Wednesday, October 27, 2021

NEW NARRATIVE #12: The Lenape, William Penn and 'Culture Clashes'

The southern Lenni Lenape lived in the watershed of the large river flowing into a major bay, both now called the Delaware. Several other rivers, now called the Schuylkill and the Lehigh, were tributaries flowing into the Delaware river not far from the Bay. 'Lenni Lenape,' in their own language, had a double meaning, both 'common people' and 'original people.' It made sense since study has shown they had been there for a very long time, perhaps migrating there some 10,000 years ago, until they reached the end of the land and the Atlantic seacoast.
They called the entire area 'Lenapehoking' , or homeland of the Lenape, after themselves. They resided in small settled villages all along the main river and its tributaries. At the confluence of the Delaware and the Schuylkill were six villages, the two main ones named Pèmikpeka and Nitapèkunk, inside what is now Philadelphia. The villages were matrilineal, each with a male sachem. They cultivated gardens, but also hunted wild game, and gathered fish and other seafood.
Life was not always easy. The Lenape had traditional native rivals, mainly the Susquehannock, encompassing an area from the Chesapeake to the south up through what is now central Pennsylvania and New York to the west. The Susquehannock were related to the 'five nations' of the powerful Haudenosaunee. Our last installment mentioned the Lenape contact with 'New Sweden', but they had also been visited earlier by the 'great canoe' sailed by Henry Hudson, who also probed about Delaware Bay looking for the illusory 'Northwest Passage.' Several families of Swedes, Finns and Dutch had settled among them along the main river.
More trouble was brewing with the Europeans. The 'Zwaanendael Colony' founded by the Dutch West India Company, along the bay in what is now Delaware, simply staked out a claim and nailed a tin sign to a tree to assert ownership. Lenape who had come to trade, not knowing what it was, took it down and made pipes out of it to smoke tobacco. One of the Dutch settlers slew a Lenape chief as a punishment, and all hell broke loose. It ended with all the settlers dead, save for two small boys who lived to tell the tale.
Other troubles were connected with events far away. Charles II had been restored to King of England but found himself in great debt to Sir William Penn the Elder, who had died recently, but the debt was still due to his rebel son, William Penn, who had joined the radical 'Society of Friends,' the Quakers. Very tight for cash, the King took pen to paper and ceded a huge tract of land to settle the debt. It started with lower New Jersey and allegedly stretched all the way westward to the Pacific, but at least to the Appalachians and beyond. With Quaker simplicity, Penn wanted to call it 'Sylvania,' or 'land of the woods.' But the King insisted Penn's name be attached, hence 'Pennsylvania.' John Cabot's little 'Law of Discovery' ceremony in Newfoundland in 1497 had a long reach across space and time, the Lenape's 10,000 years notwithstanding.
The Quakers, as radical democrats with zero deference to hierarchy, even with their pacifism, were having a tough time in monarchist 'high church' England. Even before Penn, some had already sought relief on Turtle Island, but found themselves purged out of the Massachusetts theocracy as heretics, driven into Rhode Island and further southward. Others, in one of Lord Baltimore's more tolerant phases in Maryland, found some refuge along the Chesapeake Bay and even further into what is now North Carolina.
The young Penn, however, was determined to find a solution for the many Quakers still in England. He decided, in effect, to become a settler colonialist 'of a new type' on his benevolent principles. In 1682, Penn landed at an older Dutch settlement of New Castle on Delaware Bay. The area was also ceded to him by the Duke of York, even though York was challenged by Lord Baltimore for the turf. Penn left them the quarrel and headed further up the Bay to where the Schuylkill met the Delaware. He decided this was the spot, gathered up some Lenape, and proceeded to 'purchase' it from them.
It was a 'culture clash' that proved troublesome. Penn proceeded on English notions of private property and the laws of real estate. These were foreign to the Lenape, who saw Penn's 'payment' as traditional gift-giving to establish respect and allowance for joint access to the area and its bounty. They understood tribal boundaries, but permanent and personal private ownership of land made no sense to them.
In any case, Penn marked out the area between the rivers in a grid, named the streets with numbers and tree names, and called it Philadelphia, for 'brotherly love.' Thousands of Quakers made their way to it, along with German Anabaptists and others. The Quakers soon were thriving, and even more diverse Europeans came, pushing the Lenape further westward. And before long even a few Quakers had bought themselves African slaves, as did others with wealth, unleashing a new knot of contradictions. More to come.

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