Native Americans

Native Americans in the Upper Delaware Valley

People have lived in the Upper Delaware River Valley for at least 10,000 years. Long before European settlement the Lenape Indians and their ancestors lived off the area's abundant plant and animal life.

Paleo-Indian Period (10,000 - 12,000 years ago)
Archeologists have evidence that the Lenape Indians were preceded by a primitive people called Paleo-Indians. They were the first people to come onto the North American continent. It is believed these ancestors crossed a narrow stretch of land connecting Alaska and Russia.

The climate was very different than it is today. Winters were much colder and longer. Instead of hardwood forests, the land was covered with tundra grass, marshlands and scattered spruce and fir forests.

Small bands of highly mobile men, women and children hunted game animals, fished in rivers and lakes, and gathered foods.

The Paleo-Indian's best known artifact is the fluted point such as the Clovis point. Artifacts from this period are very rare but have been located in the Upper Delaware River Valley.

Archaic Period (4,000 - 10,000 years ago)
During the Archaic period, the climate began to resemble that of today. The Indians were still mobile, like their Paleo ancestors, but they did not travel as far. Some stayed and adjusted to the ever changing conditions, and used a greater variety of natural resources. Wild plants, acorns and other nuts were abundant, as were animals such as fish, shellfish, deer, elk, raccoon and turkey.

The spear was the main weapon used by the Archaic hunter. It could be thrown by hand or used with an atlatl. Atlatls (spear throwers) enabled the hunter to throw spears much harder and faster.

Archaic Indians lived in caves, rock shelters and wooded longhouses. There is no evidence that they gardened. They depended on what nature provided.

Artifacts from the Archaic period found in the Delaware River Valley include grooved axe heads, bannerstones, net-sinkers (small stones that were sewn into fishing nets) and several types of projectile points.

Woodland Period (450 - 4,000 years ago)
Hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering wild foods continued to occupy men and women in the early and middle Woodland period.

The bow and arrow, possibly introduced early in the Woodland period, enabled hunters to kill more effectively and from a greater distance. Deer, elk, bear, turkey and waterfowl were hunted. Smaller game animals such as squirrels and rabbits were trapped or snared.

Dug-out canoes were the principal means of travel. Later, garden farming led to a more settled lifestyle.

Farmers stayed close to their lands and did not wander as freely. As a result, sturdier homes were built, using saplings and bark. Families increased in size and lived longer. Gardens produced corn, beans and squash, which were eaten fresh or dried for storage.

During the Late Woodland period, pottery vessels were made for cooking and storage. Clay, the main ingredient, could be readily found in the riverbank.

Along the Delaware, Indians relied on fish as an important food source. Large numbers of shad and other fish were caught in huge fishnets that were 300 to 400 feet long. Other fish were caught with fishhooks made of bone or dried bird claws. Larger fish may have been speared or harpooned.

Many artifacts from the Woodland period have been found in the Upper Delaware Valley including large quantities of net sinkers.

Historic Period (AD 1550 - present)
This time period marks the arrival of European explorers, fur traders and settlers.

Journals from early Europeans stated their amazement as such a large wilderness area occupied by relatively few people.

The coming of colonists resulted in drastic changes in Indian lifestyle. Colonists traded items such as brass kettles, iron axe heads and cloth for animal pelts.

Soon, contact with Europeans proved so devastating to the Indians that their numbers rapidly dwindled. Many were killed by diseases, such as measles and smallpox, for which the Indians had no immunity.

Conflicts arose over land. Indians believed land was for the use and enjoyment by all people and animals. Colonists favored private ownership.

In time, the Lenape and the neighboring Iroquois became enemies. The Iroquois Confederacy became the stronger of the two groups.

The independence and growth of the United States further stressed Indian cultures.

Eventually the Lenape relocated further inland. By the mid-1700s, most had left the Delaware Valley. Increasing numbers of Indians moved westward to escape the Europeans and to continue their ancient ways.

Today, Lenape descendants are scattered throughout North America. The last full-blooded Lenape, Nora Thompson Dean or Touching Leaves, died in 1984 in Oklahoma.

Last updated: September 3, 2020

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