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Letterbox Back Story: Tamamend & the Lenni-Lenape Tribe

09/02/2002
by Silent Doug

Before European settlers arrived in the 1600s, the Delaware River Valley was home to many native American tribes in the Algonquin tradition. From its headwaters near Hancock, NY in the Catskill Mountains, flowing south to form the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border, and finally emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Delaware Bay, the Delaware River is one of the longest free-flowing rivers left in the United States and a rich depository of our nation’s native American history.

Even though the Mohegan (Mohican) tribe is better known today, the peaceful Lenni-Lenape were most numerous and prominent when white settlers arrived. The Lenape were not one unified nation, but a group of independent villages in three broad groups, the Unalichtigo, Unami and Minsi (or Munsee). Each had their own dialect, but shared a common sense of being "Lenape."

As one measure of their prominence, the Shawnee considered the Lenni-Lenape as their "grandfathers" and the source of all Algonquin tribes. The Lenape became known as the Delaware, in honor of English explorer Lord De La Warre, the Governor of the Jamestown Settlement and one of the first Europeans to visit the area.

As chief of the Unami, Tamamend ("the Affable”) was chosen to represent the Lenapes when English dissident William Penn arrived in North America. Tamamend negotiated a peaceful land settlement with Penn (the founder of Pennsylvania) -- a deal described by Voltaire as "the one treaty with the Indians that the whites never broke."

In the end, Tamamend's leadership, although earnest and well-intentioned, was not enough to save the Lenape from losing its influence. The Iroquois, Mohegan and Mohawks, after decades of battling the white invaders and each other, subdued the Lenape. Adding further insult, William Penn's debt-laden son, Thomas, began to sell Lenape land that he didn't own. A "lost" deed was found, which granted Penn as much land as could be covered in a day-and-a-half's walk. In 1735, Penn hired three of the fastest runners he could find. Only one finished the "walk," but secured for Penn 1,200 square miles of Lenape land -- an area about the size of Rhode Island, much larger than the Lenapes expected. Though the Lenapes protested this "Walking Purchase Agreement," the tribe was by now under the protection of the Iroquois. The Iroquois had pledged to work with the settlers, and ordered the Lenape to leave their homeland.

The normally peaceful Lenape eventually turned violent, and made an effort to reclaim their native lands, backed by the French in the French and Indian War. Hostilities continued through the Revolutionary War, but by the late 1700s the Lenape were pushed westward, first to Ohio, and eventually to Oklahoma, where their descendants still live today.

Tamamend died near Doylestown, PA, in 1750 at the age of 97. But by this time his reputation was quite widespread. His name was anglicized to “Tammany” and adopted as the namesake of New York City's powerful and corrupt political machine, Tammany Hall, by the Society of Tammany, and in many place names in the Eastern U.S.

Go to the Tamamend Letterbox

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