Lenape History Adults

For many millenniums, the Lenni Lenape ruled    By Steve Wartenberg
Staff Writer  Intelligencer Record        Carla Messinger Interview

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The original settlers of our area were here 15,000 years before us. Carla Messinger hasn’t caught millennium fever. “Whose millennium?” asked the founder and executive director of the Lenni Lenape Historical Society and Museum of Indian Culture in Allentown (now retired). “The Lenape people have been here for 15,000 years. So, saying this is the (start of the third) millennium doesn’t really mean anything.” She makes a good point.

Long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue or the arrival of William Penn and the Quakers, there was a thriving people populating this area. The Lenape farmed, fished and hunted and were part of an organized society that stretched from the south of Delaware to the tip of Long Island in New York. “A thousand years ago there would have been settled Lenape villages throughout this area,” said Cory Amsler, curator of the Bucks County Historical Society. “They were small, but organized around kinship.”

Connecting these villages {which were as small as 50 to 100 people or as large as 5,000} were a series of well-maintained trails, some wide enough for three people to walk abreast. One trail began in what is now Philadelphia.

A branch of it passed through what is now Whitemarsh, Ambler, Line Lexington and Blooming Glen to Bethlehem, while a different branch of the trail passed through what is now Elkins Park, Jenkintown, Willow Grove, Hatboro, Hartsville, Jamison, Buckingham and Lahaska, picked up on the other side of the Delaware in Lambertville and continued through New Jersey into New York.

The names of several local sites – Lahaska (the place of much writing), Conshohocken (at the long, fine island), Nockamixon (at the place of three huts), Perkiomen (where there are cranberries growing) and Cuttaloosa (place where there are three springs) – are Lenape words and reminders of a once thriving people who were eventually forced to leave their homes when the European settlers arrived.

So now, as we hurtle toward what some call the start of the third millennium, let’s take a trip back in time and visit a Lenape (pronounced len-ah-pay) village.

Life with the Lenape
One thousand years ago, the local landscape was quite different. Just about all of Bucks and Montgomery counties were covered by dense forests. According to “Pennsylvania Archaeologist,” this was a transitional forest region, with maple, beech and hemlock trees abundant in the northern part of the Delaware Valley and oak and chestnut in the southern portion. Over the past 200 years, settlement, urban sprawl and parking lots have eliminated most of these mighty forests. As we walk along an ancient Lenape trail, we are surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of the forest on a typical summer day.

And animals.
The forest is filled with white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, black bears, porcupines, rabbits, beaver, woodchucks, chipmunks, gray and red squirrels, raccoons and muskrat. Think of this as the Lenape version of a supermarket. There were more than 250 species of birds, 40 types of fish and 15 species of turtles. “You would have heard birds, lots of birds,” Messinger said. We can hear the “who, who” of an owl and the croaking of frogs and can see a bald eagle and a couple of hawks soaring high above us. We’re startled as a deer bounds across the trail, only 20 yards ahead of us. As we get close to a village, the first sound we hear, long before we actually see the village, is the thump, thump, thump of the women pounding dried corn into flour.

The Lenape were farmers and corn was their staple.
As we get even closer, we smell the aroma of baking corn bread, or the day’s midday meal —usually a soup made out of whatever vegetables and fruits were in season, as well as the meaty leftovers of the previous night’s dinner —or the rather nasty smell of tanning deer and bear hides or decomposing fish parts used to fertilize gardens where corn, beans, squash, melons and pumpkins are growing. And then, magically, the forest gives way to a clearing and there, in front of us almost always near a river, stream or spring —is the hustle and bustle of a Lenape village.

We see a handsome people.
The Lenape are taller than their European counterparts, with broad, muscular shoulders. They are bronze due to the long hours they spend in the sun and most have brown eyes and long, straight black hair that is often slicked back with bear grease. Several of the people we see have decorated their faces and bodies with paint. Others have tattoos, while many of the women are wearing necklaces fashioned from dried fruits or beans. Some of the children are splashing happily in the stream, while others are chasing crows out of the gardens. Four women are pounding corn, while three others are decorating deer-skin clothes with painted porcupine quills. A few of the men are making arrowheads, while several others construct a lodge house out of saplings and sheets of bark, twine and woven mats. Some of the village elders are gathered around, teaching a group of children their lessons, telling them stories about their ancestors. Several of the villagers are singing while they work and someone is playing a flute made from the leg bone of a deer. The villagers see us and greet us happily. The Lenape are a generous, social people and welcome us as if we are members of the family.

