Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: January 1999 Volume 37 Number 1, Pages 9–21

The Walam Olum

Bob Goshorn

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The Walam Olum, sometimes called "the Red Score", was a bundle of painted sticks containing 184 pictographs or glyphs. Its name was derived from two Algonquian [Indian] words: "walam", meaning painted, and "olum", a notched stick or engraved piece of wood.

The pictographs on these sticks are purported by some anthropologists to depict "a tribal chronicle" of the Delaware or Lenni Lenape, a narrative of their beginnings and their migration to the Delaware Valley over a long period of years. The narrative begins with the Creation, and continues up to the arrival of the first European settlers in this area.

Its import was first recognized by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. He was also the first to translate the pictographs: his translation was published in Philadelphia in 1836, three years after he had completed it, as a part of a work entitled The American Nations : or. Outlines of a Natural History: of the Ancient and Modern Nations of North and South America.

Rafinesque had obtained "the painted record" in 1822, he explained in the introduction, "through the late Dr. Ward, of Indiana". Dr. Ward, in turn, he reported had obtained it two years earlier "as a reward for a medical cure". At that time, and until Rafinesque's translation, the pictographs were simply "deemed a curiosity, and were inexplicable".

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Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was a rather unusual, and sometimes somewhat controversial, character, to say the least.

It was not until the early part of this century, in fact, some sixty years after his death, that his contributions as a naturalist began to receive full recognition and he has been accepted as one of the leading early American scientists. (David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University and a naturalist of note himself, for example, at this time described Rafinesque as the "most remarkable man to appear in the annals of American science". [Robbins])

But Rafinesque considered himself much more than just a naturalist or scientist. He wrote that "in knowledge" he had been "a Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Econo­mist, Philanthropist ... Traveller, Merchant, Manufacturer, Collector, Improver, Professor, Teacher, Surveyor, Draftsman, Architect, Engineer, Pulmist, Author, Editor, Bookseller, Librarian, [and] Secretary". Apparently many of his contemporaries, particularly in the academic and scientific circles, however, felt that, as my grandmother used frequently to remind me, "self praise is but small recommendation".

Rafinesque was born in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople, on October 22, 1783, the son of a French trader and merchant and his German wife. While he was still just a young boy his parents moved to France, and then to Italy. Eschewing formal schooling, by "reading ten times more than is taught in Schools" he became self-educated, especially in the fields of history and natural sciences. He also read in various languages, undertak­ing to learn, he later observed, "Latin and Greek, as well as Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese, and fifty other languages" without the "need or inclination to study them".

In 1802, he and his younger brother came to Philadelphia, where their father had died of yellow fever on a trading voyage when Constantine Rafinesque was still in his early teens. They arrived in Philadelphia in mid-October. After working briefly in a clerical position, Constantine went to work for a horticulturist in Germantown, earning acclaim in botanical circles for his studies and collections of "the virgin botanical world" of Pennsylvania and the states adjacent to it.

At that time he thought he was being considered as the leading candidate for a position as a botanist on the forthcoming Lewis and Clark Expedi­tion, but somehow he did not get the appointment. Disappointed, he and

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his brother returned to Italy, sailing from Philadelphia on New Year's Day in 1805.

After selling the collections, he had gathered in America to colleagues and various museums, Rafinesque began to replace them with collections of European plants and shells. He also wrote a number of scientific papers and monographs about his discoveries. But once again he was disappointed at not receiving a hoped-for appointment, this time as professor of botany at the University of Sicily. (He also had entered into an unfortunate marriage.)

Thus, in 1815 he decided to leave Italy and return to America, bringing with him the collections he had accumulated in Europe, along with his manuscripts and drawings.

His work was never to reach this country, however; it all was lost when the ship on which he was sailing ran aground off the shore near New London, Connecticut, and sank with barely time enough for the passengers and crew to get away in lifeboats and row to safety.

Using New York City as his base of operations, he immediately resumed his scientific excursions, collecting many more specimens. He also wrote a number of scientific papers for the Lyceum of Natural History in New York, which he had helped to establish, and where he served as a member, of the Committee on Lectures.

