This is the beginning of a series of articles on the Lenape people who eventually came to live in southern Hunterdon County, before moving further west into Pennsylvania.

By Their Names You Shall Know Them

In the late 17th century, a Lenape Sachem named Caponokonickon walked the paths of “Scheyechbi.” His name was spelled many ways, such as Coponnockous, Capenokanickon, Kapanockanickon, Caponeaoconeacon, Caponakonikikkon or Caponokon. He was a Lenape Sachema or Sarkemaker or Sachamaker, and walked the paths of central New Jersey, known as “Scheyechbi” or Lënape Ehendawikihtit.”

All these spellings for Caponokonickon’s name were invented by the colonial settlers who wrote his name and his title, but could not agree on the spelling. Caponokonickon probably had no interest in how those people spelled his name. He spoke a sort of English, just as the Europeans could speak a little Algonkian, but Caponokonickon and his people did not write their own language. They had other ways to remember things. Contrary to the claims of Constantine Rafinisque and his story of the “Walum Olum,” the Lenape had no written language and did not use pictographs.  When they signed deeds to the English, they used marks, just as many English themselves who had not learned to write were obliged to do.

The Europeans could not agree on spelling, because the Lenape words had such unfamiliar sounds. One observer quoted by Herbert Kraft (2001, p.369) wrote in 1628 that “These people have difficult aspirates and many guttural letters, which are formed more in the throat than by the mouth, teeth and lips, to which our people not being accustomed, make a bold stroke at the thing and imagine that they have accomplished something wonderful . . .” Kraft was quoting Jonas Michaëlius, who observed that those who were most adept at speaking with the “savages” still could not understand them when they talked among themselves.

Caponokonickon was a Sankhikan, one of the Raritan Indians who spoke in what was later called the Unami dialect, in which the word Lenape meant ‘the people,’ or ‘common people.’ It did not mean ‘original people,’ as some have thought. Sometimes the Lenape would say ‘Lenni Lenape’ for emphasis or as a way to distinguish themselves from other Lenape. I am not going to call the Unami a tribe, since there was little in the way of tribal government. It was more a cultural relationship between small bands of Lenape than a political entity.

The term “sub-tribe” shows up often, as if the Lenape were one tribe, and the many smaller groups identified as Lenape were considered as divisions or sub-units of the larger tribe. I am sure they would not call themselves that. It does not convey what the separate bands were like. They were more like extended families of hunter-gatherers who needed large expanses of land to provide for themselves. Their loyalties were to each other and to those with whom they had established relationships. There was no over-arching authority guiding all the Lenape ‘sub-tribes.’

Deciding exactly where the Unami-speaking people lived seems to be nearly impossible. Experts disagree on the boundaries, probably because the boundaries were fairly flexible, depending on circumstances.

The Raritans

The people known as Raritans once inhabited an area that included parts of Westchester County, New York, Staten Island and the Raritan Bay. They occupied land surrounding Manhattan on the north, west and south. The Dutch soon came to appreciate their fighting abilities, so much so that one of the Dutch hired them and armed them to serve as his body guards during a dispute with Dutch governor William Kieft.

On the whole, the Dutch did not get along well with the Raritans; both people were somewhat hot-headed. There was a peace treaty in 1634, but it did not hold for long. There were insults and infractions on both sides. The Dutch certainly longed to possess the Raritan lands.

“the Raritanys had the handsomest and pleasantest country that man can behold ; it furnished the Indians with abundance of maize, beans, pumpkins and other fruits.”1

In 1640, Raritans raided a tobacco plantation on Staten Island and killed four of the farmers. This angered the Dutch so much that they put a price on the head of every Raritan who took part in the raid. The Dutch were not the only antagonists for the Raritans, they also were attacked from the west by the Susquehannocks of Pennsylvania who were at war in the mid-17th century, and other Indian enemies who attacked from Long Island. The Manhattans were related to a more northern tribe called the Mahicans, while the Susquehannocks had a distant connection with the Iroquois. In 1650, the Raritans decided to retreat inland along the Raritan Bay to the south and west, and sold their properties near Manhattan to the Dutch.2 They had even abandoned the bay area near Staten Island.

As the Raritans moved west, they may have joined with a people called Sanhicans, which was like the word assan-hican, a stone tool made in the vicinity of Assanpink creek. The Assanpink flowed from the vicinity of the Millstone River, called Mattawong by the Lenape, to the Delaware River at a place later to be known as Trenton. These Lenape had become “subordinated allies of the Susquehannocks,” which shielded them from some of the warfare instigated by varioius Iroquois groups.3

Lappawinsoe, one of the Lenape who signed the Walking Purchase Treaty in 1737, painted by Gustavus Hesselius, from the collections of the N. J. Historical Society

Lenape Appearance

William Penn encountered the Lenape during his early days in West New Jersey. He wrote of them:

“For their Persons, they are generally tall, streight, well-built, and of singular Proportion; they tread strong and clever, and mostly walk with a lofty Chin: Of Complexion, Black, but by design, as the Gypsies in England: They grease themselves with Bears-fat clarified, and using no defence against Sun or Weather, their skins must needs be swarthy.”4

He was intrigued by their resemblance to Italians and enchanted with the beauty of their language. Of course, he could hear it spoken, but we only see the multi-syllabic words that have survived, without hearing them from a native speaker. Even so, names like Caponokonickon and Wickecheoke do have a musical ring, which may help explain why they survived long after the Lenape departed.

I have refrained from citing the most commonly used sources in this article, as they can be found under “Basic Sources/New Jersey History” (click the icon on the top right of this page). Some of the footnotes in this series will refer to books listed under that section (like Myers).

  1. from New York Colonial Documents, ed. John Romeyn Brodhead, vol. 4, p.22
  2. Brodhead 1854, vol. 4, pp. 28-34
  3. Anderson and Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, Penguin Books, 2005, p.70
  4. Myers 1912, 230