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 Who Were The Lenape?          

The Story of Creation
Creation An early account told how Tantaque took a piece of coal out of the fire where he sat, and began to write upon the floor.  He first drew a circle, a little oval, to which he made four paws or feet, a head and a tail.  “This,” said he, “is a tortoise, lying in the water around it … this was or is all water, and so at first was the world or the earth, when the tortoise gradually raised its back up high, and the water ran off of it, and thus the earth became dry … and there grew a tree in the middle of the earth, and the root of this tree sent forth a sprout beside it and there grew upon it a man, who was the first male.  This man was then alone, and would have remained alone; but the tree bent over until its top touched the earth, and there shot therein another root, from which came forth another sprout, and there grew upon it the woman, and from these two are all men produced.”

The Land of the Lenape
Language Map The Lenape (len-AH-pay) or Delaware Indians lived in an area they called “Lenapehoking,” which means  “Land of the Lenape.”  Their land included all of what is now New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York State, northern Delaware and a small section of southeastern Connecticut.  As part of the Eastern Woodlands, Lenapehoking had many rivers, streams and lakes and was densely forested and rich in wildlife.  

We now know that two related but distinct groups of Indians occupied Lenapehoking; not three as is sometimes stated.  Those living in the northern half (above the Raritan River and the Delaware Water Gap) spoke a Munsee dialect of the Eastern Algonquian Delaware language, while those to the south spoke Unami – a slightly different dialect of the same language.  The beliefs and cultures of these two general groups, although very similar, differed somewhat. For convenience, we will use the word Lenape (“common or ordinary people”) to refer to both the groups living in Lenapehoking.

Map of Lenapehoking

 The Community
Village - TradingSome of the Lenape lived in large villages of two to three hundred people, but most of them lived in small bands of 25 to 50 people.  

Families were important to the Lenape Indians.  There were strong ties between parents and children, and among all the related families that made up the clan. Women with Dog

The Lenape had three clans (or phratries) – Wolf, Turtle and Turkey – which traced their descent through the female line.  For example, if a mother belonged to the Turtle Clan, then each of her children also belonged to the same clan.  The sons had to marry women from other clans, and their children belonged to their mother’s clan.  

Within their own groups the Indians were kind to one another.  They felt a sense of responsibility towards everyone in their community.  They did not steal from anyone in their own village, for there was no reason to do so.  The land belonged to the whole community, shelters were shared, and no one hoarded valuable possessions.  

Cheif with ChildrenMany of the groups inhabiting Lenapehoking had well-organized ways of governing their clans and villages.  The chiefs – sometimes referred to as sachems - were chosen for their behavior, skill in speaking, honesty, and ability to make wise decisions.  The chiefs also had to know about religion so that they could lead the people in rituals and ceremonies.  

War leaders were different.  They gained power through proven bravery and success in battle.  They were able to gather young men together and go off on a raid without the approval of the chief.


 Sharing the Work

Village - Fish

Everyone worked, but men and women were expected to do different tasks.  Starting at an early age, small children began to learn the skills they would need when they grew up.  The boys were taught woodcraft and hunting; the girls, housekeeping and gardening.

Girls PlayingBoys Playing



Woman using Mortor and PestleWomen’s WorkWoman Making Pottery
Women were responsible for the planting and harvesting of crops and gathering wild foods.  Some of the crops w
ere eaten as soon as it was harvested, but much of it - together with wild foods like berries, roots and nuts - were dried for winter use. The women pounded corn into flour by using a mortar and pestle. Nuts could be ground up and baked, or were pressed to squeeze out their oil, which was used in cooking.  Maple syrup was made by collecting sap from maple trees in early spring and boiling it down.  

Woman Weaving a MatWomen were skilled at making clay pots, weaving rush mats and bags, and making baskets.  They wove cornhusks for slippers, mats and dolls, and made containers from elm and birch bark.  With fibers from plants, they spun and braided cords for binding and carrying bundles.  Women were also responsible for preparing the hides for clothes and shelters.  With bone tools, they scraped the hair from the hides and cleaned them.  Then they smoked them over a fire, cut them into pieces and sewed the pieces with bone needles.

Fish WeirMen’s Work
Men cleared the land, built and repaired the houses, and made dugout canoes by felling large trees and alternately burning and
Men clearing land chopping through them to the desired shape.  They constructed fishweirs and the large fish baskets to gather the catch.  Using bows and arrows, the men hunted a variety of animals, although deer, elk and bear were the Lenape’s largest prey.  Deer were often hunted by surrounding or herding them into pens or rivers.  This method involved many people forming into a large a circle as possible and by using fire or noise to drive the animals to the hunters where they could be easily killed.  

Men TrappingTrapping was another means by which the Lenape caught animals like beaver, otter, muskrat, raccoon, mink and wild cats.  Turkey, eagle and other birds like partridge, pigeon, wild ducks and geese were also shot or caught in traps to be part of the Lenape diet.  

Men were good warriors and sometimes had to go to war to defend their homes, but left the management of the house to their wives and often listened to the advice of the chief matron of his lineage in matters of peace and war.


HarpoonTools played an important role in the lives of the Indians.  Men used them to make houses and dugout canoes,Wooden BowlAwls fishweirs, bows and arrows, harpoons, tree trunk mortars, wooden bowls, and many other useful and ornamental objects.  Women employed hoes and digging sticks in gardens; knives, choppers, scrapers, millingstones and mullers were used in preparing meals.  Some of these same tools, along with awls and needles, were used to make clothing, moccasins, mats, baskets, and fishnets.  

The Lenape made the things they needed by utilizing the natural environment around them.  The raw materials needed to makeFish Hooks stone tools, weapons and household objects were most often found locally, although special stone, as for example soapstone, had to be obtained from distant Clay Potteryquarries.  Deer and elk, killed for food, also provided bone and antler for fish hooks, needles, awls, skewers, and ornaments.  Their sinew and gut were used for sewing and binding, and their hides for clothing and covers.  Rattles, and a kind of glue, were made from the hooves of theseDeer Hoof Rattle animals.  Bowls and cups were made from the upper shells of box turtles, wood terrapins, and snapping turtles, and also from gourds and large seashells.  Pottery jars were formed out of clay removed from riverbanks or lakeshores.  Baskets and mats were woven from cattail reeds and from bast – the inner bark and roots of certain trees.Knife and Scraper

Man Flint KnappingStone tools were made either by chipping and flaking, or by pecking and grinding.  Spearpoints, arrowheads, scrapers, knives, drills and gravers were generally made from finer-grained stones including flint and quartz that were easier to work into sharp, crisply flaked implements.   Axes, celts, gouges, adzes and other heavy woodworking and domestic tools were usually made from coarser stones.  These types of tools were shaped by repeated pecking with a Celt hammerstone until the cobble or rock was eroded to the desired shape.  The tool might then be ground and poliMan Pecking Rockshed with a whetstone or with sand and water.  The more it was polished, the smoother the finish.  Pendants, gorgets, and other objects of special significance were frequently carved and polished with great care and then drilled for attachment or suspension.

  Boy Drilling          Pendants  


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  (For additional information see The Lenape or Delaware Indians, or The Indians of Lenapehoking.)


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