Three years later he embarked on an extended field trip over the Allegheny Mountains to Kentucky, collecting some 600 specimens, of which he claimed "one-tenth part" were new discoveries. He continued to collect and write, but after 1820 his papers were no longer accepted by Benjamin Silliman's American Journal of Science, Silliman explaining that he had become "alarmed by the flood of communications and new discoveries by Rafinesque" and that he had been "warned both at home and abroad against his claims". [Robbins]

Nonetheless, in 1819 Rafinesque was appointed professor of historical and natural sciences at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, the first university west of the Alleghenies. He taught there for seven years, also continuing his collecting and writing, but resigned in 1826 over a difference with the president of the University, Horace Holley, a classical scholar, over the importance of the sciences in the University's curriculum.

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It was while he was in Lexington at Transylvania that he obtained the Walam Olum from Dr. Ward.

Returning to Philadelphia, he continued writing and publishing until his death in 1840. His theories on the evolution of plant species, incidentally, antedated those of Charles Darwin by a generation.

On the title page of his last book, published in the year he died, he claimed to have been the author of 220 books, pamphlets, essays and tracts altogether, and in this case he may actually have been modest; C. A. Weslager *[Note 1], in his history of the Delaware Indians, reported that a bibliography of his published works contains 939 items. His works, Daniel G. Brinton in 1885 noted, were "primarily on botanical subjects; he later included zoology and conchology; and during the last fifteen years of his life the history and antiquities of America appear to have occupied his most earnest attention".

His interest in the "antiquities of America" and his study of Indian picto­graphs and their writing was no doubt kindled by his acquisition of the Walam Olum in 1822. After he acquired it, he reported, the pictographs were for a long time "inexplicable", but after his return to Philadelphia, "with a deep study of the Delawares and the aid of Zeisberger's manuscript dictionary [David Zeisberger: Delaware Indian and English Spelling Book for the Mission of the United Brethren, Philadelphia, 1776] in the library of the Philadelphia Society, a translation was effected". As noted earlier, this translation of the pictographs was completed in 1833 and published three years later, at Rafinesque's own expense.

Since Rafinesque's translation in 1833 three other translations of the Walam Olum have been made. In 1848 a translation was made by Ephraim G. Squier, an early anthropologist perhaps best known for his research and study of the Indian mounds in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. His translation was presented in a paper he read at the New York Historical Society in June of that year. The next translation was made by Daniel G. Brinton, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and published in 1885 in his The Lenape and Their Legends. The most recent translation was made about forty years ago by C. F. Voegelin in conjunction with a comprehensive study and re-examination of the Walam Olum made under the auspices of the Indiana Historical Society. It was published in 1954 by the Society in a volume entitled Walam Olum or Red Score : The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians.

Weslager, incidentally, was the speaker at the History Club's annual banquet in 1956.

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None of these later translations, however, was made directly from the original "Red Score", but rather from copies of the pictographs that had been made by Rafinesque. In fact, just what happened to the original bundle of sticks obtained by Rafinesque from Dr. Ward appears, at this time, to be unknown. But although copies of the pictographs were not included in his published translation, fortunately Rafinesque had made a copy of each of them and recorded them, together with their transliteration into the Lenape tongue and his English translation, in two small note­books of 40 pages each, 6-1/2 by 7-3/4 inches in size. It was from these copies or drawings that the later translations were made.

Shortly after Rafinesque's death in 1840 these notebooks, along with other artifacts (which may or may not have included the original painted sticks), were purchased at auction by S. S. Haldeman, of the University of Pennsylvania. They were later somehow acquired by Brantz Mayer, one of the founders, and later president, of the Maryland Historical Society and a collector himself. (It was from Mayer that Squier borrowed the notebooks to make his translation.) After Mayer's death the notebooks came into Brinton's possession, and he later donated them to the University of Pennsylvania, where they are today. In the 1940s they were made available to Dr. Voegelin for his study. But what happened to the original Walam Olum no one seems to know.

As noted earlier, the Walam Olum contained 184 pictographs or glyphs. They are arranged into three books, or cantos.

