December 13, 2017 – The Lenape leave the Delaware Valley

In the course of researching his book on the landscape history of South Jersey, Dr. Claude Epstein, emeritus professor of environmental studies at Stockton State College, came across a large number of land conveyances (property deeds) from Lenape Indians to Europeans. This information provided the basis for a study on how and when the Lenape left the Delaware Valley.

The first European settlers in this area came from Sweden in the seventeenth century. They were mainly traders, interested in beaver pelts and tobacco. In exchange, they gave iron items, tools and weapons. At that time there were thousands of Lenape, and perhaps 200-300 Swedes. These proportions reversed over the course of the seventeenth century.

Another group who came at that time were the people called the “forest Finns”, whose lifestyle allowed them easily to fit into what the Lenape were doing – extended family groups based on slash and burn agriculture.

The Swedes and the Finns eventually became outnumbered by settlers from Holland and England all over the colonies. In the course of the seventeenth century, these new settlers engaged in armed clashes with local Indians from Massachusetts to Virginia, with the single exception of the Lenape in the Delaware Valley. Trading continued on a peaceful basis, despite the depletion of the beaver population. The Lenape themselves became middlemen, purchasing beaver from further west. Locally in the Delaware Valley, Quakers began to purchase the land. Gradually the Lenape moved west, from South Jersey to the Lehigh Valley and from the Delaware Valley across the Appalachian Mountains into what is now Western Pennsylvania. These Western lands were available to the Lenape because the previous local Indians had been wiped out by the Iroquois.

Dr. Epstein’s study of the land conveyances show that these began as early as 1620, and peaked in 1670. By 1710, all the purchasing was done, and by 1750 the Lenape were gone. He noted that in all cases the Swedes, the Dutch, and the English bought the land and did not seize it. Although some of the deeds described “trinkets” as the currency for which the land was purchased, the trinkets in fact included tools and textiles, which were desired by the Indians.

Eventually the Lenape moved to New York, Wisconsin, and to the Oklahoma Indian territory. Today the tribe is gone, though there are some individuals still around.


Alexander Pushkin, 1799-1837


If I walk the noisy streets,

Or enter a many thronged church,

Or sit among the wild young generation,

I give way to my thoughts.


I say to myself: the years are fleeting,

And however many there seem to be,

We must all go under the eternal fault,

And someone’s hour is already at hand.

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