The Lenape or Delaware tribe, also called the Lenni Lenape, are of the Algonquin family, and first lived New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Traditionally they were divided into the Munsee, Unami, and Unalachtigo, three social divisions determined by language and location.
The Lenape, claimed to be the “parent” from which numerous Algonquin tribes descended. Their name Lenni means “genuine, pure, real, original,” and Lenape means “Indian.” Their claim to superiority was recognized by the other tribes, who accorded to them the title of “Grandfather.” The tribe’s common name of Delaware is not of Native American origin, but they were called that by the English colonists for the Delaware River
The Lenape had a matrilineal clan system, meaning their bloodlines were traced through the women and children’s social positions were inherited from the mother’s side of the family. They farmed corn, beans, squash, melons, and tobacco, and gathered wild fruits, berries, and nuts. The men hunted and fished.
In warm weather, the men wore only a loin cloth and the women, a wrap-around skirt. The women’s’ skirts were so elaborately decorated that they reminded early Dutch settlers of fine European lace. In the winter they wore buckskin tunics and leggings and used beaver pelts or bear skins to serve as winter coats. Deer hair, dyed a deep scarlet, was a favorite component of headdresses and breast ornaments for men while the women often wore headbands of dyed deer hair. Lenape Men removed all facial hair and older men wore their hair long, but warriors usually had a decorated scalp lock that stood straight up from the head like a crest. Both sexes adorned themselves with various ornaments made of stone, shell, animal teeth, and claws and tattooing and nose rings were common.
The people lived in villages of longhouses containing several hundred people, but in the summer they were nomadic for purposes of hunting and gathering and built temporary camps of birchbark wigwams.
Their first contact with Europeans occurred in 1524 when Giovanni da Verrazzano was greeted by local Lenape who came by canoe after his ship entered what is now called Lower New York Bay.
At the time of sustained European contact in the 1600s, the Lenape were a powerful tribe and were estimated to have numbered over 20,000 people. New Netherland was established in 1614, which encompassed New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut, with small outposts in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Early relationships were friendly between the Lenape and the Dutch, and the tribe began to trade with them exchanging animal pelts, especially beaver, in exchange for tools, firearms, sugar, coffee, and fabric.
New Amsterdam, in what is now New York City, was founded in 1624. At the same time, the English were settling the area in great numbers. Soon great epidemics of European diseases were devastating numerous tribes, including the Lenape. In 1634, the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock went to war with the Lenape over access to trade with the Dutch at New Amsterdam. After the Lenape were defeated they became subservient to the Susquehannock and referred to them as “uncles.”
As the Dutch grew more demanding and encroached on more Native American lands, the Lenape fought against them in Kieft’s War (1643–1645) in which they were subjected to the Pavonia Massacre and the Esopus Wars (1659-1663). The Dutch ceded New Netherland to the English in 1664.
William Penn and Quaker colonists created the English colony of Pennsylvania along the Delaware River in 1682 and a peace treaty was signed with the Lenape in that area. However, In the following decades, some 20,000 new colonists arrived in the region, putting pressure on Lenape settlements and hunting grounds. After William Penn died in 1718, many of the Lenape in Pennsylvania were driven westward under threats of violence in the 1730s.
The Lenape supported the British in the French and Indian Wars (1688-1763).
In 1758, the Treaty of Easton between the Lenape and the colonists required the Lenape to move westward, out of present-day New York and New Jersey and into Ohio, however, not everyone went. The Ohio Lenape formed alliances with the French and once again, engaged in the fur trade.
During the American Revolution, the Lenape were divided. Those who had been converted to Christianity attempted to remain neutral in the conflict. Others supported the British, fearing that if the Americans were victorious, they would be driven from their lands. These members moved to the west, closer to Detroit, where they settled on the Scioto and Sandusky Rivers. Those Lenape sympathetic to the United States remained at Coshocton, Ohio and their leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Pitt with the Americans in 1778. This agreement allowed American troops to pass through Lenape territory and the tribe provided food, horses, and other supplies to the soldiers. The tribe also supplied the army with scouts and the Indians were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army. The sixth article of the treaty indicated that the United States contemplated the possible formation of an Indian State, with the Lenape at its head.