In his notebooks Rafinesque described the first 24 pictographs as an "original traditional poem ... on Creation and Ontogeny" of the Universe. It tells [Note 2] of how there was a plentiful fog, which was where the Great Spirit or Manito lived, and of how He created much land and the sun and the stars of night, after which the wind blew and the sky cleared and it looked bright. He then created other, lesser, manitos, and persons who die, and souls for all of them. He gave the first mother - the mother of persons - and fish, turtles, animals, and birds, and everyone was glad and pleased and happy. But then an evil manito, a snake god, did mean and destructive things, and bad weather and killing and death followed.

*This summary is based on and adapted from Dr. Voegelin's 1953 translation of the Walam Olum and his comments concerning various elements of each pictograph.

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In the next 16 glyphs, comprising the second book or canto, Rafinesque observed, is another traditional poem, "on the deluge, &c". It tells of how there were "bad circumstances" between the forces of good and evil, how each was destroying things and did not keep peace with each other, whereupon a snake- monster brought great quantities of water that ran and ran, spreading into the hollows and flooding the land. At this point a number of people crept along the river of rapids caused by the deluge, to a Turtle Island. There they prayed that the other cease what he was doing and repair what he had done, and the waters subsided and the land became peaceful again.

In the remaining 144 glyphs of the Walam Olum is told the chronicle of the migration of the people from this "Turtle Island" to the Delaware Valley. It was divided by Rafinesque, in his notebooks, into three sections. The first section in "on the passage to America", told in 20 verses; the second covers their migration "from the arrival in America to settle­ment in Ohio, &c", told in 64 signs, and the last section, of 60 pictographs, covers their movement "from Ohio to [the] Atlantic States and back to Missouri, a mere succession of names [of their chiefs]", in three chapters of 20 verses each.

After the waters from the deluge subsided, it is recorded in the glyphs of the first section, the people were all crowded together on Turtle Island, but then the water froze and snow came and the wind blew and it was getting cold. And so an emigration from the Turtle Island began. First the hunters departed, going in all directions; then a second group who, tattered and torn, went to the east, off to Snake Island; and, finally, the rest, who also agreed that it would be good to live on the other side of the frozen water. [The "frozen water" is interpreted as meaning the Bering Strait between Asia and North America, with the "other side" thus a reference to the North American continent.] [Note 3]

Ten thousand men came across the frozen water and then went upstream [up the Yukon River into the interior of Alaska]. Thus "the North Dela­ware, the East Delaware, the South Delaware; and the Eagle Delaware, the Beaver Delaware, the Wolf Delaware; and the hunting men, the shamans, the headmen, the Delaware women, Delaware daughters, Delaware dogs all came from Snow Mountain and the forest country [in Asia]; the West Delaware came out of humor, for they preferred the old Turtle land".

* The material in brackets is from Eli Lilly's "Speculations on Chronology and Migration", also a part of the 1953 Indiana Historical Society study, in which Lilly attempted to identify, from the translation of the glyphs, the route taken by the Delaware in their eastern migration across the continent. He also provides an explanation of the various tribes of Algonquian stock in different sections of the country.

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The further migration of these Delaware from west to east, together with their division into various groups along the way, the other Indians that they encountered, and a succession of some 90 kings or chiefs, is then recounted in the last 124 glyphs.

Proceeding from their location in a forest by the lake they went to the "berry country" and to a settlement by the Yellow River at another Snow Mountain [traveling in a southeastern direction from the Yukon through British Columbia to the upper part of the Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers]. After staying there a while, they then proceeded over to the east, by the good hills and along the plains, meeting on their way "the Snakes" [enemy Indians, perhaps the ancestors of the Shoshone and Sioux]. They were able, however, to continue their migration, and reached a wider stream [probably the Mississippi - although the glyph is not distinct it indicates a wider than usual stream, and one that runs north and south - in the vicinity of its confluence with the Illinois or Missouri river].

