenape, who had helped them tremendously when they first arrived,” he says. “Without that help the first year, the Welsh may not have survived.”

Penn entertained the curious notion that his grant did not override native rights to the land. Before beginning his “Holy Experiment” – a colony with religious tolerance – Penn sent William Markham to negotiate the purchase of southeast Pennsylvania. In November, Penn arrived and signed a treaty at Shackamaxon (Philadelphia) with Tammamend, the sachem chosen by several groups of Lenape to represent them for the occasion.

There’s an interesting story that shows how facts change with time, at least for the Europeans. According to an American legend, the Lenape chief Tammany sold Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626 for twenty-five dollars in trade goods – an event commemorated in the name of a New York City political machine noted mainly for its corruption. There are a few things wrong with this story: his name was Tammanend, not Tammany; and he sold Philadelphia to the English in 1682, not Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626! Theagreement has been described by Voltaire as “the one treaty with the Indians that the whites never broke.” Believing the land west of the Lenape belonged to the Susquehannock, Penn returned to England without establishing the western boundaries of his purchase.

Upon Penn’s death in 1718, Penn’s three sons by his second marriage inherited his estate but none of his honesty. In 1737 Pennsylvania authorities “found” the infamous Walking Purchase agreement, a treaty supposedly signed in 1686 in which the Lenape ceded the land between the junction of Delaware and Lehigh Rivers as far west as a man could walk in a day and a half (about 40 miles).

This was bad enough, but Penn’s son Thomas hired three of the fastest men in the colony and offered a prize to the one who could cover the greatest distance. Running on a prepared path, the winner went twice the distance the Delaware had anticipated which cost them most of the Lehigh valley.

In addition, the Lenape didn’t understand the white man’s concept of land ownership and that eventually led to trouble. For them, selling the land didn’t mean the things on the land belonged to anyone, it was just the use they were selling. Game, for instance, wasn’t covered by the sale, as far as the Lenape were concerned, so as they hunted the white man’s land, they didn’t expect them to be upset about it.

But the die was cast, and for the remaining Lenape the lack of game and the intrusion of the white men with farms and fences went against everything they understood. What they did realize was that if they stayed, they would eventually disappear, so they moved west. “Eventually they found their way to Ohio, where they came under the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” says Francis. “From there they were moved further west. Although some Lenape found their way to Canada, the majority of the survivors ended up on reservations in Oklahoma.

Today they remain a small band with tribal legends of a better time, in a betterplace, where the water ran free and clean Ð until their world changed forever.

Some Indian Names we know today

Delaware River: Lenape Name: Lenapewihittuck – “river of the Lenape; great stream” English Name: named after Lord De La Warre of Jamestown.

Schuylkill River: Lenape Name: Ganoshowanna – “falling water”, “where we drink.” DutchName: Skokihl – “hidden river” because its mouth was not seen as it was passed on the Delaware

Conshohocken: “pleasant valley”, ‘at the long fine land”, “flat the place of the greatland”

Manayunk: Manaiunk: lands along the Schuylkill River, “where we go to drink”

Passyunk: “in the valley”

Perkiomen: “where there are cranberries”

Shackamaxon: “place of chiefs”, “the place where chiefs are made” chief town of the Unami tribe (now Kensington, where William Penn lived for a time, early in 1683, in the house of Thomas Fairman, the surveyor, and where by uncertain tradition, Penn is alleged to have held treaties with the Lenape)

Wissahickon: “cat-fish stream”

Shouwunnok: “salty people,” Lenape name for Europeans