The Lenni Lenape and the Revolutionary War

For the American Indian nations east of the Mississippi River, the Revolutionary War was a time of great turmoil, deceit, and disaster. Both the British and the American rebels sought assistance from and alliance with the Indian nations. While both armies sought Indian warriors, both armies also attacked Indian villages, including those which were trying to stay neutral in the conflict. The war divided many Indian nations, with some Indians favoring one side, some favoring the other, and many expressing the idea that this was not their war. One of the Indian nations impacted by the Revolution was the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware) whose traditional territory included New Jersey, New York (west of the Hudson River and the western end of Long Island), eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, and northeastern Maryland.  

In 1778, the newly formed United States negotiated its very first Indian treaty with the Lenni Lenape. The treaty allowed American troops to pass through Lenni Lenape territory. In addition, the Lenni Lenape agreed to sell corn, meat, horses and other supplies to the United States and to allow their men to enlist in the U.S. army. The treaty also stated that if the Lenni Lenape might decide at some time in the future, they could form their own state and have a representative in Congress. The idea of statehood for the Delaware appears to have been suggested by Chief White Eyes.

We are not really sure how much of the treaty the Indians really understood. Non-Indians who were present at the negotiations have suggested that the work of the interpreters was somewhat deficient and perhaps deliberately deceptive. George Morgan, who was considered to be the Pennsylvanian most experienced in Indian affairs, did not participate in the conference and later wrote:

“There never was a Conference with the Indians so improperly or villainously conducted.”

The issue of the Revolutionary War divided the Lenni Lenape.  White Eyes and John Kilbuck of the Turtle clan displayed continued pro-American sympathies. One the other hand, Captain Pipe of the Wolf clan moved with many of his followers to the Sandusky River in northwestern Ohio, closer to the Wyandots and the British.

In Ohio, American troops, starving and nearly naked, arrived at a Lenni Lenape village. The American commander delivered a pompous oration in which he told them of his great power and his intent to punish any Indians who failed to follow his orders. Traditionally, the Indians would have politely and quietly listened to their guest, but in this instance, the warriors openly laughed at him.

After signing the treaty with the United States, chief White Eyes died of smallpox. Christian missionary John Heckewelder wrote:

“He was a Christian in his heart, but did not live to make a public profession of our religion, though it is well known that he persuaded many Indians to embrace it.”

Many of his contemporaries, and some of today’s historians, have suggested that White Eyes did not actually die of smallpox, but was murdered by an American militia group and then secretly buried.

In 1781, a force of about 300 Americans attacked the Lenni Lenape village of Coshocton, Ohio. The Americans destroyed both Coschocton and the neighboring village of Licheneau. The Americans captured and then killed 15 Lenni Lenape warriors. The Americans used excessive cruelty in the killing of the captured Indians.

Next, the British decided that the Morovian missionaries and their Christian Lenni Lenape at Gnadenhutten, Ohio were providing food and information to the American revolutionaries. The Delaware were stripped of their possessions and herded into a concentration camp on the Sandusky River. The missionaries were taken to Detroit for interrogation. After spending the winter in the concentration camp, the starving Delaware were released so that they could plant their spring crops.

After their release from the British concentration camp in 1782, 96 peaceful Christian Lenni Lenape were massacred by American soldiers in retaliation for raids carried out by other Indians. The unarmed Lenni Lenape knelt in prayer as they were executed. One of the American rangers used a cooper’s mallet to brain many of the kneeling Indians.  Many historians would later call this massacre a sadistic atrocity. The militia obtained at least 80 horseback loads of plunder and the horses themselves.

The day following the massacre at Gnadenhutten, a war party of 140 Shawnee arrived at the scene and manage to kill or capture most of the American soldiers. The American colonel who led the attack was roasted slowly at the stake.

In 1782, the Lenni Lenape living on Smokey Island (also called Killbuck Island) near Pittsburgh were attacked by Americans. In the confusion of the attack, the wampum belts and bark books containing the tribal archives were lost in the river. This was a major blow to the history and oral traditions of the Lenni Lenape.  

