Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: July 1996 Volume 34 Number 3, Pages 105–114

American Indians of the Delaware Valley

Chris Hummer, Ph.D.

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Much can be learned about American Indians who inhabited the Delaware Valley before the arrival of the first European settlers by using the techniques of archaeology. I have participated in archaeological studies at Native American sites in the Upper and Middle sections of the Delaware Valley. I have done an excavation in this area at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center. We dug a rock shelter that sits up on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

The rock shelter site was very unusual because, apparently, the people stayed there when they quarried the stone, called serpentine, which is available in that area. You may know about the local use of serpentine. Some buildings in West Chester are made of it. The Native Americans were interested in serpentine because it is soft and easily carved. They made jewelry, smoking pipes and cooking pots from it. Stone cooking vessels were in use just before they got ceramic technology.

We know for the most part that Native Americans shared a fairly common culture up and down the Delaware Valley. There were different bands, and their history after the coming of the whites to the area varied a little bit. By the early 1700s most Native Americans were gone from the area. Their lifestyle was pretty much destroyed. One set of burials that we found in the Upper Delaware Valley dates to the early 1700s, and they were rather spectacular burials.

Archaeologists deal with prehistory. It is a whole lot easier to talk about Indians in the area if you categorize them by time periods. If you are not familiar with the terminology you can get lost very quickly. So let me quickly outline them for you, so that if I mention "Woodland," or "Archaic," or "Paleo" you will have a bit of an idea as to what I am talking about.

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I will begin with the earliest Indians in the area. We sometime refer to those people as Paleo-lndians, "paleo" meaning old. So if we talk about Paleo-lndian culture, we talk about the Indians that appeared at the end of the glacial period. As soon as the glacial melt began, Native Americans moved into the area. As a matter of fact, as the glaciers melted and moved north, Native Americans probably either came in from the west or came up from the south, occupying most of the ecological niches that would have been available to them. You have to keep in mind that this area at the end of the glacial period had a lot of melt water around.

The Delaware Valley changed its course several times. I know from experience. I grew up in the Middle Delaware Valley in Frenchtown. As a boy I remember having to put in a couple of French drains. It was always maddening to go out and dig down through two, three or four feet of alluvium (the sandy soil), and then hit those glacial pebbles that were deposited by the river 10,000 years before. You had to get down through all those cobble stones to get your hole deep enough. The Paleo-lndian period refers to Indians that were here nine, ten or eleven thousand years ago.

We move next into what archaeologists refer to as the Archaic period. The Archaic period means the time period after the Paleo people were here, or 9000 to 2500 B.C. The area was probably peopled by the descendants of the Paleo Indians. One of the things that you had in the Paleo period that you didn't have in the Archaic period was the presence of animals that we collectively refer to as "megafauna." There were giant bison and the various forms of elephants -the mastodons and the mammoths. As the hunters pursued them, and as the cold retreated, the animals probably went north.


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By the time you get into the Archaic Period, you are beginning to get a climate which is a little more like our modern one. The North American white-tailed deer begins to appear during this time period. A lot of archaeologists will subdivide this period into Early Archaic, Middle Archaic and Late Archaic. We don't have time here to examine those subdivisions.

The Woodland Period follows the Archaic. The forests in the eastern United States are pretty much established by this time, and a number of peoples develop distinctive cultures in the eastern woodlands. This particular time period generally gets subdivided again like the Archaic into early, middle and late. By the time you are down to Late Woodland, you're down to the time period of the people that we are familiar with in this area, the so-called "Delawares" or Lenape.

The peoples that I am most familiar with, from having done archaeological excavations, are from the Early and Late Woodland periods. The latter are the people whose occupations you tend to find most frequently. Populations were a little bit larger then, so the sites tend to be a little more frequent. Though there are a moderate number of late Archaic sites, Paleo sites are fairly scarce. My dissertation for my Ph.D. was on the Early Woodland time period. One site which I studied dated to about 3000 years ago, and what was interesting is that we excavated a culture which at the time was just beginning to use pottery-ceramic technology had just made its appearance in the Delaware Valley.

