Delaware - 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.

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