The newly formed United States and the British obtained a provisional peace ending the Revolutionary War in 1782.

Lenni Lenape Culture

The very first treaty which the United States signed with an Indian nation was with the Lenni Lenape (also known as Delaware) in 1778. The treaty allowed American troops to pass through Delaware territory. In addition, the Lenape agreed to sell corn, meat, horses and other supplies to the United States and to allow their men to enlist in the U.S. army. The treaty also stated that if the Lenape decided to, they might form a state and have a representative in Congress. The idea of statehood for the Delaware was suggested by Chief White Eyes.

At the time of initial European contact, the territory occupied by the Lenni Lenape included New Jersey, New York (west of the Hudson River and the western end of Long Island), eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, and northeastern Maryland. The designation “Lenni Lenape” means “True Men.”

What follows below the squiggle is a brief description of the traditional culture of the Lenni Lenape.  

Government:

Unlike the European nations in the eighteenth century, the Lenni Lenape were not a monarchy nor were they politically unified. Among the Lenni Lenape there was a confederation of towns and villages. Their government was a participatory democracy, with councils presided over by chiefs, known as sachems, whose authority came from their power of persuasion. The political focus of the Lenni Lenape was the village which was generally inhabited by a few hundred people.

The role of the sachem was often that of a mediator and their primary power lay in their ability to persuade other people through their oratorical skills. They had little power over the warriors and merely acted as spokesmen for their people in dealing with the Europeans.

With regard to the succession of Lenni Lenape chiefs, a chief would usually designate his successor, but this does not appear to have been binding following his resignation or death. Unlike the European kings, a son did not automatically assume his father’s position.

Language:

The Lenni Lenape language belongs to the large Algonquian language family. It is thus related to other languages in the area, such as Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Wampanoag, Massachusett, Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot, Munsee, and Nanticoke. It is distantly related to the Plains Indian Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Gros Ventre and even more distantly related to some California languages such as Wiyot and Yurok.

Subsistence:

Like the other tribes in the Northeastern United States, the Lenni Lenape were an agricultural people who also engaged in some gathering of wild plants, hunting, and fishing. Like the other Indian people in this region, they raised corn (maize), beans, squash, sunflowers, and other crops. The crops were tended by the women and were not planted in fields which were fenced. Thus, Indian agriculture was often invisible to the English who assumed that agriculture was men’s work and had to be done in fenced fields.

With regard to hunting, the Lenni Lenape hunters preferred to hunt when they were hungry. They felt that hunger would continually remind them of why they hunted. According to their oral traditions, hunting on a full stomach would make the hunter careless and lazy, thinking about home, and not watching for game.

Clothing and Body Adornment:

The Lenni Lenape made blankets from beaver and raccoon skins that were pliable, warm, and durable. By carefully setting the hair or fur in the same way, rain would run off the blanket and not penetrate it. They also made blankets from feathers which were warm and durable. Turkey and goose feathers would be interwoven together with thread or twine made from wild hemp and nettle.

Tattooing was common. Generally animal figures were favored. Some warriors would have tattoos which represented their war exploits. Writing about one such warrior in 1817, Christian missionary John Heckewelder reported:

“On his whole face, neck, shoulders, arms, thighs and legs, as well as on his breast and back, were represented scenes of the various actions and engagements he had been in; in short, the whole of this history was there deposited, which was well known to those of his nation, and was such that all who heard it thought it could never be surpassed by man.”

Record Keeping:

The Lenni Lenape kept records of important information in a number of ways. Wampum belts were one way of recording an event. Song sticks and wooden tablets with engraved symbols were used to record the verses of sacred songs and to record family genealogy. One early Moravian missionary reported:

“they use hieroglyphs on wood, trees, and stones, to give caution, information, communicate events, achievements, [and] keep records.”

