In the Time of the Lenape

The Lenape were the first human inhabitants of the Philadelphia region.

The Lenape (also called the Lenni Lenape and sometimes referred to as the Delaware) were the first inhabitants of West Philadelphia. We know they resided in the area for thousands of years. Archeological documents and colonial accounts suggest that the Lenape community was characterized by complex relationships with kin, community, and the land. When European colonists settled the area in the seventeenth century, the nature of these relationships, and the Lenape as a people, were threatened.

Constructing the Past

Many sources are needed to construct a substantial story of the thousands of years the Lenape resided in West Philadelphia.

The people known as the Lenape were present in the region well before the time of written history. Their traditions and oral history provide a good starting point for painting a picture of what Lenape life may have been, but much of both was lost or transformed in the years following European colonization. An important factor in piecing together their narrative comes from relics uncovered across the Atlantic region and sometimes from local sites. An archaeological record has been created from evidence of how they changed the landscape and the remains of objects they used. Colonial accounts also provide substantial detail on Lenape culture around the time of European contact. However, these sources represent only one stage of Lenape life and the prejudice of many of the colonial authors makes their accounts less than reliable.


Archaeological artifacts show that West Philadelphia was home to Lenape Indian communities for thousands of years. 

The Lenape were present in the region well before the time of written history. Lenape artifacts from elsewhere in the northeast suggest that the first peoples came to the Philadelphia region between 10 and 12 thousand years ago.1 Local excavations show proof of settlements on the west bank of the Schuylkill River estimated from the late archaic and early woodland periods. In 2001 an archaeological excavation conducted prior to the construction of a parking lot at the University of Pennsylvania unearthed Lenape artifacts from the late archaic and early woodland periods. Six thousand years ago, today's Civic Center Boulevard was likely a large, long-established Lenape settlement.2 At nearby Bartram's Garden a dig revealed stone artifacts, flakes from tool production, and fire-cracked rock which date as early as 3,000 BCE.3 A site near the Woodlands estate evidences occupation from 7000 BCE to 1000 CE. The Schuylkill River, nearby to all the sites, provided access to fresh water and river and marsh resources. This leads archeologists to believe that nearby tribes probably used this area over a long period of time as a settlement for seasonal hunting and gathering.4

Overlapping Communities and Relationships

The Lenape formed interconnected communities which consisted of layered partnerships.

Lenape clans inhabited the northeastern seaboard of pre-colonial America. Relationship building with neighboring Lenape clans and other regional tribes was conducted through trade and negotiated use of shared land. Lenape migrated seasonally to better facilitate hunting and gardening.

What Did it Mean to be Lenape?

The Lenape were a collection of associated Native American tribes that inhabited the northeastern seaboard of pre-colonial America.

Lenape was a collective name for the Native Americans who inhabited an area that included Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the Hudson River Valley. Some archaeologists call this broad area of Lenape settlement "Lenapehoking." The Lenape language was part of the family Algonquin languages and had two main dialects.


During the seventeenth century, the Lenape life was organized around a series of several communities.

One of the most important communities for a Lenape was the extended family. Large kin groups were an essential part of community organization.1 These groups were matrilineal, meaning families were defined by the descendants of the female side of the family. When married, a husband would move to live among his wife's extended kin, but he was still considered only related to his mother's lineage. Each group had a "sachem" who acted as leader. The sachem made decisions after consulting with a council of elders and also taking into account the desires of his people.2 It was the sachem that would act as representative of the whole in relationships with groups outside the clan. When the Europeans arrived, sometimes several kin groups would work together in negotiating shared land. In these cases, one sachem from the group would represent the collective will of sachems and their families. 

  • 1. Amy C. Schutt, Peoples of the River Valleys: The Odyssey of the Delaware Indians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 25.
  • 2. Jean R. Soderlund, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 13.

Interacting with Europeans

During the seventeenth century, the Lenape found their land and unique culture in direct confrontation with the claims and cultures of European explorers and settlers.

The Lenape population of the Delaware Valley numbered approximately 7,000–9,000 people at the time of the first European contact in 1634.1 By 1700, there were 21,000 colonists in the region, far outnumbering the Lenape, whose numbers were ravaged by disease and displacement.2 The Dutch were the first to settle in the Delaware Valley, followed shortly after by the Swedes . Though there was some initial violence at the first Dutch settlement, later settlers of New Sweden managed to coexist peacefully, and even cooperatively, with the Lenape. Though the Delaware Valley territory changed European owners several times, many Swedes remained in the region until the time of William Penn's arrival in 1682 and the establishment of the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. Penn's policy toward the Lenape was to treat them respectfully. In fact, Pennsylvania became known as the "Peaceable Kingdom," in contrast to the Anglo-Indian warfare experienced in other colonies.

