Philadelphia’s Forgotten Forebears: How Pennsylvania Erased The Lenape From Local History

 

The Museum of the American Revolution at 3rd and Chestnut Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

I was warned by the desk attendant that there would be children, hordes of them. She was not exaggerating. May is field trip season at the Museum of the American Revolution. Docents crisscrossed the rooms trailed by inchoate streams of uniformed middle schoolers and teachers nudging them into line like border collies.

I entered the Oneida room on a wave of navy blue polo shirts and beige khakis, where I stood face-to-face with half a dozen life-size replicas of Oneida men and women. A video playing on a loop backlit the eerily realistic-looking sculptures (they were cast from living members of the Wisconsin-based tribe). Transfixed, the students settled down to watch the show. The video dramatized, through reenactments and voiceovers, how the Oneida alone among the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (known to the British as the Six Nations) came to throw in their lot with the Americans.

As for the other five nations that sided with the British or tried to remain neutral, General George Washington ordered “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible,” a detail not recorded anywhere in the museum.

The video ended with a rousing tribute to Oneida patriotism. Photos of Oneida soldiers who fought in every subsequent U.S. war flashed in time to a thudding beat. The multimedia experience was designed to stir strong feelings, and it did.

I wasn’t surprised that the military contributions of the Oneida Nation would be honored here, but I wondered what the museum had to say about the Lenape, on whose ancestral lands the museum sits. Along the opposite wall a map with accompanying text explained that by the time of the conflict “most Lenape had been forced westward by expanded colonial settlements.” Lenape fought on both sides of the war. Many viewed the land-hungry separatists as a greater existential threat than the distant Crown. “Those who tried to remain neutral,” the text concluded, “were often viewed with suspicion by both sides.”

That was putting it mildly. A year before the war’s end a Pennsylvania militia methodically slaughtered 90 Christianized Lenape men, women, and children who had been living among neutral Moravian missionaries in eastern Ohio. They died singing hymns. This bloodbath, perhaps the worst war crime of the entire conflict, didn’t make it into the exhibit either.

The only other nod to the region’s original inhabitants in the Oneida Room was a portrait of Lapowinsa, a Lenape chief whom William Penn’s sons and James Logan conned into selling off nearly a million acres of tribal lands along the Delaware River in a notorious swindle known as the Walking Purchase. In the painting Lapowinsa has a weary expression. The caption blandly indicates that Lapowinsa “signed a treaty transferring native lands to Pennsylvania in the 1730s,” fait accompli. It seemed that whoever had authored these texts hadn’t consulted any Lenape historians.

A heroic statue of  Lenape Chief Tamanend by sculptor Raymond Sandoval stands at the onramp to I-95 at Front and Market Streets. The monument, placed in 1995, goes largely unnoticed by most folks visiting Old City and appears almost cast aside, leading one to wonder if the sculpture’s obscure placement was intentional or an afterthought. | Photo: Michael Bixler

I left the museum and walked a block to Welcome Park, a plaza I’d passed dozens of times on my way to the Ritz East, but had never stopped to investigate. A hot wind blew trash around as I took in the story of William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania. A timeline wrapping around the perimeter walls ticks off a series of sites Penn purchased from the Delaware (the English name for the Lenape), neglecting to note how radically Indigenous concepts of land tenure differed from that of the colonists. The park celebrates Penn’s benevolence, as exemplified by the treaty of friendship he brokered with “the Indians” in 1682.

The statue of Lenape Chief Tamanend, which hovers over the entrance to 95 South on an exhaust fume-scented stretch of Front Street, also commemorates the 1682 treaty. Its inscription, however, gives more historical background to the treaty, and puts tribal leaders on equal footing with their English counterparts. Tamanend stands on a turtle and is flanked by an eagle–Lenape symbols of Mother Earth and the Great Spirit, respectively.

I walked on to Penn Treaty Park, the assumed site of the 1682 treaty, known to the Lenape as Shackamaxon. The historical marker, and plaques are focused exclusively on William Penn’s nobility of character. A sign at the park entrance is particularly vague and one-sided. It reads: “Traditional site of a treaty between William Penn and the Indians, this park is maintained by the City of Philadelphia in commemoration of the Proprietor’s peaceful relations with the Indians.”

