When we think of the Lenape roaming through our woods and fishing our rivers and streams, we tend to picture them in a familiar landscape — in our world.
“Not so,” said historian Amy Hollander as she painted a far different picture of Durham in the late 17th century. “It would have been completely unrecognizable.”
“The Lenape lived primarily in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware, in the middle of the great old-growth forest stretching from Maine to Florida,” she said. “It was so dense, the 150-foot-tall canopy shut out daylight. It was a dark environment.”
It was a most idyllic spot, she said, for the “indigenous people until the Lenape were forcibly removed from their homeland.”
Amy’s topic was “Durham’s First Caretakers, the Lenape, Shawnee and the Walking Purchase,” when she spoke at a program, sponsored by the Durham Historical Society at the Durham Grist Mill.
She revealed a lot of information not generally known.
This is the kind of thing Amy loves to do, provide an entire historic landscape so people really understand what it was like to live centuries before we were born.
She holds degrees in art history from Vassar College and historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania and has worked on an extensive history of the township.
Amy is a storyteller with credentials. She is also a strategic consultant for the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor and manages two historic properties — the Erwin-Stover House and the Stover-Myers Mill — for the Bucks County Parks and Recreation Commission.
The Lenape, she said, lived in small villages and were “responsible conservators of the land.” They planted two or three acres of corn per family. They frequently moved from one place to another to allow the land to refresh itself.
The Shawnees also lived in the area but eventually moved away for some unknown reason. She said she believed the tribes’ Grasshopper War had taken place across the river in New Jersey although some theorize it had occurred in Nockamixon Township.
The speaker noted there is much about the period that is still unknown. The Lenape had no written language and the few surviving records from white men, she said, “are colored by cultural bias and greed for land.”
Although most of us tend to think only of the English Quakers as the first settlers, Amy reminded that the Swedes and Dutch came to this region first and their reports drifted back across the Atlantic.
As early as 1648 the fact that there were rich mineral deposits in the Durham hills was known in England, and it was financial profit that eventually drew the English to what was to be called the Durham tract.
Durham was settled as early as 1698, years before other Upper Bucks townships but not incorporated until 1775.
The Lenni Lenape numbered about 8,000 when the first settlers arrived. But it was not long before European diseases and conflict had reduced the tribe to about 4,000.
Meanwhile, in 1700, about 20,000 settlers were living in Bucks, mostly south of Wrightstown, where the infamous Walking Purchase took place 37 years later.
“Two of those running at a marathon pace passed out,” Amy said.
This action by the dishonest sons of William Penn brought an end to Lenape life in the county. Colonial officials drove the indigenous people out only four years later.
Amy said, “It’s important for us to understand what came before. A picture of this place we know has an important lesson for the living.”
Kathryn Finegan Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Durham Township. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.