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Legacy of the Lenape: Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum tries to set the record straight

A new exhibit, “Native Americans: A Diverse & Evolving History,” opened recently at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, Allentown.

“The history of American Indians is shrouded in folklore and stereotypes from Western movies,” says Joseph Garrera, Executive Director of the Museum. “Much of their history has been written by the cultures that conquered them and took their lands.”

Museum officials contend that the new exhibit humanizes Native Americans, portraying them as people in the context of their cultures, families, and destroyed civilizations. The exhibit seeks to inspire visitors to reconsider the proud history of the Native Americans. They were the first to inhabit the Lehigh Valley and all of America. Indians’ love of the land and respect for nature made them North America’s first conservationists.

Many scholars believe that Indians lived in the Lehigh Valley as far back as 16,000 years ago. Other scholars disagree. When the first Native Americans arrived, they learned to use locally-available resources, including abundant fish and game, as well as plentiful supplies of plant foods. They worked in open pit mines in present-day Vera Cruz, Upper Milford Township, where they mined the mineral, jasper, ideal for making tools and arrowheads.

Those who lived in the region when the first Europeans arrived called themselves Lenape. They hunted wild animals, fished in the numerous streams and rivers, and foraged for edible plants, berries, and nuts. They planted corn in small gardens. They used trees and tree bark to construct canoes and wigwams.

The Lenape, like many other Indians, were frequently pushed and cheated out of their native lands. After arriving in late 1682, Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn purchased land from the Lenape, and both sides pledged peace.

In 1737, the infamous “Walking Purchase” took place. The purpose was to measure a land purchase that William Penn’s sons and heirs, John Penn and Thomas Penn, alleged their father had made with the Lenape in 1686. According to this alleged document, the Lenape had relinquished a portion of their tribal lands between the fork of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers (present-day Easton) that extended as far as a man could walk in one and one half days.

Thomas Penn and his agents hired three of the fastest male runners in the colony to measure the distance they could travel in a day and half. The approximately 65-mile “walk,” which was really a run called “Ye Hurry Walk” by the Indians, covered more than twice the land the Lenape had anticipated.

The Lenape were defrauded of approximately 1,200,932 square miles (an area slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island) located in Lehigh, Northampton, Bucks, Carbon, Schuylkill, Monroe and Pike counties. The “Walking Purchase” was so fraudulent that it has damaged Indian relations in the region to the present day.

Walking Purchase Park, an approximate 500-acre “urban wilderness” park in Salisbury Township, is named after the infamous land grab. The park embraces Lehigh Mountain, which is in eastern Salisbury between the Lehigh River and East Susquehanna Street. Artifacts found along the Lehigh River indicate that the area was inhabited by Native Americans. The Lenape Indians, a branch of the Algonquians, settled in the area of Lehigh Mountain.

William Jennings, the first known European resident of the area, established a farmstead in the Lowlands, north of Lehigh Mountain. Jennings was one of the three runners in the Walking Purchase “walk,” hence the park, jointly administered by Salisbury, Allentown and Lehigh County, was named Walking Purchase Park.

In Delaware Nation v. Pennsylvania (2004), the Delaware nation, one of three federally-recognized Lenape tribes, claimed 314 acres of land, known as Tatamy’s Place, included in the original purchase, but the U.S. District Court granted the Commonwealth’s motion to dismiss. It ruled that the case was nonjusticiable, although it acknowledged that Indian title to the land appeared to have been extinguished by fraud. The ruling held through the United States courts of appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum exhibit features hundreds of authentic Native American artifacts, as well as a life-size mural depicting Lenape life by artist Rosemary Geseck, who teaches at The Baum School of Art.

The Museum exhibit explores the complex story of Native Americans from their first arrival in North America during the last Ice Age onwards. The exhibit highlights the history of Indians in Eastern Pennsylvania. Artifacts on exhibit, many of which are local, date back thousands of years. Much of this collection has never before been publicly displayed.

Indians live on in America. Their heritage and customs continue to inspire and enrich people from all nations. The Lenape villages that inhabited the region have long ago vanished, and most of their people moved westward.

Yet remnants of their existence survive through archaeological sites and geographical names. Towns like Catasauqua, Hokendauqua, Macungie and Tatamy take their names from Native American words.

The Lehigh River is named after the Lenape name for the river, “Lechewuekink,” meaning “where there are forks.” Some Lenape descendants remain in the Lehigh Valley.

“Native Americans: A Diverse & Evolving History” reflects a new respect for Indian history and culture that has recently emerged. It celebrates their ancient history, their time honored traditions, and their respect for the natural world.

The Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, 432 W. Walnut St., Allentown. Hours: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, and noon - 4 p.m. Sunday. Parking is available in the rear of the Museum, at meters along the street, and the Community Deck, Sixth and Walnut streets, Allentown. Information: lehighvalleyheritagemuseum.org; 610-435-1074.

PHOTO COURTESY LEHIGH VALLEY HERITAGE MUSEUMLife-size mural of Lenape life is featured in “Native Americans: A Diverse & Evolving History” exhibition at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, Allentown.