Looking around at monuments and historical markers in Philadelphia, one could be excused for thinking that the English and the Lenape really had lived in peace, as the Shackamaxon treaty signers vowed, for “as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure.” Or, judging by the information on hand at the Museum of the American Revolution, that the Lenape left their homeland in the Delaware Valley for good in the 1730s.

Even esteemed Indigenous scholars have made this mistake. In Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s otherwise myth-busting book, “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, they give 1737 as the year when “The Lenape (Delaware) people, who are indigenous to what is now New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and southern New York, [were] forcibly removed from Pennsylvania.”

Of course I knew this wasn’t the case. My friend Travis is Lenape on his mother’s side. We grew up together in Upper Darby, a quasi-suburban bardo between gritty Cobbs Creek and the more affluent suburbs further west. Though we’d never talked much about his Lenape background–we bonded in high school over Cowboy Beebop and Nietzsche–I was certain he’d gotten a different version of Indigenous history at home than the fairy tales we’d learned at school. He told me that “while there were certainly a bunch of Native Americans in my orbit as a child, they weren’t the standard bearers of native culture.”

I wanted to know what the standard bearers, those who’d kept the traditions going through centuries of dispossessions, persecution, and forced assimilation thought about the city’s romantic view of itself, its willfully naive emphasis on the purity of William Penn’s founding vision. My old friend wasn’t eager to opine on what I perceived to be the city’s whitewashing of his ancestors’ history.

 So who were the standard bearers of Lenape culture. And where could they be found?

Healing Historic Wounds in Pennsylvania 

Benjamin West’s classically inspired Penn’s Treaty with the Indians mythologized the 1682 treaty at Shackamaxon (present site of Penn Treaty Park). Working in England, West didn’t have access to Lenape models, so he modeled them after sculptures he studied in Italy. The painting was commissioned by none other than Thomas Penn. | Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Easton sits at the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers. It’s a walkable town with deep colonial roots a short drive from Allentown. A hand-made sign pointed me to the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Center tucked into the ground floor of the Bachmann House, a sturdy colonial-era pub on the town’s main drag.

Barbara Bluejay was on hand to welcome the public on the day I visited. She showed me some of the family heirlooms and sacred objects that were included in the “Fulfilling a Prophecy” exhibit the group co-curated at the Penn Museum of Anthropology in 2010. A doll with a second face stitched on the back of its head epitomized one way her ancestors coped with persecution and discrimination: hiding their Native identity. “We were afraid to show how much we had been hurt,” she explained with a Bucks County twang.

A video from the exhibit played in the background. The soundtrack was New Agey–gurgling creeks, airy flutes–until the drums started up and an impassioned chorus of women shout-singing in the Lenape language brought the space alive.

From what I could tell, the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s (LNP) sense of identity coalesced around the Penn Museum exhibit. It gave members of the self-declared tribe–educated, disconnected from tribal life, but nonetheless imbued with Lenape culture and committed to preserving it–a platform to reintroduce themselves to the world.

Bluejay explained that the crafts for sale can’t carry the Native-made label, since the organization is not a state-recognized tribe. “They could arrest us,” she said. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states that don’t recognize Native American tribes. Even if the state did recognize tribes, it’s unlikely the LNP would qualify. Its members aren’t interrelated, and it would be difficult to prove they’ve had a continuous presence in the region going back to the 19th century.

When I asked her what she thought about the portrayal of Lenape history in Philadelphia, she said she’d bring it to the tribal council. “We’re careful about who we talk to. We’re the peace keepers. We don’t like to make trouble.”

Outside the farmer’s market was winding down. On the walk back to my car the American Spirits logo in the window of a tobacco shop caught my eye: a silhouetted Native American in feathered headdress smoking a ceremonial pipe. (American Spirits is not a Native-owned company.)