Pottery, then, becomes one of the dividing markers between the Woodland period and the Archaic period. Not only was the environment as we know it getting established, but there were some changes in technology, some changes in the way these people were living. One of those major changes which tends to separate the Woodland from the Archaic is the presence of pottery of various shapes and decorations that are rather attractive.

So with the introduction behind us, I'm going to take you hurriedly through the archaeology of the Delaware Valley, and also try to give you a little bit of an idea as to what some of the cultures would have looked like in this particular area.

When Native Americans first came to North America, they came across the Bering land bridge. Apparently, when the glaciers locked up so much of the earth's water, the ocean level dropped. This created a land bridge perhaps a thousand miles wide across the Bering Strait. People could simply have walked from Siberia to Alaska. As the glaciers ebbed and flowed, there may have opened up corridors down through Alaska and Canada, which would have allowed people to migrate southward into what would become the United States. There is also the idea that once they made landfall in the New World, some of the people got into boats and just simply found their way southward along the coast of what is today western Canada and northwestern United States.

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When they came over to North America, they probably had absolutely no idea what they had done, in terms of discovering a new continent. So they simply migrated but without the idea, necessarily, that they were migrating, that they were going any place or opening up a new continent. They were simply living as they went. They were looking for food, and they were looking for places to live. North America, of course, would have looked very, very much like a land of ice and snow. Actually, you would not have had to go very far north of here to encounter the front edge of the glaciers. And living in that territory were the large megafauna.

Perhaps the most famous site in Pennsylvania is the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter located near Pittsburgh. Occupations in that shelter date back probably to 11,000 B.P. (before the present period). The people that would have lived in the shelter at this very early date would have lived a nomadic life, hunting big game, and clothing themselves in animal skins. The men generally hunted with spear and spear thrower, technology that preceded the use of the bow and arrow. Spear throwers were weighted to increase the velocity of the thrown spear and improve its range. We have found archaeologically some of the so-called spear thrower weights. Some were made out of serpentine and had a hole through the center for placing on the shaft. They were frequently very, very nicely made, and well polished.

In the time of the megafauna-in the Paleo period-projectile points had a particular style that we refer to as Clovis. These points were made primarily for the hunting of big game, such as the mammoths, the bison and the other creatures that would have been in this pereglacial environment. The megafauna were of tremendous size compared to human beings. These particular projectile points have been found in association with the bones of these animals.

Later on, the bow and arrow made its appearance, but not as early as you think. Spears-spear throwers thrown by hand-were in use for a long period of time. There is not much evidence to suggest that the bow and arrow was used by the American Indians in this area much before 500 B.C., and maybe even more recently thn that. Many arrow points have been excavated in Lower Delaware Valley sites. I have also found them in this area. Stone arrow points are very common, and there is good archaeological evidence for how they were made and used. As a matter of fact, they have been found attached to arrows in a few excellent preservation contexts.

We also know that by the time the Woodland period came in, and even in the late Archaic period, the streams and woodlands in this area were pretty well established. So the environment would have permitted these people to hunt and fish pretty much as we tend to think of Native Americans hunting and fishing, even to the point of putting fish weirs in the streams.

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And they used net weights. These were stones that were frequently notched, and the notching was done so that they could simply tie them to the net. It would mean that they could either throw the net or, if they used it as a seine, the weights would be attached to the bottom of the net, causing it to sink so the fish couldn't swim out from under it.

One item that we commonly found on archaeological sites was the fireplace. We frequently excavated hearths made up of a lot of river pebbles. Many of them were cracked and split because of the heat from the fire. Fireplaces were frequently several feet across. Archaeologically they get mapped on paper (as does everything else we find), and then later we go through all the material and try to reconstruct the archaeological site from all the maps and data we collect.

How was the stone-filled fireplace used? It could very well have been used in drying the fish. Remember they had no refrigeration, so all of their foods had to be preserved for use over a period of time, usually by drying. The stones would have continued to be a source of heat for the drying process for quite some time. Other peoples around the world use these kinds of fireplaces as ovens even today.

