Along the Lenapewihittuck: Reframing Delaware Valley History

For much of the seventeenth century, when regions outside of the Delaware Valley erupted in violence, the valley […]

image_pdfSave to PDFimage_printPrint

For much of the seventeenth century, when regions outside of the Delaware Valley erupted in violence, the valley itself, home to the Lenape Indians, experienced comparatively peaceful times. Jean R. Soderlund explains that when Quaker William Penn gained the charter for Pennsylvania in 1681, there had already been decades of overcoming disagreements, finding common ground, and building a society together among the Lenape, Swedish, and Finnish inhabitants of the valley. When English Quakers arrived, Soderlund stresses, they stepped into this pre-existing social framework. In Lenape Country she provides a fascinating and detailed view of the phases of the valley’s history on both sides of the river and goes far beyond the more familiar story of the west side.


Jean R. Soderlund, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society before William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 264 pp., $39.95.
Jean R. Soderlund, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society before William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 264 pp., $39.95.

This book offers readers a chance to learn much about intergroup relations; Soderlund portrays the Lenapes as taking the leading role for a significant part of the seventeenth century. Her estimates of population sizes for various dates are helpful. These estimates strengthen her case, especially when she shows how greatly Lenapes outnumbered Europeans before the influx of Quakers to the valley (86). Even after their population decreased—especially because of outbreaks of disease—Lenapes maintained influence through ties they had earlier created with the local Swedish and Finnish population.

Lenapes came from many different groups. One of these groups, the Sickoneysincks, lived at Cape Henlopen on Delaware Bay, and Soderlund presents them as shaping a pivotal moment in the history of the region. In 1631, Sickoneysinck interests collided with those of Dutch patroons, who dreamed of controlling Delaware Bay and making profits from both the land and the sea, including through tobacco cultivation and whaling (35-36). Matters went terribly wrong for the Dutch colony, Swanendael, close to Cape Henlopen. The Sickoneysincks destroyed it, killing all thirty-two colonists and their livestock, not long after the Swanendael colony had been established (38-40). Soderlund explores the possible motivations of the Sickoneysincks, investigating what was reported about the event and putting it within a framework of developments on the Chesapeake. She argues that Lenapes would have learned through their Native contacts about the destructive effects of English colonization in the Chesapeake region and would have sought to stop similar impacts on their homelands. Particularly alarming to Lenapes, she notes, was that the Dutch claimed a greater amount of land than was needed for just a trading post (38). Soderlund admirably succeeds in considering a broader context for this event and examines other explanations for the attack, including a statement about the Dutch treating Lenape women poorly (43-49).

This book convincingly highlights the complexities of the valley’s past.

Although Swanendael receives detailed attention here, its significance goes beyond the violent outcome. Indeed, the Lenapes gained a reputation for relating to others peacefully.   Soderlund significantly claims that the attack cast a long shadow as memories of the incident shaped future actions, including later choices that promoted peace (10, 71, 199). “During the seventeenth century, prior to William Penn’s arrival,” she writes, “the Lenapes and early European colonists created a society in Lenape country that preferred peaceful resolution of conflict, religious freedom, collaborative use of the land and other natural resources, respect for people of diverse backgrounds, and local governmental authority, all facilitating the business relationship the residents sought for profitable trade.” Despite these examples of mutuality, she points out that constructing “this society was difficult, uneven, and tenuous” (7-8).

The Lenapes and the Dutch pulled back from conflict after the Swanendael attack, with both concerned to keep trading channels open along the Lenapewihittuck, the Lenapes’ name for the river; nevertheless, Lenapes continued to assert their sovereignty.   Soderlund refers to the Lenapewihittuck as “Main Street,” the “main artery” for Lenapes and a place where they accepted diverse European traders, particularly around midcentury. Although Lenapes permitted Dutch, Swedish, and English traders, their trading posts were often not well stocked. Thus, she indicates, by allowing competing Europeans to set up different posts, Lenapes could improve their chances of obtaining goods (57).  

