The Lenape (Delaware) Native Americans in Olden Times for Kids and Teachers Illustration

The Lenape (Delaware) Native Americans in Olden Times for Kids

Name: The Lenape are also called the Leni Lenape, the Lenni-Lenape, and the Delaware. They are all the same tribe.

About 6,000 years ago, the Lenape settled in what is now the U.S. States of New York, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. They fished and hunted and collected seeds, roots, and nuts. Over time, they began to carefully chop down some of the trees to build homes and fences. They began to farm the land.

Tools and Weapons: The Lenape made stone tools. They made a stone fish scarper than was sharper than steel! It made the work of cutting up fish very easy. They made hoes for gardening from branches tipped with stone blades. They made arrows of wood and knives of stone. They made heavy wooden war clubs. They carried shields nearly as long as their body made of deerskin and wood for protection in battle.

Clay Pots: Some Lenape had special jobs. One of those jobs was a potter. Potters were very talented artists. They shaped long snake like pieces of local clay into thin walled cooking and storage vessels. Some had added designs that were unique to the artist, so you knew who made the pot you were using. Pots were traded. Like baskets, they were a form of currency as well as providing useful containers.

Baskets: The women wove baskets to haul and store dried food.  Baskets were used to store everything. They were famed for their baskets. They were beautiful things, and sturdy.

Food: The Delaware women tended small gardens near their homes. They grew tomatoes, peas, beans, corn, onions, and fruit. They also collected eggs, nuts, roots and wild vegetables. The men hunted with bows and arrows, and fished with hooks made of stone or carved wood. The rivers were full of fish. The woods were full of small game as well as deer, elk, and moose. The Lenape had plenty to eat. They made soups and breads and salads. They cooked meat over a fire. They ate lots of vegetables. They were very good at storing food. (They also grew tobacco.)

Homes, Boats, Fences: Tree bark on a wooden frame created a cozy house for one or two families. These homes were called wigwams. Some Lenape preferred longhouses, made of wood and bark. Longhouses held many families. They built fences of wood posts around sacred graveyards. Wood was used for fires to keep them warm and to help dry food for storage. Canoes were made out of wood by burning away the inside of a log and rounding the ends. They used wood to made paddles to row their boats. They tried very hard to use every part of a tree and to waste nothing.

Villages: Some villages had 200-300 people living in them. But most Lenape villages had a population of about 25 people. Villages got together for certain events, like finding a husband or a wife.

Canoes, Snowshoes, Sleds, Boats: The Lenape got around. They used canoes, snowshoes, sleds and boats to travel from place to place, to hunt, fish, collect food, and to move their villages when necessary. 

Raccoon and Beaver Hunts: Raccoons were very necessary to the Lenape way of life. The men went on raccoon hunts. They brought dogs with them to help hunt. Raccoons provided both meat to eat, and fur to use for the women to make into clothing. The men also hunted beavers for food and fur. They had to be careful with beaver. Beavers built dams in the creeks. They lived inside these dams. To get them to move out where they would be shot with arrows, the Lenape threw rocks at the dams. But they did not take their dogs with them when hunting beaver. It was too dangerous for the dogs. Beaver have sharp teeth. They could move very fast on land or in water. When the rocks started to hit their dams, the beaver would swarm out in large numbers and attack the Lenape. This is why their clothes were often made of deerskin and raccoon fur, but not so much beaver fur. It is also why beaver fur was considered so valuable.

Clothes, Body Painting, and Jewelry: The women sewed fur into clothes. They also used tanned hides (leather) and decorated the hides with intricate and colorful beadwork. The Lenape loved color. They would paint their faces with different colors for different festivals and occasions. Both men and women wore earrings and moccasins. They wore beaded headbands. The women wore their hair long in braids. The men shaved their heads, or left just one piece of hair. They might add a couple feathers to their headbands. The women wore skirts that came to their knees. The men wore breechcloths and leggings. Both men and women and children wore deerskin capes in the winter.

Spirits: The Lenape believed that spirits lived in everything around them - in a flower, a tree, a stream. It was important to treat nature kindly because mostly likely a spirit would be hiding inside to help or hinder you. They believed in a great spirit that created the world, and a bunch of evil little spirits that were responsible for illness and everything bad. To gain a spirit's favor, they would leave a small offering near a brook or a tree or a big rock, someplace a spirit could find it. They had many rituals to honor the good spirits and drive away the bad ones.

