Lenape Then and Now: 
The Invisible Indians of New Jersey and Delaware

by Edward F. Heite (1937 - 2005)

A talk presented at the "Lenape Then and Now" symposium, Vineland, New Jersey, October 20, 2001  


During nearly twenty years, we have been privileged to study historic Native American remnant groups in Delaware, usually as part of the Delaware Department of Transportation cultural resource management program. Most of our work has been concentrated in Duck Creek, Little Creek, Kenton, and West Dover hundreds, the north half of Kent County. The people of this area, now called Lenape, belong to the same stock as the people of southern Sussex County now called Nanticoke, and the people in Cumberland County, New Jersey, who are now called Nanticoke-Lenape.

Historical documents indicate that Northern Kent County was called Mitsawokett during the settlement period, and that the people here were part of the Cohansey who lived on the east side of Delaware Bay. Historical documents indicate that the area now known as central Delaware was the south limit of Lenape territorial claims.

Whatever their descendants call themselves today, the tribes who met the first European settlers have experienced many changes during four centuries. In any Native American community on Delmarva or in New Jersey today, no individual can claim descent exclusively from one seventeenth-century tribe or another. This is why the sponsors of this meeting call themselves Nanticoke-Lenape. 

After the middle of the eighteenth century, Delaware did not recognize the existence of any Native American people within its boundaries.  The legislature even made an official statement to the effect that there were no Indians in the colony. Throughout the coastal plain, at the beginning of our federal period, there were a few scattered remnant communities of Native American people. And of that scattered population, only a small portion was recognized by their neighbors as Indian tribes. In the minds of the general population, all the Indians were out west. So began the period of invisibility, when the Native population disappeared from the historical record.

For purposes of the census and enforcement of discriminatory laws, race in America has been defined, throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, by the subjective opinion of white record keepers. These officials frequently were ignorant of the nuanced meanings of race terminology and often were uninterested in ethnic origins. To some record-keepers, every nonwhite was "negro." Sometimes Indian people would be identified as "mulatto," an ambiguous term applied to all light-skinned nonwhites and probably to a few Mediterranean whites as well. Citizens of Indian origin were enumerated in the federal census together with African Americans under the classification of "freepersons of color."  Some Indians were classified as white; especially if they were financially well off. The 1800 census of Delaware did not identify any person as an Indian, but did identify several Indian families as white. In some years the tax assessors identified Indian-descended families as "mulattoes" and reserved the term "negro" for persons of African descent, regardless of mixture. In other years, every nonwhite was classed as "negro."  Race classification depended entirely upon the tax collector's perception.

Official silence concerning ethnicity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has complicated the task of making historical racial or cultural identifications. After the Civil War, when free public education was gradually extended to nonwhites, a group of citizens protested against being included in the "negro" school system.  Instead, they eventually persuaded the state to create "moor" or "Indian" schools at both Indian River and Cheswold. This was the beginning of the struggle for modern Indian recognition in Delaware.

It is important to remember that the historical experience of East Coast Indian populations is very different from the history of their western cousins. In the west, where the Army was tasked with controlling Native American populations, there was no question as to who was Indian. Mere presence in a population conferred ethnic and tribal identity, even though many of the people in the tribes were of mixed origin.   

In the west, in Indian country, you knew who was an Indian because the Army and later the Bureau of Indian Affairs kept a list.  Here in the east, there were no official lists of Indians, because the Indians did not officially exist. In the west, historians and genealogists can determine who was an Indian simply by presence on a government inventory. In the east, the identification process is exactly the reverse. We must first identify the community, and then identify individuals within that community who can be documented as Indians. It's easy to walk into a group of Delaware or New Jersey Indians and say that these people look like Indians, but it's another matter entirely to prove that they are a coherent group of related Native people who have always been a separate community.

If we can show that over the years, certain individuals were identified as Indians by impartial outside observers, we can logically assert that their relatives constituted an Indian community, or band. By then defining the band of which these obviously Indian people were members, we can with some confidence demonstrate that the community was an Indian band. Throughout three centuries Native American families knew who they were. They stuck together. They intermarried. The three bands of people in Indian River, Cheswold, and Cumberland County, composed a single population within which people routinely circulated. They also maintained regular contact with other Native American communities. In the 1820s, for example, a young man from Cheswold went out to Peru, Indiana, to live a while with the Lenape emigrants out there. I'm told that a Lenape community still exists in that part of Indiana

In order to document the Native American nature of the community, we have employed genealogy, with the able assistance of a corps of volunteers organized by Betty and Ray Terry, proprietors of the Mitsawokett web site. Thanks to the efforts of Betty and Ray, we now have a database that can be used to demonstrate the continuity of Native American identity within these related families. Now let's examine some of the documentation through time. 

When the Indian John Puckham was baptized in 1682, he became a "mulatto" and married Jone Johnson, also a "mulatto".  A George Puckham was among the "Indians" named in the prosecutions of the Winnesoccum "conspiracy" of 1742, which was the beginning of the end of organized Indian tribes on Delmarva. Soon after Winnesoccum, the traditional people moved away, while others blended into the general population. Members of the Puckham family moved to Kent County, and in 1815, a later George Puckham was named in an estate settlement of the Durham family. 

