Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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Following Native American Footsteps

Main Line Life History

When William Penn began to create a haven of religious tolerance in Pennsylvania, the area was populated by Leni Lenape — their name for themselves, meaning “real men.” There weren’t many of them, perhaps several hundred remaining in this area.

bare-chested man and woman with a small child running around their legs
A “Delaware” family (from a 1653 Swedish map). The artist drew what he wanted to see, with the intent to advertise in the New World, resulting in this inaccurate picture of the Leni Lenape. (Courtesy of The Lower Merion Historical Society)

Disease had been crueler to these peaceful people than all the indignities imposed on them by the more aggressive Susquehannocks to the west and League of the Five Nations, an alliance of Iroquois-speaking tribes to the north. While the Leni Lenape were the most important of several tribes that spoke an Algonkian language, by the time of the Quakers they were a small group and wanted little more than to be left alone. They kept moving, staying out of the way of their warring brethren.

They traded and even fought wars with other tribes, but, for the most part, they were peaceful. They were a wandering people; their villages weren’t overly permanent, being constructed of bark and wood, and would easily disappear when needed no longer. They did little but touch the land they passed through. To them the land was part of a living presence made up of every living thing and even things that weren’t.

They took what was necessary from nature; they hunted and fished and trapped. They took from the forest for their shelter and clothing. From the ground they quarried spears and arrowheads of rock.

They grew some food, but they weren’t truly farmers. They didn’t own land, and within the areas they controlled the concept of ownership was somewhat foreign to them. Nature was to be used, but not because it was their right, rather because that’s why it was there. There was a unity of nature, of which they were just a part. They didn’t see the natural world as something to be conquered, but something to be used and respected.

But then everything changed. A force so much more vibrant, so much more invasive, showed up: the Europeans. The Native Americans weren’t unaware of these foreigners; they’d been a presence for several generations.

American history created a certain amount of confusion by renaming this tribe and others to names apropos to white ears. With the arrogance of conquerors, the tribe was renamed the “Delaware,” after the river named by a politically aware explorer in 1610. Captain Samuel Argall of Virginia visited the bay and named it for Lord de la Warr, governor of Virginia.

It must have been confusing to the native Americans. Some Europeans were coming up the river from the ocean and even settling down in the area. There were the Dutch and Swedes who came to explore or to trade for furs. The Leni Lenape provided the traders with some furs, but this was a dangerous process. There were too many less-peaceful Indians who would happily accept the bounty for these skins.

These Europeans came and went. The few traders who settled along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers probably had little impact of the overall life of the Leni Lenape. That was to change, a change brought about quite by accident. It was Penn’s doing of good that changed all this. He was offering sanctuary to oppressed European Protestants, at least those who had the money to purchase land from him. Folks began to show up, ready to till the land and build a comfortable life in the wilderness.

For the most part they were good people — Quakers and Mennonites, who believed in the equality of man and in Gods’ demand that they do good and live virtuous lives. But in spite of their goodness, these men, their families and their servants planted the seeds that would lead the Native Americans to abandon their lands and move west, away from the Europeans.

The Leni Lenape were no fools; if some stranger wanted to give them items for the right to exist on the lands just as they did, well, so much the better. What was truly inexplicable to the two cultures were the totally different perspectives. Europeans were completely and totally convinced theirs was the only view of the world, all else was ignorance. In spite of their Celtic heritage, the Welsh who came to America were religious zealots, and their religion was based on Greco-Roman concepts completely foreign to other cultures.

One clear example of this was the differences between the European and American views of transportation.

map of Philadelphia and northwest, with trails depicted in dots; overlay of a stone spearpoint attached to a shaft
Native American trails traveled along what’s now Old Lancaster Road, Montgomery and Lancaster avenues and Conestoga Road. As Leni Lenape and others strode these ridgelines, they saw beautiful vistas of nature, which they believed they were part of. Many of these same paths became colonial roads and even modern highways. Notice the trail that follows what is essentially the route of the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the map. Lenape artifact: an archaic period spearhead. (Courtesy of The Lower Merion Historical Society)

In America, long before the arrival of white men, there was a complex and expansive network of trails and paths used for centuries by Native Americans. Until his death, Paul W. Wallace was one of the experts about Indian trails in America, and the former Pennsylvania historian notes that the lack of good waterways in Pennsylvania meant that most travel was going to be by land.

Geography determined this, because there were few riverways between the mountains — which run north and south without many breaks all the way down the various colonies. So travel was going to be accomplished overland. Although water wasn’t helpful as a transportation method, through the eons ancient watercourses had worn the mountains, creating gaps between the ranges that the trails and paths followed to the west.

These trails ran to the Pacific, to the Gulf of Mexico and even the tip of Florida. One of the more important, the Allegheny Trail, ran through the Main Line, actually following parts of Montgomery and Old Lancaster avenues. The trail continued west, and even made connections with other trails in what is now Independence, Mo.

Other trails ran from North Carolina to the Delaware Water Gap, bringing refugees from the southern tribes to the Delaware Valley. According to Wallace, a trail passed from Philadelphia to Conestoga, then onto the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and on through the Cumberland Gap to the wilderness.

These paths weren’t very big, often being no more than 18 inches wide. There were many of them, and they were often defined by who used them. There were trials for hunters, for warriors, for messengers and emissaries. Families traveling between villages used different paths.

Look at a map of these trails today, and based on their number and complexity, you could be viewing a modern road map. But to the white men, these trails were a demonstration of the superiority of European culture. This was because they didn’t grasp the philosophical differences. These pathways weren’t unsophisticated, just simple.

What Europeans missed was that these paths and trails weren’t constructed but followed. Often they weren’t even maintained, except by the passing of travelers, who might clear a fallen tree but equally well might just go around it.

Nature had designed most of them, and the Leni Lenape and their fellow Native Americans merely moved along them. When it was necessary to ford a river or stream or avoid a steep climb, the Indians did the same thing that water and animals do in nature: followed the course of least resistance.

But these paths were different from the ones Europeans would create — they weren’t straight.

The concept that a path should run in a straight line had no basis with Native Americans. Trails didn’t do that; rivers didn’t do that; bear and deer didn’t move that way, so why should mankind?

The white man’s vain concept that mankind was unique and not a part of nature meant a completely incomprehensible purpose and manner of life to Native Americans. They couldn’t understand the European view that nature was to be harnessed to man’s purpose — that nature was a toolbox God had given to men to change their world.

For the natives, straight lines weren’t better, faster or even often seen. Truthfully, so few things in nature are actually straight that the concepts associated with straight lines and angles (as opposed to curves) were a byproduct of a culture’s development of mathematics.

At the time of the immigration of white men, Native American knowledge of mathematics, with the exception of a highly developed intuitive sense of geometry, probably wasn’t far beyond arithmetic. Farther to the south this wasn’t the case, as there was a long tradition of scholarly mathematics: proof of which exists today in ancient Aztec and Mayan calendars.

But for most Native Americans, a straight line was an enigma they saw as detrimental. Straight lines were bad — they were fences, which blocked the natural flow of animal life. They were roads, which created artificial divisions of the environment. They became buildings, which marred the land with their permanence.

To the white men, they represented progress: God’s favorites grappling with existence to turn it to man’s purpose. Roads would bring more Europeans. Roads would bring greater change to the unity of nature.

And while roads were doing that, trails were taking Native Americans west, away from the white man’s imposition on nature. But those trails wouldn’t go far or fast enough to save them from the tragic results of the clash of these two incompatible cultures along both trails and roads of the New World.