SEAVILLE – Many Cape May County residents know that our area has long been influenced by vestiges of Lenni-Lenape history. The names of rivers, streets, lakes, even campgrounds bear witness to these traces.
“Tuckahoe” is a reminder that the first white settlers ate Indian food while waiting for their own crops to harvest. The name was used by the Algonquin Nation, of which the Lenni-Lenape were a part, for bulbous roots that the European settlers used extensively in their diet. Varieties of this root were called in English "Indian" turnip, golden club, or arrow arum with an arrow-shaped leaf. The word "tuckahoe" also meant a fungus growing underground which the settlers spoke of as "Indian loaf" or "Indian bread.” All these roots can still be found throughout Cape May County.
In related fashion, people in Eastern Virginia even today are nicknamed "Tuckahoe,” probably because this Indian food saved the settlers there under Capt. John Smith from starving. Two villages in New York State also bear the name of Tuckahoe.
Similarly, the name “Nummy” or "King" Nummy, namesake of the lake at Belleplain State Park in Woodbine among other sites, was head of the Unalachtigo Tribe, a branch of the Lenni-Lenape. Part of his territory included what is now Rio Grande in Middle Township, Town Bank in Lower Township and Cape May. His existence has been verified since he is recorded as selling a whale to a Dutch settler in 1685. But although there was a cordial relationship on the Cape between the Lenape and the Dutch there was also a wariness in view of the events that were unfolding across the Delaware Bay in the usually peaceful town of Zwaanendael (now Lewes) its name meaning in Dutch “valley of the swans.”
A group of angry Nanticoke Indians had risen up and massacred the town’s population over what turned out to be a trivial misunderstanding and the Dutch decided in the late 1600s to move on and leave whaling to other settlers because of this incident.
Outside the Senior Center on Stagecoach Road in Seaville stands a totem pole, complete with traditional carvings and painted animals, paying homage to the Native Americans who once called the entire county their home.
But who were these ancient people? The Native Americans who inhabited Cape May County pre-European settler, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, have remained in the area of the Delaware Bay for over 10,000 years. Hubs of tribal activity are documented from the 18th century onward with villages throughout southern New Jersey along the Delaware Bay and extending toward the Atlantic Coast, throughout the period of early European contact.
Today the tribe is made up of approximately 3,000 citizens and has a constitutionally organized government that operates several subordinate entities and numerous programs for the support of tribal members. The tribe is unique in that it has passed a law to prevent it from profiting from any form of vice, specifically forbidding it from being involved in the development of casino gaming.
"These values and especially those against gambling have been instilled in all of us since we can remember by our elders, and we absolutely respect their counsel and words,” said tribal historian and church pastor Dr. John Norwood. “It would be unthinkable to do anything contrary to their advice and our traditions,” he further explained.
Many Native Americans were forced to leave New Jersey during the 1700s when eastern tribes were being displaced by colonial expansion. These tribes are not extinct, but except for the descendants of New Jersey Native American people who hid or assimilated into white society, they do not live in New Jersey anymore. Most tribes that once were native to New Jersey ended up on Indian reservations in Oklahoma or migrated to Canada. In fact, there are no federally recognized Native American tribes in New Jersey today.
The Lenni-Lenape traveled with the seasons, making full use of area resources. During the spring they planted gardens around their permanent settlements. In the summer, they went to the shore to catch fish and shellfish especially oysters and clams and stay cool. In the fall, they would move back to their village and harvest their crops. In the winter, they hunted deer and other animals. Many of their footpaths and trails became the early highway system for the Europeans.
The New Jersey Assembly in 1758 established a permanent home or “reserved land” for the Lenni-Lenape in Burlington County. At that point, the tribe relinquished all rights to New Jersey, except for hunting and fishing privileges.
Norwood's Lenape ancestors were those who inhabited New Jersey at the time the Europeans came. Lenni-Lenape literally means "Men of Men," but is translated to signify "Original People." From the early 1600's, the European settlers called the Lenape people "Delaware Indians" because they lived all along both sides of the banks of that river.
The Lenni-Lenape were known as peace loving and often mediated disputes among neighboring tribes and were also admired for this trait by the Quakers, with whom to this day they maintain excellent and close connections.
Many county residents might be surprised to learn that the Leni-Lenape are still active within our area. Tryese (pronounced Ty-ese with a silent "r" which means "flower" in Seminole) Gould is the manager of the Native Advancement Corp. She also is the daughter of the chief of the tribe that has its epicenter in Bridgeton. This organization has been implementing federal and state grants for over 20 years to improve the lives of the disadvantaged.
In 2009, the corporation was successful in applying for grants from the federal level Department of Energy administered through N.J.'s Department of Community Affairs to weatherize homes for people under a certain income level termed "impoverished” in Cape May County as well as Atlantic County.
“When we first heard we would be working in Cape May County, we thought we were going to the highest income area of N.J. but what we've discovered is quite the opposite. I would call Cape May County 'the land of the forgotten' with a huge pocket of poverty - the people are so nice but many are truly poor and these needy people live throughout the county not just in one area,' said Gould. The Native American Advancement Corp. is now serving over 375 homes in the two counties where they are presently active, Cape May County and Atlantic County.
The Corporation offers a full menu of insulation, heating replacement and energy efficiency improvements within the guidelines of DOE audits through the approximately 8.5 million dollars they have received from DCA since 2009. Corporation workers are not limited to Native Americans although the corporation itself is the only one in N.J. run by a Native American tribe in this grant program. The corporation also trains the employees who go out on the various jobs under the grants.
“We are so happy to be able to help people who are really in need," continued Gould. "My grandmother used to tell me stories that when she was growing up she wasn't allowed to ever admit outside the home that she was Native American, so I feel proud we have this opportunity to do good for others and also teach and employ people who need jobs," continued Gould.
Both Gould and Underwood bear what they term "leave behind names." This means that their surnames spring from the Dutch, Swedes and English who populated their native homeland, married with tribal peoples and intertwined their European heritage with them.
Also left behind in Cape May County are burial grounds of those Lenape who remained here after the “great exodus” of 1735 when the tribes decided to move away because they needed more land. Native Americans are said to be buried in the historic cemetery of Cold Spring Church and other Cape May County graveyards. King Nummy was the last “king” or chief of his tribe and he also is thought to be buried in the county. By the time of the Civil War very few Lenape remained at all in Cape May County.
To celebrate and remember their thousands of years of history and culture, Norwood said that the Lenni-Lenape will be opening a new museum by early summer in Fairfield Township, Cumberland County. Construction of the museum has been funded totally by donations including from tribal, charitable corporations.
Another way to experience the links of our area with its Native American roots is when the Lenape hold their annual Powwow each year during the second weekend of June in Salem County. All are welcome to attend and learn about Native American culture especially dancing performed by different tribal representatives from all over the U.S.
To contact Camille Sailer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.