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History's Headlines: Indian Tales at LCHS

Archaeologist Thomas Lewis admits he was not always interested in the lives and culture of Native Americans.

“As a child I was fascinated by dinosaurs,” he says. But all that changed when Lewis entered high school. Here he had a teacher that taught him about American Indians. With that, Lenni Lenape replaced T. Rex forever.

Today as an historian and archaeologist, Lewis, a native of Lansdale, who lives today in Boyertown, is a widely recognized expert in the study of Native American life and culture. He has his own consulting business and is often brought in when issues concerning Indian burial grounds are discussed. And it is for that reason that the Lehigh County Historical Society called on him in to help with a new exhibit on American Indians opening May 20 at the Heritage Museum. The exhibit has a particular focus on the Lenape. The reason for the exhibit, which will be located on the museum’s second floor, is to offer a teaching moment to young people and adults who may have distorted views of Native Americans from generations of popular culture like movies and television.

“The history of European and Indian confrontation is one of conflict,” say LCHS Executive Director Joseph Garrera. “There is a flawed depiction of Native Americans as savages,” he adds. “Their country was being taken over. What were they supposed to do?” Garrera praised Allentown’s Museum of Indian Culture on Fish Hatchery Rd. for doing their best to present a more balanced view of Native American life over the years.

Lewis is working with LCHS curator Jill Youngken. On a recent morning, both were busy getting the exhibit together. On one wall a depiction of a typical Lenape village is being painted as a diorama or backdrop. On the floor in front of Lewis are thousands of Indian arrowheads that are a part of LCHS’s permanent collection.

Over the years (the LCHS was founded in 1904), members have contributed arrowheads and other items like stone lance tips and soap stone bowls used for grinding acorns and other nuts. Among those who made contributions were General Harry C. Trexler and his brother Judge Frank Trexler.

While Lewis appreciates the contributions that collectors have made over the years he points out that today archaeologists believe by removing the items from the ground, without adequately studying the location first, destroys the context in terms of the rest of the culture. “If we see them in their original location we can better tell what they were used for by that particular tribe,” Lewis says.

Among the rarest projectile point in the LCHS collection is called the Clovis point. It takes its name from Clovis, New Mexico, where they were first found in the 1920s. They range between 10,000 and 12,000 years old and are the oldest in North America. Others in the collection range from 8,000 to 9.000 years old. The average age is 3,000.

According to Lewis there are 363 acknowledged Indian sites in the Lehigh Valley. The Lenape’s ancestors, the so-called Paleo-Indians, apparently arrived on the east coast of North America roughly 10,000 years ago. They were descended from ancestors who had crossed what is said to have been a land bridge at the Baring Strait from Asia. Over time they developed a roaming territory that went as far north as today’s Kingston, New York and as far south as Cape Henlopen, Delaware.

Eastern Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley were roughly in the center of this territory. Over the centuries, Lenape life slowly evolved. In the earliest times, they were hunter gatherers. Eventually they took up an aspect of agriculture, while never abandoning hunting. Women played a vital role in agriculture.

The Lenape also developed religious beliefs including a creation myth that placed the earth on the back of a large turtle. Living close to nature as they did the Lenape understood animals and sometimes told tales about them. Lewis has a great deal of respect for the Lenape and there way of life. “It seems to me that it was a very good way to live,” he says.

The earliest contact between the whites and Lenape came to the south where they got the name Delawares from Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, an English colonial governor of Virginia.

It was the fur traders from New Sweden, located around what is now Wilmington, Delaware and Dutch fur traders from New Amsterdam, now New York, that were probably the first whites local Lenape met.

Jan Hans Steelman, a Swedish fur trader from the Philadelphia area, was most probably the first European to paddle up the Lehigh River in the late 17th or early 18th century. There is a letter from 1701 from William Penn, then governor of Pennsylvania to Steelman about his fur trading at, “Lechay  (Lehigh) on ye forks of ye Delaware,” today the site of Easton.

Lewis notes that the fur traders changed the life of the Lenape. Stone axes disappeared, replaced by iron. Eventual the bow and arrow was rejected for firearms. They also traded rum for furs, something Penn wanted to discourage but had little control over. By the middle of the 18th century English settlers were arriving in Pennsylvania in large numbers.

Perhaps the death knell for the Lenape way of life came from the so-called Walking Purchase of 1737. Unlike their father, Penn’s sons, primarily Thomas, saw Pennsylvania not as a “holy experiment” but as a large real estate speculation to support the lavish life of an English lord on his country estate.

To get the Lenape off the land and clear it for settlement, he came up with a land deed claiming he was promised all the land that could be walked in 3 days. Penn hired three expert walkers the last of which made it to just outside of what is now Jim Thorpe. Then lawyers in London drew a slanted line that took the border to the Delaware Water Gap.

But the Lenape still refused to leave lands that they had occupied for generations. The crisis came in 1742 when Penn used England’s influence with the Iroquois, their Native American allies, to threaten to use force to drive the Lenape out.  Confronted with this threat the Lenape’s reluctantly left.

By the 19th century they were gone from the Lehigh Valley, scattered across the country. But thanks to events like the LCHS exhibit, they are not forgotten. 

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