(the following is an excerpt of "A History of the Munsee-Delaware Nation", written and compiled by local historian, Mark Peters)
Human communities have been established in the Munsee area for at least 11,000 years, when the southern edge of the great ice cap passed through what now is New York City, and the Atlantic coastal plain extended 50 miles farther eastward (out into what is now the Atlantic Ocean). It is possible that the earliest sites of human settlement there, on the now submerged Coastal Plain, date back into the remote past, and were drowned and hidden as the icecap melted and ocean levels rose. Such sites have been found on the West Coast. Evidence of mastodon hunting has been found off the coast of New Jersey, on the Coastal Plain, dating to 9,000 B.C.E. There is some basis for a supposed Delaware/Lenape tradition regarding migration “from” the northeast and down into the Ohio Valley and southeast to their contact period locations. This includes archaeological evidence suggesting a similar migration of Proto-Algonquin cultures over a millennia in time. The geographical starting point in both cases is Labrador.
The Munsees were the northernmost of an affiliated group of Indian Villages that came to be known as the Lenni Lenape or, Delawares. They were an agricultural, hunting, fishing and gathering people, living in settlements along the tributary streams that flowed into the Delaware River and the Hudson River on their southward journey through the present States of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New Jersey.
The northernmost Lenni Lenape, were known as the Minisink, (People of the Stony Country) and later Munsee. Further south were the Unalami (People up The River), then still further south a large group known as Unami (People down the River), and finally on Delaware Bay were the Unalachtigo (People near The Ocean).
The total population of the Lenni Lenape, at the time of permanent European contact (Henry Hudson in 1609), has been estimated at a low range of approximately 6,000 to 8,000 people, to a high range of 65,000 in their traditional territory. It may be, that Italian explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485–1528) and his crew who travelled the Atlantic coast of North America between the Carolinas and Newfoundland in the service of the French crown brought diseases which devastated entire villages. Maybe contact with one of the many thousands of sailors and fishermen during the 1500’s resulted in spreading disease. Verrazzano made specific notes regarding the dense population in the New York Harbour area on at least two occasions. No similar mention is made by Hudson when he arrived, in 1609, despite finding the area abounding with fish and game, with stretches of fertile land and mountains crowned with forests, seamed with clear-running rivers and dotted with lakes reflecting skies darkened only by huge flocks of passenger pigeons and myriads of other birds.
The early Munsee people built and lived in circular or round houses made of bark laid over a sapling framework. These evolved later on into large rectangular houses with rounded ends, each capable of holding from one to half a dozen families. Before contact these homes would have had hand woven reed mats making a full circle around the inside walls of the house. More mats on the bed and sitting areas and other places where they made things more comfortable. All of the beds would be covered with the softest of furs available as well as turkey feather blankets. Gifts, hand-me-downs, personal objects would have adorned the nooks and crannies where woven baskets of food are stored. When making a fire inside they would know just what kind of wood to use to make the least smoke possible. The floor would have been as hard as cement and would be swept regularly and perhaps covered with the reed mats here and there. A treasure of hunting equipment, beaded items, stone items, bone items, wood items, a storage of wampum beads, corn, beans, dried meat, herbal remedies, clothing, footwear, feather items, and many other things made recently or perhaps handed down through the ages, countless ages. These would be very comfortable homes with each family separated from the other by partitions for some privacy and general areas for other things.
No signs of palisades or other fortifications have been found at any of the village sites except one in the territory of the Munsees, indicating that the Lenape were generally peaceful people, holding a respected position within the community of Algonkian-speaking nations. Tribal relationships were described in the metaphors of family relationships -- thus the Lenape were esteemed as “the grandfather tribe.”
There was no Lenape tribal organization in the European sense. Each community was independent under its own chief, who was selected on the basis of heredity passed down through the mother. Women enjoyed a status far superior to the subservience in which European women were held. There are recorded instances of European women who were kidnapped by Indians and who refused to go back to white settlements.
Family life was based on division of labour. The husband was expected to hunt, fish, clear land, make canoes, tools and weapons and defend the community while the wife’s responsibilities were in caring for the children, gathering plant food, making and ornamenting clothing and in general running everything connected with the family home. In fact, the home and everything in it, except for the man’s weapons, belonged to her. Divorce was not difficult and could be sought by either side. After divorce, the children automatically stayed with their mother.
The bone and stone tools and weapons the Lenape made showed a great deal of sophistication both in practical design and artistic creativity. Hunters’ weapons included the bone harpoon, the bola, the spear and a spear-throwing stick called the atlatl, which greatly increased the range and power of the spear.
