The entire American coastal region from North Carolina through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New England and into Maine was made up of over 200 villages belonging to over 30 Algonquin speaking tribes. The Original People (Lenni-Lenape) inhabited the Delaware River area of New Jersey long before the Europeans. They had no strong alliances so their villages remained small, quite unlike those of allied or colonial tribes. In the early 1600s they were joined by migrating Tidewater People (Nanticoke) who began along the Nanticoke River in South East Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
The Lenni-Lenape traveled with the seasons, making full use of the area resources. During the spring they planted gardens of maize, beans and squash around their permanent settlements. Individual family houses were made of oval pole frame works covered with rush. In summer they went to the shore to catch oysters and clams and stay cool. In the fall, they would move back to their village and harvest their crops. In the winter, they hunted deer and other animals. Many of their trails became the early highway system for the Europeans. The massive cities of other groups, the communal houses of the Iroquois and organized towns of the Creeks, were all alien to Algonquin thinking.
Other than oysters or clams and river net fishing, though they lived near the coast, they seemed to have made little use of maritime resources. They looked to the interior instead; maneuvering their graceful birch bark canoes skillfully along the streams and small rivers that served as highways. A portage around a waterfall or other obstacle presented no problem since the canoe was light enough to be carried by a single man. It was a society in which the individual was free to act according to his or her own conscience, tempered only by the overriding concern that all actions should ultimately be for the benefit of the group.
Both the Iroquois and Algonquin nations used a system of beaded “wampum” belts for recording treaties. White beads were made from the central column of the whelk shell and the more valuable purple beads from the hard shell quahog clam. The beads were sewn in a pattern to depict the agreement. They were also used as currency and ornamentation.
When the Swedish and English colonists arrived here they found the natives to be amicable and exceptionally friendly; so friendly in fact that the settlements only survived their first few years through Indian assistance. The Indians brought them supplies, taught them how to live in the forest, grow crops and even treated their sick with the herbal remedies for which their shamans, or medicine men, were famed.
The colonist were welcome onlookers at their summer councils, called “pow wows”a term which has come to be applied generally to any dance gathering of modern Native Americans – where they were feasted and gifts were exchanged. There were displays of singing and dancing, and of lacrosse. Contests of skill were held with wagers being made in articles considered of great value. Popular among these were “friendship bags,” shoulder pouches decorated with twined patterns of thread from the inner bark of the swamp ash, or similar bags, made from deerskin. When a man went on a visit he often carried several of these bags with him; packed with dried meat and other presents. They were gift bags to be solemnly presented as a gesture of friendship and good will.
The usual political system was the chiefdom. Their villages were linked into regional networks under the care of elite families known as sachems or sakimas. Followers gave tribute to these families, which was then passed along to the needy, or used in annual ceremonies for thanksgiving, hosted by the sachems in gratitude for the bounty of the fields and lands.
During the spring and fall everyone left their homes and camped along the coast or in the hills to gather what nature provided. These foods were stored in villages for winter use.
While the English were building substantial colonies in Massachusetts and Virginia, Swedes were establishing smaller enclaves along the Delaware River. The Dutch West India Company founded in 1621 planted colonies near the mouths of both the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. The Dutch traders had no respect for the native population and treated them with contempt, even looking upon them as possible slaves. Their attitude did not prevent them from engaging in trading rum and guns for pelts and furs.
They did bring with them a trade jargon composed of fragments of Unami (people for down the river), one of the dialects spoken by the Lenape (who the Dutch called Delaware because of the river) people, arranged in more or less European word order. Much of the trade among northeastern Algonquians was conducted in this hybrid language.
Only the short lived Swedish colony managed to live peacefully with its Indian neighbors. Though there was occasionally ill will and disagreement, colonists and Indians never came to blows. In fact this colony was well supported by native hospitality. Most of the colonists were from Finland, which was at the time a Swedish province. The Finns shared with the Indians a mixed economy of hunting, fishing and farming. They knew how to live in the forest and rely on neighbors. So when natives and Swedes met, they shared their knowledge and experiences with each other. So natives learned from the Swedes how to build log cabins and make splint baskets and in return they taught the Swedes and Finns how to grow corn and net fish. Though the Swedish Colony fell to the Dutch in 1655 and the Dutch in turn were defeated by the English in 1664, many of the cultural traits Swedes/Finns and natives patiently shared were woven into the fabric of American history.
When the English took over for the Dutch they brought their own twist to the relationship. Theirs was considerably less hostility, but they brought English ideas of land ownership. It must have been impossible for the Lenni Lenape to understand that they were signing away their land for trade goods. All over New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania there are tales of bargains that were made for the purchase of the lands from the Indians. Perhaps the most flagellant abuse was made by Thomas Penn, son of William Penn in 1737 over what is called the Walking Purchase which took 1,200 square miles of Indian lands along the forks of the Delaware River from the Lenape.
Some of the tribe members moved north, some west to get away from the “whites.” The ones that stayed were overwhelmed by new restrictions on their movement, alcohol consumption and the decimation of their ranks from diseases like smallpox, measles and tuberculosis all brought by the colonists. In 1755, like the rest of the Algonquin Nation, the Lenni Lenape hoped to push the “whites” out of their land by siding with the French in the French and Indian War. It did not work out the way they had hoped and they were a defeated nation. Peace came in 1758 when New Jersey Governor Francis Bernard and the Lenni Lenape leader named Teedyuscung met and exchange apologies.
The New Jersey Assembly in 1758 established a permanent home for the Lenni Lenape in Burlington County. It was the first “Indian reservation.” The tribe had relinquished all rights to New Jersey, except for hunting and fishing privileges. About 200 of the “original People” gathered to make their home under the supervision of John Brainerd. Rev. Brainerd optimistically called the reservation Brotherton in hopes that all men would be brothers. He was an enthusiastic organizer and devout missionary. He helped them to set up grist and sawmills and encouraged them to adapt to the new way of life. For a while it seemed to be working and the area became known as Indian Mills.
Due to his own illness Rev. Brainerd left Brotherton in 1777 and affairs grew steadily worse. Tales of the misery reached as far as upper New York State, where the Oneida, another tribe of the Algonquin Nation still lived. In 1796, the Oneida tribe in New Stockbridge, NY, invited the Brotherton tribe to come spread their mats before “our fireplace, where you will eat with your grandchildren out of one dish and use one spoon.”
In 1801, the New Jersey Assembly agreed to sell the reservation and give the proceeds to the remaining tribe members, fewer than 85.
In May of 1802, Elisha Ahhataina (Lashar Tamar), last chief of the Brotherton Indians, led his people in their 12 rented wagons to New Stockbridge, NY. A few stayed behind, some becoming integrated into the local communities of South Jersey and some taking to the hills of North Jersey and Pennsylvania. Chief Tamar stayed for a while with his people in New York, but eventually returned to New Jersey and settled on the Woolman farm near the town of Rancocas.
The Brotherton Indians stayed with the Oneida until 1832, when they asked the New Jersey Legislature for the balance of the money from the sale of the reservation. They were appropriated $3,551.23. The remaining 40 members of the tribe resettled in Statesburg, Wisconsin.
Later some of the tribe moved on to join the Cherokees and Osages, west of the Mississippi. Some later went to “Indian territory,” now Oklahoma. Others, many who had gone before 1802, went to Canada.
This is a summary of a number of writings about the Lenni Lenape.