Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

A Short History of the Lenni Lenape

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In a book titled, “On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory” author Andrew Newman discusses the account of Lenape/Delaware Indian history in their own words. He says that the Lenape described an event many of us have become familiar with over time. He stated (based on their story) that:

  “Many hundred years ago, they had lived in a very distant country in the Western part of                       the American continent…and after a large migration had settled in the region of the                               Atlantic seaboard spanning the Hudson and Delaware Rivers”. 

As was discussed in last weeks posting, the Native (or Indian) populations throughout the continent held stories of their origins that either led them to believe that culturally, as a people, they had been placed in one particular spot by their creator(s) and did not migrate from elsewhere. Many archaeologists suggest that Native people had traveled into the North American continent on foot through the Bering Strait or possibly across/or used ice sheets (glaciers) as guides that spanned the Atlantic from Europe to the North American coast. It seems from the perspective given from Newman’s account that the local Lenape population had believed they did migrate from a more western portion of the continent. In a moment, I will discuss a bit about the Lenape origin story.

First, let’s find out how the Lenape/Delaware Indians got their name. The Lenni Lenape name actually derived from two name meanings: Lenni, meaning: genuine, pure, real, and/or original; and Lenape, meaning: Indian or man. This information comes from the Lenape Talking Dictionary. ( The term Indian is not an original native First Nations term, but may have been added later to distinguish the group based on the cultural adoption of the misused title from European populations.

The name Delaware is also not an original native First Nations term. Thomas West 3rd Baron De La Warr, was the first English governor of Virginia. The name Delaware was given to the river in Virginia, but then also applied to the Native people (by Europeans) inhabiting the area surrounding the river at the time of contact in the 16th and 17th centuries. The name eventually stuck with the group and they were interchangeably called Lenni Lenape (or Lenape) and Delaware Indians.

The location which the Lenape inhabited was originally called Lenapehoking. This area which encompassed the mid-Atlantic coastal areas of New Jersey, Southern New York, Northern Delaware, Eastern Maryland, and Eastern Pennsylvania. This Algonquin linguistic group, the Lenape, people define the name to mean, “In the land of the Lenape”.

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Here is the Lenape origin story as told by Robert Red Hawk. (This information can be found at

                “At one time everything was dark. There was nothing. But there was a spirit in that nothingness, and it would have remained that way, but the spirit fell asleep. As he slept, he dreamed. He dreamt of a world: mountains, sky, the ocean, all of the fish in the ocean, all the birds in the sky, all the trees, the deserts, all of the animals on the earth. He dreamed of man. He dreamed of ceremony: of people drumming and singing. But then, he awoke, and because it was just a dream, everything was still black. But because the seed had been planted in him, that dream, he started to manifest it. The first thing he did was create helpers—spirits: the grandfather of the North, the Grandfather of the East, the Grandmother of the South, and the Grandfather of the West. And they, in turn, put their dreams and thoughts into creating the Earth, the stars, the sun, and the heavens. They added their gifts, and more was created. And everything the Creator dreamed came true. And one of the last things that they did was dream a special tree—a shimmering tree. And from that root, the first man arose. The tree bent down and kissed the ground. And where it kissed the ground, the first woman came. And everything was good—everything was good and perfect, and everyone had a job from the creator. Squirrels were given the task of collecting nuts and burying them to make trees grow. Deer were sent to go through the underbrush and eat and make room so that the trees could grow. Man’s job was to take care of the earth—to be a caretaker of the land. As time went on, there was a great problem that arose among the people. There was a certain charm—it was the tooth of a giant naked bear. When you had this tooth, you could have lots of magic powers. The people started to fight each other over the tooth. They fought so hard and so long, that some of the people started moving. This is why we have different languages. But, when the creator saw what was happening, he sent a spirit being to help the people, Nanpush. 