The women took the acorns that were gathered and ground them between stones to make a meal or flour. The grinding stones have been described as a mano and matate. The mano is the piece of stone on top, and the matate would be the piece underneath. These are, of course, Spanish names used in the American southwest, but we can borrow them.

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We may consider some of the archaeological evidence for hunting and the various kinds of food the people were eating. Of course we know that they were hunting deer. We found the teeth of a deer in a refuse pit, and a number of pieces of deer bone were also taken from that particular area -a vertebra, various pieces of jaw bone and some other pieces of bone. I would point out one thing that was of interest to us. There was a crack running through what would be a long bone (from a leg), but it had what is referred to as a spiral fracture. Spiral fracturing results when they take the bone, lay it on a rock and hit it with another rock. The bone is split apart so they can remove the marrow. Then they throw all those bones into a pot and boil them. This allows all the collagen and the fats to collect on top. Nothing was thrown away. All of that protein and gelatinous material was saved. Then the bones were deposited in trash pits.

In addition to refuse pits, the area around the fireplace is also of interest. Youmay find charcoal and, of course, some other things such as nut shells, are also recovered. In one fireplace we found butternut, walnut and hickory. This material dates to about A.D. 1200, and this is on a site which is only fifty miles north of here. Most of the archaeological sites that I'm familiar with in this area and on south into northern Delaware yield the same kind of remains. The nutshells are black; they were charred. They got into the fireplace and were not completely consumed by the fire, but they were charred enough to turn into charcoal. The charring is what preserved them for 800 years. Otherwise, they just simply would not have lasted in the moist acidic soils.

We mentioned earlier a mano and matate. We found the equivalent of these stones sitting where a woman left them. She probably thought she would come back to the site, perhaps the next year. She had been using them apparently to break and open nut shells. They did not extract the nut meats such as you and I would. They would break the nuts-the hickories, the walnuts, whatever-and once they were all cracked and broken open they would throw them into a pot to be boiled. The residue comes to the top, is allowed to cool and is then skimmed off. The rest of it gets dumped into the fireplace or refuse area.

We excavated a garbage pit that we encountered in the Upper Delaware, and what was significant was the amount of pottery that was in it. We excavated the pottery piece by piece and put it back together piece by piece. We reconstructed one pot. The only part that we did not get was one section from the bottom. After the pieces were glued together, we turned the pot upside down and blew up a round balloon on the inside of the pot. That gave us a surface on which to place wood putty to fill in the missing areas of the vessel.

The pot had a collared top. The design elements were stamped or pressed into the soft, unfired clay. The Indians used a stick with a string wrapped around it multiple times to stamp the designs. Other designs were incised with a sort of stylus.

What is interesting are the design combinations found on this pot from the Upper Delaware Valley. It had very typical design elements for the Upper Delaware Valley, together with an incised triangle more typical of pottery usually found further south in the Valley.

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This pot dates to about 1300 A.D. Since the women were potters, the pot was probably made by a woman from down river who married into a band from Northern New Jersey. She made the pot like her mother-in-law would like it made, but added a design that her own mother taught her.

When we are excavating we look for garbage pits. You can see the different soil color-the normal soil color and where they threw the garbage, which discolored the soil. In addition to removing the artifacts, we take the soil and sift it through fine screens down in the river. You sift through all of that and come up with some things that you wouldn't otherwise find. This particular time there were small bits of bone, small bits of charcoal, and nut shells. There were also two tiny little seeds that were of interest. You would never find the seeds otherwise. Those seeds were smartweed and chenopodium, or lamb's quarters. In other words, finding the seeds gives us one more dimension of their diet that we would not have otherwise gotten.

Chenopodium has maybe fifty to sixty thousand seeds per plant which can be harvested in late summer and used as cereal. If you hve a garden you've pulled this plant out as a nuisance weed. Now if you've saved it when it's about six to ten inches high you can cook it. It tastes like spinach-very good, very tasty.

