A personal note: I am writing this series on the Lenape of Central New Jersey for the benefit of my fellow residents of Delaware Township, who have lacked a local history for all of their nearly 175 years as a township. I realize I am wandering into an area that has been deeply researched by accomplished scholars, and that it is all too easy to get things wrong about this shadowy yet fascinating subject. I am prepared to stand corrected, but hope it won’t be necessary.
The River Named the People
Caponokonickon and his family walked the paths that led from the Raritan Bay west to a grand and beneficent river, which his people called “Kithanne Whittuck” and the country next to it “Lenape Wihittuck.”1 The Europeans had other names for the river. The first of those white-skinned ‘salt people’2 who came to trade there in the 1620s were Dutch, and they called it Zuydt Kille, or South River. The Noort Kille (North River) was to the east, where the Dutch had their town of New Amsterdam.3 Then in 1664 new people came to replace these Dutch traders. They had a different language and a different king, which seemed odd to the Indians. They were English, and they changed the name of the Noort Kille to the Hudson River, after Henry Hudson who sailed it in 1609. And they changed the name of the Zuydt Kille to the Delaware River.
The Delaware River’s Name
In 1610, when the only English in America were a few starving colonists in Virginia, Samuel Argall, one of the settlers at Jamestown, sailed north looking for provisions. He happened upon “a very great bay” which he named “Cape La Warre,” after the third Lord De la Warr (Sir Thomas West), his employer and governor of the Virginia colony. Soon after this, other English explorers discovered the river that emptied into the bay or “Cape,” which Henry Hudson had already seen in 1609. Apparently ignorant of Hudson’s visit, they abbreviated the name of the river and the bay to “Delaware.” Sir Thomas never saw it. He spent only one year in Virginia before leaving for England to recover from illness. In 1618 he attempted to return, but died on board ship.4
A New Name for an Old People
In the provinces of East and West New Jersey, there were many different groups of Indians who spoke various dialects of Algonkian, including the Raritan and the Sankikans. The English simplified everything by calling all the Indians who lived on either side of the Delaware River “Delawares,” no matter what group they belonged to. They were all Delawares to the English, who were using that term as early as 1678.5 The Indians found this offensive, so the English assured them that Delaware was the name of a great English chief, which made it less insulting.6 Herbert Kraft related a Lenape version of how the name came to be:7 When a white man asked a certain Indian what tribe he belonged to, he answered “Lenape.” The white man kept mispronouncing the name until he finally got it right, at which the Lenape said Nal në ndëluvwèn! meaning, That’s what I said! But ndëluvwèn sounded like Delaware to the English speaker, so he decided that that was a much easier name to use. Kraft does not say where this particular Indian lived, but since he called himself Lenape, he probably lived in Pennsylvania. The story seems highly contrived to me.
As this story shows, the Indians of the Delaware valley had some trouble communicating with these new people. When Caponokonickon spoke to them, he used a trade dialect, a simplified language that the Indians had developed ever since the Dutch began to trade with them in the 1620s.8 These traders learned the dialect and became translators for everyone else. They were rough people who had little education. Many could barely read or write, so the names they said the Indians used were probably not exactly like the actual thing. More important, the officials who had dealings with the Indians, and also had a proper education, did not bother to learn their languages; they relied on the interpreters.9
But there were some educated people who did take the trouble to learn the language—German missionaries. The Moravians and others who settled northwest New Jersey and northeast Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century saw the native people as God’s children, like themselves. So they had an incentive to learn the languages, and their writings became the standard reference regarding Indians in these places right up to the late 20th century.10
Names for the People
Many writers have used words to describe the Indians of New Jersey in ways that Caponokonickon would not have recognized. For a long time, people thought there were three “tribes” of Lenape, the Minsi or Minisinks whose totem was the wolf; the Unami or Turtle tribe; and the Unalachtigo or Turkey tribe. These terms were not used by the Indians themselves, but instead came from the writings of early Moravians missionaries like David Zeisberger, John G. E. Heckewelder and George Loskiel, who used those animals as symbols to help them keep track of matriarchal relationships. They were a sort of mnemonic device to sort out the cultural practices of the different groups. And the word ‘tribe’ is also wrong. The Indians of New Jersey lived in small groups of related people, perhaps no more than 40 in any single group. To the extent that these various groups or bands had connections with other groups, by kinship and language, one might use the term association, but not tribe.11
Names used for New Jersey’s Indians like Munsee, Unami, Unilachtigo, were not used by them when Europeans were first settling here. They do not appear in records until the mid 18th-century, when the missionaries were at work and the Indian exodus from New Jersey was well underway. So they have little meaning when studying the Indians who inhabited what became Delaware Township in the late 17th century. In fact, there were no “Unalachtigo” living in colonial New Jersey; the term was used in the mid 18th century for Lenape in Ohio. The name Munsee came to be used in 1727 to designate Indians living in the northwestern part of New Jersey, but those people had lived throughout New Jersey and southern New York for hundreds of years, only migrating to the Forks of the Delaware when their lands to the east had been sold.12 In the 18th century, the name Munsee was used to designate all the Indians living above the Raritan River, going as far north as Kingston, New York and into northeastern Pennsylvania. An earlier name for them was Esopus. They spoke a Munsee dialect which differed from that used by Lenape living south of Philadelphia, and the people have called Lenopi living south of the Raritan River in New Jersey.13
The name Unami does not appear until 1757. It meant ‘people from down river,’ and soon became a widely used designation for those Indians living along the Delaware River south of Easton, PA, and also along the Raritan River valley in New Jersey. The Unami could barely be understood by the Munsee and vice versa. Eventually, the Unami migrated west and most of their descendants today live in Oklahoma. The Munsee joined with the Minisinks and migrated northwestward to Ontario, Canada or Wisconsin.14
As you can see, I am using terms that I have just denigrated. They have come into common usage, and are now hard to do without. But perhaps they should be given up.