Like the other Indian nations of the region, the Lenni Lenape used wampum belts for recording important agreements and for sending messages. A wampum belt with one or two rows of white wampum interwoven with black and running through the middle indicated that two nations were friendly with each other. On the other hand, a black belt with the mark of a hatchet on it in red is a war belt. When this type of belt together with a twist of tobacco was sent to an Indian nation, it was an invitation to join in war.

Many of the tribes in this region used a kind of picture writing known as wikhegan. A hunter or traveler would scratch a series of pictures on a piece of bark and then hide it in the base of a tree. By leaving sticks on the trail, others would know that a wikhegan was hidden nearby and recover it to read the message. The wikhegan was also used in regional maps. These bark maps would show the rivers and streams of the country and would allow those who embarked on a long-distance journey to do so without going astray.

Marriage and Family:

Unlike the eighteenth century Europeans, the Lenni Lenape viewed men and women as equals. Marriages were contracts in which it was understood that both sides were not obligated to live with each other any longer than they were pleased with each other. There was no religious ceremony involved in marriage, and the marriage, as well as the divorce, was seen as a private matter rather than a concern for the entire village.  

Kinship terminology-the names used to designate relationships-was different from that used by the English colonists. For example, the English terms “brother,” “sister,” and “sibling,” refer to people who share the same father and mother. Yet, among Lenni Lenape there was no distinction between what the English would call “sibling” and what the English would call “cousin.”

Warfare:

While warfare was common among the Indian nations of the Northeast, it tended to be individualistic. War leaders led by persuasion, rather than authority and rank.  Warfare tended to be small in scale and there were relatively few casualties. War was conducted for revenge and for personal honor. It was not done to obtain territory, and religious war was unthinkable.

Lenni Lenape warriors would often wear a wooden helmet into battle. They would carry a large wooden war club which was attached to one arm with a thong and a rectangular shield made of wood or moose hide. The shield would cover the body up to the shoulder. Both the shield and the war club were painted with special designs. Warriors would often wear special headbands and red turkey feathers. While on the warpath, they would use a special jargon.

Religion:

As with other American Indian nations, dreams were an important part of the lives of the Lenni Lenape. It was of vital importance that each human being obtain a personal guardian spirit in order to be successful in their lives. A formal vision quest was therefore done at about 12-14 years of age. During the vision quest, the seekers would abstain from food and water. There are some reports that datura (jimsonweed) was sometimes used to enhance the vision experience. Following the vision quest, a new name would be bestowed reflecting the nature of the vision.

The Lenni Lenape also had sacred dolls which were used in the spring in the Doll Dance. This ceremony was a celebration of fertility as well as good health.

One of the ceremonies among the Lenni Lenape was the Big House Ceremony or Gamwing. This twelve-day ceremony helped to maintain the cosmos and included the sharing of dreams and visions. During the ceremony, the participants would tell of the visions received during their vision quests and sing the songs acquired at this time. Dancing around the fire proceeded in a counter-clockwise fashion.

The Big House itself is a symbolic representation of the world with a central column connecting the sky and the earth and the four walls facing the four cardinal directions.

Among the Lenni Lenape, the Pickwelanoekan or Nighthawk Dance was both a dance of thanksgiving and a petition to the spirits for good health. In this dance, from two to four young men face the singer in a line. Each dancer carries a rattle in his right hand and a nighthawk wing fan in his left. During the dance, they lunge and jump toward the singer.

As with Indians in other culture areas, the sweat lodge was, and continues to be, an important element of spirituality. Among the Lenni Lenape, sweat lodges (also called sweat houses and sweat ovens) were large enough to hold from two to six people. The sweat lodges were generally built on a hillside or slope so that half of the lodge was underground. The portion which protruded would be well covered with planks and earth. The sweat lodges were generally located some distance from the village in an area with ample wood and water. Within the lodge, water would be poured on red hot stones to produce steam which facilitated communication with the spirit world. Separate sweat lodges were built for men and women. The sweatlodge served as both a ceremonial and social center.