One of the things that we did so that we could expand our knowledge of what we were finding was to make slide mounts of seeds of all the plants that were growing in the area when the Indians lived on the site. We collected seeds throughout the course of a year. Seeds found archaeologically were compared to our collection for identification.

The people who lived in the Delaware Valley had neighbors along the New Jersey coast. Near May's Landing we excavated through the top soil and hit a dark layer of soil filled with shells. And when we got through that layer we were back into normal soil again. The dark layer was from Native Americans, who, about 1200-1300 A.D., harvested shell fish and threw the refuse away. We screened all of it.

After the clams and the oysters were gathered, they were broken open and the meat strung up and hung by the fire to dry. This was a summertime activity. The shell fish were harvested, preserved and then taken back inland.

We know that they were also raising and eating corn in Late Woodland times. We have excavated corn from archaeological sites. These people were gardeners; they were not raising corn in huge fields. Corn was not all that important to them until the Europeans got here. Corn comes in a tremendous amount of varieties. Native corn is sometimes called maize.

In another garbage pit we found not only animal wastes but seeds and broken pottery. Sometimes we get some very interesting things that get us into the private life of these people. There were pieces of turtle shell that were cut and polished and scraped.

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Whether they were a part of tools or drinking vessels, or something else, we don't know. We also recovered several pieces of bird bone, which is hollow. We could see where they were cut and snapped to be strung as beads.

In this same pit in the Upper Delaware Valley we also found a shark's tooth with two holes drilled in it. The shark's tooth indicates, of course, that they had contact with the coast. The bird bone beads and the shark's tooth were part of a necklace.

We found some other things as well. One could easily have been one of two earrings. On another site two very, very similar pieces, matching pieces, were found. These were pendants with single holes drilled through them. There was a comb made from bone found in several fragments. Another bone piece was quite possibly what is referred to as a mat needle. There is a hole in one end, and the needle was snapped where the hole had been drilled. Mat needles are found in a number of cultural contexts even today, and their main use is for weaving.

Our next topic is the realm of religion. The faces on a piece of pottery near the rim belong to a deity in Delaware or Lenape mythology known as the Mesingholikan. He is the "keeper of the game." Before you went hunting, you were aware of the fact that the keeper of the game had to be dealt with. You asked for permission to take the animals that you were hunting. When they portrayed the face on a pot it usually was placed near the rim. When the pot was broken, the section with the face on it was snapped out and given a ritual burial.

We also found a face, dating robably to 1500-1550 A.D., on a tobacco smoking pipe. The face was on the bowl looking at the smoker. The pipe was destroyed, and we found the face.

We learned something about their housing. The house consists of a frame covered with bark. We know, based on our excavation, where the frame posts were. We refer to our findings as "postmolds." A postmold is a darkened stain in the soil of several inches diameter. You slice it down sideways to get an idea of the depth.

On the Pahaquarra site in the Upper Delaware, there was a line of post molds that enabled us to accurately figure out where the house was. This was a fairly large house, about 40 feet wide and 60 feet long with various pits in and around it. Some of the pits predated the house. In other words, people lived on the site before the house was built. Some of the pits were probably dug by people who moved onto the site after the house residents were gone. One of these houses would last a few years before the posts rotted out. Often we find where the occupants had to replace some of the posts.

You map your postmolds as dots on paper and draw a line between them. You notice that there are a lot of other dots on there. Some of those dots may refer to interior posts. Some of them may refer to structures that were either on the site before or after this particular house; some are reconstructions. We also based our conclusions on some of the comparative knowledge we have of Iroquois housing further north.

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Indians had dogs, and the dogs were useful. Sometimes we found remains of dogs simply thrown into garbage pits. Sometimes the dogs were given a fairly decent burial when they died. We found one where somebody obviously had dug a hole and laid the body of the dog into it with a great deal of care. To preserve this dog burial for the museum, we painted the burial with a thin mixture of Elmer's glue and water. The mixture hardens the bones and penetrates the soil. We then slid a large steel plate underneath and lifted the burial out.

