New Jersey Natives: The Lenni-Lenape

New Jersey Natives: The Lenni-Lenape While many consider the Europeans to be the first to discover America, the true founders had been living there years before. Also referred to as the “Delaware,” the Lenni-Lenape was one of the groups of Native Americans inhabiting our geographic area. Unfortunately, once the Europeans arrived, the Delaware dwindled in numbers quickly. Although a peaceful tribe in nature, conflict between the cultures led to hostile wars. The Europeans’ need of land, guns and alcohol made it impossible for the survival of the Lenni-Lenape in their own land.

The Europeans found the Lenape lifestyle strange and intriguing. The native Americans stuck closely to tradition. The Delaware adapted to the shifting seasons, making full use of the area resources. For example, in the summer, they would go near the shore to catch oysters and clams. In the fall, they would move back to their village and harvest crops. In the winter, when they were unable to grow crops, they hunted deer and other animals. During the spring, they planted gardens around their permanent settlements. Through some of the other tribes scorned them for their peaceful ways, they frequently were the intermediaries in resolving problems within the nation.

Contact with the Europeans proved to be problematic for the natives. Dutch traders had no respect and treated them with disdain, deeming them possible slaves. However, this did not prevent them from engaging in trading rum and guns for pelts and furs. One situation in particular was the slaughter at Pavonia on February 25, 1643. A European general ordered an attack on a group of Indians encamped at Pavonia. He prepared his men to destroy the “savages,” while sparing the women and children. Unfortunately, the soldiers forgot their objective, and killed the women and children anyway. In retaliation of the terrible massacre, 11 tribes banded together to fight the settlers. This conflict finally ended in a truce in 1645.

Another incident of hostility occurred 10 years later, when a Dutchman killed a native girl who was stealing a pear from one of his trees. As a result, 3 days of raging attack ensued, including bloodshed, burning of settlements and kidnapping. In 1664, England landed in New Jersey, bringing their ideas of land ownership. Once again, the Lenni-Lenape unknowingly were swindled into signing away their land for cheap products. Some of the tribe members moved north, some west to get away from the "whites." The ones who stayed began to disappear from the introduction of alcohol, and diseases like smallpox, measles and tuberculosis. By 1700, the population of the New Jersey natives was merely around 1/4 of what it was when the Europeans arrived.

Conflicts were settled in 1758 when New Jersey Governor Francis Bernard and Lenni-Lenape leader Teedyuscung met and exchanged apologies. After a peaceful breakthrough, they negotiated and established a permanent home for the Lenni-Lenape in Burlington County. In return, the tribe renounced all rights to New Jersey, except for hunting and fishing privileges. About 200 of the remaining natives gathered to make their home under the supervision of John Brainerd. He was a pious missionary who helped them to set up rebuild their culture, while encouraging 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. Yet, due to an unexpected illness, Brainerd left in 1777, and affairs in the reservation grew progressively worse. In an act of generosity, the Oneida tribe offered their hospitality for the ailing Lenape. A few stayed behind, some becoming integrated into the local communities of South Jersey. Others took up the offer and stayed with the Oneida. Some of the tribe moved on to join with the Cherokees and Osages, west of the Mississippi and Oklahoma.

Today, many Lenni-Lenape still live on reservations in Oklahoma. However, some remained in Pennsylvania, assimilating and mixing into the melting pot of the United States. Only recently has it been acceptable for the descendents of those ancestors to practice their religion and culture again. They consider it a tribute to their oppressed ancestors, who struggled in their efforts to ensure the survival of their culture. Contrary to popular belief, there are indeed still Lenni-Lenape living in New Jersey. As it happens, there are thousands of them, and they are slowly salvaging their legacy.

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Author: Editorial Staff, SouthJersey.com; Max Cohler

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