About 30,000 years ago, the Paleo-Americans came across Siberia to the Seward Peninsula in Alaska and moved south, spreading over the entire hemisphere. According to Lenape folk tradition, one group of these peoples moved eastward to the Atlantic seaboard. The Lenape came to descend from this group.
The name Lenni-Lenape has a variety of translations: "original people", "real people" and "common people". The name by which the Lenape are best known, however, was given to them by the English settlers in the middle seventeenth century. The English named the bay and river on which they settled after Sir Thomas West, the third Lord de la Warr. In time, the original inhabitants along the shores of the "Delaware" River and its tributaries became known as the "Delawares".
There were three Native American groups: the dominant Lenapes, the Mohegans of Long Island and the Nanticokes of the Delaware and Chesapeake Peninsula. The Lenape were one of many nations belonging to the great Algonkins. The early Lenape were a loose confederation of independent communities. They lived mainly in the Delaware River Valley and land west that separated the Delaware and Susquehanna watersheds. The Delaware River was their domain; their council-fire was at Shakamaxon located in what is now Philadelphia. New Jersey was called "Scheyechbi" or long land water referring to the shape of the state. The Atlantic coast was called "Zeewanhacky" meaning place of sea fans or shells.
The Lenape were a migrating people. In the spring, they planted their gardens in their home villages where they cultivated corn, squash, beans, pumpkin and tobacco. In the summer, they hunted and traveled to the shores for clams and oysters. In the fall, they went back to their villages for their harvest. In late fall and early winter they migrated to the Pennsylvania woods to hunt again. In February, when the sap began to run, they moved to set up the sugar to boil. Then, they migrated back to their villages for spring planting.
The Lenape were a deeply religious people and their belief in a Creator and eleven lessor Gods reached all aspects of their lives. They believed that all things had souls. This reflected a deep reverence for their natural environment and a concept that they were only a small part of Nature's grand scheme. This belief made it difficult for them to understand the concept of land ownership and purchase.
In the Spring of 1524, Italian navigator, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed into New York harbor. According to his notes, he found the area "well peopled, the inhabitants, dressed out with feathers of birds of various colors. They came towards us with evident delight raising shouts of admiration".
In the early days, the first English settlements in New Jersey were founded by the Quakers who made it a point to purchase title to the land from the Native Americans. They endeavored to prevent traders from taking advantage of the natives through their early laws. Those laws, however, were difficult to enforce. One of William Penn's greatest achievements was his fair dealings with the Native Americans. He held their loyalty for many long years. In this book, "William Penn's own account of the Lenni Lenape", Penn discusses the matriarchal structure of their society and their religious and moral beliefs. Like many of his contemporaries, Penn believed that the Lenape descended from the Lost Tribe of Israel.
There are members of the Lenape that are still active today and maintain their culture.