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William Penn Describes the Lenni-Lenape Indians of Pennsylvania

This account of Native American life in Pennsylvania was published by the colony's founder, William Penn, who hoped to encourage settlement in the colony. Describing the physical appearance, diet, shelter, rituals and mannerisms of the Lenni-Lenape, or Delaware, people, Penn is lavish in his praise. While his description of the Indians as "light of Heart, strong Affections...the most merry Creatures that live, Feast, and Dance perpetually" was no doubt meant to quell European fears about Native American "savages," he qualifies his description with the admission that "they are the worse for the Christians, who have propagated their Vices, and yielded them Tradition for ill, and not for good things." Penn ends with a seemingly heartfelt plea for fair treatment of the colony's native population; for, as he puts it, "it were miserable indeed for us to fall under the just censure of the poor Indian Conscience." The author's original spelling and punctuation has been preserved.

XI.  The Natives I shall consider in their Persons, Language, Manners, Religion and Government, with my sence of the Original.  For their Persons, they are generally tall, streight, well-built, and of singular Proportion; they tread strong and clever, and mostly walk with a lofty Chin: Of Complexion, Black, but by design, as the Gypsies in England: They grease themselves with Bears-fat clarified, and using no defence against Sun or Weather, their skins must needs be swarthy; Their Eye is little and black, not unlike a straighy-look't Jew: The think Lip and flat Nose, so frequent with the East-Indians and Blacks, are not common for them; for I have seen as comely European-like faces among them of both, as on your side the Sea; and truly the Italian Complexion hath not much of the White, and the Noses of several of them have as much of the Roman.  

XV. Their Houses are Mats, or Barks of Trees set on Poles, in the fashion of an English Barn, but out of the power of the Winds, for they are hardly higher than a Man; they lie on Reeds or Grass.  In Travel they lodge in the Woods about a Great Fire, with the Mantle of Duffills they wear by day, wrapt about them, and a few Boughs stuck round them.

XVI. Their Diet is Maze, or Indian Corn, divers ways prepared: sometimes roasted in the Ashes, sometimes beaten and Boyled with Water, which they call Homine; they also make Cakes, not unpleasant to eat: They have likewise several sorts of Beans and Pease that are good Nourishment; and the Woods and Rivers are their Larder. 

XIX.  But in Liberality they excell, nothing is too good for their friend; give them a fine Gun, Coat or other thing, it may pass twenty hands, before it sticks; light of Heart, strong Affections, but soon spent; the most merry Creatures that live, Feast, and Dance perpetually; they never have much, nor want much: Wealth circulateth like the Blood, all parts partake; and though none shall want what another hath, yet exact Observers of Property...They care little, because they want but little; and the Reason is, a little contents them: In this they are sufficiently revenged on us; If they are ignorant of our Pleasures, they are also free from our Pains.  They are not disquieted with Bills of Lading and Exchange, nor perplexed with Chancery-Suits and Exchequer-Reckonings...Since the European came into these parts, they are grown great lovers of strong Liquors, Rum especially, and for it, exchange the richest of their Skins and Furs: If they are heated with Liquors, they are restless till they have enough to sleep; that is their cry, Some more, and I will go to sleep; but when Drunk, one of the most wretchedst Spectacles in the world.  

XXI. These poor people are under a dark Night in things relating to Religion, to be sure, the Tradition of it; yet they believe a God and Immortality, without the help of Metaphysicks; for they say, There is a great King that made them, who dwells in a glorious Country to the Southward of them, and that the Souls of the good shall go thither, where they shall live again.  Their Sacrifice is their first Fruits; the first and fattest Buck they can kill, goeth to the fire, where he is all burnt with a Mournful Ditty of him that performeth the Ceremony, buth with such marvellous Fervency and Labour of Body that he will even sweat to a foam.  The other part is their Cantico, performed by round-Dances, sometimes Words, sometimes Songs, then Shouts, two being in the middle that begin, and by Singing and Drumming on a Board direct the Chorus: Their Postures in the Dance are very Antick and differing, but all keep measure.  This is done with equal Earnestness and Labour, but great appearance of Joy.  In the Fall, when the Corn cometh in, they begin to feast one another; there have been two great Festivals already, to which all come that will: I was at one my self; their Entertainment was a green Seat by a Spring, under some shady Trees, and twenty Bucks with hot Cakes of new Corn, both Wheat and Beans, which they make up in a square form, in the leaves of the Stem, and bake them in the Ashes: And after that they fell to Dance, But they that go, must carry a small Present in their Money, it may be six Pence, which s made of the Bone of a Fish; the black is with them as Gold, the white, Silver; they call it all Wampum.  

XXV.  We have agreed, that in all Differences between us, Six of each side shall end the matter: Don't abuse them, but let them have Justice, and you win them: The worst is, that they are the worse for the Christians, who have propagated their Vices, and yielded them Tradition for ill, and not for good things.  But as low an Ebb as they are at, and as glorious as their Condition looks, the Christians have not out-liv'd their sight with all their Pretensions to an higher Manifestation: What good then might not a good People graft, where there is so distinct a Knowledge left between Good and Evil?  I beseech God to incline the Hearts of all that come into these parts, to out-live the Knowledge of the Natives, but a fixt obedience to their 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, while we make profession of things so far transcending.  

Source | William Penn, A Letter from William Penny, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of the Province, residing in London (London, 1683), 29; available from History Matters,
Creator | William Penn
Item Type | Pamphlet/Petition
Cite This document | William Penn, “William Penn Describes the Lenni-Lenape Indians of Pennsylvania,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 11, 2023,

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