Precolonial Indigenous Residents

Penn's Treaty with the Indians at Shackamaxon: oil painting by Benjamin West, 1771-72. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

Before the arrival of European settlers, eastern Pennsylvania was primarily inhabited by the Lenni Lenape (meaning “real” or “original” people).  Driven from their original homelands in the Mississippi valley by more powerful neighbors, the Lenape are said to have occupied the area for almost 10,000 years before Europeans came to the region. By the early 17th century, the Lenape numbered nearly 5,000 and lived peaceably on the banks of the Delaware.  This earned them the name of “the Delaware” from settlers who had difficulty pronouncing the word “Lenape.”

It is believed that the first Europeans the Lenape encountered were the Dutch in 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the Delaware under the Dutch flag.  Portions of lower Bucks County were subsequently purchased by Swedes from the Lenape in 1640.  By the time William Penn arrived in the territory in 1682, the Lenape had declined in number and power and were vassals of the Iroquois Confederacy.

The earliest European settlers included the Swedes near Philadelphia and the Scots-Irish in today’s Lehigh Valley.  Large numbers of Germans arrived in the 1730s, becoming known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (or “Deutsch” / Germans).  White settlers and the Lenape coexisted and the Lenape were reported to have been mild, amiable and kindly-disposed people.  

The Lenape consisted of three major sub tribes.  One of these, the Unami, occupied the Delaware River Valley (or “Great Valley” as the area was referred to) from the junction of the Lehigh River southward to what is now New Castle, Delaware.  Here they hunted deer, grew vegetables and grains, and fished.  The greater portion of those living in the present limits of Bucks County were known as Neshaminies, a name possibly derived from one of the county’s largest streams.

The principal village of the Delaware tribe was Shackamaxon, now part of Philadelphia, where Penn and the Lenape are believed to have made their famous treaty.  Otherwise there were few permanent villages, although tribes reportedly camped at the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers (by present-day Easton). This area was considered of great importance because it was one of the region’s main east-west pathways, as well as a cross road for major north-south trails. 

Indigenous occupants encountered at the location of Durham, PA

Different historical accounts describe a thriving village, called Pechoqueolin, of indigenous people encountered by the first European explorers and settlers in the area of present-day Durham and Riegelsville. These occupants were said to be of the Shawnee people, an itinerant branch of Algonquin speakers related to the Lenni Lenape. The group may have been effectively refugees of tribal conflicts that drove them east from homelands in present-day Ohio-Kentucky. By some accounts the Lenape tribe, dominant along the Delaware river, assigned a Shawnee group arriving in the 1690s to secure this area close by known deposits of iron ore.

The site of an extensive village has been traced from the Riegelsville Delaware bridge southward as far as [Cooks Creek], and inland a distance of a half-mile with the course of Durham (Cooks) creek. (Other sources recognize Pechoqueolin as based on the mouth of Gallows Run further to the south.) The remains of earthen fireplaces, pottery, and stone implements were quite numerous, . . .  but have steadily disappeared under the frequent drafts of relic-hunters. This town existed in 1727 under the name of Pechoqueolin, at which time it was presided over by a chieftain, who bore the euphonious name of Gachgawatchqua. He was accountable for the deeds and misdeeds of his people to the Lenni Lenapes, and held the land by a tenure which bore some resemblance to the feudal system of the middle ages. His people were Shawanese. They were a brave, active, turbulent, and warlike people. They seem to have been comfortably established here.

– Bell

It is stated in a letter from James Logan to George Clark, dated August 4, 1737, that when the Shawonoe Indians came from the south, in 1698, one party of them “was placed at Pechoqueolin, near Durham, to take care of the iron mines.” Their village was probably on the high ground back of the lower end of Riegelsville and near the furnace, where traces of an Indian town are still to be seen, and where arrowheads and other remains of the red man [sic] are picked up. The chief in charge of the village near Durham, in 1728, was called Ka-kow-watchy.

