Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Before Colonization

Photograph of wampum belt.Wampum belt said to have been given to William Penn by the Lenape. The original is on exhibit at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Humans began to establish permanent settlements in the vicinity of Philadelphia approximately 2,800 years ago, centuries before Europeans claimed the lands along the Delaware River for the colonies of New Sweden, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. By the time Europeans arrived in the seventeenth century, the Lenape people inhabited a region along the Mid-Atlantic coast between the Delaware Bay and New York Bay, including the future location of Philadelphia.

Topics: Before Colonization

Gallery: Before Colonization


Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Treaty of Shackamaxon).

Timeline: Before Colonization

10600 B.C.E-8000 B.C.E.: Paleo-Indian Period. Glaciers recede from region, rivers form, and forests develop, permitting limited human habitation.

8000 B.C.E.-1000 B.C.E.: Archaic Period. Small bands of hunters and gatherers reach the region; late in this era, settlements are created near rivers.

1000 B.C.E.- European contact: Woodland Period. Mid-Atlantic region is on the periphery of Woodland culture (centering in Ohio Valley). Archaeological evidence reveals ceramics and cultivated plants.

At the time of European contact (1609): The Lenni Lenape people inhabit a region along the Mid-Atlantic coast between Delaware Bay and New York Bay, including future location of Philadelphia.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

At the time of European contact (1609): Native Americans depend heavily on wood, bark, and vegetable fibers to construct houses and other material goods. The Lenni Lenape use fire to manage forests, clear land for agriculture, and burn underbrush to encourage the growth of young plants that attract deer and other small game. When villages exhaust forests after a few decades, communities settle in new sites a few miles away and the process begins again.

1682: By tradition, Treaty of Shackamaxon between William Penn and the Lenni Lenape (wampum belt said to be a gift from the Lenape to Penn, shown here).

Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Map: Before Colonization

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