Jean Soderlund is the author of Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. In 1631, when the Dutch tried to develop plantation agriculture in the Delaware Valley, the Lenape Indians destroyed the colony of Swanendael and killed its residents. The Natives and Dutch quickly negotiated peace, avoiding an extended war through diplomacy and trade. The Lenapes preserved their political sovereignty for the next fifty years as Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and English colonists settled the Delaware Valley. The European outposts did not approach the size and strength of those in Virginia, New England, and New Netherland. Even after thousands of Quakers arrived in West New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the late 1670s and '80s, the region successfully avoided war for another seventy-five years. Lenape Country is a sweeping narrative history of the multiethnic society of the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
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Penn Press: What distinguished the Lenapes from other Native American groups in eastern North America? Did anything in particular contribute to their good relations with the Europeans?
Jean Soderlund: The Lenapes dominated the region from what is now central New Jersey south into northern Delaware and west into eastern Pennsylvania. They preferred trade and peaceful relations with Europeans and Native Americans but would defend their communities and territories if threatened. They believed in personal liberty for themselves and others, and did not capture or enslave people like the Iroquois and many Indians of the American Southeast.
Were the Lenapes at all receptive to the Europeans’ efforts to colonize and/or convert them to Christianity?
During the 17th century the Lenapes were not at all receptive to European efforts to colonize and convert them. Most Lenapes remained independent through the colonial period. In the 1640s several Swedish ministers attempted to convert the Lenapes, but were unsuccessful. Later, the Quakers made little effort to convince the Natives of their religion; several Quaker and Lenape leaders thought that their beliefs were similar. It was not until the mid-18th century that some Lenapes became Presbyterian or Moravian.
How reliant were the Lenapes on oral tradition as opposed to other forms of record keeping? Was this common amongst Native American communities?
Like other Native Americans, the Lenapes maintained their records through oral tradition. This is one of the challenges of writing the history of Native American communities—that we are reliant on the documentary records of Europeans for so much of our information. This means that we have to interrogate the records in order to try to understand what the Lenapes were thinking and doing, not just take the Europeans’ word as recorded.
How/with what methods were the Lenapes able to manage the traveling of Europeans throughout much of the 17th century?
The Lenapes seemed most concerned about keeping Europeans out of certain areas, especially north of the Falls of the Delaware (the location of present-day Trenton, N.J.) and central Delaware. The Delawares blocked altogether the path of travelers north of the Falls and required that Lenape guides accompany Europeans traveling in some other areas such as the route from the Delaware River to New York. Lenapes killed some Europeans who strayed or settled without permission.
Were there any long-lasting, violent or otherwise irreparable tensions between the Lenapes and other Native American groups (e.g. the Iroquois)?
The Lenapes maintained good relations with other Natives. One exception was in the years from about 1626 to 1636 when the Susquehannocks, who lived to the west along the Susquehanna River, tried to establish trade with the Dutch on the Delaware River by forcing out the Lenapes. Many Lenapes were killed and their towns burned, but the war ended in an agreement that both groups could trade on the Delaware. The Lenapes retained sovereignty over their land; during the years after 1636 they forged a close alliance with the Susquehannocks. Later, this alliance brought the Lenapes briefly into the Susquehannocks’ war against the Iroquois, but for the most part the Lenapes remained at peace with the Iroquois.
With which European group (Dutch, English, Swedes, etc.) did the Lenapes have the best relationship?
The Lenapes worked most closely with the Swedes and Finns who established New Sweden in 1638, but then lost control of their colony to the Dutch in 1655, who in turn lost control to the English Duke of York’s government in 1664. The Lenapes, Swedes, and Finns (and other Europeans who were part of the New Sweden community) formed an alliance to withstand the heavy-handed authority of the Dutch and English governments. An example is that the Lenapes supported the Long Swede conspiracy when many Swedes and Finns rebelled against the Duke of York’s land policies. In return, these Europeans refused to go to war against the Lenapes and other Natives.
In what specific ways did the Europeans and Lenapes work together to collectively develop Delaware Valley society?
After 1654, the Lenapes and Swedish-Finnish community became more closely allied, as they intermarried and depended on one another for support. They respected and did not try to change each other’s culture and religion. They often lived and visited each other in adjacent settlements. When conflict arose over stray livestock or a personal assault, the Lenapes, Swedes, and Finns tried to resolve the issue without further violence. They created a society that favored peace over war, and liberty over slavery, unlike other regions of eastern North America.
How involved was William Penn in communications with the Lenapes?
In 1681, soon after he received the charter for Pennsylvania, Penn sent his deputy William Markham to negotiate with the Lenapes for land. With help from the Swedes and Finns, Markham made several land deals with the Natives. Penn negotiated directly with the Lenapes after his arrival in 1682, and seemed to have great respect for their culture.
At what point did relations between the Europeans and the Lenapes begin to generally deteriorate?
Relations between the Lenapes and the Swedish-Finnish community remained strong into the 18th century. Relations between the Lenapes and the Pennsylvania government started deteriorating soon after Penn left for the first time in 1684 because, according to their custom and the practice of the Swedish and Dutch governments, the Lenapes expected Penn to continue paying annual gifts for use of the land. Penn was broke and could not keep up the payments and, in any case, believed he had paid enough for the land.
This was a disagreement more generally between Native Americans and most Europeans. The Natives did not believe that land was an entity that could be sold; rather they expected gifts in return for its use. Europeans believed they could buy it and wrote deeds that they thought proved their ownership. The Swedes and Dutch in the Delaware Valley, while under Lenape domination, quickly learned the Native tradition. The major split between the Lenapes and the Pennsylvania government occurred with the Walking Purchase of 1737, which defrauded the Natives of their remaining territory along the Delaware River from central Bucks County into the Poconos.
Did the Lenapes ever express resentment about the Quakers’ unwillingness to consult them about their own history or handling of the land?
We have records in the 17th and 18th centuries of the Lenapes’ resentment concerning the handling of land but not about their history. Occasionally, Europeans recorded what the Lenapes told them about their religion and events involving earlier colonists such as smallpox epidemics and sale of alcohol, but the records do not indicate resentment about the lack of historical record keeping. As discussed above, the Lenapes became quite angry when colonists took more land than agreed upon and failed to provide annual gifts. The Lenapes could require the gifts during the time before the 1680s when they controlled the Delaware Valley. After Penn’s arrival, when thousands of colonists arrived, they protested Pennsylvania land policies but did not declare war—until the 1750s with the Seven Years’ War.
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Jean R. Soderlund is Professor of History at Lehigh University and editor of William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania: A Documentary History, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn is available now.