At this point some of the group, "the ones who were lazy" [perhaps the ancestors of the Blackfoot, the Cheyenne, and the Arapahoe] returned to Snow Mountain [back to the west and north]. The others continued [to the east] into "the Talega country" along the middle reaches of the White River [perhaps the Ohio River, but also possibly the Wabash, the White River in Indiana, or the Little Miami River]. After a great battle with the Talligewi [perhaps the early Adena or Hopewell mound builders who were centered along the White River and in southern Ohio, or possibly ancestors of the Cherokee who were driven south by the fighting], they stayed for some years here along the middle reaches of the White River and there was much farming and agriculture and true records were kept.

While they were staying there, again several groups left, the Nanticokes and Shawnees to the land in the south, and others [the Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Iowa, Sioux, Kickapoo, Chippewa, Menominee, Winnebago, and perhaps others; like the Lenni Lenape they are all Algonquian stock, and are referred to by the Delaware as "their grandchildren" and the Lenape were called "grandfather" by them] to the west.

After some of their villages were attacked by the "Snake clans" of the Ottawa, the Stonies, and Northerners [perhaps the Iroquois] those who had remained moved [or perhaps were driven] to the east of "the Talega land" [across the Alleghenies and into the Piedmont area] and for a long time were to remain at this eastern stony land, along the Susquehanna. Once again "the Snakes" [perhaps this time the Erie, an Iroquoian tribe]

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became aggressive, but were repelled, after which the Lenape came to the "sassafras region" [southeastern Pennsylvania] and to the shore near the water [southern New Jersey] where good things were plentiful.

In the last 14 glyphs of the Walam Olum it is further reported that some of the Lenape were at a long land-locked lake [either Lake Erie or one of the finger lakes in New York state] and at the rushing waters [Niagara Falls], where all their "children" and their friends visited them. It was here that they divided into three divisions, with each of the three to follow its own customs -- the Unami [Turtle], the Munsee [Wolf], and the Turkey divisions.

And that is the story of the Creation of the universe, the deluge, and the migration of the Delaware or Lenni Lenape from Asia and across North America to the Delaware Valley, as told in the pictographs or glyphs of the painted sticks of the Walam Olum.

From the time that Rafinesque published his description and translation of the Walam Olum in his The American Nations in 1836 there have been critics who questioned its authenticity. Was it a true record of the migration of the Delaware or Lenni Lenape to the Delaware Valley, or was it, as some alleged, simply a forgery or fraud?

For one thing, that the original "painted record" apparently was lost or disappeared shortly after Rafinesque's death led some to question, particularly in view of the disrepute in which Rafinesque was held by some of his contemporaries, whether it ever had existed.

There were others who suggested that Rafinesque might have concocted the entire account himself, using the same Moravian dictionaries he acknowledged using in making his "translation". (Perhaps anticipating such an allegation, Rafinesque had noted, "If any one is inclined to doubt this historical record, the concurrent testimonies of [George Henry] Loskiel and [John] Heckewelder are corroborant proofs." This observation, however, may have had the opposite effect than that intended and have, in fact, invited doubt, although as Weslager rather reasonably observed, if Rafinesque had "merely plagiarized the Moravians [to fabricate the Walam Olum himself], it is unlikely that he would have frankly admitted that he learned the Delaware dialect from studying their writings".)

Brinton also noted in his study that there were "manifest mistakes in transcription" in copying some of the glyphs, and also some errors in his

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translation of others, and commented, "No such blunders would have appeared if he had forged the document."

As further verification of its authenticity, Brinton reviewed the syntax and sentence structure of Rafinesque's text with a well-educated native Delaware, the Rev. Albert Anthony, to determine whether they were consistent with Delaware usage, and was assured that "the text as given was a genuine oral composition of a Delaware Indian".

One other observation on this point may also be in order. It was not until twenty years after Rafinesque's publication of his description and translation of the Walam Olum that the theory that the Indians in America came originally from Asia was first published, and some time after that that it gained general acceptance. As Brian Fagan observed in his Men of the Earth, "A wise and sober scholar named Samuel Haven summarized the American myths and legends about the origins of the pre- Columbian Indian in an essay on American archaeology published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1856. He was one of the first to conclude that the New World was settled from across the Bering Strait, designating the earliest Americans as authentic Asiatics who migrated into America at an unknown date. Most anthropologists now [1974] agree with Haven that the first Americans set foot in the New World by way of the Bering Strait or from Kamchatka via the Commander and Aleutian islands." For Rafinesque to have anticipated this theory in the construction of a forgery seems to be almost too great a coincidence!