We also found a dog in a trash pit. We didn't find much of the rest of the skeleton, but we did find the skull. Because the bone was fairly soft, the skull was extremely difficult to remove. I had to dig around, find out where the bone actually was and take out the bone in a sand matrix. I let it dry out for several weeks before I carefully began to remove the soil. Little by little I clipped out the hair-like roots that grew through it. I could not pull them because the whole thing would collapse if I did. As I exposed areas of bone, I painted them with Elmer's glue and water to solidify them. All together it was about two weeks of work to clean and stabilize the dog's skull. The dogs were either what we refer to as short-faced or long-faced Indian dogs.

Now to turn our attention to burials. On one Upper Delaware Valley site we uncovered perhaps twenty burials. Since then, and that was 1974, the excavation of burials in archaeological sites has become an issue of some major importance. Native Americans get very upset now with the excavation of burials. Even the Smithsonian has had to give back all burials that they can identify as belonging to specific Native American groups.

Burials are of particular interest to us from an anthropological as well as a cultural point of view. They teach us a lot of things. For example, the teeth give a good indication of the age of the deceased, and the condition of the teeth tells us a good bit about how early n a person's life the process of decay got started. It may also reveal something of the reasons for it happening.

Child burials are frequently found. We had several children in one immediate area. We note the position of the burial. One position is what is referred to as an extended burial (laying flat on the back.) Another is the flexed burial, in the fetal position, with the knees drawn up toward the chest and lying on the side. The eruption sequence of the teeth gave us fairly precise information about the ages of the children at the time of death.

One set of early historic Indian burials contained rather spectacular grave goods. There was a male, a female and a child. They were buried in very close proximity to one another. It's our guess that they were members of a family. The grave goods that were with them suggest that as well. And what is unusual here is the fact that there were grave goods. These were not Delawares. Perhaps they may have been refugees from the Susquehanna Valley who were displaced by some of the Indian Wars. Whoever

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Whoever buried them, interestingly, buried them with their possessions. In addition to trade beads, hair spools, or perhaps earrings, and a clasp knife, the man was also buried with a gun that appeared to be an early eighteenth-century type.

At the feet of the woman there was a jewel box. In it there were scissors and a number of trade beads, a number of necklaces, rings, needles, and even rouge. With the child there were some nails, which indicate that the child was buried in a coffin. The parents were apparently buried in wrappings of bark.

A burial that we discovered on another site in another year will give you a little bit of an idea about what can be learned. When we found the woman we had a question in our mind-was she an Indian or a European? She was buried in the European extended style, but on a definite American Indian site. The sciatic notch in the pelvis approached 90 degrees, indicating that it probably was a female. The sciatic notch in a male is smaller, maybe 60 degrees. From her teeth we knew that she was an American Indian. She had what we refer to as shovel-shaped incisors, which are typical of Native Americans but not of Europeans. Though only in her late 20s or early 30s, her teeth were in terrible shape.

Tooth wear and deterioration are tied to what you are eating. People who raise food in gardens, for example, have a lot of starches in their diet which are conducive to dental caries. Caries, of course, is what gives you cavities. Hunting and gathering people, on the other hand, tend to lose their teeth through attrition because they don't get as many starches. The starches in garden corn, beans and squash turn to sugar. Without proper dental care, people who eat such a diet have a lot of cavities. One other observation can be made about teeth. Native Americans tend to have more room in their mouth for their teeth than do Europeans. They have fewer problems with crooked teeth as a result of crowding than do white people.



The Delawares were the Indian tribe that inhabited our locality and the regions surrounding, up and down the Delaware River. In their own language they were called Lenape or Lenni-Lenape, said to signify "original people," or its equivalent. They were of Algonquian linguistic stock, and were held in much esteem and respect by ther peers. It is said that as many as forty tribes acknowledged the Lenape as "grandfather" or parent stock. In 1720 they were conquered by the Iroquois, who dominated and harassed them until 1763. These attacks, combined with the increasing pressure of the settlements of the European colonists, drove them gradually westward. Today their numbers have been reduced to probably less than 2000, some few of whom reside in Oklahoma, where they settled with the Cherokee.


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