Death:

As among many other tribes, life and death were seen as a part of an ongoing cycle. Thus, reincarnation was seen as a part of this cycle. After a birth, old women would examine the newborn to check for signs that the baby had lived before. These signs included keeping the body relaxed and the hands unclenched and reacting favorably to places and things associated with the dead relative.

Writing in 1817 about one Lenni Lenape man, Christian missionary John Heckewelder reported:

“He asserted very strange things, of his own supernatural knowledge, which he had obtained not only at the time of his initiation, but at other times, even before he was born. He said he knew that he had lived through two generations; that he had died twice and was born a third time, to live out the then present race, after which he was to die and never more to come to this country again.”

Among the Lenni Lenape, the body of the deceased was buried in a sitting position and grave goods included tools, food, and wampum. In some instances, a post with a pictorial representation of the individual’s accomplishments might be placed at the grave. As with many other tribes, the Lenni Lenape avoided speaking the name of someone who was deceased.

Indians 101: Lenni Lenape Migrations

( – promoted by navajo)

When the Europeans first arrived in North America the Lenni Lenape were living on the east coast near Chesapeake Bay. The Europeans would later give them the name Delaware.  The oral traditions of the Lenni Lenape-some of which were recorded pictorially on bark, a practice found among other Alongquian-speaking tribes-tell of their migrations from lands in the far west (interpreted as Central Asia) to the Atlantic coast.  

According to the Lenni Lenape oral tradition, they migrated east in North America until they came to the Mississippi River (Namaesi Sipu or River of Fish). Here they encountered the Iroquois who had also migrated from the west. Lenni Lenape scouts reported that the lands east of the Mississippi were inhabited by a very powerful nation, which they call Alligewi, who had many large towns built on the great rivers which flowed through the country. The Lenni Lenape sent a message to the Alligewi asking for permission to settle in their territory, but this request was refused. Instead, the Alligewi gave them permission to pass through the country to seek a settlement farther to the east.

After crossing the Mississippi to continue their migration to the east, the Lenni Lenape were suddenly attacked by the Alligewi. Forging an alliance with the Iroquois, the Lenni Lenape went to war against the powerful Alligewi who were living in fortified towns. No quarter was given, so that the Alligewi, finding that their destruction was inevitable, abandoned the country to the conquerors, and fled down the Mississippi river.

According to Lenni Lenape oral tradition, the war with the Alligewi lasted for many years. While many Lenni Lenape warriors were killed, their allies, the Iroquois, always hung back so that their losses were not so great. Still, following the war, the newly conquered land was divided between the Lenni Lenape and the Iroquois. The Iroquois took the lands to the north, in the vicinity of the Great Lakes, while the Lenni Lenape took the area to the south.

For a long period of time-perhaps many hundred years-the two nations resided peaceably in this country. During this time, some of their hunters and warriors crossed the great swamps, and then followed the streams eastward down to the great Bay River, and to Chesapeake Bay. In small groups, the Lenni Lenape settled on four great rivers which would later be called the Delaware, Hudson, Susquehannoah, and Potomack.

According to Lenni Lenape oral tradition, their nation divided into three separate groups: those who settled on the Atlantic coast, those who remained west of the Mississippi River, and those who were east of the Mississippi. With regard to those who remained west of the Mississippi, their oral tradition says

“the whole of their nation did not reach this country; that many remained behind in order to aid and assist that great body of their people, which had not crossed the Namaesi Sipu, but had retreated into the interior of the country on the other side, on being informed of the reception which those who had crossed had met with, and probably thinking that they had all been killed by the enemy.”

On the Atlantic coast, the Lenni Lenape divided themselves into three separate tribes: Turtle, Turkey, and Wolf. According to oral tradition, from these three tribes came many other tribes. In the east, they mixed with people from other tribes, intermarried, and merged languages. In this way, the Mohican people came into existence.