As Long as the Creeks and Rivers Run: Traces of the Lenni Lenape – Part I: Along the Delaware

By Shawn Evans, Atkin Olshin Schade Architects

Philadelphia’s history stretches long before the advent of photography. Our city had already passed its sesquicentennial when it was first captured in film in 1839.i The historic photos of the City Archives provide a window into the evolution of the city: here we can find beloved buildings lost to changing tastes and to the perceived needs of the automobile, as well as traces of the landscape that existed here for thousands of years prior to William Penn. Among these landscapes are remnants of the natural environment named by the Lenni Lenape who lived here before us. In many cases only the place names survive.

At 37 feet tall, William Penn, is Philadelphia’s largest citizen and visible to all. Standing at the center of an ever-changing city since 1894, he carries on a quiet conversation with the Lenni Lenape Indians, who once occupied many hamlets and campsites within the current city boundaries. Billy Penn gestures northeast towards the place now known as Penn Treaty Park, where in 1682, he met with Chief Tamanend and other indigenous leaders under a great elm tree and made the Treaty of Amity and Friendship. Famously depicted in dozens of paintings and lithographs, Penn wholeheartedly promises equal treatment, to which Chief Tamanend reportedly replied, “We will live in love with William Penn and his children as long as the creeks and rivers run, and while the sun, moon, and stars endure.” ii

The Treaty Elm was situated in an area then known as Shackamaxon. The original Swedish settlers and the English who followed adopted the Lenape name for this place, which is assumed to be derived from Schachamesink – “Place of Eels” or Sakimaucheen “Place where the Chiefs are Made.” iii Shackamaxon was one of the largest Lenape settlements, encompassing the current neighborhoods of Kensington, Fishtown, and Port Richmond. While Penn’s descendants neglected to honor the treaty, this place remains special to both Philadelphians and the Lenape. The Treaty Elm stood until 1810 when it was uprooted in a violent storm.iv As early as 1825, plans were made to memorialize the site. A monument was erected, but Penn Treaty Park did not open until 1893. Numerous descendants of the Treaty Elm have been planted at the site, most recently in May 2010, and a number of recent Lenape ceremonies have been held here.v

One mile up the Delaware River, known to the Lenni Lenape as Makerisk-kitton, meaning “the great tide-water river,” another Lenape place exists today only on street signs.vi Aramingo Avenue takes its name from the creek that emptied into the river where Aramingo meets I-95 in Kensington. In 1850 this area was incorporated as Aramingo Borough, but its self-governance was short-lived. Aramingo and all other municipalities within Philadelphia County were consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1854. Aramingo Creek, also known as Gunner’s Run, was converted into a canal and eventually transformed into a covered sewer.vii Aramingo is believed to be a derivation of the Lenape word, Tumanaraming, which means “wolf walk.” viii The Aramingo Canal is seen here in 1900 shortly before it was covered.

Frankford Creek, which empties into the Delaware at the foot of the Betsy Ross Bridge, was known to the Lenape as Quessinawomink. Just south of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge was the Wissinoming Creek, another missing waterway, whose name is derived from the Lenape word, Wischanemunk meaning “Where We Are Frightened.” Although the creek is gone, the neighborhood preserves the place name.ix

North of these creeks was a Lenape settlement named Pemapaki, meaning “Lake Land.” x This settlement was likely in at the mouth of the Pennypack Creek, an Anglicized spelling of the Lenape place name. Pennypack Park was established in 1905 and retains sizable natural areas, such as depicted in this 1900 photograph of a wooden bridge at Rhawn Street. At Frankford Avenue, an historic masonry bridge crosses Pennypack Creek. Seen here during an 1893 widening, the bridge dates to 1697 and is the oldest roadway bridge in the country.xi A National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, its original construction was directed by William Penn as a key component of the King’s Highway connecting Philadelphia to Boston. This structure was crossed by both the first generations of European settlers and last generations of Lenape prior to their relocation.

The Poquessing Creek forms the northeastern boundary of Philadelphia where it meets Bucks County. Along the mouth of this creek was a Lenape hamlet known as Poquesink, meaning “place of the mice.” xii The Glen Foerd Mansion has occupied this remarkable site since about 1850. This image shows several bridges spanning the Poquessing just west of Glen Foerd.

In South Philadelphia, one other Lenape village is known to have occupied the shores of the Delaware River within the current city limits. Now known as Queen Village, this neighborhood had previously been known as Southwark, the name given by William Penn to “New Sweden,” a small community of Swedish settlers who had arrived in 1642. The Swedes established their colony where Hollander Creek emptied into the Delaware, a place occupied by Lenape. Known to them as Wequiaquenske, a likely combination of Wiquek “head of Creek” and Kuwe “pine tree,” the name means “Place of Pine Trees at the Head of a Creek.” xiii The name has been Anglicized to Wicaco and Weccacoe. The Swedish settlers retained usage of the Lenape place name, referring to one of the first public structures erected as the Wicaco Blockhouse, seen here in its reconstructed form, adjacent to the American Historical Museum in FDR Park. This building was constructed in 1669 and demolished in 1698 to make room for Old Swede’s Church. Weccacoe carries forth as the name of a beloved neighborhood park, facing these typical Queen Village houses on the 400 block of Catherine Street.

See Part II for a tracing of Lenni Lenape places up the Schuylkill River.

References:

[i] Looney, Robert F. Old Philadelphia in Early Photographs, 1839-1914, 215 Prints from the Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976.

[ii] Milano, Kenneth W. The History of Penn Treaty Park. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009, p.21.

[iii] Cotter, John L., Daniel G. Roberts, and Michael Parrington. The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992, p.28.

[iv] Penn Treaty Museum website, www.penntreatymuseum.org, accessed 6/23/2010.

[v] Elissa Lala, “Penn Treaty Elm replanted from original’s descendant.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 May 2010, accessed 6/23/2010.

[vi] Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge. Vol. V. Philadelphia: John C. Clark, 1854, p.127.

[vii] Philly H2O: The History of Philadelphia’s Watersheds. http://www.phillyh2o.org/backpages/AraCan.htm, accessed 6/23/2010.

[viii] Cotter, p.28.

[ix] Cotter, p.29.

[x] Cotter, p.28.

[xi] Historic American Building Surveys: http://loc.gov/pictures/item/pa3584/, accessed 6/23/2010.

[xii] Cotter, p.28

[xiii] Cotter, p.28. Many sources identify the meaning of Weccacoe as “pleasant place.” See “From Weccacoe to South Philadelphia” http://www.hsp.org/default.aspx?id=1074, accessed 6/23/2010.

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