- Reviewed by
Lenape, Quakers, Pennsylvania, Brandywine Valley, Chester County, Native Americans, Hannah Freeman
In 1797 Hannah Freeman, described as the last Lenape Indian living in the Brandywine River Valley, stood to be examined before Chester County’s almsman to determine her need for county poverty relief. This eventually resulted in Hannah’s removal to Chester County’s newly erected poorhouse, where she lived out the rest of her life. Centered in Hannah’s own account of her life as a Lenape Indian who stayed on her land throughout the eighteenth century, Dawn G. Marsh creates a story of Pennsylvania’s early history that captures both ‘‘the gendered experience of Native Americans in colonial Pennsylvania’’ and ‘‘testifies to the persistence of traditional matrilineal networks that remained invisible to dominant settler society’’ (3). More than that, it presents an account of ‘‘persistent Native residents who never left’’ (20), who through their presence challenge an enduring perception of benevolent Quaker policies toward Indian neighbors in Pennsylvania’s early history. [End Page 184]
In six brief chapters (and an epilogue) of less than 200 pages, Marsh sketches Hannah’s life from the early decades of the eighteenth century, when her people still successfully managed the influx of settlers from across the Atlantic and maintained control over fertile riverine locations along the coast, through the loss of almost all of their ancestral lands via encroachment and deceitful treaties. The infamous Walking Purchase, the brutal collapse of relatively peaceful interethnic relations during the Seven Years’ War, and the Paxton Boys’ attack on Lenapes directly impacted Hannah, who, when her life ended in 1802, was a destitute woman, bereft of kin and home.
These larger events interlaced with Hannah’s and her family’s life as her father left to go to Shamokin, a multicultural Indian town on the Susquehanna River that at mid-century had become a stronghold for the Pennsylvania Indian population and was, for the same reason, feared by colonists. She and her female kin who stayed in the Brandywine Valley experienced the anxiety of warfare and violence on the colony’s western borders. Nevertheless, they stayed and established mutually useful and perhaps even friendly relations with their Quaker neighbors. Hannah served the local community with her medicinal skills and with her crafts, as she traveled from farm to farm in search of seasonal work. A testament to this friendship was the willingness of her neighbors to care for her toward the end of her life when ill health curtailed her ability to work and travel. However, even that friendship had its limits, and Marsh argues that in the end her refusal to give up land claims and the cabin she lived in made her an obligation the farmers of the Valley wished to get rid of.
Marsh seeks to convince readers of Hannah’s ‘‘identity as a Lenape woman’’ which ‘‘she consistently expressed all her life’’ (23). However, the paucity of references makes this claim difficult to assess. More impressive is what I read as one of the book’s central arguments, that ‘‘generations of Pennsylvanians declared Hannah Freeman ‘the last of her kind,’ ... as proof that the Quakers in Pennsylvania continued to fulfill William Penn’s benevolent Indian policy’’ (27). This is where Hannah’s story is revealing. Hannah, as Marsh points out, was neither ‘‘the last’’ Lenape in eastern Pennsylvania nor was she treated with particular benevolence towards the end of her life. Her passing allowed white settlers to definitively claim Lenape lands along the Brandywine and thus maintain both a fiction of a historical legacy of peaceful relations and [End Page 185] prime real estate. The chapter entitled ‘‘Betrayal’’ describes the many ways in which commemorations of Hannah as the last of her kind resurfaced over the centuries following her death to serve different purposes, but all denying her ‘‘resistance, adaptation, and survivance’’ (177) in refusing to remove to the western frontier and leave her land.
The book is engagingly written. At times the literary ambitions of the...