- Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society before William Penn by Jean R. Soderlund
jean r. soderlund
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
On the cover of Jean R. Soderlund’s book, there is a map. It was created in 1670 by Augustine Herrman, a merchant, gazing north from his manor in Maryland.1 Black rivers, creeks, and tributaries bloom across the space, like spider veins. Indian towns are tucked in along riverbanks. Herrman labeled this space “NEW JARSY,” but he acknowledged, too, that “at present,” it was “Inhabited Only or most By Indians.”
This was the homeland of the Lenape people. They lived in a web of unfortified towns, across territory in what is now central and southern New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and part of Delaware. At the heart of their country was the Lenapewihittuck, the river that later became known as the Delaware. Lenapes, too, would later become known as “Delawares,” but that is not how they referred to themselves prior to contact with Europeans. Lenapes spoke an Algonquian language, Unami. The word Lenape, in their language, means “original” or “common” person.
Lenape country was furrowed with great paths and intricate waterways that connected its people not only to each other but to others, as well. They were closely tied to the Munsees, who lived to the north. They also maintained relationships, though not always peaceful, with the Susquehannocks, an Iroquoian group to their west. And after Henry Hudson steered the Halve Maen into a river just north of Lenape country in 1609, Lenapes came to know Europeans. First, Dutch, then Swedes, Finns, and English. It is the saga of Lenape country in this early era of colonization that most interests Soderlund.
Soderlund’s book tells the story of Lenape country before the arrival of William Penn, and all the change he brought with him, in 1681. Too [End Page 482] often, she writes, histories of the Delaware Valley begin in the 1680s, when Charles II granted Penn his charter (and Pennsylvania was born). Not only does the “Pennsylvania legend” obscure the earlier chapters of Lenape history, prior to the arrival of Europeans. It also ignores the “sixty-five years of exchange, conflict, accommodation, and alliance between the Natives and the Dutch, Swedes, Finns, and English” that preceded Penn (4). This same “founding myth,” she contends, too heavily credits Penn for “form[ing] an open, tolerant society that dealt honestly and amicably with the Lenapes and other Natives” (4). In Soderlund’s view, Pennsylvania’s tolerance rested upon an earlier history of peacemaking and plurality—led by Lenapes.
Lenape Country is a clear and engaging historical narrative that roundly surveys the experiences of those who lived in the region during the seventeenth century. Although her focus is on the Lenape people, Soderlund is deeply interested in their intercultural relationships. Her book dwells on those encounters more extensively than other recent studies of the region, like Amy Schutt’s Peoples of the River Valley or Mark Thompson’s The Contest for the Delaware Valley. Throughout the book, Soderlund subtly demonstrates how Lenapes used diplomacy, alliances, and even limited violence to maintain “self-determination” and to protect their interests. Each of Soderlund’s chapters adds to her portrait of Lenape country in the seventeenth century as a kind of “middle ground,” in which natives and Europeans learned to live with, and accommodate, one another (10).
The book opens with a sketch of Lenape society in the early seventeenth century: egalitarian, open, and peaceful. Sachems ruled by consent, not by force. Unlike several other native groups (not to mention Europeans), Lenapes “did not fight wars to enslave people” (12). Coupling, and uncoupling, was fairly unrestricted. Men and women were free to form and flee relationships, as it suited them. Peace was paramount. But if the Lenape people “preferred peace,” Soderlund observes, they did sometimes resort to war in order to “protect their rights” (35). They engaged in limited wars to maintain control of their territory, especially when Europeans sought to expand their influence beyond the realm of trade.
One example is the 1631 attack at Swanendael, a Dutch settlement...