  • 1. Jean R. Soderlund, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 17.
  • 2. Herbert Kraft, The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 B.C.- A.D. 2000 (Lenape Books, 2001), 430.

Quakers’ Pennsylvania Colony

The Quakers, led by William Penn, originally intended to treat the local Lenape tribes with respect. Peaceful relations between the Lenape and the colonists who followed Penn would not endure, however.

In 1682, the English Quaker William Penn came to the Delaware River valley to claim lands granted to him on a proprietary basis by King Charles II of England, and to establish a haven in the New World for fellow members of the persecuted Quaker sect. He arrived to take possession of lands that extended throughout southeast Pennsylvania where the Lenape resided.1 The Quakers believed strongly in the principles of goodwill and friendship and Penn practiced these principles with the Lenape. Penn determined to treat them as brothers and sisters, as he believed they too were children of God. He entered into purchase agreements with the Lenape that brought lands ceded by the Charles II to his proprietorship under his absolute title.2 Although Penn claimed ownership rights, he still recognized and protected from sale certain lands where Lenape villages were located. Peaceful relations between the European settlers and the Lenape would disintegrate, however, not long after Penn's death in 1718.3

  • 1. Clinton Alfred Weslager, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1972), 155.
  • 2. Weslager, The Delaware Indians, 164.
  • 3. Weslager, The Delaware Indians, 170.

Living in a Post-Contact Society

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the Lenape population dramatically declined through interactions with colonial Europeans.

Through their contact with Europeans, the Lenape bands were vastly diminished by four factors: disease, land loss, the exercise of colonial privilege, and violent disputes with eighteenth century colonists. Though greatly reduced, they were able to survive to the present through resilience and merged communities. 

  • Disease: An estimated 90% of the Lenape population was lost to disease between 1609 and 1710. Their attrition was primarily due to smallpox, while with other European diseases played playing a smaller role.1 Disease was a factor spurring Lenape relocation, as small remnants of clans hard hit by epidemics relocated as they merged with neighboring villages and communities.2
  • The cycle of land loss: Incoming colonists, eager to develop the new land, removed woodlands to create space and materials for new buildings. Beavers, otter, and deer--which the Lenape hunted for meat and furs--retreated from the now uncovered area. Consequently, the Lenape experienced diminished food supplies and had nothing left to trade except their land. Some Lenape bands clans hoped to build an alliance with the encroaching colonists by offering tracts of their land cheaply.3
  • Colonial privilege: Colonists believed their expansion was inevitable and justified. Even William Penn, who worked hard to build peaceful and lasting relationships with the Lenape, sold plots of their land in Pennsylvania before making contact with the bands to purchase the rights. And not all colonists shared the pacifist Quaker philosophy, which required treating native inhabitants with respect. Penn's sons were actually responsible for one of the most notorious acts of trickery against the Lenape, effecting the "Walking Purchase" deed of 1737. In the 1730s, Penn's sons reinterpreted an accord that Penn had reached with the Lenape in 1686, now insisting that the Penn family's claim extended a full day-and-a-half's walking distance west and northwest from the junction of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers (modern Easton, PA). They sent runners on a planned path to establish the largest extent of their asserted domain. As a result, Penn's heirs seized ownership of lands extending 65 miles from the city, effectively adding the Walking Purchase added some 1.2 million acres to the Penn holdings.4
  • Violent disputes: As the Pennsylvania expanded, new colonists (many of whom did not share the pacifist Quaker philosophy) clashed with Lenape who were frustrated with the constant persistent westward encroachment on their tribal lands. In 1756 after a series of disputes in central Pennsylvania, the governor declared war against all Lenape. Bounties were offered for Lenape scalps.5

The remaining Lenape retreated westward into Ohio and beyond, leaving but a tiny remnant in Pennsylvania. of the land's centuries-long original inhabitants. Today there are only three federally recognized Delaware (Lenape) tribes and no tribes recognized by the state of Pennsylvania. However, the state of New Jersey recognizes two bands, and several bands of Lenape descendants exist in unrecognized groups across the country.