Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Lenape Country
Delaware Valley Society before William Penn
by Jean R. Soderlund
University of Pennsylvania Press, 272 pp., $39.95Lenape Country

In Lenape Country, Jean R. Soderlund, professor of history at Lehigh University and editor of William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania (University of Pennsylvania, 1983), masterfully recounts the story of the strong, proud and, at times, fierce people who once thrived along the Delaware River. Unlike earlier portraits of the Lenape, this work not only challenges the notion of the docile image of an accommodating people, but presents a far bolder and complex narrative of the Lenape as skillful and shrewd negotiators in the multicultural society of the Delaware Valley in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The book documents the clash and confluence of the Lenape with European immigrants – from the point of earliest contact with Dutch, Swedish and Finnish settlers to later relations with English colonists – as well as with other native tribes, including Munsee allies and the rival Susquehannock, with whom the Lenape engaged in border disputes.

Drawing on a variety of sources, Soderlund explores not just the history of the Lenape but rather their evolution from early family-oriented bands to a more unified structure. Significantly, the book does not gloss over the flaws of William Penn’s interactions with the Lenape and the challenges that both parties experienced – the economics of land purchase and resale, paying annual tribute, and attempts to assure free and safe passage for settlers through Lenape lands without European title.

The population explosion of the seafaring English brought on a tide of people that encroached on the Lenape lifestyle. The 8,000 settlers who arrived with Penn seemed a death blow to their power. By the 18th century the fur trade that had fostered the relationship between the Lenape and the Europeans waned. Soderlund, however, illustrates how these colonists inherited and built upon Lenape culture. She captures the complexity and progression of the Lenape and their influence on Delaware Valley society as forerunners of the ideals of personal and religious freedom, even before Penn’s arrival.

Lenape Country provides a strong picture of the challenge of a culture trying to protect its interests and develop its vision simultaneously. It follows a chronological path that winds through language, religion, ownership, economy, alliances and rivalries, and its engaging narrative dispels many myths along the way.

 

Douglas A. Miller is the site administrator for Pennsbury Manor, the reconstructed home of William Penn near Morrisville, Bucks County.