The Lenni-Lenape Meet William Penn


by Burt Froom

West Mt. Airy:  Yesterday and Today

September, 2013 (Article 10)

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After a brief pause, Yesterday and Today, Building a History of West Mt. Airy, is back and we will consider how the Lenni-Lenape Indians met William Penn.
Beginning in 1609, the Dutch traded with the Indians for furs and swindled them out of their land. Liquor became a commodity in wide demand among the Indians, and so were objects manufactured by the Dutch out of metal and cloth of which the Indians previously had none — as valuable to them as were furs for the Dutch. The Delaware or Lenape Indians lived in a world of increasing pressure from their enemies who were the Susquehannock or Minquas people to the west and north. More dangerous were the Five Nations of the Iroquois: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondega, the Cayuga, and the Seneca tribes (who lived in the Mohawk River valley and the Finger Lakes region of New York State).  These tribes were very aggressive as they aimed to control the fur trade, and were enemies of the peaceful Delaware Indian people.

The political world of the English colonies in eastern North America was thrown into upheaval when King Charles II (reigned, 1660-1685) restored the Stuart monarchy in 1660 following the Parliamentary Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (reigned, 1653-1658). In 1664, King Charles gave his brother, the Duke of York (and later King James II, reigned 1685-1689) full title to all lands north of Maryland and south of New England as his personal possession. King Charles’s aim was to break the power of the Dutch in the Hudson Valley and the port city of New Amsterdam. As a part of this great giveaway of power, King Charles “gave” Pennsylvania and Delaware to William Penn in 1682 as payment by the king for the debt the king owed to William Penn’s father Admiral Penn for the admiral’s loan to the king during the 1650s. We shall have occasion soon to know William Penn more fully. But first, let us meet him as the Lenni-Lenape met Penn as the new proprietor of Pennsylvania.


Before Penn’s arrival in his colony in 1682, he was determined that Pennsylvania would be a place for all people to find peace and justice. The principal of good will and friendship lay at the heart of Quaker belief. From the beginning, he was determined to treat the Indians as brothers and win their confidence and friendship. In this, Pennsylvania was unique among the English colonies.

It was Penn’s conviction that the Indians, no less than the whites, were children of God, entitled to love and respect.  He wrote to the Indians of Pennsylvania a message, translated into the Algonquian language, in which he told them that “the king of the country where I live, hath given me a great province therein.  But I desire to enjoy it with your love and consent that we may always live together as neighbors and friends.”

William Penn was interested in all facets of the culture of the Lenni-Lenape Indians. He sat in council with them many times, and in less than a year, mastered their language – so he could speak with them without a translator.


Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, painted in England by Benjamin West, 1771, and displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.
(75 by 108 inches.)

In the fall of 1682, Penn met with the Indian sachem (chiefs) in their villages of Shackamaxon under the famous “Peace Elm” tree, to sign the peace treaty between the two peoples. There, on the banks of the Delaware River, according to the painting by Benjamin West, painted about 1772, 90 years after the event, we see the main actors in the drama of Pennsylvania’s founding: the Quakers, the merchants and the Indians.

The portrait was commissioned by William Penn’s younger son, Thomas Penn, the incumbent proprietor of Pennsylvania, who had left the Society of Friends to join the Church of England, later in his life. West purposely shows a portly, middle aged man, instead of the active 38 year old he was in 1682. West was born 20 years after Penn’s death in 1718. West painted the scene based on imagination and hearsay, as if it was 1771. In the painting, Europeans, like Penn, are dressed in somber brown and gray clothes instead of the more decorated Quaker styles of 1682.  The scene is allegorical, not historical.


The Penn Treaty Park, located in the Kensington neighborhood on Delaware Avenue east of Interstate 95 in a post industrial area, is larger than Vernon Park in Germantown. Louise and I visited the park on a pleasant spring evening. Neighborhood families were picnicking and playing Frisbee. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River are in plain view.

The park was made part of the Fairmont Park system in 1893. A large PECO generation station is next door. There is a sculpture of William Penn by Frank Gaylord (born, 1925), and there is a plaque which reads, in part: “While other colonies were in conflict and in great distress with the Indians, William Penn, through his philosophy of social justice and peace, engaged their friendship and good will. Here is the site of the great treaty of amity between William Penn and the Indians which was held on November, 1682 for the purpose of establishing a permanent friendship.”

