The Lenni Lenape, also known as the Delaware, spoke a language in the larger Algonquian family of languages in colonial times, when they lived along the Delaware River and its tributaries, including parts of the present-day states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. They played a large role in the development of those three English colonies, and their subsequent splintered migration left Delaware or Lenni Lenape communities throughout the United States and Canada.
As with many other Native American groups, the central political unit of Lenni Lenape life was the village. Within basically autonomous villages, men hunted alone and women farmed in groups; the major exception to this rule was the fall deer kill, when many Lenni Lenapes worked together. Lenni Lenapes inherited clan membership through their mothers. Additionally, Lenni Lenapes moved inland from large, agriculture-based villages and seaside fishing towns to hunt every fall.
The Lenni Lenape’s gamwing (big house rite) has sparked much interest among anthropologists and historians. Each fall, principal towns hosted this large ceremony to give thanks and to pray for success in the hunt. The gamwing exemplified the gender roles of Lenni Lenapes, since corn and meat (female and male pursuits) were both venerated.
In the years leading up to the arrival of Europeans, the Lenni Lenape were wedged in between the peoples living on the Susquehanna River and the Five Nations Iroquois. The Dutch encountered the Lenni Lenape in the first half of the seventeenth century, and the two groups began to trade in beaver pelts and items of European manufacture. The Dutch, mainly interested in commerce, had little reason to settle on Lenni Lenape territory, and they initially built only a sparsely populated series of trading forts along the river. When their territory was granted to the duke of York, the Lenni Lenape faced a new sort of threat: prolonged contact with land-hungry English people. The duke of York also began to make grants in what is now New Jersey, and English settlements expanded rapidly. The Lenni Lenape experienced successive waves of English settlement, and the tribe was decimated by fatal disease epidemics.
Chief Lappawinsoe and his Lenni Lenape (Delaware) peoples were tricked out of half a million acres of land by the Pennsylvania colonial government in the “Walking Purchase” of 1737. (Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library) The trend toward dispossession reversed itself, or at least slowed down, when the colony of Pennsylvania took root in Delaware Bay in the 1680s under the visionary leadership of William Penn. Penn was a Quaker who saw his colony as a “holy experiment,” promising religious tolerance and peaceful relations with the region’s native peoples. By and large, Penn succeeded in his goal, and Lenni Lenapes and Pennsylvanians enjoyed what has been termed “the Long Peace.”
Penn’s descendants were not so evenhanded in their disposition toward the Lenni Lenape, and in the infamous “Walking Purchase” of 1737, they defrauded the native peoples out of their last remaining settlements on the Delaware River. By the terms of the Walking Purchase deed (itself based on questionable legal grounds), Pennsylvania was to gain title along a line that a man could walk in one day. Colonial officials cheated, hiring three runners to follow a trail that had been blazed earlier. The result was that the Lenni Lenape ceded much more territory than they had intended, and were effectively dispossessed of their homeland.
The French and Indian War divided the Lenni Lenape’s loyalties between the English and French. Some villages remained neutral, while others seized the opportunity to raid English farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As it became clear that the English would win the contest for North America, the Lenni Lenape moved back into their camp, although some warriors participated in the attack on Fort Pitt during the larger conflict known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. During and after the War for Independence, the Lenni Lenape splintered and scattered. Some moved multiple times, to Indiana, Missouri, and then Oklahoma, or to Indiana, Texas, and then Oklahoma. Still others ended up in Wisconsin, Kansas, or the Grand River Reserve of the Six Nations in Ontario. In 1992, many of the scattered tribal members met together and formed the Delaware Nation Grand Council of North America. Matthew Jennings See also: Native American-European Relations; Native Americans; Penn, William; Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania (Chronology). Bibliography Miller, Jay. “Delaware.” In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Weslager, C. A. The Delaware Indians: A History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1972.