In 1684, Berks County was exclusively inhabited by the Lenape Indians, who were an indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands region in the United States and Canada. The Lenape were also known as the Lenni Lenape and Delaware people. Their ancestral homeland included northeastern Delaware, New Jersey, the eastern regions of Pennsylvania including the Lehigh Valley and Northeastern Pennsylvania, western Long Island, New York Bay, and the lower Hudson Valley. European settlers initially encountered the Lenape as a loosely affiliated group of related peoples who spoke similar languages and had familial connections.

Below: Map of Lenape Land.

Map of Lenape Land

The tribe’s common name Delaware is not of Native American origin. English colonists named the Delaware River for the first governor of the Province of Virginia, Lord De La Warr, whose title was derived from French. The British colonists began to call the Lenape the Delaware Indians because of where they lived. Swedish colonists also settled in the area, and Swedish sources called the Lenape the Renappi.

Along the Schuylkill River the Indians built huts or wigwams made of sticks joined together at the top and covered with the skins of animals or the bark of trees in the form of cones. The fish which abounded in rivers and creeks furnished them with a large amount of food. Potatoes and tobacco were the only agricultural products which were generally cultivated. Chestnuts, hickory nuts, “ground nuts” and a great variety of berries also abounded and, at certain seasons of the year, yielded them a large amount of rich and palatable sustenance. They produced pottery, clothing, stone weapons and tools, and they practiced basket making and other crafts.

Though the Lenapes engaged in long-distance trade with other peoples of eastern North America, they remained outside the mound-building, hierarchical civilizations that flourished prior to European contact in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. The Lenapes’ sociopolitical structure was democratic and egalitarian, as the sachems held authority only by consulting with a council of elders and following the expectations of their people. Egalitarianism is the doctrine that all people should be accorded exactly equal rights.

The early settlers of Berks County, while the Indians were still occupying the territory, were the Swedes, Germans, English, and Welsh; and they came here in the order named.

During the period of American settlement, Native American tribes were often depicted as “savages” due to their appearance and behavior. However, the accuracy of this portrayal is questionable, as John Smith and Benjamin Franklin wrote about their experiences with Native Americans, highlighting the complexities of their relationships.

Smith’s account reveals that both Natives and settlers have positive and negative characteristics. He describes the settlers’ cruel treatment of Natives and their lack of loyalty to one another. Smith also notes that Natives have their own customs and rituals, which the settlers do not understand.

In contrast, Franklin’s account focuses on the differences in behavior between the savages and the white men. He portrays the Indians as civilized due to their manners and behavior, including their politeness towards strangers and fellow Natives, their hospitality towards guests, and their ability to converse in an orderly and civilized manner. Franklin himself admires the Indians’ way of life and is fascinated by them.

Overall, these accounts demonstrate the need for a nuanced understanding of the various factors that shaped interactions between Natives and settlers. The settlers’ image of the Indians was influenced by prejudice and misunderstandings, resulting from a lack of knowledge about their customs and traditions. Neither Natives nor White Men can be classified as “savages,” as both have positive and negative characteristics. It is essential to recognize and respect the diversity of cultures and traditions present in America during the settlement period.

Before William Penn arrived in the seventeenth century, the Lenapes and European colonists living in Lenape country had developed a society that valued peaceful conflict resolution, religious freedom, shared use of natural resources, respect for diversity, and local governance. These values facilitated profitable trade relationships between residents.

In 1680, William Penn inherited an old debt owed to his father, but instead of money, he requested proprietary title to a large territory in America. As a Quaker, he wanted to create a society that prioritized religious and political freedom without using force. Penn hoped to balance liberty and authority in his government framework and establish a theocentric society. His goal was to create a utopian community that would promote religious toleration.

After receiving a land charter from King Charles II on February 28, 1681, Penn realized that much of the land he wanted was occupied by the Delaware (Leni Lenape) tribe, who had never been defeated militarily. Penn had no military ambitions and refused to fortify Philadelphia, so the only way to secure their land and friendship was through a treaty. The treaty also provided clear title to Penn’s investors, who were crucial to the venture’s success.

Penn’s relationship with Native Americans should be viewed in a nuanced way, taking into account the complexity of Indian-European relations at the time. Rather than a uniform group of colonists and Indians, there were numerous tribes with varied inter-tribal affiliations and colonists from different countries competing for power. Penn entered the American arena late and political alliances had already been established. By the end of the 17th century, colonists saw Indians as a means to wealth through the fur trade.

