This tab will focus on the southern Lenape who historically inhabited southeastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New Jersey, and Delaware. For the purpose of clarity, the term Lenape is used to refer to the southern Lenape throughout this website. However, the Munsee and to a lesser extent the late ethnogenesis of Wyoming Delawares also fall under the broader umbrella of the Lenape people. Thus, the cultural outline of the Lenape provided below also serves more or less as a cultural outline of the Munsee and loosely for the Wyoming Delawares.

The term Lenape means “the people” in the southern Lenape language dialect of Unami (as opposed to the northern dialect of Munsee). This is quite typical for a native people. Many native groups’ terms for their people translate to the “the people.” The meaning behind this is spiritual. Tribes saw themselves as the “real” people, while neighboring tribes were seen as lesser people, or even, often, as bad spirits, or “manitou,” in the physical form of people (for more on this see “Nations” tab). However, the historical record indicates that this did not lend itself to a warlike culture for the Lenape. In fact the Lenape were peacemakers, and understood themselves as a diplomatic people on a spiritual level. In fact, their villages were not palisaded, in contrast to the other tribes of the region like the Susquehannocks. This was likely because they did not have much reason to fear violence from outsiders because of their diplomatic relationships. Of course, one can speculate that Lenape proximity to military powers like the Haudenosaunee and Susquehannocks contributed to their becoming peacemakers and diplomats out of a need for survival, and they would probably be correct. However, the reality still stands and is worth noting, as this inclination toward diplomacy defined Lenape relations with colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

Lenape culture, of course, went beyond just being strategically diplomatic. Their spiritual life was animistic and pantheistic, like most native groups of eastern North America. They believed the world, and objects and beings in the world, were filled with spirits. These spirits, known as manitou, could be good or bad.  Understanding the world as filled with spirits lent itself to a reverent way of life. Common activities, like hunting for example, held tremendous spiritual significance and certain rituals would guide proper action in all facets of life. In addition to the belief in manitou, the Lenape had an annual ceremony known to scholars as the “Green Corn Ceremony,” which was a celebration of the harvest accompanied by dancing and a great feast. This celebration was the most important spiritual event of the year for the Lenape. 

A major cultural mark of distinction for the Lenape was that they did not engage in the practice of mourning war, unlike the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, for example (see “Haudenosaunee” under “Nations” for more on mourning war). Two explanations that likely work in tandem can explain their not making mourning war. First, their cultural roots and evolution simply did not historically partake in the practice, and never adopted it. Second, they were surrounded by the Susquehannocks and Haudenosaunee, who were major military powers. Thus, mourning war would be strategically foolish. 

Although mourning war was historically not an element of Lenape culture, it did eventually start to occur with some frequency as more and more Lenape died of disease brought by European settlers, particularly toward the late 1600s and into the 1700s as Quakers populated Pennsylvania in tremendous numbers. Many Lenape came to understand that they were suffering because of angry and evil manitou that did not approve of European colonization. So, naturally, some men sought revenge for the death of their kin through the practice of mourning war, which they would have been familiar with thanks to their neighbors. One can easily imagine that these movements toward mourning war indicated somewhat of a psychological, and spiritual, break. After all, losing approximately 90-95% of one’s community within a few years has extraordinary effects on the human psyche. However, socio-political factors certainly enabled the shift toward mourning war. Lenape political life was such that no one could tell another person how to live, everyone was free and equal. For the most part, the Lenape did not have a legal system, but they did have a particular way of dealing with murder, or any death seen as being another person’s fault. The closest kin of the party wronged would have the option of revenge or wampum. Revenge would entail the execution of the wrongful party, while wampum would mean that the wrongful party would have to pay the kin of the wronged in wampum, or shells that held value ranging from currency to record-keeping. Thus, when Lenape chose to engage in mourning war, they really were not going much farther than choosing revenge over wampum. The Europeans did bring the diseases destroying native communities, and were thus responsible for the deaths in the minds of many natives. Of course, there were tremendous disagreements within Lenape society about mourning war, and it did remain a fringe practice at least until Lenape resettlement in the Wyoming Valley (see “Wyoming Delawares” under “Nations” for more). 

Turning our attention now to the historical forces that led to the Lenape migration into the Wyoming Valley, the narrative starts, naturally, with the arrival of the first Europeans on Lenape soil – the Dutch around 1615. Although the Lenape were certainly aware of colonial incursions in New England and Virginia, nothing could have prepared them for the day that Europeans arrived on their land. Simply, the tripartite monster of colonialism – war, trade, and disease – was unavoidable and unfathomably destructive (for more on war, trade, and disease, please see the “A Rapidly Changing World” tab under “Understanding the Wyoming Valley”). European material culture quickly changed the way that Lenape interacted with and existed in the world. Further, disease swept through the Lenape mercilessly, killing upwards of ninety percent, perhaps even closer to ninety-five percent, of the population within five years of Dutch contact. These destabilizing forces reached a boiling point in 1631 at the Dutch colony of Swaanendael, or Zwaanendael. 

