Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jean R. Soderlund

West New Jersey

[caption id="attachment_16014" align="alignright" width="300"]A color image a map of New Jersey, showing an outline of the state and various intersecting lines showing different boundaries. The three vertical lines in the midsection of this map indicate efforts to determine the boundary between East and West New Jersey. The New Jersey proprietors loosely defined the boundaries of East and West New Jersey in a 1676 document, but land disputes into the 1700s required a fixed line to define private property and municipal boundaries. This map from 1780 shows three proposed boundaries dividing the state, but only the Lawrence Line (middle) was officially recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1855. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Between 1674 and 1702, New Jersey was divided in half: The proprietary West New Jersey colony faced the Delaware River while East New Jersey looked toward the Hudson. Although this political division lasted less than three decades, it represented long-standing geographical orientations of the Lenape and Munsee native inhabitants and European colonists. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) reputedly called New Jersey “a barrel tapped at both ends,” a productive countryside exploited by Philadelphia and New York. While West New Jersey quickly came within Philadelphia’s economic orbit, the region nonetheless retained a distinct political and social identity. 

Native Americans lived in the Delaware Valley at least 10,000 years before the Dutch, Swedes, Finns, and English arrived in the seventeenth century. The Lenapes, who controlled southern and western New Jersey, lived in autonomous towns along creeks leading to the Delaware River and along the Atlantic coast near Delaware Bay. Some Lenape peoples, such as the Armewamese and Cohanseys, possessed land on both sides of the river in what are now Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. Because Lenapes traveled frequently by canoe, they viewed rivers and streams as highways rather than obstacles.

Prior to the founding of West New Jersey in 1674, European population in the region remained sparse. A small Dutch settlement on Matinicum (now Burlington) Island lasted only from 1624 until 1626 when, on a site across the river from current Philadelphia, Dutch traders established Fort Nassau. A group of New Englanders in 1641 obtained the Lenapes’ permission to colonize several Delaware Valley locations, one at Varkens Kill (now Salem Creek). Dutch opposition and disease destroyed the colony; a small remnant of English settlers became part of the population of New Sweden, which existed from 1638 to 1655 primarily on the west bank of the Delaware. The Dutch conquered New Sweden in 1655 and held the Delaware colony until 1664, when English forces of James, Duke of York (1633-1701) took control. A few Dutch and French colonists moved to southwestern New Jersey in the late 1660s, purchasing land from the Lenapes. A few years later, Swedish and Finnish settlers followed suit, departing from the west bank of the Delaware River in rebellion against English land policies, including assessment of quitrents and expropriation of common lands.

The Colony of New Jersey, 1664

The English king Charles II (1630-85) initiated the proprietary colony of New Jersey in 1664 when he granted his brother James, Duke of York the rights of proprietorship, including the power to govern and ability to own and sell land. The duke in turn granted New Jersey to Sir John Berkeley (1602-78) and Sir George Carteret (c. 1610-80). In 1674, the proprietorship of New Jersey was divided in half, with Berkeley taking West New Jersey, which he promptly sold to John Fenwick (c. 1618-1683) in trust for Edward Byllynge (c. 1623-1687). When the English Quakers Fenwick and Byllynge quarreled, three Quaker trustees, including William Penn (1644-1718), mediated the dispute. Adding to these difficulties, the Duke of York refused to transfer the power to govern West New Jersey to the Quaker proprietors.  

Complicated financial deals and lawsuits arising from the dispute between Fenwick and Byllynge resulted in two initial Quaker settlements in West New Jersey: Salem, founded in 1675, and Burlington in 1677. Fenwick demanded one-tenth of the West New Jersey proprietorship to launch his own settlement, which conflicted with the intentions of Byllynge and the trustees for a unified colony. Byllynge wanted to give Fenwick his tenth in scattered places across West New Jersey, but instead, without Byllynge’s assent, Fenwick took his one-tenth in a single location, which he called Salem, and sold 148,000 acres to about 50 purchasers. The Quaker colonists arrived in southern New Jersey in 1675, entering a country dominated by Lenapes where some Europeans, mostly Swedes, Finns, and Dutch, had settled during the previous decade. Fenwick promptly purchased land from the Lenapes of the region—the Cohanseys—with whom he maintained good relations. Deeds of 1675 and 1676 specified that Fenwick would receive territory, “excepted always … the plantations in which [the natives] now inhabit,” in return for cloth, rum, guns, and other items.

