Interrelated Tribes

Delaware Bay

The Interrelated Nanticoke-Lenape Tribes

There are three historically interrelated tribes of the Delaware Bay, The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation of New Jersey, the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, and the Nanticoke Indian Tribe of Delaware.

Each of these tribal nations are well documented in the historic record from before the establishment of the United States. The tribal communities, made up of Nanticoke (originally called “Nentego”) and Lenape (also known as “Delaware”) Indians, have intermarried for generations.

The core historic tribal families have been specifically identified extending back to colonial times and their unique

continuing communities have been studied by noted researchers for over a century.  While many Lenape and Nanticoke people migrated away from our ancient homeland, our families remained, coalescing into three self isolating tribal communities in southern New Jersey and Delaware.

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware and the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation of New Jersey are also in an intertribal Confederation, which mandates member tribes to require a documented blood descent standard for tribal enrollment and, in accordance with tribal spiritual values, to maintain a tribal ban on pursuing the development of casino-style gaming.

Continuing Nanticoke and Lenape Tribal Communities of the Delaware Bay Area

A Brief Overview

by John Norwood

Since the mid nineteenth century, evidence has shown that the indigenous people of the of the eastern Chesapeake and Delaware Bay region did not all migrate out of the area. Tribal communities remained intact from the colonial period and continued as distinct, self-isolating, self governing bands. Government records, news articles, anthropological inquiries, and archaeological studies demonstrate that two interrelated communities in Delaware, and another in southern New Jersey, maintained their own religious, social, and educational institutions, practiced endogamy, and continued a tribal existence from before the founding of the United States.

An 1855 court case in Delaware1 brings to light that Nanticoke Indians remained in the area of a colonial era American Indian community in what today is Millsboro, Sussex County. This is supported by court testimony, which specifically identifies several Nanticoke families and references them as part of a larger Nanticoke community. The claim is further supported by military records dating back a century earlier2 and an 1881 Delaware law that lists some of the members of the community as exempt from a school tax due to a special racial designation.3 The community included descendants of at least three disbanded reservations from the colonial period.

In the 1870’s, a cloistered community of Indians also established their own school in the area of modern day Cheswold in Kent County, which was called “Moortown.” This group, commonly referred to as “Moors,” is cited to have been in that area since at least 1710.4 This tribal community self-identifies as both Lenape/Delaware and Nanticoke according to an 1892 news article5 and subsequent anthropological reports.

By the mid nineteenth century, the genealogy of the two related Delaware communities is intermixed with another indigenous community in southern New Jersey, in the area of Bridgeton in Cumberland County.6 Some of the members of this community were related to the residents of the state’s “Brotherton Reservation,” which had been disbanded in the early 1800’s. Most had been converted to Christianity and formed their own church by 1820. The common understanding was that they were the remnants of the Lenape and Nanticoke community called “Indians of Cohansey Bridge.” They came to be known variously as “Gouldtowners,” “Moors,” and “Nanticokes” up through the mid twentieth century.

From at least the mid 1800’s to the mid 1900’s, the three communities know their own members, acknowledge each other as “our people,” fellowship through seasonal social events, relegate “acceptable” marriages as exclusive to members of the three communities,7and have their own schools and churches. In Delaware, the schools are legally identified as exclusively for the special racial grouping, variously called “Nanticoke,” “Moor,” or “Indian” … designations which are used interchangeably in public records of the period. Each is zealously protective of community control over their local congregations, to the extent that any demographic shift in the congregation to include non-community members provokes
church splits. The congregations serve as the seat of tribal governance and are a catalyst to continued interaction between the three communities.

A 1903 Delaware Law acknowledges those descended from the individuals listed in the 1881 special racial status exemption from school tax as “Nanticoke Indians” and allows them to request documentation indicating the same for purposes of “migrating.”8 By this time, the state legislature acknowledges that Nanticoke/Moor Indian families are throughout the state. Subsequent investigations determine that, even though they have intermarried, while the Millsboro community is primarily Nanticoke, the Cheswold Community is identified as primarily Lenape.9 During this time of economic difficulty, many Nanticoke/Moor families are leaving Delaware and moving to southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. They join small tribal neighborhoods already formed in those areas. This follows a pattern of migration from the previous century, during which small communities of Nanticoke/Moor families migrated westward to Michigan and Ontario, maintaining a semblance of community in those locations, and where they are identified in public records as “Indian.”

