Lenape Indians

Before the arrival of the white man, many Lenape villages were located along the banks of the Delaware, which the Lenape called the Lenapewihittuk, River of the Lenape. When the river was named the Delaware by early English explorers, the inhabitants along its shores became known as the Delawares. Thus the names Delaware, Lenape and Lenni-Lenape can be used interchangeably. (excerpt)


The exact date of the arrival of the Lenape Indians in the Delaware Valley is unknown. Lenape references to the white man can be traced to the fifteenth century, and they probably inhabited the area long before the earliest European explorations. It is estimated that during Penn’s lifetime there were between 10,000 and 12,000 Lenape Indians in the Delaware Valley. Their homeland included New Jersey, Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania between the Delaware and the Susquehanna Rivers, and southeastern New York State west of the Hudson River. In all, there were probably 30 to 40 Indian communities in the Delaware Valley. By the mid-eighteenth century the Lenape Indians no longer occupied the region because warfare with other tribes and susceptibility to infectious diseases had reduced their number. Today, their descendents live on reservations in Oklahoma and in Ontario, Canada.



The Lenape Indians were an Atlantic coast tribe that belonged to the Algonkian language group. In their own language, Lenni-Lenape means common (or ordinary) people: the syllable “/en” means common and “ape” means people. Lenape thus means common people. Lenni is a redundancy that reinforces Lenape. Before the arrival of the white man, many Lenape villages were located along the banks of the Delaware, which the Lenape called the Lenapewihittuk, River of the Lenape. When the river was named the Delaware by early English explorers, the inhabitants along its shores became known as the Delawares. Thus the names Delaware, Lenape and Lenni-Lenape can be used interchangeably.  


The Indians who greeted the first settlers in Bucks County were gentle people who lived in harmony with nature and each other. They were remarkably nonaggressive and were not interested in extending either their territories or their political influence. Their peaceable way of life was consistent with their basic attitudes toward land tenure, tribal organization, kinship and religion. Spiritual convictions governed the Lenape way of life. The Lenape believed that the Great Spirit or Great Manito was present in all living things; they felt especially close to the lesser spirits, or Manitowuk, which were found in nature. Their pantheistic concept of religion was reflected in a deep reverence for their natural environment. The Lenape were also keenly aware of man’s fragility. They looked to the Manitowuk for guidance in all aspects of their daily lives and found their spiritual guidance in natural phenomena. Because their daily living and spiritual requirements were well met, the Lenape had few unfulfilled wants and led simple, contented lives. When the first settlers arrived in Bucks County, they found isolated villages along the Delaware and its tributaries. These communities were autonomous. The chief and the elders of each village shared in decision making, so that authority was decentralized in each village and in bands of villages. The chief exercised little authority, had no more worldly goods than other members of the tribe, and made no decisions without the advice of his elders. No chief enjoyed sovereignty over another village. An Indian community had no affiliation with any other; they were linked only by geographical proximity. This led to misunderstandings when treaties negotiated by European settlers with one village were not regarded by the Lenape as binding on all villages. Many difficulties in land dealings resulted from European attempts to impose the legal ways of the Old World on the Indians.  


Lenape villages, grouped in a distinct geographical area, were loosely bonded by a common totem symbol and a distinct dialect. Traditionally, three divisions of the Lenape tribe have been recognized: the Minsi, the Unami and the Unalachtigo. The Minsi (people of the stony country), whose totem was the wolf, lived in the rugged country along the upper Delaware. Their principal village was Minisink, on the east bank at the Delaware Water Gap. Because of their proximity to the fierce Mohawks of the Iroquois Indian nation, the Minsi were the most warlike of the Lenape. They were also probably the most numerous of the three subtribes. The Unami (people down the river), whose totem was the turtle, inhabited most of the area we know today as Bucks County. Because a Lenape legend held that at one time the world had been held on the back of a great turtle, the chief of the Unami was the most respected Lenape chief. The main Unami village was located at Shackamaxon (now Kensington in northeast Philadelphia). The Unalachtigo, whose totem was the turkey, were known as the “people who lived near the ocean.” They built their villages near the mouth of the Delaware, where Wilmington now stands, and throughout southern New Jersey. With its own chiefs and elders, each village within the three large subtribes exercised authority over specific territory. Probably the greatest source of friction between the settlers and the Indians was their different concept of land ownership. To the Indian, land was not a commodity to be possessed and passed from generation to generation. Land was a gift to be used for the sustenance of life; it was to be shared to satisfy needs of others. The European could not comprehend this approach to land tenure. Every acre of his homeland had been owned for centuries, and he had no “right” to use land in any way without the permission of the owner. If he trespassed, he would be punished by law. Because the Lenape lived by seasonal cycles, they led migratory lives. At specific times and places, the Lenape engaged in hunting and fishing, planting and harvesting, and gathering oysters and clams, nuts and berries. When land around a village became depleted, the Lenape moved to a new site. This mode of living was in accordance with the Lenape ideal of life attuned to one’s environment.  