Penn’s relationship with Natives was part of his overall concept for his colony, which was just and fair but also reflective of his perception of himself as lord of his domain. His planning was both idealistic and pragmatic, with grand visions of life in the New World that were realized as much as possible. While some may argue that his goals were still imperialistic, he was known for his relatively kinder approach to Indian-White relations, which was seen as a stark contrast to the hate and distrust that often characterized those relationships.

Penn’s desire for peace was particularly appreciated by the Leni Lenape tribe, and he was loved and memorialized for it. He expressed his desire to gain their love and friendship through a kind, just, and peaceable life, which he followed through with in his “holy experiment.” Overall, Penn’s relationship with Native Americans was complex and nuanced, shaped by the political and cultural context of the time.

On March 4, 1681, William Penn established the colonial government, and in the fall of 1682, he arrived in his new colony, where he supposedly signed a treaty with the Delaware tribe at Shackamaxon. Although no copy of this agreement exists, a wampum belt given to Penn by the Leni Lenape is still preserved. The first existing treaty document, dated July 15, 1682, shows that Penn acquired land from Idquahon and several other Leni Lenape leaders. Over the next year, Penn brokered at least eight other land transactions with the Delaware tribe.

In 1682, Penn signed a peace treaty with Tammany, leader of the Delaware tribe, allowing for the settlement of Philadelphia, which was originally the Delaware village of Shackamaxon. In 1701, Penn issued a Charter, establishing Philadelphia as a city. Although Philadelphia now covers an area of approximately 141.6 square miles, it was much smaller in 1701 and surrounded by forests.

As immigrants arrived from Germany, Sweden, and other places, the population expanded and began exploring the wilderness. On October 21, 1701, William Penn granted Swedish Lutheran Minister Andreas Rudman 10,000 acres of land along the Manatawny Creek, which was a significant economic center for the Delaware tribe with trails leading to Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania. The first settlers to reach Berks County established Morlatton Village (now Douglassville) in 1716, fifteen years after the land grant. From there, settlers began purchasing land in the Oley Valley, forming what are now Oley, Earl, Pike, District, and Rockland Townships.

In 1723, a group of settlers from the Schoharie Region in New York began the settlement of what are now Bern and Heidelberg Townships. A number of Germans, led by Conrad Weiser’s father, cut a road from the Schoharie Valley in New York through the forests into the headwaters of the Susquehanna. Down this rocky river, the pioneers floated their precious freight until they reached the mouth of the Swatara Creek. They ascended this stream, crossing the divide between the Susquehanna and the Schuylkill, and entered the fertile valley of the Tulpehocken. Their cabins were barely built, and their little patches of corn ground planted until the Indians informed them that this land had never been purchased by the Government. The settlers immediately sent petitions to the Governor, praying that their lands might be relieved from any Indian claims. Long delegations of Delaware Indians came to Philadelphia demanding an explanation. Allummappees, their chief, said he could not believe that William Penn’s people would do this, and he did not believe it until he went there and viewed the Tulpehocken lands with his own eyes. James Logan, the land agent, explained that these settlements were made without his knowledge, that Governor Keith had acted entirely on his own authority, and contrary to the well-known desire of the former proprietary William Penn. Governor Gordon, deputy Governor of the Province of Pennsylvania and the Lower Counties on the Delaware, 1726 to 1736, was now in office, Keith having in various ways deferred a consideration of these things during his administration. The new Governor suggested that the lands in dispute might have been included in one of the former purchases. The Indians immediately informed Gordon that no lands had ever been sold northwest of the Blue Ridge, then known as the Lehigh Hills. In the face of this evidence the claims of the Delaware Indians in the Tulpehocken remained unsatisfied for nine years after the first German settlement. Eventually, in 1732, the purchase was made, which included all the land drained by the Schuylkill River lying between the Blue Mountains and the Blue Rulge. This recognition of Indian rights, together with the well-known Walking Purchase in Bucks County in 1737, combined to alienate the Delaware Indians from the Pennsylvania government.

William Penn died in 1718, and his heirs, John and Thomas Penn, and their agents were running the colony, having abandoned many of the elder Penn’s practices. Trying to raise money, they contemplated ways to sell Lenape land to colonial settlers, which resulted in the Walking Purchase Treaty in 1737. This highly disputed treaty allowed the Penn family to gain ownership of over 1,200,000 acres of land, including present-day counties of Bucks, Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, and Schuylkill, leaving Berks County open for settlement.

In 1737, the Delawares were defrauded of their last major tract of prime agricultural and hunting land in the Delaware Valley through an event known as The Walking Purchase. The region from the northern boundary of Penn’s 1682 purchase in Bucks County through the Lehigh Valley to the Poconos had been a homeland for Munsees and Lenapes, who had sold much of central and northwestern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania to land-hungry whites. Thomas and John Penn, with the assistance of James Logan, the land agent, conspired to gain title to the territory they had already begun to sell.

