Ni-có-man, The Answer, Second Chief by George Catlin. From the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Original Residents of New Jersey
By Taylor Smith
The “grandfathers” or “ancient ones” as the Lenni-Lenape people are known, were the historic inhabitants of large swaths of the Northeastern United States. Originally occupying parts of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, the Lenape suffered forced migrations and removal to reservations at the hands of European settlers. In fact, prior to the 1600s, the Lenape lived all over the Northeastern woodlands and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, as noted on nanticokelenapemuseum.org. The Lenape trace their lineage to the Nanticoke or “Tidewater People” who resisted British colonial intrusion to the best of their abilities. The name “Nanticoke” references the Nanticoke River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
At the time of European contact in the early 1600s, the Lenape were estimated to number over 20,000 people. A powerful and influential tribe, early Dutch settlers sought to establish amicable relations with the Lenape through trade of tools, sugar, firearms, animal pelts, and fabric. Unfortunately, like most early contact between Native Americans and European immigrants, tribespeople were deceived and diminished by unfair trade agreements and the introduction of contagious diseases.
Dutch traders were established on the banks of the Delaware River by 1623. Swedish and Finnish colonists followed, significantly predating the arrival of German and English travelers in response to the establishment of William Penn’s colony. Familiar with the forests of Northern Europe, the Nordic immigrants cleared woodland in the new territory and introduced the use of the log cabin. What little is known of these early encounters between the Swedes and the Lenape is that both groups were independent, rugged individualists who practiced similar agricultural methods, rotating productive fields of crops along the banks of the Delaware River, according to paheritage.wpengine.com. In contrast, the Dutch were eager to establish business in the New World. They engaged in the trade of land, guns, and beads for beaver pelts. One of the most notorious transactions between the Dutch and the Lenape was the “purchase” of New York City in 1626.
Long before high rise buildings and endless concrete sidewalks, New York City was truly an idyllic island, scattered with hills and marshland and teeming with plant and wildlife. Oak and hickory forests dotted the landscape while black bears, wildcats, beavers, tree frogs, oysters, mink, brook trout, and bog turtles roamed free. In a 2020 New York Times article, ecologist Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo, noted that wolves were known to live on Manhattan until the 1720s and whales were an important part of the local ecosystem.
“Mannahatta” (as it was referred to in the Lenape language) was a trading hub for the Lenape bands of tribes who regularly gathered on the island for the exchange of goods. Mannahatta was also the site of Lenape games and musical performances. The native dwellers certainly made use of the plethora of natural resources at their disposal. For example, soaring tulip trees were favored for making canoes and the rich soil and pond water was ideal for cultivating vegetables and oyster estuaries. more