Records describing the racial identity for American Indians remaining in the homeland is a matter of some confusion due to bias and politics. Delaware took steps in 1740 to define an “Indian” as a non-Christian living in the woods and eating primarily deer meat. This definition was later modified in 1770 to exclusively refer to those living far away from the state. Similarly, New Jersey sought to eradicate any notion of remaining Indians by claiming a termination of any treaty obligations with its indigenous people with the disbanding of the Brotherton Reservation and relocation of the 70 or so Indian residents away from the state, while no longer acknowledging the remaining Indian communities, despite the fact that an 1823 treaty with the Brothertons directly referred to New Jersey’s remaining remnant tribal communities.10 Indians who were baptized as Christian and adopted western clothing and housing were no longer typically viewed as “Indian” in public documents, but were called “free people of color,” “colored,” “mulattoes,” or were not racially identified at all. The error is further perpetuated as some Indians were enslaved in both states. White racial bias and stereotyping eventually viewed all mixed race Indians remaining in the eastern part of the country as mulatto or negro, regardless of the individual genealogy or ethnic identity, which is an error continued by some researchers even today. The communities became increasingly cloistered from the larger society, and were more focused on community survival than they were on making public declarations of tribalism. However, even during the early twentieth century, a chief was elected and pow wows were conducted in Millsboro, Indians traveling to the Jersey shore from outside of the state saw a safe haven of rest among the Indians of Bridgeton, the Cheswold Indian community continued its own Board of Education, and those who married outside of the communities were typically excluded from tribal interaction. From 1945 to 1980, thirty-four of Delaware’s Nanticokes attend the Haskell Institute of Kansas,11 which only allows enrollment of American Indians.

Anthropological reports,12 ethnological surveys,13 news articles,14 and government records, beginning in the 1880’s, not only identify and describe the three tribal communities, but also identify the tribal families. Increased interest in the communities resulted in numerous studies, and their inclusion in reports to the United States Congress in the 1940’s.15 Community transformation in the wake of the national impact of the Civil Rights Movement through the 1950’s and 1960’s results in bolder and more public tribal activity and a further evolution of the tribal governance in the 1970’s, marked by a decreased reliance on the tribal churches as the primary centers of community activity.

Today, these communities are known as the “Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation” in Cumberland County, New Jersey, the “Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware” in Kent County and the “Nanticoke Indian Tribe” in Sussex County, Delaware. Each tribe is governed by an elected chief and council. The tribal churches that had served as the seats of governance for over 150 years have each been acknowledged as historical American Indian congregations. Each tribe owns land and operates a community charity to support services to tribal citizens. Each requires close blood ties and/or documented blood quantum connecting applicants with the historical tribal families in order to enroll. Each has been designated as an American Indian Tribal Area in the United States Census.

Much more can be said and cited regarding these continuing tribal communities. Their story is yet unfolding and is worthy of more research and documentation.

Copyright © 2011 John Norwood

1State versus Levin Sockum. Court of General Session of the Peace and Jail Delivery of the State of Delaware in and for Sussex County, Court Docket B, April 1855 term, 507.
2Delaware Government Muster Roll of John McClughan, May 22, 1758.
3Delaware Law entitled: An Act to exempt certain persons from the operation of Chapter 48 of Volume 15 of the Laws of Delaware, and to enable them to establish schools for their children in Sussex County. Passed at Dover March 10,1881.
4J. Thomas Scharf, A History of Delaware 1609-1888, vol. 2. (Philadelphia: L.J. Richards and Company, 1888). 1124.
5Author Unknown, “Kent County Moors: A Curious Delaware Community And Its History: Leni Lenapes Of To-Day.” The Times of Philadelphia, May 19, 1892.
6Herbert C. Kraft, The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 B.C. – A.D. 2000 (Shamong, NJ: Lenape Books, 2001), 544.
7C. A. Weslager, Delaware’s Forgotten Folk: The Story of the Moors & Nanticokes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1943), 142.
8Delaware Legislature on March 20, 1903 in Chapter 470 entitled “Miscellaneous,” identifies all named in the previous 1881 act, and their descendants after them, as “Nanticoke Indians,” and provides for legal designation of that identity for the purpose of “migrating.”
9Frank G. Speck. The Nanticoke Community of Delaware (New York: The Heye Foundation, 1915), 8.
10Vernon, New York Treaty of September 23, 1823 between the Brotherton Indians and the Muhheconnuck Tribe.
11C. A. Weslager, Nanticoke Indians Past and Present (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1983), Appendix B.
12William H. Babcock, “The Nanticoke Indians of Indian River, Delaware,”American Anthropologists, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 2. (Apr., 1899): 277-282.
13Letter from James Mooney to “Mr. Furman,” Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, DC June 10, 1897 (unpublished).
14George P. Fisher,The So-Called Moors of Delaware,” Millsboro Herald, June 15, 1895
15William Harlen Gilbert. “Surviving Indian Groups of the Eastern United States,” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of The Smithsonian Institution (1948): 407-438.