The earlier people made many stone items including bowls. Late, in what is called the Woodland Era (1000 BC- 1600 AD) they developed copper work and fire-baked clay pottery. Designs on the clay pots shows they were also making woven mats and twilled fabric.
Although North America at that time had no large native animals that could be domesticated to carry loads or pull plows, the peoples along the Delaware, especially on the fertile lands of the upper Delaware Valley, had cleared and fertilized land by hand and developed their own system of farming , giving rise to more prosperous and settled communities and the development of religious and ceremonial practices.
Early European arrivals were impressed by the general good health, fine physiques and lack of physical deformities of this outdoor-living people, indications that they were well nourished and active. The Europeans were also greatly impressed by the fur garments worn by the natives, to whom they were common place.
Verrazzano wrote that they set the anchor and rowed onto the beach. The Navesink, and other communities in the area spoke the Munsee dialect and were part of the extensive Munsee confederacy with its main Council Fire at Minisink. In his journal and letters to the King of France, he writes about this encounter, at a spot near what is now known as the Verrazzano Narrows.
He writes, “After a hundred leagues, we found a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them, a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flowed out into the sea.”. This was to become known as the Narrows that now bear his name. “And with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet, any laden ship could pass from the sea into the river estuary. Since we were anchored off the coast and well sheltered, we did not want to run any risks without knowing anything about the river mouth. So we took the small boat up this river to land which we found densely populated.” Further, “The people were almost the same as the others, dressed in bird’s ‘ feathers of various colours, and they came toward us joyfully, uttering load cries of wonderment and showing us the safest place to beach the boat.” They then travelled a mile and a half to a beautiful lake, which would later become known as the New York Harbour. He writes, “About thirty of their small boats ran to and fro across the lake with innumerable people aboard who were crossing from one side to the other to see us.” Verrazzano again notes the density of the population and describes their canoes, cleverly built round houses, the worked mats of reeds and straw, which lined the walls and sleeping areas of their homes. The mats also offered protection from wind and rain. He noted the care and respect they showed toward their women. Women were likely to have been responsible for caring for the extensive orchards of cherries, plums, filberts and many other kinds of fruit unknown in Europe, as noted by Verrazzano.
With the continuation of their agriculture, woodland hunting, river and seashore fishing and gathering of hundreds of varieties of native plants for food, medicine, dyes, building and sewing tools and materials, the Munsees had a highly developed social structure and active trade with neighbouring tribes at least 500 years before the arrival of Europeans.
Artifacts found in the Minisink area show that the Munsee-Delaware were part of a native trading network that extended north to Labrador, west to the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico.
After the 1500's, more and more newcomers arrived and wanted to settle in the Munsee Delaware homeland. Our people would eventually be forced out. What followed was 200 years of wandering, from place to place, amid war, strife and starvation, before our people would secure our current location in present-day Ontario;.
In a survey of the Caradoc Reserve in 1830 by Mahlon Burwell, he notes that approximately 160 Munsees lived in this area of the Thames River. No mention is made of other Nations in this particular area at the time. He also noted the amounts of land the Munsees had cleared and were farming, types of houses and numbers of livestock. Burwell also noted the size and make-up of families and where they said they were from. Although many had been born and raised at Muncey on the Thames, others noted places such as the Miami River, Sandusky, Cattaraugus and a place called Minisink. Although many may have been born and raised for a time at these different areas, they can all trace their ancestry back to the place or area that a man named Moses Logan stated that he was from. That place is Minisink, meaning, the stony country. In the geographical area of the upper reaches of the Delaware River, Minisink , was both the place of the Council Fire, and, it was the Minisink language that was spoken by the 50 to 60 Villages occupying the areas of eastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey and south east New York states.
Today, our community is located on the northern shore of the Thames River, about 25 kilometers southwest of London, Ontario. The Munsee Delaware Nation currently covers 1054 hectares, measuring roughly 3 square kilometers. Our Nation has a registered population of 547 people today, with 170 people living in the community.
The Munsee Delaware Nation is making great strides in developing a sustainable and self-sufficient economy once again. Where once the Munsee Delaware Nation developed an extensive trade network with neighbouring communities and Nations, today, we are creating jobs for our youth by tapping into the emerging green economy. One such initiative is the Munsee Tree Corporation, a tree farm which will generate carbon credits and supply the emerging bio-mass industry. Another is the recently announced First Nations Forestry Training Program, which will train First Nations students from across Ontario for highly-skilled jobs in the sustainable forestry industries. Munsee Delaware Nation’s key partners include TD Bank, the Southern First Nations Secretariat, Seven Generations Education Institute and the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Together, the Munsee Delaware Nation and its partners are working toward securing a prosperous future that will also benefit the environment.