Repella on Soderlund, 'Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society before William Penn'

Jean R. Soderlund
Kyle Repella

Jean R. Soderlund. Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society before William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 264 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4647-6.

Reviewed by Kyle Repella (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-Pennsylvania (October, 2016) Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward

William Penn’s fabled treaty with the Lenape Indians at Shackamaxon in 1682 has, until recently, monopolized the historical memory of early Pennsylvania. Portrayed in countless cultural artifacts from the eighteenth century to the present, Penn’s treaty with the Indians has often served as a starting point and high-water mark for peaceful relations between the Delaware Valley’s Amerindians and newly arrived colonists. The scene, imagined most famously by Benjamin West’s and Edward Hicks’s paintings of a “peaceable kingdom,” plays out under the canopy of a languishing elm tree.[1] The Lenape appear emaciated and inquisitive, hesitantly stepping out from the protection of the woods onto a sun-soaked shore, where a mighty William Penn, arms outstretched, offers them valuable commodities and the promise of a nonviolent, tolerant society. A bustling Atlantic shore and towering brick buildings in the background provide a stark contrast to the dark woods that engulf the Lenape. In these depictions, the Quakers stand in as progenitors of a new society, bringing order and stability to a sparsely populated terra incognita.

In her compelling new book, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn, Jean Soderlund reframes the fabled treaty not as a starting point of peaceful relations, but as a routine exchange that had come to define Euramerican-Amerindian relations in the Delaware Valley for decades. Long before Penn ever stepped foot on the shores of what the Lenape called the Lenapewihittuck, its indigenous inhabitants as well as Swedish, Finnish, Dutch, and English colonists had already created a dynamic society committed to reconciling disagreements, maintaining peace, and finding common ground on Native land. 

At the center of these swirling exchanges were the Lenape people, who were largely able to dictate the ebb and flow of colonization. In Soderlund’s reckoning, the Lenape were not a “powerless people” as earlier scholars have suggested, but the Delaware Valley’s foremost power-brokers. Drawing on the work of Daniel Richter, Amy Schutt, Robert Grumet, and Gunlög Fur among others, Soderlund argues that the Lenape maintained a powerful political hegemony over the region throughout the seventeenth century. While ten different colonial regimes would all eventually lay claim to some part of the Delaware Valley, such claims were often nothing more than cartographic fictions imagined by imperious Euramerican traders. In all cases, the Lenape determined  “if, when, and where Europeans could travel and take up land” (p. 5). Much of the Lenape’s strength was derived not only from their intimate knowledge of the land, but also from their overwhelming numbers. By midcentury, after several colonial regimes had entered the Delaware Valley, the Lenape still outnumbered colonists ten to one (p. 86).

Such figures were no mere coincidence. Indeed, Soderlund argues that the Lenape modulated Euramerican settlement by exerting their powerful hegemony at timely moments of Euramerican encroachment. Take, for instance, the Sickoneysinck attack on the Dutch outpost of Swanendael in the summer of 1631. For several years, Dutch patroons had been attempting to establish ownership over a two-mile stretch of land on the coast of the Delaware Bay near Cape Henlopen. Since 1629, the Dutch had been clearing fields, breeding livestock, and cordoning off their claimed territory with tin standards of the Dutch coat of arms. To the Lenape inhabitants who agreed to deed the Dutch just enough land for a trading outpost, such conduct reeked of the same kind of illicit colonial incursions that bedeviled their indigenous neighbors on the Chesapeake. In 1631 the Sickoneysincks took action, killing about thirty settlers and laying waste to the Dutch outpost’s livestock, buildings, and palisade. Where once a Dutch coat of arms stood, the Lenape now left the smoldering clothes and mutilated bodies of colonists. 

It was, ironically, from this crucible of violence that the Delaware Valley began to forge its reputation for peace and tolerance. According to Soderlund, the Lenape attack on Swanendael was a “rational act in a violent world” (p. 48). Recognizing that Dutch-sponsored colonization could ultimately lead to “European violence, slavery, and expropriation of lands,” the Lenape wisely asserted their political and military power over the region, demonstrating to all would-be colonizers that they were committed to peaceful trading relationships, but ultimately capable of severe violence (p. 45). And in fact the attack would color Amerindian-Euramerican relations throughout the seventeenth century, as its memory continued to persuade Native and Euramerican actors to pursue peace over conflict. 

By resituating the origins of Delaware Valley peace to a time of war, Soderlund challenges readers to reconsider the “peaceable kingdom” trope. When the Quakers arrived some fifty years after the Swanendael attack, they stepped into a diverse world with a preexisting web of peaceful cross-cultural exchange. While the Quakers certainly brought with them unique ideas about tolerance and peace, their “belief in religious liberty and commitment to friendly relations with Native Americans complemented cultural practices already in place” (p. 149). In fact, this overlap in ideals preceded the Quakers’ arrival. Swedes and Fins coming from a world steeped in Lutheran ideas about freedom of conscience were certainly compatible bedfellows with the Lenapes, who remained committed to egalitarianism and communalism. Indeed, Swedish men and Lenape women often intermarried, and one Swedish clergyman even proclaimed the Lenape and Swedes “as one People” (p. 65). 

This sort of peace, Soderlund argues, was “difficult, uneven, and tenuous,” and only attainable because the Lenape were powerful and politically independent (p. 8). Taking a conceptual cue from Kathleen DuVal, Soderlund depicts the seventeenth-century Delaware Valley as a firm Native ground, one in which the traditional narrative of Euramerican encroachment and Native accommodation is replaced by one about Euramerican dependence.[2] While the 1670s marked a watershed moment for Natives in New England and the Chesapeake, Soderlund contends that the “Lenapes held on to their sovereignty over much of the land and remained dominant in the region” (p. 141).

It was only with the massive flow of Quakers into the Delaware Valley that the Lenapes’ hold over the land was challenged. In the first decade of Penn’s “holy experiment,” eight thousand colonists flooded the Delaware Valley, slowly overwhelming the Lenape demographically and politically (p. 201). To be sure, Soderlund insists that “Penn and his colonists” recognized “that the pre-1681 inhabitants could still exert power” well into the eighteenth century; however, the Lenape were no longer the Delaware Valley’s power-brokers—a sobering reality that Soderlund documents most vividly in her discussion of the 1737 Walking Purchase (pp. 184-185).

While Soderlund makes a compelling argument to decenter Quakers from the narrative of the colonial Delaware Valley, her methodological approach has some limitations. The book is a narrative history, and is crafted according to the imperatives of a traditional historian. Soderlund relies almost exclusively on close readings of English, Dutch, and Swedish sources. While she actively incorporates the work of ethnographers and ethnohistorians into her text and interpretations, she rarely invokes evidence from archaeology or oral history. Soderlund’s commitment to cross-reading Euramerican documents to the exclusion of other evidence sometimes causes her to use a Euramerican analytical framework that would have been unfamiliar to her Amerindian subjects. For instance, she argues that the Lenape and their Euramerican counterparts often cooperated, in part, to more easily reap “economic profits” (p. 204). Such a conceit tends to ensnare the Lenape in a Euramerican language, and epistemology, of exchange.

These limitations notwithstanding, Lenape Country is an innovative book that should spur new work on the Delaware Valley and colonial Pennsylvania. By challenging scholars to think about the messy origins of tolerance and peace, as concepts rooted in violence and negotiation, Soderlund urges scholars to reconsider what constitutes pluralism, and how such concepts were or could be shaped, seized, or trampled over by successive generations.



[2]. Kathleen Duval, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

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Citation: Kyle Repella. Review of Soderlund, Jean R., Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society before William Penn. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016. URL:

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