The Indian family was the basic unit of Lenape society. Husband and wife shared in physical labor. Women were responsible for planting, harvesting, tanning and sewing hides, carrying supplies on journeys and performing domestic duties. The men undertook the tasks that required greater physical strength, like clearing the land and felling trees. They also assumed the responsibilities of protecting their families and providing them with fish and game. The Indian woman was not subservient to her husband. She was respected as a person of authority within the family and the community. The Lenape custom of matrilineal descent, tracing kinship through the maternal lines of a family, was probably responsible in part for the Indian woman’s respected position. Lenape children were reared with love. They were rarely punished. Parents feared that punishment showed lack of love and that the Creator would take their offspring from them.  


European settlers described the Lenape as tall (5’7″ to 5’10”), broad shouldered, strong people with dark eyes and straight black hair. The braves often shaved their hair, leaving a scalp lock two inches wide down the center of their heads. They smeared bear grease on the scalp lock to stiffen it and decorated it with an eagle feather. The braves shaved with a sharp piece of flint or clam shell, although sometimes they actually pulled out the hair to form the scalp lock. Because their facial hair was sparse and considered unmanly, Indians seldom wore beards. The Lenape dressed according to season. Animal pelts, feathers and plant fibers were used to make clothing. The women tanned the pelts until they were soft enough to sew with sinew, grass, or hair. In the summer, a man wore a belt, breechcloth, and moccasins. In colder weather, he added buckskin leggings and a robe thrown over one shoulder. A woman dressed in a knee-length deerskin skirt and wore her hair in long braids. She also wore leggings and moccasins in the winter and covered her breasts with a shawl of animal skins or turkey feathers. Both men and women wore ornaments fashioned from stones, shells, animal teeth and claws on their necks, wrists and ankles. Children dressed like their parents. Men and women painted their faces in varicus designs for festivals and ceremonial dances. The men occasionally painted their legs and chests as well. Both men and women practiced tatooing.  


The diet of the Lenape also included meat, fish and fowl and, at times, locusts. The Lenape depended entirely on hunting for their meat. The Lenape’s principal hunting weapon was a crude bow of pliable wood to which a twisted thong of deerskin was attached. His arrows were tipped with the sharpened points of flint, deer antler or bone. If an animal was wounded by an arrow but was not killed immediately, it was killed with a blow from a heavy stone club. During hunting expeditions, Indian braves sometimes disguised themselves with animal skins. Deer and bear, plentiful in the wilderness, were particularly valuable for food, clothing, and tools because of their great size. For religious reasons, the hare, the wild cat, the ground hog, the rattlesnake and the wolf were never harmed. Fish and shellfish were important in the Lenape diet, and fishing was often a cooperative venture. Shad and other fish, plentiful in the Delaware and its tributaries, were caught in nets woven of branches. saplings, or wild hemp. Indians often constructed weirs or dams in shallow regions of the river; the trapped fish were netted, speared, or caught in bare hands. On periodic migrations to the coast, shellfish, principally clams and oysters, were. gathered and eaten.  


Agriculture was an important feature of the Lenape way of life. Their agricultural efforts were primitive. They depended on bone, wood, shells, clay and stone for domestic artifacts and utensils. Wheeled vehicles, weapons and cooking utensils made from metal, and draft animals were unknown to them. Clearing the land was a prodigious task. Using a tomahawk, the Lenape traditionally girdled each tree so that it eventually died and admitted more light into the woodland. If trees were very large, they were felled by burning. Once a forest was sufficiently cleared, corn, beans, squash and tobacco were planted.   Corn was the principal crop. Its cultivation freed the tribe from the pressure of having to hunt and gather food for survival. Corn was planted in rows with hills spaced five or six feet apart in both directions. When weeds were hand high, they were cut down and the earth was cultivated around each plant. Successive plantings were made in April, May and June. Members of the tribe shared the responsibility for scaring off birds, but for religious reasons they were never killed. Festivals celebrating the corn planting and harvesting were high points of the Indian year. The Indians prepared corn in a variety of ways: it was roasted in the coals, crushed and boiled Io make a kind of “hominy,” ground into flour to make corn meal, and dried for winter use. Chestnuts were also ground into flour, and mainly fruits were also dried for winter use. The Lenape regarded tobacco almost as a sacred plant and grew it for both ceremonial and personal use. In addition to cultivated crops, the Lenape Indians depended on wild vegetation, roots, berries and leaves. Nearly 1,000 varieties of plants growing near the Delaware were at least partly edible, including potatoes, wild peas, chestnuts, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, grapes, plums, crabapples, cranberries, huckleberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries. The Lenape apparently also knew how to tap maple trees and reduce the sap to sugar.  


