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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 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 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.

In his poem “Mannahatta,” fabled New York resident Walt Whitman writes:

“I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.
Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded….”

While Whitman paid literary homage to the original inhabitants of Manhattan, the actual transaction that took place between the Dutch and Lenape in 1626 was less equitable.

Many modern-day historians suspect that the Lenape intended the sale to be for the purposes of sharing the island rather than excluding themselves from it.

Two monuments in Manhattan currently stand in acknowledgement of the Lenape. One is in Inwood Hill. The plaque reads, “According to legend, on this site of the principal Manhattan Indian village, Peter Minuit in 1626 purchased Manhattan island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders.”

The other monument, in Battery Park, was gifted by the Dutch government to the state of New York in 1926. It depicts a Dutch man and Native American standing together. Scholars have criticized the monument for its inaccurate depiction of Lenape dress (the Native American figure is outfitted in Plains Indian garments).

According to, the purchase of the island of Manhattan by the Dutch was quickly reinforced through the construction of a wall around New Amsterdam. This act represented the first time that the Lenape were forced out of their lands at the hands of European immigrants. The wall was constructed in 1660 around what is today known as Wall Street. The passage between Lower Manhattan and Upper Manhattan was a major trade route and cultural hub for the Lenape people.

Jennie Bobb, and her daughter, Nellie Longhat, both Delaware (Lenape), Oklahoma, 1915. (Photo courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington)

The Lenape Way of Life

The Lenape people typically lived in longhouses within a village setting. The longhouses could home several hundred people, but in the summer, the tribes adopted more nomadic practices with the aim of hunting and gathering flora and fauna. More transient summer establishments were constructed of birch bark wigwams. Wigwam is the word for “house” in the Abenaki tribe. Usually 8 to 10 feet tall, wigwams were not portable, but were comfortable and easy to build.

In terms of social structure, the Lenape followed a matrilineal system in which children traced their lineage through their mother’s side. Women played a significant role in the upbringing and education of their children and were also typically in charge of land and territory rights. Women planted, harvested the crops, and cooked the meals. Women were also creative and talented artisans, known for their ability to sew clothing and create pottery and baskets. Interestingly, a matrilocal system was practiced when a couple was first married. Specifically, a husband would typically live with his new wife and her parents. Family “clans” were thus identified through matrilineal heritage. Hereditary leadership passed through female lines and the women elders could remove people of power of whom they disapproved.

Tending to the cultivation and harvesting of crops was a significant component of daily Lenape life. The Europeans were particularly impressed by the Lenape mastery of farming the “Three Sisters”: corn, squash, and beans. The Lenape eventually made use of a “slash and burn” technique; this form of farming involved shifting active plots of land. For example, when a plot of land became infertile, the Lenape would clear cut any remaining vegetation and burn it away. The resulting ash provided a nutrient-rich layer to help fertilize future crops.

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians by Benjamin West, located at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

William Penn and the Lenni-Lenape

William Penn arrived in his new colony of Pennsylvania in 1682. His land holdings represented a grant from Charles II of England. Penn also arranged the purchase of a significant portion of lands from the Lenape. In an ode to his Quaker ways, Penn sought to establish an attitude of respect between the settlers and Lenape people.

In his 1683 “Letter to the Free Society of Traders,” written to attract future settlers still back in England, Penn said of the Lenni-Lenape, “Their Houses are Mats, or Barks of Trees set on Poles, in the fashion of an English Barn, but out of the power of the Winds, for they are hardly higher than a Man; they lie on Reeds or Grass. In Travel they lodge in the Woods about a Great Fire, with the Mantle of Duffills they wear by day, wrapt about them, and a few Boughs stuck round them. Their Diet is Maze, or Indian Corn, divers ways prepared: sometimes roasted in the Ashes, sometimes beaten and Boyled with Water, which they call Homine; they also make Cakes, not unpleasant to eat: They have likewise several sorts of Beans and Pease that are good Nourishment; and the Woods and Rivers are their Larder.”