What to Call New Jersey’s Indians ?
This is a relatively new question. For hundreds of years, non-Indians have called the Indian residents of New Jersey Lenape or Lenni Lenape. But during all that time, no one has looked closely for evidence of what the Indians called themselves. During the last 30 years or so, Marshall Becker has been doing just that—examing documents from the late 17th and 18th century to find an Indian name for New Jersey Indians.15
He found that the Indians living on the east side of the Delaware River and south of the Raritan Valley were culturally different from those living north of the Raritan, and from those on the west side of the Delaware. Those western people were the Indians who sold large tracts of land to William Penn in 1682 and called themselves Lenape. It is Becker’s belief that the Lenape never lived in New Jersey, which does not sit well with many people. It is probably his use of the word “Lenopi” to identify the Indians living in south Jersey that people find hard to accept. But Becker did not make the name up; it was used by a native of south Jersey in 1758. Up until that time, there is no record of what the Indians on the east side of the river called themselves. To the English who dealt with them, they were “Jerseys” or “river Indians.”
Additionally, Becker has found that the 18th-century term ‘Unami’ designated the Lenape on the west side of the river, not the Jersey Indians. This conflicts with findings that south Jersey Indians spoke the Unami dialect, which I suppose means they spoke the same dialect as the Lenape on the west side of the Delaware River.
Map from Herbert C. Kraft, The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 B.C. to A.D. 2000, p. 5; derived from Ives Goddard, Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, Northeast, 1978: 214.
This map reflects a long-held belief about the areas of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York where three groups of Indians originally dwelled. Based on Marshall Becker’s research, the map should be discarded, and replaced with one that shows the Jersey Indians occupying the south of the state below the Raritan River, the Lenape living in Pennsylvania along the river south of Easton, and the Munsee or Esopus Indians living north of the Raritan and into northeast Pennsylvania. The only problem with this is that the many different groups of Indians were not confined to borders in quite the same way as residents of European countires were. They made use of “buffer areas” between them for hunting purposes. And as Europeans moved into the colony, from the east and from the west, the Indians who were displaced had to move elsewhere, perhaps into those buffer zones. So trying to pin down what territories were controlled by whom at any given time is very problematic.
But it is a problem the Europeans had to solve, because they needed the Indians to convey their lands in a manner acceptable to European legal traditions, in order for them to claim a clear title to their properties. About which there is so much more to say.
Citations in this article refer to works that are listed under Basic Sources & Resources.
- Schrabisch 1917, 18. ↩
- Kurlansky 2006, 8. ↩
- Hayes 2007, Map 356, pg 172. ↩
- Weslager 1967, 1–9. ↩
- Becker 2008, 25, note 1; William Nelson’s earliest date was 1694 (Nelson 1894, 18). ↩
- Weslager 1967, 8, also endnote 8 on p. 240. ↩
- Kraft 2001, 12, note 14 ↩
- Grumet 1995, 232; Kraft 2001, 368–69. ↩
- Jennings 1984, 63. ↩
- Researchers of today know much more than these early Germans did, as can be seen in the works of Francis Jennings, Daniel K. Richter, Eugene L. Armbruster, Ned C. Landsman, Herbert Kraft, Robert S. Grumet, Max Schrabisch, Amy C. Schutt, Marshall Becker, and many others. In fact, a perusal of Herbert Kraft’s Bibliography in his tome The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage will keep you busy for years, and yet, new work continues to be published. ↩
- Communication from Marshall Becker, October 2012. ↩
- Grumet 2009, 3. ↩
- Becker, 2008 ↩
- Kraft 1986, xvii. ↩
- Becker 2008 ↩