Penn’s elm was 24 feet in circumference and lived to be at least 283 years old. It fell in a storm in 1810. The site of the tree is now marked by a short obelisk. Descendants of the great elm are growing nearby.


One of the Lenape chiefs believed to be present at the 1682 treaty signing was Taminy, also known as Tomanend. It is thought that he lived in the village of Perkasie in Berks County, where Penn visited him in the winter of 1683. For unclear reasons, white people later exaggerated Taminy’s fame and fabricated many legends about him.

In 1798, a society was organized in New York City to counteract the Federalists and the Society of Cincinnati, which were looked upon as aristocratic and hostile to democratic institutions. This new organization, which sprang from the citizenry, was called the St. Taminy Society. The addition of “St.” is believed to have been used to ridicule social clubs of that day who attached the names of saints to their organizations. Thus, Taminy became “canonized” as St. Tammany, the patron saint of America – though he was an unchristian Indian.

The chief’s name was later transferred to the New York City political machine which wielded vast power and whose history was darkened with many scandals until the 1950s. Tammany Hall was located on East 14th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, and was later the Democratic Party political machine run by Boss Tweed (1823-1878),


During the colonial period, all land in Pennsylvania was owned by the Penn family proprietors, and Indians were to remain in possession of the land on which they lived and hunted for food. White people bought land from the government by agreement with the Indians whose rights were to be carefully respected in a series of purchases.

The fundamental differences between whites and Indians over land ownership caused enormous and continuing conflict. As Contosta and Franklin (Metropolitan Paradise) phrase it, “Although the Lenape had defined their clan hunting territories, they did not share the European idea of land ownership and sale enshrined in our laws. There, the individual is encouraged to modify the land to maximize profit. Property rights are at the heart of modern capitalism. According to the historian of Native American history, C.A. Weslager, “To the Delawares, land was like sunlight or the waters of a river” – necessary to sustain life. “The idea of an individual owning the life-giving soil was as alien to their thinking as owning the air one breathes.”

The Lenape trusted William Penn because he spoke with his mouth and his heart. After his death in 1718, his three sons by his second wife Hannah, John, Thomas and Richard Penn, inherited their father’s American lands and were joint proprietors of Pennsylvania. Their outlooks were very different from their father’s. The Penn family claimed to have a deed from the 1680s by which the Lenape promised to sell a tract of land which began at the junction of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers (modern Easton, Pennsylvania) and extending as far as a man could walk in a day and a half. Wikipedia points out that this document may have been an unsigned, unratified treaty, or even an outright forgery or a swindle.

Purchases by colonists of traditional Lenape Indian hunting grounds and village lands, 1682 – 1874. Note the 1737 “Walking Purchase” land.


Lenape leaders thought that about 40 miles was the longest distance that could be covered under these conditions. According to legend, the provincial secretary, James Logan, hired the three fastest runners among whites in the colony to run on a carefully prepared trail. One runner finished, reaching modern Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, 70 miles away. The sheriff drew a line on the map and claimed all the enclosed land (about the size of Rhode Island). The Delaware Indians appealed for assistance to the Iroquois Confederacy, who claimed hegemony over the Lenape. But James Logan already had a deal with the Iroquois to support the colonial side.

The Lenape had to vacate hunting and fishing rights along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. The Walking Purchase deeply offended them, because they believed they had been cheated.  The Walking Purchase marked the end of more than 50 years of trust by the Lenape in the colony’s government. During the next centuries, the Lenape-Delaware people were pushed out of their homelands and moved west, seeking new homes. They now live in tribal communities in Oklahoma, Ontario, Wisconsin, and Kansas.


The Wissahickon gorge is still the home of the Lenape people in the person of the kneeling Lenape warrior who watches the forest trail to keep everyone safe. The dramatic 15 foot high sculpture was carved in 1902 by John Massey Rhind (1860-1936), who also sculpted a statue in the National Statuary Hall in Washington. It is located 50 yards above Rex Avenue. The statue was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Henry as a tribute to the Lenape, who hunted and fished in the Wissahickon before the arrival of the colonists. The white marble sculpture was designed to commemorate the departure of the Lenape from the region. The Indian in the sculpture has his hand to his brow, looking west in the direction of the departing tribe. The statue sits on Council Rock, where the ancient Lenapes are believed to have held their pow-wows until 1756.

I would like to thank Jaime Kehler for his excellent assistance in many aspects of this article.  In my October Yesterday and Today column, I will discuss the colony here in the Delaware Valley called New Sweden (1638 – 1655).