Before Monroe County came the Lenni Lenape

First in a series of articles commemorating the 175th anniversary of Monroe County

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

The year marks the 175th anniversary of the official formation of Monroe County. In celebration of this milestone, this year’s columns will highlight the history of the creation of the county as well as its 16 townships and four boroughs. This month’s article will focus on the area’s prehistoric people.

Long before Europeans settled in modern-day Monroe County, the Lenni Lenape called this area home. These Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the Pocono Mountains, having settled in the area over 10,000 year ago. The name Lenni Lenape translates into “the original peoples,” and the term Pocono in the native Lenape tongue means “a river between two mountains.” Because the Lenape did not have a written language, their history was passed from generation to generation by storytellers. The ancestors of the Lenape, the true “original peoples,” were said to have come from the great sea in the west thousands of years before Christopher Columbus.

Three clans comprised the Lenni Lenape nation: Wolf, Turtle and Turkey. Often, the Lenape have been referred to as the “Delaware” because they lived along the Delaware River. The Wolf Clan occupied the land in what is now Monroe County. This clan was referred to as the Munsee or Minsi, the name of their spoken dialect of the Algonquin language. Their area stretched northward along the Delaware River from the point where the Lehigh River meets the Delaware in what is now Easton. The members of the Wolf Clan were known as “People of the Stony Country.” The Turtle Clan occupied land south of the Lehigh-Delaware confluence, reaching into Philadelphia and were referred to as “People Down the River.” The Turkey Clan lived the furthest south, occupying current-day Wilmington, Del. They were called the “People Who Live Near the Ocean.” The three clans were all sects of the Algonquin tribe and generally lived peacefully with each other. The Lenape, however, did conflict with other warring Indian nations, including the Iroquois and the Cherokee.

This Lenni Lenape stone effigy is in Monroe County Historical Association’s permanent display at Stroud Mansion. James Herbstritt of the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Archaeology Department believes it is a Mesingw, a spirit revered by the Lenni Lenape as protector of forest animals. The spirit’s job was to keep the animals healthy, yielding enough game for Lenape hunters to feed their families.
In general, each Lenape village operated independent of the others, following its own rules. A trusted spokesman, or sachem, was “in charge” of each village; however, Lenape villages were democratic, and every member had a voice in important decisions. The role of the sachem was vital for the village, though, in both times of peace and war. Eventually, Europeans began colonizing the Delaware River valley, and as relations between Native Americans and European settlers soured, these sachems assumed a larger role in village leadership, becoming recognized as chiefs.

While there is evidence of the existence of longhouses, the Lenape preferred to live in family units in small dwellings. Structures were constructed of saplings fastened together with vines and sheets of tree bark used for the walls. Often, a center section of the roof was left open to allow the escape of smoke from the fire. Clay would be used to insulate the interior walls.

Lenape women and children performed more domestic-type jobs, while the Lenape men were responsible for hunting and fishing, tool making, and building construction. The native peoples lived completely off of what their environment provided. Women wove rugs and mats on which to sit and made baskets for storing and carrying food. Clay pots were used for cooking while clamshells and gourds were used as serving bowls. Gathering and processing the area’s nuts, berries, and tubers also fell to the Lenape women.

Lenape men would hunt deer, bear, turkey, and small game for meat, and they fished the local waterways for fish, eels, turtles, and muscles. Men crafted the tools needed for hunting; the bow and arrow was the most common tool for hunting land animals while fish hooks were created from animal bone. The fur from mammals served as clothing and bedding, and the feathers from birds provided down for insulation.

Both sexes tended to the agricultural needs of the village. Following the end of the chance of frost (around mid-May), the Lenape would plant seeds that had been saved and dried since the previous autumn’s harvest. Corn, beans, and squash were the typical cultivated foods.

Because there is no written record left by the Lenni Lenape, archaeologists and historians are needed to decipher the lifeways of Monroe County’s native peoples. The only written descriptions of the Lenape come from European settlers. Early records of contact between the Natives and European colonists in the area date to 1609, and there are detailed accounts of the 1742-meeting between Chief Kakowatchiky of the Shawnee and Count Zinzindorf, founder of the Moravian Church.

Over the years, numerous professional and amateur archaeological excavations have been undertaken throughout Monroe County. Local farmers and residents who live along Monroe County’s many streams and creeks continue to find artifacts of the Lenni Lenape people. One archaeological site, the Shawnee-Minisink site, is unique because it reflects a record of continuous occupation by the Native Americans in the Upper Delaware River Valley, uncovering evidence of extensive habitation of the river valley by Native Americans. The archaeologists’ finds included not only stone tools, but evidence of long-term settlement such as hearths, burial grounds, and postmold-holes for longhouses. Artifacts from the Shawnee-Minisink archaeological site date over 11,000 years old and include hundreds of stone tools, pieces of pottery, remains of fish, animal bones, shells, and fruit and plant seeds. It is this combination of both the archaeological and historical records that provides us with a better understanding of the lifeways of Monroe County’s earliest inhabitants.