Nanabush went atop one of the mountains and started a fire. It was the first sacred fire that was ever made. From that fire, he sent up smoke. And all the people from all over saw that smoke, and they came to see what the smoke was. Nanapush reached down and came up with a stone. It was a soapstone. And from that soapstone he fashioned a bowl. And then he took from a branch of the sumac tree. He made a stem and fashioned that and put that together with the bowl. Then he reached down and the creator gave him a sacred plant. And they called it tobacco. Nanapush held that pipe up and told the people, “Whenever there’s discord, whenever you hold council, whenever you want to come together, and bring you minds together as one, take this tobacco, put it in a pipe, and smoke it. And that smoke will go into you and when you blow it out your thoughts your prayers will all intermingle together. And you’ll be able to make decisions that are right for everyone and everything. Nanapush comes back into our stories a lot. One of them is an emergence story. As I told you before the people originally started fighting over the tooth of that naked bear but what happened was there was some evil spirits here. One of them was a giant toad. He was in charge of all the waters. There was also a giant snake. They started fighting over that tooth and the great frog ate the snake and ate the tooth. The snake jabbed him in the side and all those waters started coming out in a big flood. Nanapush again came and he saw everything was being destroyed. He came upon a mountain and he started gathering all the animals and sticking them in a sash. Eventually he got to the top of this mountain and there was a cedar tree. He started climbing the tree. As he climbed, he would snap cedar bows off and stick them in his belt. He got to the top and what he did was he took his bow and started plucking on his bow and he sang a song and all the waters stopped rising. Then Nanapush asked of the animals, who will let me put all the cedar branches on top of you so that all the animals can go on top of you? And the turtle said, you can put them on me and I’ll float on the water and you can put the branches on me. So they did. That’s why we call this land turtle island. Then Nanapush said, “Well, we gotta make it a little bigger than it is—turtle’s only so big, even a snapping turtle’s only so big—so they had to go down and get some of the old earth under the water and put it up on top of the turtle. So first guy that goes down, the beaver, says I’m gonna go down. Beaver went all the way down. He comes up dead with no soil. Nanapush breathes some more life into him and brought him back to life. Then the bird nation came up and the loon said, ” I wanna go down. I wanna go down and see if I can do it.” Loon went down; he was down for a long time. He came back up dead. So Nanapush breathed into him. So finally the little bitty muskrat said, Let me try.” So he went down. And poor little muskrat, he was down for the longest time, and he come up dead, but on his nose was some of the old earth. So he breathed into the little muskrat and they put the earth on the back of the turtle.

And he told the muskrat he would always be blessed and his kind would always thrive in this land. Then Nanapush took his bow out again and started singing a song. And as he sang the turtle’s back grew and grew so much that you couldn’t even see from one end to the other anymore. And it kept growing. Nanapush says I wonder how long we should let this turtle grow. I’m gonna send out each of the animals. He sent the bear out. Bear came back 2-3 days later and said, “OK I got to the edge.” He sent the deer out. Deer came back two weeks later and said, “I made it to the edge.” Finally they sent the wolf. The wolf went. They waited for the wolf to come back. They waited months. They waited years. The wolf didn’t come back. That’s how big the land got. In fact to this day wolves at night will often howl, and what they’re howling for is they’re calling for their ancestor who went off to see if he can find his way back home again. That’s the story of how the earth was first made and how the first pipe came to our people and how the first flood came and we re-emerged from the flood”.

Some of the creation stories differ depending on the geographic location or assimilation of individuals within their tribe into other bands/tribes/nations. The Lenape were not limited to living in one area, but inhabited many areas on the eastern seaboard. Earlier, I discussed the regions where they lived before and during the colonial period. Eventually, due to European settlement, the Lenape migrated or were displaced out of their original territory (from about 1600 to 1900) and forced to move in areas north, south, and/or west. These locations included Ontario, Canada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri, Louisiana,  Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas.


According to many Lenape people and scholars, there were 3 main groups. The Munsee (Munsi), Unami, and Unalactigo. Their differences were based on the dialect of the Algonquin language they spoke and their their geographic location. Their shared practice of living in a matrilineal clan system gave them a commonly shared cultural identification as Lenape people. Their three clans were the Turtle, Wolf, and Turkey. There were subdivisions among the three based on their tribal affiliation, band, and village. This allowed them to each have certain unique characteristics, all-the-while still identifying as Lenape.

The language dialects, called Munsee, Nanticoke, and Unami which were spoken during the colonial period, are now considered “dead” languages. This is not necessarily true. Although they were distinct and separate in their language, efforts are being made to combine what is known from the old dialects into one unified language. There are some elders in the Ontario, Canada community of the Lenape who still speak in the Munsee dialect.

Next week, we will learn a little more about the cultural traditions of the Lenape and how they are still being used today.

Written by: Sarah Krykew


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