Native Peoples of NJ

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

Some New Jerseyites trace their roots in the state back thousands of years. I'm not too clear on the state's early human history, but I know a bit about its residents around the time Europeans first started arriving.

At the beginning of the 17th century, all of present-day New Jersey was within the territory of a people referred to as the Leni-Lenape. Lenapehoking, as this country is sometimes called, encompassed the entire Delaware valley, from the western Catskills down both sides of the river and bay, extending well into present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware, also stretching east to the Atlantic coast, and a certain distance up the Hudson Valley. Three distinct regions comprised the nation, according to the Nanticoke-Lenape tribal history website: "Three main dialect clans, each made up of smaller independent but interrelated communities, extended from the northern part of our ancient homeland at the headwaters of the Delaware River down to the Delaware Bay. The Munsee (People of the Stony Country) lived in the north. The Unami (People Down River) and the Unalachtigo (People Who Live Near the Ocean) inhabited the central and southern areas of the homeland of the Lenni-Lenape."

In that time, the Lenape lived in fortified villages of longhouses, grew maize, beans and squash, fished in NJ's then bountiful rivers, harvested shellfish from its bays and salt marshes, hunted its game, and collected forest products such as chestnuts and acorns. According to some traditions, they are an especially ancient nation from which all of the tribes of the Algonquin language group descend.

One of Lenapehoking's main transportation corridors, the Minisink Path, linked the bays and inlets of NJ's Atlantic coast with the Highlands and the Delaware river. The path's southeastern terminus was at the head of the Navesink River's estuary, by present-day Red Bank. The Garden State Parkway follows its general route through Central Jersey, up to Union county, where the path crossed the Watchung Mountains at Springfield, in the gap currently occupied by Route 24. Heading northwest through the Highlands, it seems to have split into several branches: one via Morristown (now roughly followed by Routes 24, 15 and 206), and another north to Pequannock, then up the Pequannock River's steep-sided valley (now scenic route 23). The path's northwestern destination was Minisink Island on the Delaware River, an important settlement and crossroads, now in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, just south of Milford, PA. It most certainly reached the Delaware via Culver's Gap in the Kitatinny Ridge (Route 206 today).

The Minisink Path: Very Approximate Route

The area was dense with secondary routes connecting to the Minisink Path. One crossed the Raritan at New Brunswick and continued down to Trenton. Another, called the Burlington Path, ran southwest across Monmouth County, ending at Burlington on the Delaware - a vaguely Turnpike-esque route. Of local interest to Essex County residents, all of the current routes across the Watchung Mountains reportedly date back to local paths of this era: South Orange Ave., Northfield Ave., Mt. Pleasant Ave., Eagle Rock Ave., and Route 46 near Montclair State.

Without getting too deep into the geopolitical intricacies of the colonial era, the Lenapes had a complicated relationship with the Dutch, the area's first settlers (aside from a short-lived Swedish colony), in the 17th century. Some mutually beneficial trade agreements and treaties alternated with bitter fighting on both a local and continental scale. The devastating effects of European diseases also dramatically reduced their population and power in the region.

The unrelenting immigration of often hostile Europeans and the aggressive, deceitful policies of European and colonial governments created a volatile situation by the early 18th century. During this period of conflict, many Lenapes, like Indians of all tribes were enslaved or forced to leave their homes. The violence culminated in the French and Indian War, and the Treaty of Easton, at which point many Lenapes agreed to leave New Jersey in exchange for promises of land farther west. This was part of a larger diaspora of the Lenape to the west and north. It seems that many Munsee went north, while Umani and Unalachtigo tended to go west, making up what we refer to as the Delaware people.

The history of these migrants over the next 200 years is fascinating and certainly worth reading about for anyone interested in US History, but is out of the scope of this website, having brought them to places as far-flung as Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, etc.

However, a number of Lenapes stayed in New Jersey, maintaining their own identity despite persecution. In modern times, descendents of the migrants have returned to join them. Recently, some of these communities have been able to gain official recognition. You can read more about them below.


"Our Tribal History..."
We Are Still Here! The Tribal Saga of New Jersey’s Nanticoke and Lenape Indians by John R. Norwood
History of the Oranges, in Essex County, N.J.: From 1666 to 1806 by Stephen Wickes