Review of “Lenape Country”

I emailed the Friends Library at Swarthmore College for resources to learn more about the history of the Lenape in the area and one of the books cited was “Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn” by Jean Soderlund. The book covers the time from when the Dutch first arrived in the area in 1615 until the last Lenape tribes left the Pennsylvania – New Jersey region just before the Revolutionary War.

I was expecting the book to primarily cover the Lenape, but that was not the case, as the book’s subtitle indicates, its about “Delaware Valley Society”. The problem here is that the Lenape themselves had no written language, and left no records of their own. Also, the people that most interacted with Lenape – those that intermarried and lived beside them and acted as translators, were largely illiterate as well, and also left few writings. Therefore much of the writings that do survive are legal proceedings, accounts of governors and diplomats, business records and the writings of ministers. The Lenape themselves had little interest in adopting Christianity or western ways and had little interest in teaching about their culture (and the European settlers that could write had little interest in learning). The book states that the Lenape would teach traders just enough of the Lenape language to trade, but not enough for deeper understanding (much to the frustration of missionaries in particular).

The earliest settlers were the Dutch and Swedes who settled along the Delaware River (the Lenapewihittuk) from the falls to Cape May. The Lenape set the terms of engagement early by destroying the early Dutch colony at Swanendael near Cape Henlopen. For the first several decades, the tribes made it clear they were eager to engage with traders but would not tolerate larger plantation-style settlements in their area. They particularly feared cows and other livestock as signs of permanent settlement. Until William Penn’s time, the Lenape outnumbered settlers in the region and were able to dictate the terms under which lands could be settled.

To the frustration of the Europeans, these terms would require regular “gifts”. Many of the European governors believed they could buy land from the Lenape sachams only to find that 1) other Lenape leaders might not recognize the purchases other sachams had made and 2) even then the Lenape expected regular gifts and trade to maintain friendly relations. Beyond that, the Lenape expected continued free passage through lands they sold and the ability to hunt and fish on those lands. Its probably not even good to think of the land as “sold” so much as “leased” – the Lenape expected land rights sold to be used and if they were not used, the Lenape regarded the rights as terminated. Often the terms the Lenape negotiated were favorable and they acquired all manner of western goods from pots to muskets. They would play the Dutch, Swedes and English against one another to up the terms of their deals for the food and pelts they traded. These features endured into the 18th century when Lenape numbers fell too low to threaten the settlers with violence to enforce their terms.

Although the Lenape were willing to use violence, they were much less willing to resort to open war than neighboring tribes. The Lenape preferred (and were often eager for) peaceful trade and after outbreaks of violence they would seek diplomatic solutions, often involving gifts, to resolve issues with settlers. After the destruction of Swanendael, they sought peace with the Dutch with gifts rather than continued violence. The Swedes were the first to gain the upper hand in dealings with the Lenape and into the 18th century served as the translators for the later Dutch and English that needed to deal with the Lenape. Sweden, however, had little resources to spare for its colony and the Swedes, Finns, Dutch and Germans that settled largely resorted to trade with the Lenape and other colonies to procure what they needed.

The primary Swedish settlement in Pennsylvania was at Tinicum, and for decades they lived alongside the Lenape settlement at Passyunk. As the Swedish, Dutch and German settlers were mostly men and the Lenape had flexible sexual relationships (which Christian missionaries found horrifying), intermarriage among the groups was common. Life in the colonies was sometimes so challenging due to lack of support from Sweden, that some of the colonists likely joined the tribes instead (these people vanish from lists of colonists and do not appear among the dead). As I’ve heard from Lenape today, historically being a member of the tribe was not a matter of lineage. The Swedes established an alliance with the Lenape where each group would warn of impending attacks, a situation that held off stronger colonial powers for decades and protected the Lenape during their war with the Susquehannocks in the 1630s. This war drove the Lenape into New Jersey temporarily but war and disease ravaged both tribes and ultimately it ended in peace allowing both tribes to trade with Europeans along the Delaware. The Susquehannocks eventually became allies of the Lenape as their numbers declined due to war and disease. The Lenape aided the Susquehannocks when the Iroquois attacked in the mid-17th century.

Ultimately, however, the Dutch overcame the Lenape-Swedish alliance and took over the Swedish colonies by military force in 1655. Many Swedes, Finns and Germans chose to remain in the area under Dutch rule, which lasted for only about a decade before the Duke of York conquered the Dutch colony for England. The English were very keen to lay out deeds of property, which was problematic because the Lenape had little use for such things and the earlier settlers therefore had little documentation of their claims. By the time William Penn arrived, due to war, the loss of allies (the Susquehannocks had been wiped out decades earlier by Iroquois attacks and war), disease, migration and intermarriage, the Lenape population had fallen substantially. With the arrival of thousands of English Quakers, many Lenape left either for New Jersey or the Susquehenna region.

The Lenape and old colonists continued to work together to oppose English attempts to rule the colony, sometimes supported by Sweden. The Lutheran Swedes would ally with the Anglican church in England to oppose the Quakers when necessary. Initially Penn left in place several of the old settlers in power in the colony. But as thousands and thousands of Quakers arrived and Lenape land was taken, often by outright theft after William Penn died, the position of the old colonists and Lenape became increasingly untenable. William Penn sought to deal fairly with the Lenape and old settlers, a practice that ultimately left him deep in debt due to the expense. Many Lenape left for the Ohio River valley while others that had allied with the French during the French and Indian War left for Canada. The last significant grouping of Lenape sold their New Jersey reservation in the mid-1700s and left for New York.

The last legacy of the Lenape is perhaps their dedication to a free society. Like the Quakers, they were tolerant of different cultures and beliefs and eager to trade, and reluctant to engage in war. During the 18th century they protested the importation of enslaved native Americans from the south, believing that ultimately the Europeans would enslave them as well. They (and the Quakers) successfully lobbied for anti-slavery laws in colonial Pennsylvania, though they were overturned by English rulers abroad. The Lenape were a loose confederation of non-hierarchical people that lived in distributed villages and valued freedom over almost everything else. To them, slavery would have been worse than dying. Unfortunately, by the mid-18th century, the only remaining Lenape in the Delaware Valley were listed on the census as white settlers and were people that had adopted western customs and Christianity (at least on the surface).

Ultimately, this is a book about the Swedish, Dutch and English settlers and the Lenape mostly provide the setting that their actions take place around. This is not the fault of the author because the writings that remain are largely ones by people with limited, if any, understanding of the native peoples. The book has little to say about Lenape society or the day to day experiences of the early settlers. So, if you’re interested in Swedish-American or Dutch-American history, its a great book. Otherwise, there are limits to what it reveals.

Categories: History, Lenape