In 1683, Chief Tammany was present to sign the deed of land rights to William Penn for the purchase of four parcels of land owned by the Lenape. Tammany was considered by his people to be a great Lenape leader. Tammany and Penn reportedly maintained good relations, feasting together, visiting one another’s homes, and trading goods. The Wampum belt gifted to Penn by Tammany is today kept at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Penn traded guns, tobacco, clothing, pipes, and many more items for the land that would become part of Pennsylvania. This event was memorialized in an oil painting by Benjamin West titled The Treaty of Penn with the Indians. The painting depicts William Penn’s meeting with members of the Lenape tribe at Shackamaxon on the Delaware River. The subsequent Treaty of Shackamaxon in 1683 with Tammany included an agreement that the European settlers and Lenape would live in a state of perpetual peace. Alluding to Penn’s Quaker ideologies, the painting depicts three key factions of the state of Pennsylvania’s early identity — Native Americans, Quakers, and merchants. The painting was commissioned by Thomas Penn, son of William Penn. According to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (, West was the first American-born artist to earn acclaim outside of his homeland. West was born in modern-day Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and went on to study fine arts in London.


Black Beaver. Delawares. Alexander Gardner Portraits of Tribal Delegations to the Federal Government, 1872.

The Lenni-Lenape in Early Princeton

The first recorded history of Princeton, New Jersey, began in the 17th century when European travelers crossed New Jersey between the Delaware and Raritan rivers. These pathways were actually long-established routes of the Lenni-Lenape people. One of the most famous routes is the King’s Highway Historic Route, which covers portions of modern-day U.S. Route 206 and Route 27 towards Kingston. King’s Highway served as a main thoroughfare for people traveling from Lawrenceville to Kingston in Franklin Township/South Brunswick. At a certain point, some European settlers began establishing public houses along the route, catering to road-weary travelers. The formal name “Princeton” was first decreed in 1724. The King’s Highway Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Interestingly, in 1756, The College of New Jersey relocated from Newark to Princeton and erected Nassau Hall on land owned by the Lenape people.

Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape’s 40th annual Pow-Wow in Woodstown, New Jersey, on June 7, 2019.

In 1758, the New Jersey assembly established a new home for the Lenni-Lenape people in Burlington County. This settlement would become known as the first “Indian Reservation.” The new community was overseen by the Reverend John Brainerd, a devout missionary who named the community “Brotherton.” Brainerd introduced the use of grist mills and sawmills, and the area eventually took on the name of Indian Mills. Far from an equitable deal, the state of Lenni-Lenape health and society quickly declined on the reservation. In 1801, the New Jersey Assembly decided to sell the reservation to the remaining Lenape residents, who at that time numbered fewer than 85. A few of the Lenape stayed in South Jersey while others joined the Cherokees and Osages west of the Mississippi and Oklahoma. Modern-day Lenni-Lenape are scattered across the United States, including Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

There are two federally recognized Lenape or “Delaware” tribes in the United States, and both are in modern-day Oklahoma. According to, the Lenape were gradually pushed over time from their ancestral home along the Delaware to Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and eventually Oklahoma. Following the Civil War, the U.S. government forced the Lenape out of Kansas to make room for new railroad lines. The government then purchased a reservation in Oklahoma from the Cherokee, where the Lenape were told they could reside.

In 1982, the New Jersey Legislature formally recognized the Lenape and two other tribes as “American Indian Tribes” originating in the state. Unfortunately, this political recognition was “dropped” during the Chris Christie administration in 2011. In consequence, Lenape tribe members lost access to federal grants and scholarships. The restoration of tribal recognition by the state of New Jersey was not reinstated until November 2018. As noted on, tribal members hope that the new legal acknowledgement will help to foster an attitude of mutual respect between the state and existing Lenape tribe members. The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation is headquartered in Bridgeton, Cumberland County in Southern New Jersey.

According to, in 2018 the Princeton Histories Working Group recommended that Princeton recognize the historical links between the University and the Lenni-Lenape people. Notably, in September 2019, Princeton Council passed a resolution to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October. The holiday serves as a reminder of the heritage of New Jersey’s original residents and is a timely counterpoint to the celebration of Columbus Day. While Christopher Columbus is attributed with the discovery of the New World, he is also strongly associated with violence against Native Americans, slavery, disease, and destruction.

For those remaining Lenape who do continue to reside in New Jersey, it is imperative that the state continues to uphold their native rights, health, business, and cultural heritage. Tellingly, it is when history is forgotten that it tends to repeat itself.