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Heralding Our History: Tales of Durham’s first inhabitants


Four hundred years ago, the area we now know as Durham Township looked a lot different than it does now. Dark forest covered the entire landscape and the only areas that saw sunlight were the narrow strips of land bordering the streams and the Delaware River. It was said that a squirrel could travel from the far north to what is now known as Florida and as far west as the Mississippi River without once touching the ground.

In this dark and quiet environment lived the first inhabitants, the Lenni Lenape. They were a peaceful people who lived in domed huts made of a wooden framework covered with slabs of bark.

They subsisted through hunting the forest animals, the fish in the waterways and the simple foodstuffs garnered from small fields of corn, beans and squash. During the summer months, they would travel as far as what is known as the Jersey shore to gather shellfish.

The villages in which the Lenape lived would be used for several years and then the colony would move to another location, often just a mile or two away. This way they could make new fields as the old ones renewed.

Their tools were crude, usually made out of stone; many are still being found, especially in the springtime when the farmers have finished their plowing.

The Shawnee was another tribe that occasionally lived in the area. The two tribes were able to live peaceably with one another although on at least one occasion a major battle occurred when an argument started between boys from each tribe over a large grasshopper that one of them had captured. First the mothers got involved and then the fathers and before long, the two tribes were feuding. The outcome was the loss of some lives and a story that would be told from generation to generation.

The major village that was inhabited was called Pechoqueolin. It is unknown where exactly it was located. Some say it was about 100 yards north of the Durham Cave (close to the border of present day Riegelsville). Others place it near the present intersection of routes 611 and 32 (close to the current Durham-Nockamixon border).

Given the periodic movement of settlements mentioned above, both could be correct.

In either case, both sites are within easy walking distance to a place where there was an abundant source of jasper or flint that could be fashioned into stone implements including axes, arrowheads, spear points, and grinding tools (used to prepare corn or maize into a digestible form).

There is evidence showing that the Lenape navigated the Delaware River in canoes. However, these were not the birch-bark canoes usually associated with other Native Americans. Rather, they were logs, usually poplar, that were painstakingly carved out by slowly burning sections of the log and then scraping out the burnt wood and ashes until a hollowed out log usable as a primitive boat remained. These boats were understandably unwieldy and unstable but the Lenape skillfully used them.

Relationships with the colonial settlers were initially peaceful. This was primarily because William Penn, after having been granted the land by the king to pay a debt owed to his father, insisted that the Native Americans should be treated fairly in all business dealings.

However, as more and more settlers came to the colonies, the Lenni Lenape found themselves being pushed to the west and to the south. Treaties where they would sell the rights to their land were originally honored but with the passing of William Penn, control was taken over by his three sons, who did not share their father’s sense of right and wrong in dealing with the Native Americans.

Lenape leaders Nutimus, Monikyhiccon, Lappawinzo, Tishcohan, Tatamy and Teedyuscung attempted negotiating various treaties with the settlers. But advantages started to be taken against the Lenape culminating in the infamous “Walking Purchase” where the tribe agreed to deed over an amount of land that a man could walk in a day and a half from what is now Wrightstown due north. A line was then to be drawn to the Delaware River and the territory within those boundaries would be granted to the settlers.

However, instead of walking, three gentlemen known for their running prowess were chosen and they set off at a marathoner’s pace. After a day and a half, the last remaining runner reached a point near present day Jim Thorpe and then a line was drawn not due east as the Lenni Lenape expected but rather at right angles to the end point, effectively swindling the Lenape of 1.2 million acres of land.

This caused a breakdown in the relationship between the Lenape and the settlers and resulted in nearly 20 years of conflict between the two groups.

At the time, the Lenape were essentially vassals to the Iroquois, which was the dominant tribe, and they appealed to the Iroquois to help settle the matter. However, they were belittled by their superiors and told that they had had no right to even negotiate with the colonists and if they had been cheated it was their own fault.

The Lenape never fully recovered. They were forced farther and farther from their native area and now most of their descendants can be found on a few reservations in Oklahoma and Canada, although other families who remained in the area are known today as the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania.

David Oleksa is president Durham Historical Society.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.

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