Nevertheless, that the Walam Olum was simply a forgery by Rafinesque is a suggestion that has persisted for many years and, in fact, is still suggested by some today.

Other critics have pointed out that Rafinesque's description of how he obtained the Walam Olum is quite vague and lacking in detail. "Having obtained, through the late Dr. Ward, of Indiana, some of the original Walam Olum," he wrote - with no further explanation as to who this Dr. Ward was or the circumstances under which he, Rafinesque, had been the recipient of the "painted sticks" from him.

When Brinton made his study of the pictographs and Walam Olum some fifty years later, he attempted to identify this "Dr. Ward, of Indiana", but found that no such person was "known in the early medical annals of that State". He did find, however, that "an old and well-known family of that name" had lived in the vicinity of Cynthiana, Kentucky, not far from Lex­

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ington and Transylvania College, at that time, and that Rafinesque was acquainted with the family and visited its members. It was on one of these visits, Brinton concluded, "no doubt, that he [Rafinesque] copied the signs and original text of the Walam Olum".

In the more recent study made by the Indiana Historical Society, Paul Weer also reviewed the history of the Walam Olum and investigated the identity of Dr. Ward. He likewise was unable to find a "Dr. Ward, of Indiana". He did, however, meet a Maude Ward Lafferty, who was a grand­daughter of an Andrew Ward of Cynthiana, Kentucky. She also further reported that her grand-father had a brother, a Dr. John Russell Ward, and that there was an "undocumented story" in her family that her grand­uncle "Dr. John Ward, on his way west, stopped near White Horse, Indiana, where an epidemic was taking the lives of Indians there, and he succeeded in checking it. In gratitude," the undocumented story continues, "they gave him the Walam Olum. ... He [then] mounted his horse and rode all the way back to Lexington, Kentucky, to present it to his friend, Rafinesque, the great scientist". (This does not quite jibe with Rafinesque's statement that Dr. Ward had received it two years earlier than Rafinesque had obtained it, but in other respects it matches his account.) Weer's attempts to uncover additional information about this Dr. John Ward, or to document the "undocumented" story, unfortunately, were without success.

Nonetheless, the research of both Brinton and Weer would seem to indicate that there was, in fact, a Dr. Ward living in the vicinity of Lexington at the time Rafinesque was teaching at Transylvania, and was known to or an acquaintance of Rafinesque. Thus, even though they were not able to uncover additional information about him in their investigations, this lack of detail as to who he was or the circumstances under which Rafinesque obtained the Walam Olum from him seems hardly sufficient reason in itself to reject its authenticity or Rafinesque's account of its acquisition.

Brinton, in his study, also commented at some length on the use of pictographs by the Delaware or Lenape, and other Algonquian groups as well, to keep records or to commemorate and recall special events, as perhaps another indication of the validity of the Walam Olum.

"The Algonkian nations very generally," Brinton observed, "preserved their myths, their chronicles, and the memory of events, speeches, etc., by means of marked sticks ... about six inches in length, slender, though varying in shape, and tied up in bundles." He also noted that the "picture

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writing of the Delawares has been quite fully described by Zeisberger, Loskiel, and Heckewelder", all prominent early Moravian Missionaries to the Indians in the late 18th and early 19th century. (In describing this picture writing, Heckewelder, for example, had noted, "The Indians have no alphabet nor any means of representing words to the eye, yet they have certain hieroglyphics by which they describe facts in so plain a manner that those who are conversant with their marks, can understand them with great ease.")

Eli Lilly, in the Indiana Historical Society study, also commented on the use of pictographs "to keep tribal records carefully and accurately and pass them down from one generation to another. Their authenticity," he wrote, "has been supported by a wide examination of the literature on the subject, and it is known that such pictographs were used by Algonquian-speaking Indians and also by the Iroquois, Sioux, and other groups."