Along with her stress on groups and their interrelationships, Soderlund brings individual Lenape and European actors into focus, carefully examining the few sources that are left to us from these long-ago encounters. She depicts the frustrations of Johan Printz, one of New Sweden’s governors, whose appeals for more colonists and need for more supplies went unsatisfied (67, 72). In 1651, after Peter Stuyvesant left Manhattan with 120 soldiers to reassert the Dutch presence along the Lenapewihittuck, Printz’s problems magnified (76). Neither man, Soderlund stresses, was in charge of the situation. Each found a “tough match” in the Lenape sachem Mattahorn (81). Soderlund discusses the important role that Mattahorn played in negotiations (77-79). Despite the arrival of the soldiers, the Dutch came to negotiate, not fight with the Lenapes for the land upon which to place a new post, Fort Casimir. The Dutch depended on the help of Lenapes to support them against Swedish counter land claims. Soderlund discusses how, even after the defeat of New Sweden, Armegard Printz, Johan’s daughter, remained in the valley and played a key part in strengthening ties between Swedish inhabitants and Lenapes (90-91).

Lenapes objected to outsiders trying to assert authority over them. Soderlund describes how many of their European neighbors came to object to these same authorities and how this opposition helped create bonds among Lenapes, Swedes, and Finns. “At midcentury,” she writes, “Lenapes and Swedes remained separate communities, divided by lingering suspicions yet tied by individual relationships, mutual commercial interest, and awareness of external threats” (86).   The first major cause that drew them together was opposition to the Dutch, who took over New Sweden in 1655.   Within months after the conquest, an alliance of Lenapes, Swedes, and Finns stopped the Dutch from turning away a Swedish ship with goods and over 100 passengers (97-99).   Swedes and Finns continued to exert independence, rejecting Stuyvesant’s call to create defensive villages for protection against Indians and preferring to remain in dispersed spots close to Lenapes, in whom they showed greater trust than in the Dutch government (104-5).

Soderlund shows how discontent with officials grew after the English conquered the Dutch in 1664. Confronting the hated policies of Governor Francis Lovelace was yet another bonding experience for Lenapes and the “Swedish nation” or “old settlers”—collective terms that included Swedish and Finnish inhabitants and a few from other European backgrounds (113). The English tried to control the land strictly—for example, selling off areas that inhabitants had been using in common. Lovelace disregarded traditional practices that Lenapes used for reconfirming agreements. More Lenapes succumbed to diseases, such as smallpox, and Soderlund lays out evidence indicating that they blamed their suffering on the increasing European settlement. These various complaints contributed to unrest in the late 1660s and early 1670s, including rebelliousness among the “old settlers” in an event known as the “Long Swede revolt” and in small-scale attacks by Lenapes; tellingly, these attacks were not aimed at Swedes and Finns, who had grown closer to the Lenapes over the years (113, 120-126).

For different phases of the valley’s history, this study shows changes, continuities, and statuses of intergroup relations and their interplay with individuals and governments. Although violence tended to be infrequent and localized, it threatened to worsen significantly, especially in the mid-1670s when warfare was erupting in New England and the Chesapeake. As she discusses this era, Soderlund again shows the importance of understanding this wider context. The next English administration, under Edmund Andros, showed a readiness to adapt to Lenapes’ practices and defuse tensions (133, 137-40). Once William Penn and other officials of Pennsylvania began the process of setting up a new government, Quakers recognized the advantage of working with both Lenapes and Swedes, although relations were not always smooth. Then, “after the first years of transition,” Soderlund writes, “when Penn and his colonists became less dependent on help from the Swedes and Lenapes, the new regime learned that the pre-1681 inhabitants could still exert power” (176). “Despite their new status as minority groups,” Swedes influenced events, in part, by “using their churches as a political base” and Lenapes asserted themselves through both negotiations and threats (150, 160, 176, 178).

This book convincingly highlights the complexities of the valley’s past. For example, Swedes and Lenapes became close allies yet maintained separate identities. When Lenapes and Swedes expressed their opposition to restrictions by authorities and sought ways to cooperate, they laid down patterns that continued to shape the valley after 1681.   Another complexity is that the peace established after the Swanendael attack was far from firm and “would be renegotiated throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by different groups of Europeans and Lenapes” (8-9).   The fragility of certain of these relations showed clearly in the eighteenth century. Euro-Americans’ fraudulent treatment of Delaware Valley Indians through the Walking Purchase became one of the most notorious symbols of the strain. A thought-provoking and well-researched study, Lenape Country successfully weaves together significant themes and rich historical details about people and places in the valley of the Lenapewihittuck.


This article originally appeared in issue 16.2 (Winter, 2016).

Amy C. Schutt is an associate professor of history at the State University of New York College at Cortland and author of Peoples of the River Valleys: The Odyssey of the Delaware Indians (2007).


image_pdfSave to PDFimage_printPrint