So our eastern searches for documentation must begin with genealogical research, family by family, until we have a picture of community ethnicity. The necessary records are, surprisingly abundant. The name Francisco or Sisco appears in many Native American communities.  One Abraham Sisco was among the Nanticoke who addressed the Pennsylvania governor in 1760, while the Nanticoke were living in the Susquehanna valley. Descendants of documented Francisco or Sisco people are living today in all three communities. In 1748, as the traditional Native tribal people were leaving Delmarva, some stayed behind. One of these, apparently, was William Cambridge, who patented part of the Askibinakansen Indian town in Worcester County, Maryland. It appears that Cambridge was a Native American, and perhaps was getting a Maryland title to the place where he already lived; only archaeology can tell us more.  

The Coursey family is one of the few who can demonstrate direct descent from the seventeenth-century Nanticokes. They descend from Tom Coursey, historic chief of the Nanticoke Indians.  Daniel and Nathan Norwood enlisted in a Delaware military company in 1758. Nathan was described in the muster roll as "brown" and Daniel was described as "brown Indian." Their comrade, James Westcote, was also described as "brown" but his occupation was given as "Indian". This may have been the last official document to recognize the existence of Indians in Delaware.

Gradually, an awareness of Indian origins began to creep back into the public records and the public consciousness. In 1827, Nathaniel Clark was identified in seamen's protective papers as a "colored man of Indian race". He was born in 1799 in Lewes and Rehoboth Hundred and died in Broadkill Hundred about 1875. With his wife Eunice Ridgeway, he had 15 children, some of whom left descendants in the community today.  In 1853, the passport application of James Dean from Kent County described him as being "of Indian descent". The Dean family was some of the core members of the Cheswold community. William Handsor, progenitor of that family in Kent and Sussex counties, is supposed to have been Indian or mixed-race, but the only reference to him as being a "mulatto" dates from a period after his death in 1767. His descendant, James Handsor, was described in an 1831 passport application as having an "Indian complexion". 

During the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, increasingly strict laws restricted the activities of all nonwhites, including mulattoes. A few well-off Indians challenged the restrictions in court, but failed. Others moved to Canada or to free states, including New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana. Some appear to have joined other Indian nations on what was then the western border of the United States

Some families who moved away reclaimed their Indian identity in their new homes. While their cousins in Delaware and New Jersey were still being called "mulattoes," the emigrants could identify themselves as Indians.  In the 1871 census of the province of Ontario, a farmer named Benjamin Sammons was identified as Indian, born in the United States, probably Delaware.  William LaCount, a boot maker, died in Brooklyn in 1875. He was described as an Indian in the death record. His parents were Joseph and Mary LaCount, who had lived in Philadelphia, but were originally from Kent County, Delaware. Sometimes we see in the documents a record of indecision about ethnic identity during the period of Indian invisibility. In 1880, in Michigan, John W. Norwood, listed as white, married Maggie Simons or Sammons, who was listed as French and Indian though she was born in Ontario of Delaware-born parents.  When Franklin Perkins, a descendant of the Dean family of Delaware, was born in Romulus, Michigan, in 1872, his race was listed as "Indian" on his birth certificate. The Perkins family was part of a large colony of Delaware people who had moved to Michigan and nearby parts of Canada.  William Cambridge, his wife Mary Dean, and their daughter Josephine, were identified in the 1880 census as "Indian" living in Camden, New Jersey.  Mary's father was Jesse Dean of Cheswold, Delaware.  In that same 1880 census, there were no Indians listed in Cumberland County, New Jersey. In Delaware, the same census listed only three Indians, all in a single Wilmington household. The next year, the Delaware legislature allowed the community on Indian River to establish a separate school system, but the legislators carefully avoided identifying the people as anything but "a certain class of colored people."  There still were no official local Indians in Delaware, but they had their own schools.

In 1892, a reporter for the Philadelphia Times visited Cheswold and interviewed John Sanders, or Saunders, who was then eighty years of age, born in 1811. His father was from Sussex. Sanders declared that his people were Indians, descendants of the Lenape or Delaware nation.  During his youth, he had lived a time among the Lenape on the Wabash River near Peru, Indiana. His wife was a Dean.  At least a few of the Native American people were ready to reclaim their identity publicly and proudly, on their home turf. Noke Norwood, brother of Lydia Clark, was described in 1895 by Judge Fisher as being a "copper-colored" person with features that were decidedly Indian. His sister, supposedly a full-blooded Indian, testified that the Indian River people were descended from mixed white and African people who had married into the local Native population. Judge Fisher's article on the history of the Moors, and his account of the Levin Sockum case, was published in a newspaper in 1895 and later published as a pamphlet by the Public Archives Commission. When Fred Morris and Reba Miller were married in Sussex County, Delaware, in 1900, the marriage return emphatically declared that both were Indians. The people had returned to the official record with their true identity. Two years later, the Delaware legislature passed a law allowing persons of Native descent, in all three counties, to obtain official state credentials as Indians. The age of the legally invisible Indian was over, but the struggle for acceptance had just begun.






"The History and Genealogy of the
Native American Isolate Communities
of Kent County, Delaware, and
Surrounding Areas on the Delmarva Peninsula
and Southern New Jersey"



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