North America’s first citizens
At least 15,000 years ago, and possibly thousands more, according to archeologists, peoples trekked from Siberia to Alaska, crossing what was then a land bridge called Beringia.  [Web editor’s Note: This is a theory, disputed by some, about the origin of Native people in this hemisphere]. These people, who continued to wander south and east into what is now the United States, eventually traveling as far as the Atlantic Ocean, are called Paleo-Indians and are believed to be the first people to call North America their home. These Paleo-Indians are the forefathers of the Lenape (the name Lenni Lenape means “original people,” “real people” or “common people”). According to the book “The First Americans: Lenape Indian Drawings”: “The early Lenape were less an Indian nation, in the modern sense of the term, than an extremely loose confederation of independent communities spread throughout present-day Delaware, New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania and a portion of southeastern New York. “Each village had its own leaders, but there was no supreme chief of all the Lenape or any central governing body. “They all spoke dialects of an Algonkian-type tongue and, although it is likely that all Lenape could understand one another, there were pronounced regional differences in language.” The Lenape are also referred to as Delaware Indians, a name given to them by early settlers who found them living along the Delaware River. The Lenape were loosely divided into three groups: the Muncee (wolf) in the north, the Unami (turtle) in this region and the Unalachigo (wild turkey) in the south. In the Central Bucks School District, three of the four middle schools are named Lenape, Unami and Tamanend (a famous Lenape chief). Today there are Lenape Castings, Lenape Leasing, Lenape Valley Foundation, Lenape Valley Presbyterian Church and Lenape Valley Soccer Club. Unfortunately, to many local residents, the word Lenape is just the name of a school or sports club. They’re not aware of the rich culture and fascinating people who once lived here.

The Lenape culture
According to Messinger, a Lenape descendant, her people “believed in one God, so they had no problem grasping the concept of Christianity when the Europeans came. They believed in the Creator, who was neither male nor female. They had a respect for the Earth and religious ceremonies centered around planting and harvesting crops. In the spring, there was a festival for planting the corn and, in October, a 12-day festival of Thanksgiving.” Corn and deer were the two constants of Lenape life. And when a deer was killed, nothing was wasted. The bones and antler tips were used to make pendants and projectiles; bone slivers were used as needles; special bones on the front feet were used as awls to punch holes; other bones were used to make combs; the long hollow leg bones were used to make flutes and whistles; and jawbones were used as scrapers during the fabrication of clothing and to remove corn from the cob. Deer skin was used as clothing and rawhide was used as rope. The brains were used to help the tanning process and sinew was used for thread and as fishing line. Even the hooves served a purpose. They were made into bells that were rung during dance rituals. Labor was divided between men and women, but each was as important as the other. The men made arrowheads from stone and animal bones; they made wikwams (wigwams) and lodge houses, canoes and toboggans; they cleared and prepared land for planting crops; hunted and fished; and they helped raise the children. The women prepared animal skins for clothing and decorated the clothing with embroidery made from deer hair and porcupine quills; they wove mats from rushes, cattails and reeds; they made storage containers; and they helped raise the children.

Children were allowed to be children and were not put to work at an early age.
“The families were small, usually two children,” Messinger said. “There was no time to raise children and resources were limited. As a form of birth control, they drank this really terrible tasting tea every morning that would lower certain chemical levels in their bodies so they would be less likely to have children. “The children they did have were allowed to play and learn and be kids a lot longer than children in Europe, who were put to work.” The grandparents often took care of and helped educate the children. They told stories of the origin and history of the Lenape and in this oral method, the history of the village and the Lenape was passed down from generation to generation.

A forced departure
In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano was the first European to “discover” the Lenape. In 1609, Henry Hudson claimed much of their land in the name of Holland. Explorers and settlers from Sweden and Great Britain came next. The arrival of Europeans was the beginning of the end for the Lenape. In the book “The Lenape or Delaware Indians,” Herbert C. Kraft wrote: “The European colonists wanted the lands along the rivers and bays, the best farm lands, and forests. However, the European settlers did not want the Indians to remain here because the Indians’ culture and religion was so different.” The Europeans also brought with them diseases —smallpox, chicken pox, measles and diphtheria —that wiped out thousands of Lenape. They also brought guns, which gave them an immediate and decided advantage in all negotiations. The mass exodus of the Lenape began in the mid-1700s as they were forced to sell their land and were pushed farther and farther west and north. They wound up in Ontario, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, where the largest group settled as part of the Cherokee nation in the eastern part of Oklahoma in 1868. Today, Messinger estimates, there are only about 1,000 Lenape in Pennsylvania. “We have lost something,” she said sadly.

Monday, February 1, 1999 For many millennium, the Lenni Lenape ruled, Intelligencer Record, Monday, February 1, 1999, Steve Wartenberg, Staff Writer