Delaware Indians

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Delaware Tribe.jpg

The Delaware Native Americans, also called the Lenape, originally lived along the Delaware River in New Jersey. They speak a form of the Algonquian language and are thus related to the Miami tribe, the Ottawa tribe, and the Shawnee tribe. The Delaware are called "Grandfathers" by the other Algonquian tribes because of their belief that the Delaware were among the oldest groups in the Algonquian nation.

The Delaware tribe organized their society on a matrilineal system. Clans were developed to create hierarchical standing. A child was to be associated with the mother’s clan; their social status was determined by the notoriety of the maternal family. The mother’s brother was more influential among the children because the father tended to be a member of a separate clan. Heredity leadership was passed down the matrilineal line. There was an elder woman who led the clan. She shared the responsibility of regulating public affairs with a male council. Council members, known as sachems or chiefs were appointed by the elder woman; she maintained the right to relinquish any chief if he was failing on his duties. Furthermore, matri-local residency also dominated the Delaware tribe. A newly married couple would reside within the bride’s family home so her aunts and sisters could assist her with the growing family.

Life for the Delaware tribe was more sedentary than nomadic. The clans maintained permanent settlement during the summer-time; however, during the winter some tribal men would disperse to hunt game. The Delaware who were already broken down into the three potential clans would be broken down into lineages that would create living communities. These communities were spread throughout the Mid-Atlantic coast. Originally, the tribe constructed three main types of wigwams for their communities: oblong with arched roof, round with domed roof, or oblong with a center pole. Later they would adapt their housing to log cabins. The center of the village was the Big House which held the council’s meetings, and hosted the religious activities. Work was distributed by gender. The women maintained the home front by harvesting, cooking, cleaning, rearing the children, and creating jewelry as well as clothing. Typically, women planted the ‘three sisters’ of crops which were corn, beans, and squash. Agriculture was the main supplier of food for the Delaware; women utilized companion planting (different crops share the soil) to maximize the harvest. On the other hand, the men were the hunters, gatherers, and warriors. They sought out smaller game such as birds and deer, while also collecting an assortment of seafood. Women tended to wear a two-hide dress with matching leggings and moccasins. The men dressed in a breechcloth as well as moccasins and leggings. Males remained clean shaven and bald to represent the round scalp appearance. Tattoos were common among both genders as symbols of religion and social standing.

The Delaware have a long history of interactions with European settlers, the first recorded contact between the Delaware and Europeans occurring in 1524 with Giovanni de Verrazano, an Italian explorer employed by France. As European settlers began arriving into North America and settling in Delaware territory the tribe attempted to remain cordial with the colonists. The Europeans and the Delaware organized elaborate trading systems, such as the fur trade established between the tribe and Verrazano’s French explorers. Some Delaware names for cities became popular with colonists and were kept during settlement, including: Manhattan, Tappan, and Raritan.

As the colonial populace increased and began to expand throughout the East coast the tensions with the Delaware amplified. The tribe maintained a cordial relationship with the founder of the Pennsylvania colony, William Penn. Penn refused to overtake the Delaware’s land, signing a peace treaty with Chief Tamanend to prevent violent conflict between settlers and the Native Americans. The treaty was successful so long as Penn was alive. When he passed away his two sons, John and Thomas, were less accommodating to the tribe and illegally sold Delaware land to European settlers. The Walking Purchase, a treaty of dubious origin and legitimacy that “allowed” these sales, forced the Delaware off the land within the Purchase and fostered resentment among the Delaware, many of whom would battle against the British during the Seven Years War.

Furthermore, this betrayal by the colonists influenced many Delaware to align with the French during the French and Indian War. When France seemed defeated, however, many Delaware switched their alliances to side with the British. This new collaboration led to the signing of the Treaty of Easton (1758) which detailed that the Delaware tribe would remove themselves from the East coast, and relocate within the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. In return, Britain would acknowledge that the Ohio River valley was Delaware hunting grounds. The Delaware thereafter remained loyal to the British and the colonists until the American Revolution.

During the Revolution, the Delaware became a divided people. Many attempted to remain neutral in the conflict, especially those who had adopted Christianity and lived in Moravian Church missions at Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten in what is now eastern Ohio. Other Delaware supported the English, who had replaced the French traders at the end of the French and Indian War. These natives thanked England for the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonists from settling any further west than the Appalachian Mountains. They feared that if the U.S. was victorious, the Delaware would be driven from their lands. Despite the Delawares' fears, many in what is now the U.S. hoped that they could count on the tribe as allies. As the war progressed, however, not all in the U.S. trusted them. In 1782 a group of Pennsylvania militiamen, falsely believing the natives were responsible for several raids killed 96 peaceful Christian Delawares in what became known as the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

Following the U.S. victory in the Revolution, the Delaware struggled against U.S. settlers as they moved onto the natives' territory. In 1794, General Anthony Wayne defeated the Delaware and other Ohio natives at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The natives surrendered most of their Ohio lands with the signing of the Treaty of Greeneville in 1795.

In 1829, the United States forced the Delaware to relinquish their remaining land in Ohio and move west of the Mississippi River towards the White River in Indiana. During the nineteenth century the Delaware were persuaded to sign the Treaty of James Fork which detailed that if the tribe relinquish their land surrounding the White River they would be allotted a reservation region within the Indiana Territory (modern day Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri). Soon after arrival in the plains the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed which further displaced the Delaware tribe. Finally, after years of inconsistent settlement, the Delaware were able to permanently establish themselves in parts of Oklahoma and Texas where they remain today; the descendants of the tribesmen who fought with the British during the American Revolution reside in Western Ontario, Canada.

See Also


  1. Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.