views updated May 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Lenape, Munsee, River Indians, Turkey Tribe, Unami


Identification. By the end of the eighteenth century the name "Delaware" had become associated with three groups of native people who originally occupied the valley of the Delaware River. The first Europeans called the various people living along the Delaware River by the collective term "River Indians." Years later, when the river was named the Delaware after Sir Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, the first governor of the Virginia colony, the "River Indians" became known by the same name. The few remaining speakers of the Delaware language and the descendants of these people who still strongly identify themselves as Delaware live in two "communities" in Oklahoma. Like their ancestors, they continue to maintain a dispersed residential pattern, but now the areas between individual households are occupied by other Americans. The concentrations of modern "Delaware" can be found in the northeast of Oklahoma in the Bartlesville area, and in the western part of the state around Anadarko. Although these contemporary Delaware appear quite similar to the other Americans around them, many old cultural traits are embedded in their life-styles.

Location. In aboriginal times the three cultures (Lenape, Munsee, "Jerseys") now popularly known as Delaware occupied separate parts of the river valley. The Lenape, the best known of these groups, are the focus of this description. The Lenape inhabited the area along the west side of the lower Delaware River, from old Duck Creek in northern Delaware up to Tohiccon Creek, which flows south of and parallel to the Lehigh River. Lenape territory ran inland as far as the sources of these feeder streams and all of those in between. Today the remnants of the Lenape traditionalists, including eight people who still speak the language, live in Oklahoma. The people who lived on the east side of the lower Delaware River, occupying all of southern New Jersey south of the Raritan River, are identified only as the "Jerseys" in early documents. When these "Jerseys" left their territory they migrated north and northwest, and most of their descendants now live in Canada. The Munsee, or Minsi, occupied the upper Delaware River drainage. By the end of the seventeenth century they had separated into several groups, some of which moved in concert with the Lenape while other Munsee chose Different cultures to live among. A small group of approximately 250 was still living in Kansas in the 1970s. The true Lenape, often referred to as "Unami" after 1750, became known as the "Turtles." The "Jerseys," who after 1780 were sometimes called the "Unalachtigo," later became known as the "Turkeys," and the Munsee (or Minsi) became identified as the "Wolf.

Demography. In 1600 the total aboriginal population of the foraging Lenape was between 250 and 500. The population of the "Jerseys" was somewhat larger, possibly numbering 800 to 1,000 individuals. The Munsee also may have had as many as 1,000 members, but their early history is less clear. Today, thousands of Delaware maintain an ethnic identity through various organizations. These groups, primarily located in the south-central part of the country, include over 25,000 members. The two largest are the Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma and the Delaware Tribe of Indians, living in northeastern Oklahoma.

Linguistic Affiliation. The languages of the three cultures called Delaware are included within the Eastern Algonkian family. The Lenape and the "Jerseys" spoke dialects of the same language, while the Munsee language was sufficiently distinct that interpreters were required.

History and Cultural Relations

The Lenape appear to have been in their territory for centuries, if not millennia, prior to 1500. The Lenape and "Jerseys" must have been more closely aligned, but by 1600 marriages and other activities were sufficiently distinct to prevent Cooperation in land sales or migration. The Lenape were bounded on the south by the Cinconicin, a low-level chiefdom which had their main village where Lewes, Delaware, now stands. To the west, in central Pennsylvania, were the powerful Susquehannock, who controlled the fur trade throughout the area and beyond the Monongahela and Ohio rivers to the Mississippi. The heartland of the Iroquois territory lay to the north of the Munsee, and to the north of the "Jerseys" were various independent groups foraging along the Hudson and other rivers and waterways surrounding Manhattan Island. The Susquehannock and Iroquois had grown powerful through fur trading and overshadowed these foraging peoples living along the major rivers. All the people of the Delaware valley formed an economic backwater with minimal participation in the fur trade during the entire sixteenth century.