Medicine Men/Shamans: Every family knew about medicine. They knew which plants would cure what. This knowledge was passed down and improved generation after generation. But there were also special men, medicine men or shamans. The medicine men had special powers over the spirits. Since the Lenape believed many illnesses were caused by evil spirits, it took the shaman to get rid of the evil spirits. Simple things could be cured by plants. But big ones took help to fight the evil spirits. The medicine man was not considered a spirit himself, but he was a very important person in the village. Plans were run by the shaman for final approval, even by chiefs, although they might meet the shaman in private.

Sweat Huts/Baths: The Lenape were very clean. They bathed daily. They also believed that sweating would rid the body of evil spirits. One of the most important places in the village was the sweat hut. The sweat hut was used to cure sickness. Inside the hut, red hot stones were gathered. Water was poured on the stones. That produced steam. That made anyone inside the hut sweat. After a while, the person being cured would be douses with cold water and then dumped into a stream. Then they were wrapped in blankets and left to dry and rest. It was an exhausting process for those tending the fire and for the person who was steamed. This had to be done very carefully so you did not injure your patient with the hot steam. It also made breathing difficult. The Lenape knew it was dangerous, but if you were really sick, they believed a visit to the sweat hut might save your life.

Dogs: Dogs were considered spirit guardians. They worked hard, like all the Lenape, but dogs were treated kindly, with gratitude. When dogs died, they were buried in a decorated grave.

Wampum: For money, the Lenape used wampum. (They also used fur.) Wampum was made by dying shells purple and white. Then shells were drilled to they could be strung on a thread. Some threads were woven together to make a wampum belt. Wampum was difficult to make. It took a great deal of time. It was difficult to drill holes in shells without breaking them. Wampum makers often told a story in the design of the belts. It took talent to make wampum. Wampum was more than money. It was art.

The Lenape did not get along with the Iroquois. They traded, and also fought battles.

A Giant Sea Monster: One day, the Lenape spotted a giant sea monster. Some young Lenape men, feeling very brave, paddled out to take a closer look. The monster turned out to be a ship, a very big wooden ship. The ship was the Half Moon, and its captain was Henry Hudson. The crew of the Half Moon traded beads and metal tools for fresh food, tobacco, and furs, especially beaver fur. Beaver had been hunted almost to extinction in Europe. Henry Hudson knew that beaver furs would make his trip important to the Dutch, who were paying for his voyage. Beaver furs were riches.

The Lenape sell their land: Sure enough, Henry Hudson's discovery of a land rich in beaver furs caused a sensation back in Europe. The Dutch claimed all the land Henry Hudson had discovered for themselves. They called it "New Netherland". Wealthy merchants started the Dutch West India Company. They returned to land of the Lenape in the New World and built a fort to guard the river. Company officials wanted to "buy" the land legally. The Lenape did not understand what they wanted to do. To them, land, like air and water, was free for everyone to enjoy. So they "sold" the island of Manhattan for a bag of metal tools and trinkets.

The new owners started building houses and streets. They chopped down trees and burnt areas to the ground to make building easier. The rich built a few fine homes made of imported Dutch brick and local stone. More settlers arrived. They planted crops. They called their town New Amsterdam. The Lenape were in shock. The newcomers were so wasteful.

The British take over: The settlers were becoming concerned. The Lenape and the Iroquois were becoming hostile. The British king sent warships to demand the Dutch settlers surrender. Some of the settlement leaders wanted to fight. But the townspeople refused to help. They wanted the British (the English) to take over. Once the Dutch surrendered, the British king gave the land to his brother, the Duke of York. The Duck of York set about protecting the colony. That was all very nice for the settlers, but not so nice for the Lenape.

Relocation: Things got worse and worse between the Lenape and the settlers. In time, the Lenape were driven out of their home. They were eventually relocated to Oklahoma, where descendants of the Lenape still live today. The Lenape today live in modern houses, kids go to school and wear jeans - a chief can now be a woman, which would not have happened in olden times - but as in olden times and still today, the Lenape are marvelous storytellers, artists, and musicians. They were a clever people, and still are.

Weave a Virtual Wampum Belt

Henry Hudson

See Also: The Iroquois, The Ojibwa

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