Bluejay put me in touch with LNP member Ann Dapice, whom I spoke with by phone. Dapice, who is Lenape and Cherokee, grew up near Tulsa and internalized the racist attitudes toward Indigenous people then prevalent. “We were ashamed of our Indian heritage,” she said. When she moved east to study at Penn she learned that she had ancestors in the region who’d remained throughout the period of forced removals. She connected with the LNP after the Penn exhibit put them on the map. When she told then-Chief Bob Redhawk who her people were, she recalled him saying, “Welcome to the tribe.”

Portrait of Lenape chief Lapowinsa by Swedish painter Gustavus Hesselius. The American Swedish Historical Museum’s exhibit accurately conveys the Lenape perspective on the Walking Purchase and Lapowinsa’s attempts to have it voided. | Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On returning to Oklahoma, Dapice was struck by what she perceived to be a lack of interest in Colonial-era history among the federally-recognized Lenape tribes with whom she and her daughter work as educators. “The people out here, their only story is that they had to move west. At the same time they don’t want to learn what they lost–there’s a fear of learning what they lost.”

Standard bearers or no, few would deny that the LNP are forging fruitful alliances with non-native institutions to help raise awareness of the Lenape in eastern Pennsylvania. Dapice helps Penn recruit and retain Native students. Shelley DePaul teaches the Lenape language at Swarthmore. In late September they’ll undertake a “Walking Purchase Healing Journey” in collaboration with the Bachmann Players, a group of historical reenactors who perform upstairs at the Bachmann House. Together they’ll retrace the Walking Purchase path by car, with stops along the way for healing ceremonies conducted by the LNP and dramatizations by the Bachmann Players.

I caught up with the Bachmann Player’s artistic director Christopher Black as he was out on the road visiting James Logan’s estate in Germantown, the site of negotiations that cemented the Lenape’s dispossession from the Lehigh Valley following the Walking Purchase. “It was a huge, traumatic event for the Lenape. I’m hoping to get people to touch base with that history through the reenactment,” Black said.

That history is a bit complicated, so bear with me. In 1737, Thomas and John Penn enlisted James Logan, William Penn’s former secretary and a land speculator in his own right, to forge a deed claiming that the Lenape’s forebears had promised to sell the elder Penn as much land in the Lehigh Valley as could be walked in a day and a half, a typical unit of measurement among the Lenape. Since they had trusted William Penn, Lapowinsa and other Lenape leaders agreed to the deal given assurances that their settlements would be protected.

The English used cartographic sleights of hand to misrepresent the scope of the area to be “walked,” then hired runners to cover a path that had been cleared in advance, resulting in the transfer of a piece of land the size of Rhode Island.

The Lenape knew they’d been duped and did not vacate their lands right away. Thomas Penn sought to forcibly remove them, Logan tried appeasing them, but in the end the Proprietors merely sat back as a wave of European migrants terrorized most of the Lenape into abandoning their homes.

Ironically, the square named after Logan in Philadelphia’s museum district features a fountain with sculptures of mythologized Indians. The blued bronze figures that give the fountain that metallic tang children find irresistible in summer are supposed to represent the three rivers and streams that run through the city. Artist Alexander Calder thought of them as Native variants on the European river god tradition.

Zoe Strauss, the Philadelphia-based artist who received a Guggenheim grant for her work photographing the city’s underclass, proposed an alternative monument for Logan Square, one that would acknowledge Logan’s role in the Walking Purchase: three 65-mile paved paths emanating outward from the fountain, meant not for strolling, but for measuring distance and recording ownership.

Strauss’ obviously unfeasible proposal perhaps inadvertently suggests the limitations of monuments as correctives to historical wrongdoings. Nonetheless, a true reckoning with our shared colonial history calls for a bold collective reexamination of the local foundational narratives that for so long rendered Indigenous perspectives mute, elevating English land speculators to patron saints while conveniently eliding the genocidal violence that followed in their wake.