– Davis

William Penn aspired to peaceable relations with the Lenape and developed great respect for them.  Living amongst the Lenape in the remote interior of Bucks County in 1683, Penn learned about their ways as well as about Pennsylvania’s topography, vegetation, streams, rivers, climate, fish and game.  Describing them as “kings, queens and great men” in his letter to the Free Society of Traders that summer, Penn expressed concern for the future of the Lenape.  He expressed a hope that immigrants would adhere to the tribe’s “greater knowledge of the will of God, for it were miserable indeed for us to fall under the just censure of the poor Indian conscience.” 

Throughout his life, Penn worked to treat Indians fairly and encourage amicable settlements in all purchases of lands.  However rising European immigration and the seizure of Indian lands resulted in a very different outcome than the one Penn had wished for.  Relations changed drastically when his own sons instigated the infamous 1737 Walking Purchase after Penn’s death, swindling the Lenape out of 1,200 square miles of prime hunting territory.  This land theft — as well as settler encroachment, the Lenape’s own loose confederacy, and the dominance of the Iroquois — have been cited by historians as primary reasons for the Delaware’s decline in the area.

The Lenape were eventually driven west, part of what became known as the Delaware Westward Trek, and northward. Along with the Iroquois, the Lenape became pawns between the French, English and colonists in the French and Indian Wars of the 1740s.  Hostile to the British for the theft of their lands through the Walking Purchase, the Lenape were willing to fight with the French.  Repeated attacks on the family of Edward Marshall (party to the Walking Purchase), in which his wife and two children were killed in their home in Tinicum township, attest to the ongoing animosity.

Treaties in Easton in 1756 and 1758 drove the remaining Lenape from the region, despite Moravian missionaries’ best efforts to save them.  Massacres occurred between the Lenape and settlers, both in retaliation for the stolen lands and in lawless militia actions.  According to historian William Heller and writer Carl LaVo, this massacre of a Bucks County Lenape tribe by a Pennsylvania militia sparked vows of vengeance from western Indian tribes and helped trigger the Indian Wars of the American West in the 1800s.  

Today’s Lenape live mostly in Oklahoma.  According to Chet Brooks, Lenape tribe member and historian, less than a thousand of them survived the trip to Indian territory.  To keep Lenape culture alive, the Lenape hold weekly traditional language, clothing and dance classes.  To learn more about the Lenape Nation, click here: https://www.lenape-nation.org.


Bell, Herbert C. Durham Township. Philadelphia, PA, 1887.

Davis, William W.H. The History of Bucks County Pennsylvania: from the discovery of the Delaware to the present time. Doylestown, PA,1876 and 1905 editions.

Lenni Lenape Indians of Bucks County  – https://www.livingplaces.com/PA/Bucks_County/lenni-lenape-indians-of-bucks-county-pennsylvania.html

A Timeline of Bucks County History (Mercer Museum) – https://www.mercermuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/A-Timeline-of-Bucks-County-History-1600s-1900s-rev-8-14-13.pdf

The First Pennsylvania Americans – https://www.livingplaces.com/PA/Pennsylvania_Indians.html

NPR: Lenape Indians, The Original Philadelphians (Sunday Weekend Edition) – https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92914200

Transformation of People and Places – https://delawareandlehigh.org/about/history/transformation-of-people-and-places/

Legacy of the Lenape – https://www.lvpnews.com/20170624/legacy-of-the-lenape-lehigh-valley-heritage-museum-tries-to-set-the-record/

Creek Jumping on Gallows Hill (Carl LaVo) – http://buckscountyadventures.org/creek-jumping-on-gallows-hill/

Lost Horizons (Carl LaVo) – http://buckscountyadventures.org/lost-horizons/

Recalling the Massacre of a Bucks County Lenape tribe by PA Militia (Carl LaVo) –  https://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com/article/20151130/lifestyle/311309921

Welcome to Lehigh Valley History – http://www.lehighvalleyhistory.com/