Lenape Libertarianism

Peace. Tolerance. Autonomy. If asked who established these concepts on the North American continent, I’m sure many would respond the Founding Fathers. Those more familiar with the history of the Delaware Valley would say the Quakers. While great guesses, historical ‘myth buster’ Dr. Jean R. Soderlund of Lehigh University asserts that the Lenape Indians established these ‘American’ values prior to the other groups’ respective arrivals. She elucidated her ideas at the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 9th.

The parallels between Lenape society and modern day libertarian thought amazed me. The Lenape opposed the concept of a central government. They lived in small autonomous villages. A ‘sachem’ led each town. These villages would ally only for purposes of war and diplomacy. I interpret this act as forming a de-facto central government for the purpose of foreign affairs.

Freedom served as the core value of their society. They permitted their children to ‘run free’, in Dr. Soderlund’s words. Women had a much higher status in society than their European counterparts. They even had the authority to divorce if they so choose. These socially liberal ideas didn’t exist among newcomers to the region.

The Lenape supported free trade. Corn, beans and squash served as their major agricultural products. They would exchange these items with Europeans in return for cloth.

While establishing a reputation for welcoming others into their society, they resorted to force when necessary. Dr. Soderlund used the Swanendael Massacre of 1631 as an example. The tragedy germinated from a communication gap between the Lenape and the Dutch. The latter asked the former to turn over a sachem. He’d defaced a sign defining the area as Dutch territory. The Lenape killed the chief and provided his head. The Dutch had a much more benign punishment in mind, but the language barrier complicated their request. The sachem’s family executed 32 members of the Dutch settlement as retribution.

Dr. Soderlund asserted that the Lenape resorted to violence to encourage the settlers to go elsewhere. They recognized European encroachment in the region. This act sent a message. In 1687 the Lenape wouldn’t allow cartographer Thomas Holme access to their lands to complete his map, either.

The Walking Purchase of 1737 concluded the professor’s lecture. An unscrupulous negotiator inveigled a large tract of land in Eastern Pennsylvania from the Lenape. Their distrust of government and the settlers turned out well-founded.

Dr. Soderlund delivered a well-researched presentation on Lenape life. I’m still amazed by their libertarian value system. The professor discredited various myths surrounding Native American life. Unfortunately no historian can include the narrative of them getting cheated out of their land among them.

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