Fighting for Recognition, Building a Movement

A charming Billy Penn in the heart of the park, and all the Lenape get is a turtle. Penn Treaty Park opened on October 28, 1893 at the site of the Treaty at Shackamaxon. This sizable monument honors the founder of Pennsylvania. An abstract, granite turtle was placed within the park’s playground to represent the Lenape Turtle Clan and their connection to the historic spot. | Photo: Michael Bixler

I found myself back at Penn Treaty Park on a bright Saturday afternoon in late May. Cumbia music wafted on the breeze. Kids clambered over the turtle sculpture meant to acknowledge the Lenape’s historic link to the park. To the untutored eye it was just another feature of the playground landscape. 

I’d been in touch with John Norwood of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, a state-recognized tribe in New Jersey. Tribal councilman, judge, minister, Indigenous-rights activist: Norwood is a standard bearer if ever there was one. Though he was busy preparing for the tribe’s well-attended annual powwow, he took the time to look over my notes and offer his analysis.

He found the statue of Teedyuscung in Wissahickon Valley Park to be “woefully historically inaccurate. Northeastern Woodland cultures did not wear Western Plains war bonnets.”

The Museum of the American Revolution, he thought, mischaracterized the 1737 land transfer, and “allows for the mistaken assumption that all Lenape left the homeland.” The American Swedish Historical Museum did a better job of explaining the Walking Purchase and Indigenous concepts of land tenure.

As for Penn Treaty Park, the historical markers and plaques “make reference to ‘the Indians,’ but don’t mention the tribes or chiefs involved. They state that Penn made peace as though he was the only actor. Very insulting.”

Friends of Penn Treaty Park president A.J. Thompson acknowledged that the park needs to do a better job of recognizing the Lenape. He noted that they’d recently engaged Councilman Mark Squilla to commit to a new statue of Tamanend for the park. A spokesperson for Squilla told me that updating signage would be part of the approval process for the new statue.

Norwood would welcome these developments. “It’s important that a balanced view of the Shackamaxon treaty be raised, with our tribal leaders no longer being almost forgotten, nameless ‘Indians’ while the English names are celebrated.”

John Massey Rhind’s sculptural tribute to Lenape chief Tedyuscung in Wissahickon Valley Park is, perhaps, well meaning, but shamefully inaccurate. Instead of designing the monument to resemble the Lenape chief in traditional, tribe-specific garb, the artist modeled his statue on a Western Plains Native, replete with a stereotypical war bonnet. | Photo: Ethan Wallace

But the tribe’s priorities go beyond symbolic recognition.“While our relationship with the public and building a better understanding of who we are today is very important, our major priorities have more to do with perpetuating our culture, serving our people, and protecting our tribal rights into the future.”

Those rights were threatened in 2012 when former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s administration abruptly invalidated the tribe’s state recognition, which carries financial benefits, along with that of New Jersey’s other two recognized tribes, the Ramopough Lenape and Powhatan Renape. The Nanticoke fought the decision and prevailed in a 2018 court case that reaffirmed their state recognition. (The Ramopough and Powhatan had their state recognition reaffirmed following the Nanticoke’s legal victory.)

Indigenous activists are increasingly joining together to amplify their presence and press their concerns. Last month the Philadelphia-based activist collective Indigenous 215 protested a routine ribbon-cutting ceremony at Columbus Square in South Philly, calling for the renaming of the square and the removal of monuments to Columbus throughout the city.

As calls to drop Columbus’ toxic legacy mount across the U.S., here in Philly it’s about time we also moved beyond our tourism board-approved origin stories to acknowledge the devastating impact colonialism had on the Lenape.

The Museum of the American Revolution, to its credit, raised some pertinent questions last October when it hosted a series of panel discussions to mark Indigenous Peoples Weekend. One panel asked: “Can we memorialize historical figures without glorifying atrocities?” Surely we can and must.

On October 12, Penn Treaty Park will celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day with a pan-Indigenous powwow and teach-in hosted by members of Philly’s Native community with help from Friends of Penn Treaty Park. As I gazed out on the riverfront thronged with picnickers I recalled something Ann Dapice had told me: even before the arrival of Europeans, the Delaware was the place where the tribes all came together to trade and socialize.

Four hundred years later, that’s still the case.