Despite these deeds, Salem’s status remained insecure because Fenwick, as a result of financial difficulties and legal challenges, lacked English title, deeds, and the right to govern. Governor Edmund Andros (1637-1714) of New York, who for the Duke of York until 1680 claimed authority over both banks of the Delaware, jailed Fenwick in New York for two extended periods, leaving the land claims of the Salem colonists unclear.

The West New Jersey Concessions

[caption id="attachment_16013" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a building from the front. The image shows a side of the house, and buildings and landscaping around the building are visible. Quaker George Hutchinson, one of the initial founders and developers of the Burlington settlement, built this home for his family in 1685. As of 2015, this house was one of the oldest buildings still standing in the City of Burlington Historical District. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In 1676, the Quaker trustees and Edward Byllynge implemented plans for settling the other ninety percent of West New Jersey. Byllynge probably drafted the innovative West New Jersey Concessions (1676) that described the process for distributing land, granted religious freedom and trial by jury, and set out a plan for mediation of disputes between Lenapes and Europeans. Male property owners resident in West New Jersey would annually elect a general assembly by putting balls into ballot boxes rather than by “the confused way of cries and voices” that was common in other places. The Duke of York delayed implementation of the Concessions by not transferring until 1680 the right of government to Byllynge, who then renounced the Concessions by becoming governor, an office not included in the document. Nevertheless, though the Concessions failed to become the official West Jersey constitution, the document suggests the ideals of the colonists who signed it. Many provisions of the Concessions, including the elected assembly, religious freedom, and trial by jury, became West New Jersey law.

In 1677, Byllynge and the trustees sent the ship Kent with 230 Friends to establish the Burlington colony, appointing nine commissioners to govern until an assembly could be elected. When the Kent stopped first to inform Andros of their plans to settle, he denied liberty to the Quakers to establish their own government, but agreed to appoint the trustees’ commissioners as magistrates to report to him. Andros also charged the passengers duties on their cargo, creating considerable ill-will. In response to appeals from Byllynge and the trustees, in 1680 the Duke of York transferred the right of government to Edward Byllynge, ending the customs fees and meddling of the New York government.  An estimated 1,760 Friends settled in West New Jersey by 1682, but after that date most Quaker immigrants accepted William Penn’s invitation to settle his new Quaker colony of Pennsylvania.

[caption id="attachment_16015" align="alignright" width="300"]A color image of a map, showing a southern section of the state of New Jersey. Small houses on the map show the locations of various Lenape tribes. This 1673 map of lower West New Jersey displays the locations of Lenape and other Native American settlements throughout the region. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Swedes, Finns, and Lenapes offered the Burlington colonists assistance despite worry about their increasing numbers. The Swedes and Finns provided shelter soon after the Kent arrived and helped the West Jersey commissioners purchase land from the Lenapes. The winter of 1677-78 came before the new settlers could begin constructing Burlington, so they built wigwams like the Lenapes’ and depended upon the natives for corn, vegetables, venison, fish, and fowl. Unfortunately the Burlington colonists brought smallpox that, like earlier epidemics, killed many Lenapes.

Autonomous Communities

During the proprietary period from 1674 to 1702, the West New Jersey colonists organized themselves much like their Lenape neighbors—in autonomous communities governed by local officials, loosely affiliated with neighboring colonial and native settlements.  Byllynge and the trustees founded Burlington as the seat of West New Jersey government, but county courts in Burlington, Salem, Gloucester, and Cape May provided stability during the proprietary years.  Centralized government from Burlington was impossible because of the distance between small dispersed settlements and because contested land claims, power struggles, and the English government’s efforts to repeal the proprietorship created a power vacuum at the top.

The county courts, as demonstrated by their minutes, provided effective government by punishing crime, hearing disputes, and collecting taxes for roads, bridges, and public buildings. A murder case in Salem in 1691-92 provides one example of how the local magistrates sustained government despite chaos at the provincial level. The Salem court tried and executed a carpenter Thomas Lutherland (c. 1652-92) though only the provincial government, not county courts, had legal authority in capital cases. Rather than wait until the provincial government reorganized, the Salem justices took the power to execute a murderer into their own hands because they believed Lutherland was dangerous and would escape jail.

Although Quakers, including William Penn, founded both West New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the colonies evolved differently in their initial years. In West New Jersey, the continuing power of the Lenapes, smaller European population, and lack of unified leadership in Burlington created more room for local autonomy and intercultural alliances between natives and colonists than in Pennsylvania, where larger numbers of immigrants and a more hierarchical government held sway. Even so, the two provinces developed close economic ties, as Philadelphia’s growth quickly attracted business with West Jersey merchants and farmers, thus continuing a partnership between both sides of the Delaware River.