The colony of Swaanendael in present-day southern Delaware was founded on a misunderstanding of native landholding practices. Dutch settlers obtained permission from Lenape representatives to use the land in exchange for material goods. The Dutch took this as a sale of the land, but the Lenape did not see it that way. The Lenape merely saw it as an agreement that the Dutch could share the land with them. This sort of misunderstanding was actually quite common in the early colonial period. Native peoples did not have the conception of private property that Europeans did. Natives did not understand land as something they could own individually. This had to do largely with their animistic spiritual beliefs and their reverence for nature. Because of this particular misunderstanding, the Dutch established their colony and fenced it off from the natives as if it was a private parcel of land. The Lenape found this to be a demonstration of power on the part of the Dutch and a breach of contract. In response to this perceived incursion, as well as Dutch settlers reportedly assaulting native women, Lenape warriors descended on the village and killed 32 settlers and set the settlement ablaze. This show of force is rather jarring considering the Lenape reputation as peacemakers and diplomats. Thus, it suggests that the Lenape felt that attacking Swaanendael was a necessary course of action to demonstrate their power and sovereignty, and to strike fear in the hearts of foreign settlers.

While the Lenape struggled with how to deal with European colonists, war broke out with their Susquehannock neighbors. From 1626 until 1636, Lenape and Susquehannock warriors periodically engaged each other. This warring brought some devastation to the land and destabilized European trade markets. However, out of this war came an alliance between the two nations as they recognized that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Europeans were greater in number and posed great threats to each of them. Due to their ravaged populations and geographic proximity, this alliance, solidified through intermarrying and thus kinship bonds, was mutually beneficial and would last for the remainder of the two nations’ existence in Pennsylvania. 

At the culmination of the Lenape-Susquehannock war, Swedish (and Finnish) colonists established the settlement of New Sweden in and around what is now Wilmington, Delaware. This settlement lasted from 1638 until 1655 when New Sweden was captured by the Dutch in the Second Northern War. This brief seventeen year period of settlement was a tremendously unique and fascinating blip in the history of North American colonization. Due to a combination of strategy, diplomatic tendencies, and supply issues, the Swedes adopted a friendly, alliance-seeking relationship with their neighbors. As their settlement grew, they respected the sovereignty of the Lenape and other surrounding tribes, and established deep kinship bonds with the Lenape through intermarriage. These bonds resulted in deep loyalty between the two groups, with members of each group willing to risk their lives for the other in conflicts with other tribes and colonial powers. This period of Swedish-Lenape mutual flourishing was short and somewhat insignificant to the course of colonial relations, but is certainly a profound relationship given what we know about the horrors of virtually all other settlements in North America by European powers.

After a brief period of further Dutch rule, the British Empire gained control of the region in 1667. In 1681, William Penn arrived to establish the Pennsylvania colony and brought with him a mass migration of Quakers. Further, with religious tolerance serving as the foundation for the new colony, English Catholics, Scots-Irish Presbyterians and other religious minorities in Britain flocked to Pennsylvania. This migration was like nothing the Lenape ever saw before, and, as a result, was overwhelming. While William Penn sought to tolerate the Lenape and other tribes and nations in Pennsylvania, the sheer size of the new population in Pennsylvania would prove too much for the Lenape. Ironically, Penn’s attempts (which did result in some success) to maintain a peace between the peoples was thwarted by the magnitude of Quaker migration. Being vastly outnumbered made it virtually impossible for the Lenape of southeastern Pennsylvania to maintain their freedom without benevolent tolerance from a greater power.

With William Penn’s death in 1718 came catastrophic change in colonial Indian policy. Penn dealt with the Lenape in good faith with honesty, staying true to his Quaker values. However, his sons, Thomas and John, did not deal with the natives the way their father did. Instead, they are remembered for one of the most infamous events in the history of Pennsylvania, the Walking Purchase.

In 1737, the Penn’s and Pennsylvania provincial secretary James Logan claimed that the Lenape had agreed decades prior to sell a stretch of land starting in the Lehigh Valley to as far west as a man could walk in a day and a half. This “agreement” from the 1680s that the Penn’s happened to discover was likely a misrepresentation of an old treaty, or, perhaps more likely, an outright forgery. Either way, the Penn’s and Logan clearly aimed to defraud the Lenape of a large stretch of land. They hired the three fastest runners in the Pennsylvania colony to run as far as they could in a day and a half, then claimed the land east of their run. They claimed nearly 1.3 million acres of land, comparable to the size of Rhode Island. They then sold the land to settlers and forced the natives off the land. Thus, the Lenape of southern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware were pushed into the Wyoming Valley, where they would establish kinship ties with other refugee groups and form the ethnogenesis known as the “Wyoming Delawares” (See “Wyoming Delawares” under “Nations” for more).

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