About the author

Dan Shurley is a Philadelphia-born writer living in Gainesville, Florida. He is the author of Collective Regeneration and Universal Love, a chapbook of stories and fragments. His reporting and book reviews have appeared in BOMB, Hidden City, the Potrero View, and elsewhere around the web.



14 Comments


  1. The Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park at 423 North 19th Street post a history article each month on their website at http://www.baldwinparkphilly.org, under the History tab from the Home page. A recent one examines the evidence of the Lenape in the Park neighborhood. The evidence is subtle, but definitely there. See https://www.baldwinparkphilly.org/the-lenni-lenape

  2. Thanks for this important article, Dan. I wonder if you’ve seen the scalp bounty proclamations issued in PA before and after the Revolution? I think they add another layer to the analysis in your article: “The Lenape knew they’d been duped and did not vacate their lands right away. Thomas Penn sought to forcibly remove them, Logan tried appeasing them, but in the end the Proprietors merely sat back as a wave of European migrants terrorized most of the Lenape into abandoning their homes.” Check out Robert Hunter Morris’s “A Proclamation” of 1756 and later, Joseph Reed’s “A Proclamation,” of 1780. Both will be forthcoming in our resources for teachers linked to our new short film, BOUNTY, to be released in 2020. Check out upstanderproject.org/bounty.

    • Hi Mishy, Thanks for letting us know about the film. I knew of one such scalp bounty proclamation, issued by Thomas Penn in a 1764 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette — an enlargement of it was included in the Lenape Nation of PA’s “Fulfilling a Prophecy” exhibit.

      Much like the racial terror that forced many African Americans to migrate north during the Jim Crow era, state-sanctioned scalpings were a big reason why many Lenape chose to uproot themselves and move west. The government of Pennsylvania bears responsibility for the spreading of this heinous practice to the rest of the states.

  3. I am appalled at the arrogance of Europeans. They invaded all of the nations of the world because they believed that they were right about everything. They were right about civilization, they were right about religion, they were right about whatever they thought was the right way to be in every walk of life. The indigenous of lands were considered backward to them…why? Why can’t they just let folks be the way they’d been for hundreds of years? Why does a tribe need to be Christian or whatever religion they considered to be “civilized”? I don’t understand. Why do we all have to be what Europeans think we should be? Why?

    • That lie called white Supremacy…sadly, all the people who suffered because of that thinking over centuries.
      Who will make it stop?!

  4. Other cultures have existed for centuries. Why do they have to change?

  5. Charles L Pelletreau

    Are there monuments and/or markers commemorating the presence of the Lenni Lenape?

  6. That’s a very impressive post!

  7. I thought the MAR does a credible job telling of the dilemma of “The People” caught between feuding brothers. Not the only ones.

    This is a poem I wrote some time ago about Daniel Nimhan

    Daniel Nimhan

    Caught between worlds as the world round was changing
    Your people embattled, struggling to survive
    An American Hero who died for our liberty
    What can we do to keep your story alive?

    There you are hidden on the margins of history
    Are you forgotten, or just never known?
    Among other stories, among other mysteries
    Could it be that your story is really our own?

    Daniel Nimhan your name in the white’s nomenclature
    Your people were Sachems, an honorable line
    Born near the Fishkill which flows to the Hudson
    You learned to speak English in tune with your times

    Your lands had been taken, your people relocated
    Diaspora happens, up to Stockbridge they went
    While in the Seven-Years war you fought for the settlers
    And after, to get back your land your intent

    You then made a claim for the lands that were stolen
    To England you went to petition the King
    You came back to these shore, your petition unanswered
    For a redress of wrongs, to that hope you did cling

    You may have believed that revolutions new government
    Would reward you for service with the return of your land
    Revolution was rife, the people were restive
    Alliances changing on every hand

    The shooting war started out eastward in Concord
    The 18th of April in seventy-five
    You faithfully served as a soldier in Cambridge
    For the colonial cause you did struggle and strive

    Stockbridge to Kingsbridge is a long way to travel
    After three years of warfare, only to die
    British and Hessian Troops led by famed Colonel Simcoe
    In the hot August sun as your bodies did lie

    Munsee and Wappinger, Mohican and Iroquois
    Widows who wait for the return of their men
    Warriors and scouts on the ash heap of history
    When shall we behold such a likeness again
    Caught between worlds as the world round was changing

    Your people embattled, struggling to survive
    American Heroes who died for our liberty
    What can we do to keep your stories alive?