Dissolution of West New Jersey Colony

The proprietary colony of West New Jersey dissolved in 1702 when the proprietors of both East and West New Jersey surrendered their right of government to the English Crown. The proprietors were under numerous pressures, including charges that the colonies were ungovernable, factionalized, and defiant against imperial rule.  Though English administrator Edward Randolph (1632-1703) suggested that “the country is too large, and the inhabitants too few to be contained a separate government, therefore East Jersey ought to be annexed to New York and West Jersey to Pennsylvania and the three lower counties,” the Crown decided on the unified province of New Jersey. The assembly of twenty-four members, equally divided by section, would rotate meetings between Perth Amboy and Burlington. The governor of New York, Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury (1661-1723) assumed office as the first New Jersey royal governor in 1703.

Jean R. Soderlund is a Professor of History Emeritus at Lehigh University. She is author of Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn (2015) and is currently researching a social history of colonial West Jersey.

Native Peoples to 1680

[caption id="attachment_13034" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a variety of clay pots, jewelry, stone tools, metal tools, and other metal items are on an uneven brown landscape.  These artifacts found at a Susquehannock site in Pennsylvania show a mixture of tools and adornments, some of which came from trade with European settlers. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Native Americans lived in what became southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware for more than 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans in the early seventeenth century. By emphasizing peace and trade, the Lenapes retained their sovereignty and power through 1680, unlike native peoples in New England and Virginia who suffered disastrous conflicts with the colonists. Before William Penn founded Pennsylvania, the Lenapes and their allies among the Swedish, Finnish, and Dutch settlers created a society based on the ideals of peace, individual freedom, and inclusion of people of different beliefs and backgrounds.

The first Americans settled in the region as glaciers gradually receded in North America at the end of the last ice age. Because of the accumulation of ice, the Atlantic seashore was located more than sixty miles to the east of its present location. As the glaciers melted, the ocean level rose, submerging evidence of early communities along the coast. Archaeological data about the people inhabiting the lower Delaware Valley from this early era through the Woodland Period (c. 1000 B.C. to 1600 A.D.) indicate significant continuity over thousands of years. The Lenapes, like their ancestors, relied upon hunting, fishing, gathering, and—in the later years—small-scale agriculture. They lived in small autonomous towns without palisades, suggesting they kept mostly at peace with their neighbors and more-distant nations.

Isolation of the Lower Delaware Valley

For centuries the natives of the lower Delaware Valley remained isolated from other parts of the Americas, including the peoples of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys who built agricultural civilizations based on the “three sisters”: corn, beans, and squash. These crops complemented one another in cultivation and providing humans a nutritious diet. The geography of Pennsylvania, particularly the north-south orientation of the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers, limited interaction of Delaware Valley natives with the Mississippians who built cities, tall burial mounds, and stratified societies in the interior of the continent. Though the Lenapes raised corn, beans, and squash by the time the Europeans came, the natives took advantage of the abundance of game animals, fish, shellfish, berries, wild rice, and other foods rather than engage in large-scale agriculture.

The Lenape people included groups such as the Armewamese, Cohanseys, Mantes, and Sickoneysincks, who built towns along tributaries of the Delaware River and on the Atlantic seacoast near Delaware Bay. They spoke Unami, an Algonquian language similar to the dialects of their allies the Munsees, who controlled the region to the north up into southern New York, and the Nanticokes of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Lenapes’ neighbors to the west were the Susquehannocks, an Iroquoian people of the Susquehanna Valley.

[caption id="attachment_13033" align="alignright" width="575"]A color map of southern New Jersey and Delaware. Parts of the map are outlined in green ink, and the names of native american groups and dutch encampments along the Delaware River. There is a black of text on the left side of the image written in Dutch. The general locations of some Lenape groups that lived along the Delaware River were labeled on this 1639 map of what today is southern New Jersey. Written in Dutch, the map also explains the languages some groups used to communicate. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The size of the precontact Delaware Valley population is unknown because European sailors and fishermen brought pathogens even before the Dutch arrived. Colonization of Europeans in North America had a devastating impact on the Lenapes and other natives because they lacked immunity to smallpox, influenza, measles, and other diseases. In 1600 the Lenapes numbered an estimated 7,500; by the 1650s their population decreased to about 4,000, and to about 3,000 by 1670. The Lenapes’ population decline was not as severe in the 1600s as among some other groups whose numbers dropped by ninety percent or more. The Lenapes’ success in avoiding war during most of the seventeenth century contributed to their strength and continued sovereignty over their land. 