Another approach used to investigate the authenticity of the Walam Olum has been to compare its account with the myths and traditions that were, and in some cases still are, extant among the Delaware.

In his study, Brinton noted that the cosmology described -- "the formation of the world by a Great Manito, and its subsequent despoilation by the spirit of the waters, under the form of a serpent" - although familiar and similar to Oriental and European myths, was "neither derived originally from them, nor was it acquired later by missionary influence". "The myths embodied in the earlier portion [the first and second cantos] of the Walam Olum, " he concluded, "are perfectly familiar to one acquainted with Algonkian mythology. They are not of foreign origin, but are wholly within the cycle of the most ancient legends of that stock."

Similarly, in the Indiana Historical Society study, Erminie W. Voegelin noted that "the primeval water-deluge myths which are all-important in Books I and II of the Walam Olum ... are widespread in eastern North America, as well as other parts of the continent" and that the "Walam Olum version of the deluge myth parallels in structure and in many details versions found among the Algonquian tribes neighboring to the Delaware, such as the Shawnee".

The account of the eastern migration of the Delaware across the continent is also consistent with an old "tradition of the whole eastern Algonkian race", according to an account by Heckewelder first published in

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1820. Parts of it were reproduced by Brinton in his study, and an even longer excerpt is included in Weslager's history. The account was "handed down" from ancestors, Heckewelder reported, and relates that the Lenni Lenape "resided many hundred years ago in a very distant country in the western part of the American continent", but "for some reason, which I [Heckewelder] do not find accounted for... determined on migrating to the eastward" and eventually "settled on the four great rivers (which we call Delaware, Hudson, Susquehannah, [and] Potomack), making the Delaware, to which they gave the name of 'Lenape-wihittuck' (the river or stream of the Lenape), the centre of their possessions".

Thus, while there were critics who questioned the authenticity of the Walam Olum, there were also other anthropologists and scholars whose studies have led them to accept it as a true record of the legends of the Delaware and of their migration to this area.

Squier, for example, claimed "there is only slight doubt that the original is what it professes to be, a genuine Indian record". [Weslager]

Brinton similarly concluded, It is a genuine native production, which was repeated orally to some one indifferently conversant with the Delaware language, who wrote it down to the best of his ability."

Frank Speck, his successor at the University of Pennsylvania, after additional study, likewise proclaimed, "I have no hesitation in affirming the authenticity of the Walam Olum, or Red Score, or whatever title such a document of tribal history bears, as a form of native iconography known to the Delaware of historic times."

And it was the conclusion of the Indiana Historical Society, after its exten­sive study, that "The authors believe whole-heartedly that some day additional facts will further indicate their faith in the genuineness and value of the Walam Olum."

Weslager summed it up this way: "If one views the Walam Olum as a creation myth and an ancestral tradition, not as a historic document, it can be interpreted to mean that the Asiatic genesis of the American Indians had been preserved in the tribal lore of the Delawares", adding that "the story it tells of a movement of humans from west to east across the American continent is supported by scientific attitude, if it is related to the precursors of the Indians and not taken literally to mean the historic tribes".

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In any event, it is an interesting element of our local history, and it deserves to be better known.



Brinton, Daniel G. The Lenape and their Legends, with the Complete Text and Symbols of the Walam Olum
New York : AMS Press 1969 [First published 1885]

Fagan, Brian M. Men of the Earth
Boston : Little, Brown and Company 1974

Robbins, Peggy "The Oddest of Characters" in American Heritage, June/July 1985

Voegelin, C. F.; Weer, Paul; Voegelin, Erminie W.; Lilly, Eli; and others Walam Olum or Red Score : The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians
Indianapolis : Indiana Historical Society 1954

Weslager, C. A. The Delaware Indians : A History
New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press 1989 [First published 1974]

Robert M. "Bob" Goshorn (1919-1995) was for many years before his death the editor of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly. One of his favorite pastimes was researching Indians and Indian lore. This previously unpublished manuscript was found among his papers recently.


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