In 1622 the uprising of the Potomac confederacy stimulated the Susquehannock to seek other outlets for their furs. The most convenient route ran from the head of the Chesapeake up the Elk River and, by a portage, down Minquas Creek through Lenape territory. This brought the Susquehannock to the lower end of the Delaware River where Dutch traders from New Amsterdam (New York) established a trading post. From the earliest records left by these traders, Beginning in 1623, we have clear evidence that the Susquehannock abused and controlled the Lenape during this period, and the Lenape remained in their shadow for nearly forty years.

During this period, Dutch traders and Swedish colonists purchased small plots of land from the Lenape on which to establish several outposts. The Swedes erected a small village where Wilmington, Delaware, now stands. Swedish farmers spread throughout the lower half of the Lenape range, and many intermarried with Lenape. Owing to the low level of funding provided to the Swedish colonists, they could not compete in the fur trade, and they soon focused their attention on tobacco production. Swedish needs for food had stimulated the foraging Lenape, who usually gardened a bit of maize at their summer stations, to increase production for sale to the colonists. Between 1640 and 1660, maize became an important cash crop for the Lenape, providing access to European goods which other nations procured with furs. By 1660, imports of grain from other colonies had captured the local market.

By that time the wars of the Susquehannock, primarily with the Seneca, had created stresses that caused them to become allied with the Lenape and allowed the Lenape to participate more extensively in the fur trade. When English Immigrants began settling the area around 1660 they also made small purchases of land from the Lenape on which to establish farms. These immigrants stimulated the formation of new alliances in the region. In 1674 the Maryland colonists joined with the Seneca and turned on the Susquehannock, who had formerly been their allies. The Susquehannock nation was defeated and scattered, and their power lost forever.

Their lands in central Pennsylvania and to the west became available for Lenape use, although the Maryland colony and some of the Five Nations now held claim to them by right of conquest. Lenape became increasingly active in the fur trade, and a growing number relocated into this vast open area which in 1680 was uncluttered by European immigrants. The political events that led the English Crown to grant a charter for this region to William Penn (1681) at first had Little significance for the Lenape. Penn's policy for just treatment of the native peoples led him to contact every Lenape band and to purchase all their holdings in the Delaware Valley. This program began in 1681 and continued until 1701. Although Penn assiduously protected Lenape rights to lands on which they were seated, the foraging life-style depended on access to forest resources and to the abundant fish runs in the streams feeding the Delaware River. Gradually the various Lenape bands relocated their foraging areas and summer stations farther inland, and by 1750 all the Lenape bands had relocated to the west of their homeland, joining their kin who, in some cases, had moved west more than fifty years previously. Many of those who had left in the 1600s had moved even farther to the west by 1740, where they bought lands from other Native American groups. This established a pattern of movement in which the Lenape made purchases Directly from aboriginal landholders and later sold these lands to colonists or, after 1780, to the U.S. government.

Over the years various Lenape bands established settlements and villages in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, and even Texas. Innumerable Lenape splinter groups moved into still other areas, and many individuals simply settled down among and married with the immigrants who were advancing close behind them. In the second half of the nineteenth Century most of the Lenape then in Kansas made a purchase of land (sometimes seen as land rights) from the Cherokee in Indian Territory, which later became Oklahoma. Lenape settlements among those of the western Cherokee provided a stable environment, but one increasingly susceptible to outside influences. By the 1920s most of the Lenape had come to speak English, and fewer households were to be found where the Lenape language was maintained.


The foraging Lenape had no permanent settlements and no villages, and the "Jerseys" in the historic period may have had a similar settlement pattern. The Munsee built small villages similar to those of the Iroquois. Each Lenape band dispersed into nuclear family units for winter hunting. In the spring these families regathered at a summer station near the mouth of the stream that served as the focus of their band's territory. About a dozen such bands can be recognized, each averaging nearly twenty-five members. All the various Lenape bands gathered in late fall for annual renewal rites, just before dispersing for winter hunting. Families or individuals often operated alone even in aboriginal times, and after 1675 this pattern of independence and entrepreneurial activity became pronounced.