Lenape villages were usually located on small tributaries, although archaeological evidence shows that there were also communities on larger rivers. The tributaries afforded more protection for the villages than the open windswept banks of a river. On a small tributary, fishing was easier and the villages were closer to game. The villages consisted of approximately a dozen houses built around a Long House that served as a meeting house for tribal functions. Since the Lenape were an amicable people, their villages were rarely fortified. Unlike the American Plains Indians, the Lenape did not live in teepees, but in wigwams, windowless huts with round roofs. Each family probably constructed its own wigwam. It was built on a framework of saplings bent to the proper shape and fastened with rushes, strips of the inner bark of trees, or strips of animal skins. Woven stalks of Indian corn or large overlapping pieces of bark that had been soaked and smoothed with stones were tied to this framework. A hole in the roof allowed smoke to escape from the fire that was kept lighted on the earthen floor. Mats of skins and evergreen boughs provided flooring and bedding materials. Furniture consisted of tiered platforms of skin-covered tree limbs built along the walls. Doorways were curtained with animal skins. Since the Indians spent most of their time outdoors, except in the coldest weather, they used the wigwam only for sleeping and storing their few possessions. A unique feature of many Lenape villages were special huts known as sweat lodges. There were separate lodges for men and women. Sweat lodges were usually located on the banks of streams. De’nse steam was created in a sweat lodge by pouring cold water over stones heated in the fire, and Indians sat in the steam-filled room. When they left a sweat lodge, they either r oiled in snow or plunged into a nearby stream. If a sick person were being treated, the aroma of crushed herbs was mingled with the steam, or a tea was brewed from the herbs and served to the invalid as he sat in the sweat lodge.  


Unlike western and northern Indian tribes, the Lenape found it most convenient to travel by land. They did not often use canoes, so important to the New England Indian. Instead of birch bark canoes, they made canoes out of hollowed logs that were awkward to navigate and impossible to portage. When the white man arrived, the Lenape had developed an extensive system of trails through the wilderness. These trails were originally 18 inches wide and could only accommodate persons walking in single file. Warriors, messengers, hunters, diplomats and visiting families apparently used separate paths. These Indian paths became bridle trails, wagon roads and twentieth century highways and are part of the Lenape heritage in Bucks County. Several modern roads in Bucks County follow the routes of these ancient trails, including the King’s Highway (for a long time the principal route between New York and Philadelphia) and the Old York Road. The Indian place names that persist in the county are also reminders of the Lenape civilization. Perkasie, Holicong, Cuttalossa, Tohickon, Playwicky, Nockamixon, Neshaminy, Poquessing and Tinicum are all Indian place names.  


In the seventeenth century, settlers in the county and the Lenape both lived at a bare subsistence level and enjoyed a brief peaceful coexistence. Unfortunately, the Lenape faced white and Indian enemies. When the Dutch first established trade with the Lenape, the Indians were occupying the choice sites along rivers and streams. Their land was a rich source of pelts, particularly the coveted beaver. Both the Minguas, from the Susquehanna Valley, and the Iroquois, from New York State, had attempted to subdue the Lenape. By the time of Penn’s arrival they had succeeded. By the late 1600’s, terrorized by the Iroquois and perplexed by the interplay of European politics, the Lenape had retreated into the wilderness and eventually they were driven out of the Delaware Valley. During the proprietorship of William Penn, they were treated fairly and had some respite from harassment. When Penn’s sons assumed the governorship, however, their treatment became intolerable. Information about the Lenapes is not easily documented. The Lenape had no written language and the English settlers had neither the time nor the inclination to record the daily Lenape routine. A few records left by German missionaries describe the Indian’s life at the time of the white man’s arrival. Much of the information presented here, however, is based on tradition alone. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the Lenape, particularly under the auspices of the Lenape Land Association in Bucks County. For more information on Lenape settlement please go to:



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