In a series of meetings, Thomas Penn and Logan pressured sachems Nutimus, Lappawinsa, Manawkyhickon, and Tishcohan to confirm a 1686 draft deed for land north of the 1682 boundary, for which only an incomplete copy existed. The sachems were deceived with a vague map suggesting that the lands in question extended only to Tohickon Creek, well south of the Lehigh River. The Penns and Logan sought support from Iroquois leaders, who initially answered that they had nothing to do with the land and were afraid of doing anything amiss to their cousins the Delawares, but eventually acquiesced and conveyed any rights they possessed.

Logan then prepared for the “deed” requirement that the distance must be measured by a “walk” of one and a half days, directing men to clear a path in advance. Three young settlers, accompanied by two Delaware observers, proceeded from Wrightstown on September 19, 1737. They covered much more territory than the sachems expected, crossing the Lehigh River in the afternoon. The sachems had assumed a more leisurely pace, traversing uncleared terrain and taking frequent breaks, ending with the northern boundary at Tohickon Creek. When the Native observers abandoned the group in disgust, Lappawinsa objected that the Penns had gotten all the best land, and he would send no Indians with them.

On the second day, only one of the men, Edward Marshall, reached a point near present-day Jim Thorpe, completing sixty-four miles in eighteen hours. Logan drew the boundary there, extending the line northeast to the Delaware River to maximize the “purchase” of more than one million acres. The land fraud contributed to the outrage of the Delawares, who were forced west to the Susquehanna and Ohio valleys, as the Penns sold lands in northern Bucks County and at the Forks to rising numbers of Scots-Irish and German immigrants during the 1740s and 1750s.

During the 18th century, as white settlers took over their lands, the Delawares in Pennsylvania and New Jersey employed different tactics. Some Native communities opted to leave areas such as the Brandywine, upper Schuylkill, and Forks regions to preserve their political independence. The settlers, however, continued to use various methods, including the infamous Walking Purchase, to appropriate all of eastern Pennsylvania.

The Unami- and Munsee-speaking groups, now known as the Delaware (a name imposed on them by outsiders), were gradually pushed westward during the 18th century by the British and the Iroquois Six Nations’ military alliance.

A significant moment in their history occurred in 1796 when an intertribal coalition comprising the Delaware and Shawnee, among others, suffered a defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in the Northwest Territory of Ohio. Disappointed with the traditional Lenape practice of shared authority among several sachems, or chiefs, the British and Iroquois forced the Delaware, who were now under their protection, to appoint a single chief to negotiate treaties with them.

Following the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the majority of the Delaware settled in Indiana before moving to northeastern Kansas, where they remained throughout the first half of the 19th century. In 1866, the US government relocated most of the Kansas group to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma Territory, leaving only a small number of Delawares in Kansas who had relinquished their Delaware identity.

Lenape communities are currently located in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ontario, and New Jersey. In 1982, New Jersey officially recognized the state’s Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, and their hometown of Bridgeton is referred to as “Indian Town.” In contrast, Pennsylvania, which was once a center of Lenape culture, chooses to ignore this part of its past.

Pennsylvania does not contain a reservation nor officially recognize any native group within its borders, making it one of a few US states without these acknowledgments. Additionally, there is no university-level Native American studies program or cultural center in Pennsylvania, and no state agency represents or acknowledges the existence of Native Americans. While Pennsylvania Department of Education standards mandate that students learn about American Indians, a survey of 10 middle and high school history books used in Pennsylvania public schools found that none of them contained more than a sentence about the Lenape. As a result, it could be argued that the Lenape have been effectively erased from the Pennsylvania landscape.

The founding myths of Pennsylvania, like those of other areas that ignored the history of Native Americans prior to European colonization, have erased the Lenape’s own history prior to contact with Europeans and the sixty-five years of exchange, conflict, accommodation, and alliance between the Lenape and the Dutch, Swedes, Finns, and English. The oral history of the Lenape was kept alive through spoken narratives rather than written documents, and most European settlers had little interest in recording this oral history. The colonists who did describe the Lenape and their culture were more interested in their current practices and condition than the ways in which their society had evolved over time. Similar to English colonists in Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay, the Friends created a myth of exceptionalism, claiming a special relationship with the Lenape based on Quaker principles.

The Lenape population in 1600 was estimated to be around 10,000, while the current Lenape population is difficult to determine but is likely around 16,000 people.


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