From several historic descriptions we know that each aboriginal Lenape family lived in a wigwam, less than nine feet in diameter and under five feet high. The walls were formed from thin bent poles tied at the top. These were covered with bark and grass, as well as with mats woven from reeds. A hearth area occupied the center of the floor area. Such shelters must have served the Lenape traditionalists well into the nineteenth century, although those Lenape who were becoming more sedentary were building cabins as early as the late eighteenth century.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Lenape were foragers with a seasonal pattern of band aggregation and dispersion geared to effective recovery of naturally available resources within their range. In the early spring they set up their summer stations to take advantage of six species of anadromous fish which spawned in the fresh waters of the Delaware valley watershed. In March the shad were the first of these to arrive from the sea, with a run often lasting as long as four weeks. The other five species came in sequence throughout the summer and into early fall, with the last species spawning in September and October. These fish, plus the catadromous eel and migratory waterfowl resources, provided an abundant and extremely rich protein source for nearly eight months of the year. The winter months, during which deer hunting was the principal activity, were less rich, but sufficient to supply the population with food needs when supplemented/by extensive gathering. Aside from the period from 1640 to 1660 when Lenape bands cash-cropped maize, complex technology was available only through the sale of a few furs and the barter of venison and other native-made Products. After 1680 the Lenape became important in the fur trade, but the demand for this resource had declined. Lenape became known as expert and reliable guides and were Important in opening the frontier straight out to the Pacific Coast. Lenape adoption of the horse in the eighteenth century facilitated their movement west, and they also became horse Traders of note.

The independence and individuality that characterized the foraging ancestors of these people are reflected today in a number of economic factors. Private ownership of their own homes, a reluctance to be part of big businesses, and avoidance of financial encumbrances make the Delaware appear to be secure members of the American mainstream. Although many collectively receive government payments for old treaty obligations, there are none of the difficulties that are noted among other Native American groups where such support has become the mainstay of the economy.

Industrial Arts. The aboriginal Lenape were extraordinarily skilled at leather and quillwork and at carving wooden objects that were often traded to the colonists. Outstanding early examples of these crafts exist in European museum collections. Basketry was one of the skills used by Lenape settled among the seventeenth-century colonists, but aspects of this skill may have been European imports. Much later, ribbon-work applique became a major technique for decorating clothing among the Lenape as it did among many other Native American peoples.

Trade. The Lenape always maintained a relatively low level of trade, both with their aboriginal neighbors and with the later European colonists. Although industrially produced metals, cloth, guns, and glass were immediately of interest to the Lenape, their low level of demand never generated a largescale trading dependence as was often the case with other Native cultures.

Division of Labor. The women of the matrilineal Lenape performed traditional female roles and did whatever gardening was done at their summer stations, including preparing the small plots. Their gathering also included nestlings and eggs, and they shared in harvesting fish during the big runs. Men focused on fishing and were of greater economic importance during the winter hunting when they provided most of the winter food supply. These male roles expanded over the years as men became full-time trappers, guides, scouts, and horse traders.

Land Tenure. Land usage was held in common among all the members of the band, which could be equated with the core members of the lineage and their in-marrying spouses. The aboriginal lands were sold by each of these bands, with all the adult males (over thirteen or fourteen years of age) signing the land transfer documents. After 1740 most of these groups held land in common among much larger social units, equated with towns. Land sales were made by these larger groups, and sometimes by a series of these groups acting as a single political body.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Lenape bands were matrilineally related clusters of nuclear families, but with high interband mobility. The "clans" of the Delaware described after 1750, sometimes referred to as "phratries," reflected the three cultures living in the Delaware valley prior to 1700. By the early nineteenth century, these cultures had become identified as being of three "totemic clans," still reflecting their traditional cultural borders.