Lenape Gender Roles

The Lenapes divided work on the basis of gender: Women raised crops, gathered nuts and fruit, built houses, made clothing and furniture, took care of the children, and prepared meals, while men cleared land, hunted, fished, and protected the town from enemies.  Native women held an equivalent status with men in their families and society; parents extended freedom to their children as well, practicing flexible, affectionate child-rearing.  

During the seventeenth century, the Lenapes’ sociopolitical structure appears to have been democratic, egalitarian, and based on matrilineal kinship groups, with descent through the mother’s line. The heads of kinship groups chose the group’s leader, or sachem, who held authority by following the people’s will. With advice, the sachem assigned fields for planting and made decisions on hunting, trade, diplomacy, and war.

In religion, existing evidence suggests that the Lenapes believed the earth and sky formed a spiritual realm of which they were a part, not the masters. Spirits inhabited the natural world and could be found in plants, animals, rocks, or clouds. Natives could obtain a personal relationship with a spirit, or manitou, who would provide help and counsel to the individual throughout his or her life. Lenapes also believed in a Master Spirit or Creator, who was all-powerful and all-knowing, but whose presence was rarely felt.

When Dutch explorers entered the Delaware River about 1615, the Lenapes welcomed their trade. In 1624, they granted permission for a short-lived settlement on Burlington Island and in 1626 allowed construction of Fort Nassau across the river from the future site of Philadelphia. The natives and colonists developed a trade jargon based on Unami that became standard trade language throughout the region.

Keeping Old Ways, Adopting New

The Lenapes retained their autonomy and traditional ways of life while selectively adopting new technology from the Europeans.  Native women and men appreciated the convenience of woolen cloth, firearms, and metal tools, incorporating them into their culture but not abandoning their traditional economic cycle of hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture.

The Dutch trade precipitated war between the Lenapes and Susquehannocks from 1626 to 1636 because the Susquehannocks sought to control the Delaware River. They killed many Lenapes and pushed them from the west to east bank, burning towns and crops. The Lenapes fought back, eager to trade for European cloth, guns, and metal goods in exchange for beaver, otter, and other furs. While these local pelts were thinner because of milder mid-Atlantic winters than those the Susquehannocks obtained from central Canada through the continental fur trade, the Lenapes had a successful market with the Dutch. The war ended by about 1636 when a truce, which developed into an alliance, permitted both the Lenapes and Susquehannocks to trade in the region.

In 1631, violence flared when wealthy Dutch investors started a plantation called Swanendael near present-day Lewes, Delaware, at the mouth of Delaware Bay. It seemed to Lenapes that the Dutch were shifting their priorities from trade to plantation agriculture similar to the English colonists in Virginia who murdered natives and expropriated land. The Sickoneysincks, the Lenape group near Cape Henlopen, destroyed Swanendael, killing its thirty-two residents. When Dutch captain David de Vries (1593-1655) arrived in early 1632, he made peace and reestablished trade with the Sickoneysincks.

Over the next half century, Lenapes controlled the lower Delaware Valley, accepting European trade goods in exchange for small parcels of land for forts and farms, but not plantation colonies. With the attack on Swanendael and its memory, the Lenapes restricted European settlement. In 1670, just 850 Europeans lived in the lower Delaware Valley compared with 52,000 in New England, 41,000 in Virginia and Maryland, and 6,700 in New York and eastern New Jersey. With an estimated population of 3,000 in 1670, the Lenapes remained more numerous and powerful than the Europeans.

New Sweden Established

[caption id="attachment_13065" align="alignright" width="193"]A color painting of a man wearing black clothing with a white undershirt. The man has long hair and is looking off to the right side of the image. Johan Printz, the third governor of New Sweden, almost lost his colony due to his governing style and the colony's limited ability to trade gods with the Lenapes.(Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Seven years after Swanendael, in 1638, the Lenapes permitted a small group of Swedish, Finnish, and Dutch colonists to establish New Sweden at the location of current Wilmington, Delaware. Lenapes and Susquehannocks traded with New Sweden and the Dutch mariners who continued to frequent the river. While the Europeans fought each other over trade and land, the Lenapes dominated the region. In the mid-1640s they nearly evicted the Swedes because of their lack of trade goods and the bellicose posturing of their governor Johan Printz (1592-1663). Relations improved by 1654 when Naaman and other sachems concluded a treaty with the new Swedish governor, Johan Risingh (c. 1617-72), in which each side promised to warn the other if they heard of impending attack by another nation. They also pledged to discuss problems such as assaults and murders, stray livestock, and land theft before going to war.