    John Haigis, 4/7/15

  8. MR. Shurley,

    I am sorry to say you have been buffaloed! I would hope you would write a correction or even better a new story about this topic, but actually include and interview the Real Delaware People who are the Direct descendants of the Lenape People who lived in PA/NJ Those Real Delaware communities and the actual descendants of the Historical Lenape/Delaware communities, of which there are two, are not located in OKlahoma due to Forced removals and encroachment of European settlers. Those real communites are the Delaware Tribe of Indians, http://delawaretribe.org/, and the Delaware Nation, https://www.delawarenation-nsn.gov/. I would highly encourage you to contact those legit communities to get their input on this.

  9. How could you write this entire article and not bother to call or consult with any of the three federally recognized Lenape tribes (bands) in the United States? As a member of one of those tribes as well as a journalist myself, I find this to be an incredible lack of due diligence, despite the good intentions of this article. The fact is we WERE forced out of Pennsylvania and that history is well documented in countless books, by the BIA and US government, and by our existence as federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma and Wisconsin. You left out thousands of Lenapeyok tribal members and our history of forced removals which is an erasure of us just as Pennsylvania is doing today. I’m a direct descendant of Chief Netawatwees, the last Lenape head Chief in our homeland, Lenapehoking, as well as Chief White Eyes, equally renown along our people and the annals of American history-and I’m here to tell you that you consulted with fraudulent charlatans usurping our history. Whether you choose to believe that or not, there’s no excuse for failing to contact any of the three federally recognized tribes of Lenape people who are undisputed and irrefutable bearers of our history, culture, and continued existence. They are the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma, the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville, OK, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans in Wisconsin. There are also two communities in Ontario, Canada, where the Moravian Lenape went. All of our culture and traditions and history are preserved in these communities, which includes the long and painful removal from our homeland across the continent to Oklahoma via multiple violated treaties and removals from lands we’d settled on. To discount this history is to erase us just like those plaques in PA do. And btw, the US government as well as our own tribal genealogical researchers have thoroughly discredited the false claims of the groups you interviewed. For instance the LNP “chief” and family have been shown to be 100% Irish who migrated here in the last 150 years. No entity seeking to record or represent tribal history in the United States should ever do so without consulting existing federally recognized tribes and bands of the tribe in question. (The federal recognition process is tedious and thorough and there is no way fraudulent groups can receive it; unlike state recognition which can simply be proclaimed without any research whatsoever by politicians representing a state. There’s a reason the groups you mentioned do not have federal recognition or recognition by the legitimate and unquestioned bands of Lenape-and that’s because they are fake. It’s one thing if an entire tribe has no recognition and that certainly is the case with some. But when there are thousands of recognized tribal members with three recognized communities telling you along with the federal government that a group is a fraud, you need to listen.)

    Our removal from Lenapehoking is well documented and known. It includes the scalp bounties someone mentioned earlier. They were placed on every man, woman and child. Anyone with Lenape descent who remained there was already white passing by the mid 1700s or they would have been murdered. Do you really think that someone with less genetic relation to Indigenous Americans than Elizabeth Warren has a right to speak for an entire tribe when there are three recognized communities of that tribe who are undoubtedly Native and retain all of its tribal history and culture? Even if one were to believe the ridiculous narratives of those fraudulent groups, it would not give them the right to speak for us.

  10. Before making statements like ”a detail not recorded anywhere in the museum” or “This bloodbath, perhaps the worst war crime of the entire conflict, didn’t make it into the exhibit either,” it would be better journalistic practice to spend enough time in the exhibits to make sure you aren’t embarrassing yourself. And the Sullivan expedition? It’s in there too.

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