Kinship Terminology. Both the Lenape and Jerseys seem to have used Hawaiian cousin terminology by the early nineteenth century and semibifurcate terminology for the first ascending generation. This had evolved from the earlier aboriginal system, which remains to be clarified.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The traditional groups were lineage exogamous, and residence was matrilocal. Polygamy was permitted, but after contact women seem to have preferred to marry or live among the colonists rather than to become secondary wives. Divorce was common and could be initiated by either party.

Domestic Unit. Nuclear families have always been the rule among the Lenape.

Inheritance. In the 1600s most of a person's belongings were placed in the grave. By 1700 the relatives contributed food to a feast and secured goods to bury with the deceased as well as to distribute to participants in the burial rituals, not all of whom were close kin.

Socialization. Children were seldom punished. Low-level social controls plus the rigors of foraging life provided sufficient behavioral controls in the past.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In aboriginal times the egalitarian Lenape generally, but not always, equated status with age.

Political Organization. The independent and highly fluid aboriginal bands became more politically united after 1750, with towns being named for individuals who were in effect chiefs.

Social Control. The Lenape have always avoided conflict: any situation that could produce stress is called kwulacan. Even in the face of changing economics and modern sedentary life-styles, Lenape withdraw from controversy and difficulties on any level.

Conflict. Withdrawal from problematical situations has characterized the Lenape since they were first described by Europeans. This encouraged the fissioning of social groups and a tendency to avoid acting as a single political entity. The history of the Lenape, as with some of their neighbors, has been a series of splits among groups, with each group or even family then operating as an independent unit. Such groups often fused with others in complex patterns that render the collective history of these people difficult to follow.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The aboriginal Lenape were animistic, but individuals held strong beliefs about the unity of all living as well as inanimate things. By 1800 the Lenape had adopted many Munsee and Christian beliefs. Today, most practice various Protestant religions, but many still retain a fundamentally animisi worldview largely indistinct from that which their distant ancestors would have found appropriate. Many Europeans interpreted the Manitou of the Lenape to be a supreme deity. Various other beings, particularly those associated with the creation myth, suggest that "Manitou" may have been a generic term applied to spirits of all kinds.

Religious Practitioners. No individuals held strong ritual power, but some people were blessed with the ability to heal.

Ceremonies. The complex rituals held before going on their winter hunting rounds were associated with annual renewal gatherings. These became still more complex as the Lenape adopted increasing numbers of introduced behaviors, particularly as they became more sedentary.

Medicine. Illness could be dispersed by driving out spirits that caused disease. Specially designated curers assisted in this process, aided by herbal remedies and the powers of collective chants and prayers.

Death and Afterlife. Death was caused by evil spirits, and the polluted dead were buried in graves lined with rushes, bark, and mats several hundred meters from their summer encampments. Complex funeral ceremonies involved transportation of the corpse to a prepared burial site, ritual lamentation, and participation in a ritual feast for the dead. Mourning periods varied depending on degrees of kinship, with the surviving spouse continuing for a full year. Some of these aspects of Lenape society continue to this day, ensuring that the souls of the departed will find their way to the west where hunting is good and they will have an easy afterlife.


Becker, Marshall J. (1983). "Boundary between the Lenape and the Munsee: The Forks of Delaware as a Buffer Zone." Man in the Northeast 26:1-20.

Becker, Marshall J. (1989). "Lenape Population at the Time of Contact." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 133:112-122.

Goddard, Ives (1978). "Delaware." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 213-239. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Newcomb, William W., Jr. (1956). The Culture and Acculturation of the Delaware Indians. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Papers, no. 10. Ann Arbor.

Weslager, Clinton A. (1978). The Delaware Indian Westward Migration. Wallingford, Pa.: Middle Atlantic Press.



views updated May 29 2018

Del·a·ware • n. (pl. same or -wares) 1. a member of an American Indian people formerly inhabiting the Delaware River valley of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. 2. either of two Algonquian languages (Munsi and Unami) spoken by this people.• adj. of or relating to the Delaware or their languages.

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