By the 1650s, many of the Armewamese group of Lenapes lived adjacent to the Swedes and Finns in the area that became Philadelphia, a locale the Swedish engineer Peter Lindeström (d. 1691) praised for its beauty, freshwater springs, multitude of fruit trees, and many kinds of animals. Lindeström identified six towns from the Delaware to the falls of the Schuylkill that the Armewamese built to be near the terminus of the Susquehannock trade. The Lenapes also sold corn as a cash crop to New Sweden when its supplies ran short.

After the Dutch conquered New Sweden in 1655, the Lenapes, Swedes, and Finns solidified their alliance to resist heavy-handed Dutch authority. The Lenapes warned the Swedes of the Dutch assault; their Susquehannock and Munsee allies attacked Manhattan, forcing Director Peter Stuyvesant (d. 1672) and his troops to withdraw from the Delaware Valley.  While the Dutch claimed the region, the Lenapes ruled their country in alliance with the Munsees, Susquehannocks, Swedes, and Finns.  

With the English conquest of the Dutch colony in 1664, the alliance of Lenapes, Swedes, and Finns remained firm as together they resisted English efforts, under the Duke of York, to impose their power and expropriate land. In the late 1660s, the Armewamese left their towns where Philadelphia now stands, migrating to join the Mantes and Cohansey communities in New Jersey. Though it is unclear whether settlers forced out the Armewamese or they left voluntarily, their relocation moved the center of Lenape population and power across the river.

In 1675-76, the alliance of Lenapes, Swedes, and Finns helped Lenape country escape the horrors of war similar to Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia and King Philip’s War in New England. Through shared economic goals and common values of peace, individual freedom, and openness to people of different cultures, the Lenapes and their European allies established the ideals of Delaware Valley society before William Penn received his land grant for Pennsylvania in 1681.

Jean R. Soderlund is a Professor of History at Lehigh University and author of Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn.

Colonial Era

Jean R. Soderlund

[caption id="attachment_28824" align="alignright" width="226"] Lenape Indians controlled the Delaware Valley until after the 1680s. Swedish artist Gustavus Hesselius painted this portrait of Tishcohan, a Lenape chief, around 1735. (Philadelphia History Museum, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection)[/caption]

When Lenape Indians in July 1694 crossed the Delaware River from New Jersey to meet with Pennsylvania government officials, they represented a people whose homeland became the Greater Philadelphia region: southeastern Pennsylvania, central and southern New Jersey, and Delaware. Despite their decline in population from European diseases, the Lenapes remained strong. They told the Pennsylvanians that while many Lenapes “live on the other side of the river [in New Jersey], yet we reckon ourselves all one, because we drink one water,” the Delaware and its tributaries. Since the 1670s, English settlers had imposed political divisions on the more open Lenape homeland, most obviously with the boundary along the river separating West New Jersey from Pennsylvania and the Lower Counties (Delaware). But while these political divisions gained potency as colonial elites developed legal and political structures, the Delaware Valley in many ways remained integrated economically and socially as its residents exchanged goods and traveled readily across borders.

When Europeans arrived in the Delaware Valley in the early seventeenth century, Native Americans had lived there for at least ten thousand years. The Lenapes lived in autonomous towns on creeks flowing into the Delaware River and along the Atlantic coast near Delaware Bay. The river united the territory of Lenape people such as the Armewamese and Cohanseys who possessed land on both banks.

[caption id="attachment_20106" align="alignright" width="300"]map showing Indian trails in the Colonial period. By the time Europeans reached North America, a complex system of overland paths crossed the region. (Map by Michael Siegel, Department of Geography, Rutgers University)[/caption]

Because Lenapes traveled frequently by canoe, they viewed rivers and streams as highways rather than obstacles. They also built trails across the region by which they traveled from agricultural towns where they raised corn and other crops to hunting, fishing, and gathering areas in the Pine Barrens, Atlantic shore, Lehigh Valley, and central Delaware.  The Lenape trails linked with pathways of neighboring Munsees to the north up into southern New York, Susquehannocks to the west in the Susquehanna Valley, and Nanticokes of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Lenape towns lacked palisades (unlike those of the Susquehannocks and Iroquois), reflecting the Lenapes’ efforts to maintain peace with their neighbors and more distant nations.

Read More »

Share This Page: