The land that we call Mendham Township today, in the era before the Europeans arrived, was occupied by a people who lived in harmony with the land. This native population had slowly traversed our continent from the Bering Strait. What we call New Jersey became the final home to this Algonquin speaking people. They called themselves the Lenni Lenape, which means the original people or the real persons. They settled in this land eight to ten thousand years ago. Their culture developed over time, flourishing until the arrival of the Europeans. The other Algonquin tribes considered the Leni Lenape their forebearers. They referred to Lenape as Grandfather for their wisdom and wise counsel.

What we know as New Jersey today was called Scheyichbi or the land between the waters. There is a large river to the west, starting in the north and framing the western side. The Lenni Lenape called it “Lenape Wihittuck.” Europeans would call it the Delaware after an English Lord and later the Europeans would call the Leni Lenape by the same name.

This river sweeps down the western side of New Jersey and around at the bottom. It ends in Delaware Bay which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, which frames the eastern side. To the north there is a line of hills, the Kittatinny Mountains, which run northeast to southwest, and the Blue Hills also called Watchung Mountains to the east. The Lenape Wihittuck wore down a gap through the mountains as it flowed south. In the north, moving toward the east, the land flattens toward another great river, the Hudson.

The Lenni Lenape settled in this land of forests, streams, hills, and valleys. It was rich with arable soils, as well as animals, fish, plants, and berries.

The Lenape lived a simple village life focused on their extended families. Four seasons defined the year for them. They followed the cycles of the year, moving based on the season, following the game, as well as planting their fields. They were organized into matrilineal clans. By the 17th Century there were three main clans: Wolf (Tukswit), Turtle (Pukuwanku), and Turkey (Pele). Each of the three clans was made of up to 12 minor clans. This clan structure was eventually broken up by disease and violence due to their contact with the Europeans.

The families were matrilineal. When men and women from different clans married, the man lived with the family of his wife. The most senior woman in a clan directed her extended family, while her eldest brother oversaw training male children, as well as caring for all the children. The women elders selected tribal leaders and could also remove them. They decided the allocation of land for farming and hunting to each family.

Work was divided according to sex. In slash and burn agriculture, men cleared the fields for planting, while the women did the farming, except for tobacco, which the men raised for use in ceremonies. The primary crop was maize which the women cultivated along with beans and squash in a traditional, sustainable planting called “The Three Sisters.” The men often hunted in groups to increase their success. Deer were hunted much of the year, except from January to May when the focus shifted to bear and smaller game. Women collected berries and nuts, as well as plants used to make herbal remedies.

The Lenape designed and wore clothes made from animal skins suited to the time of year. Simple loins cloths and skirts sufficed in the summer, while they wore cloaks made from bear and beaver skins in the winter with buckskin leggings and moccasins. Their clothes were adorned with colored dyes, porcupine quills, shells, beads, and bird feathers. Additionally, the Lenape wore claws, shells, stones, and animal teeth. They painted their faces with red ocher. Women wore their hair long. Men, except for the very old, shaved their faces and their heads, keeping only a two-inch crest on top.

Wampum was made from shells and was used in rituals and as ornaments. Later, they used wampum to trade with neighboring tribes for the animal pelts wanted by the Europeans.

They played a sport which they called Pahsaheman. It consisted of two teams and a ball. The goal was to put the ball in the opposing goal. The teams were large, a mixture of men and women. This was a rough sport with the teams vying to win. The men could only kick the ball and tackle other men, while the women could kick, pass, or run holding the ball. The rules of play varied between men and women, reinforcing the Lenape concept of a fair division of labor based on abilities of the different sexes.

The Lenni Lenape lived close to the environment, believing in a Great Creator (Kishelemukong “He who creates by his thoughts”). There were lesser gods, too. A key feature of their belief was abhorrence of waste. When an animal was slain, all parts were used. The number 12 was sacred to them. A boy became a man at twelve. They mourned for 12 months. They kept an altar of 12 stones in the village and held a Big House (the Universe) Ceremony lasting 12 days, which included dancing as well as vision sharing.

Ritual dances were important and divided by sex. Men danced wildly and aggressively with symbols of the hunt. Women danced in a slower ritualist step bearing their symbols. They recorded their history in pictographs on birchbark tablets.

The Munsee main camp known as Fortress t’Schirkte-wacki
was located on the Northern Delaware River

The Lenape lived in relative peace with their cycle of life unbothered. They raised their young, honored their clans, and buried their dead. The seasons changed, but their life followed the same pattern year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium. In times of plenty, the Lenni Lenape numbered in the tens of thousands.

The Lenni Lenape lands spread out well beyond the great river, the Delaware, to another river to the west, the Susquehanna, as well as north into present day lower New York State. Their neighboring tribes respected the Lenape for their skills at negotiating disputes.

However, aggressive Iroquois-speaking neighbors to the west and north pushed them back across the great river and south from the Hudson. For their inability to defend their lands, the Lenni Lenape came to be called “old women” by the Iroquois Confederacy.

In the 1700’s as the Lenni Lenape were pushed out of New Jersey by the Europeans, the Mohawk allowed them to settle in Eastern Pennsylvania until they were pushed further west as the European populations in the provinces expanded.

The Lenni Lenape were a happy, satisfied people who preferred to negotiate and trade versus resorting to war. They traded extensively with their other clans, as well as distant tribes for shells, flint, jasper, argillite, quartz, etc. However, while they preferred peace, the Lenni Lenape would fight, if necessary.

They dealt fairly with the early colonists. They showed them how to survive. In the early 1600s they began to trade with the Dutch and the Swedish for trade goods such iron pots and hatchets. At times they would be the middlemen between various tribes and the Europeans seeking pelts.

When the Europeans arrived, they found the Lenape divided into groups: People of the Stony Country (Munsee or Minisi), People Up River (Unalimi), and People Down River (Unami). The three divisions of the Lenni Lenape were very similar in most respects, but they spoke distinct variations of the Algonquin language. They worshiped Manabus, the Great Spirit who owned all the land, which he allowed them to use The Munsee was a clan with a special spirit totem, the wolf. The warriors sat in a circle to honor their spirit gods by passing the pipe. They would blow a puff of smoke to honor each of their spirit gods.

The Lenape Munsee lived in the northwestern hilly area where Mendham Township is located today. Their name evoked this area since it meant the stony land. The Watchung Mountains, Blue Hills, defined their eastern border. This is the same barrier which George Washington used against the British to great effect during the Revolution when Morristown was his military capital.

Early in the settlement by the Europeans, the Dutch East India Company refused to sell muskets to the Lenni Lenape with whom they were in conflict over land to expand their settlements. By the late 17th Century, the Lenape, lacking the muskets supplied to the Susquehannock and the Iroquois Confederacy by the Europeans, were first subjugated by the Susquehannock after a bitter war and later by the Iroquois when the Iroquois Confederacy defeated the Susquehannock nation. The Lenape had to call the Iroquois “Uncle” in recognition of their subservient status. However, the Lenape used another name for the Iroquois, which translated as “poisonous snake.”

In 1737 the Lenape misunderstood a deal with the Quaker Proprietors over the purchase 1,200 square miles, which they thought was for the use of 35 square miles. Their lands became part of West Jersey. They “sold” the Europeans land not understanding the difference between the Lenape concept of the right of use versus true ownership as the Europeans understood it. This negotiation was a mortal blow to their way of life in Mendham Township as well as the rest of New Jersey.

The Great Munsee Village was located to the south of present-day Minisink Island on the Delaware, in Sandstone Township, Sussex County. There would have been longhouses for the winter months surrounded by a palisade for defense. Ancient colonial maps may have shown it as Fortress t’Schirkte-wacki. During the summer, the Lenape lived in wigwams at their temporary villages, scattered about their territory.

The Munsee traveled through these lands on well-marked trails. One major trail passed just North of Mendham Township. There was an ancient tree, located on the Pitney Farm at the corner of Cold Hill Road and Mendham Road, which pointed the way to this trail. This majestic tree was lost to age, disease, development, and neglect in 1984.

Mendham Township, located at the center of the former Munsee Territory, was rich in natural resources with three rivers: the Whippany, the Passaic, and the North Branch of the Raritan, along with an abundance of springs and feeder streams. There were mature forests and berry laden bushes in season.

The locations of their villages have been discovered through the residual of black ash pits from ancient Munsee villages and the surface finds of various tools and projectile points. Local and university archeologists have extensively searched the area. Interestingly, in the 18th Century the King of England funded a study of the Munsee along the Black River.

The Munsee lived in various villages within what became Mendham Township, as well as in communities throughout the Munsee Territory. The variety and size of stone tools are further evidence of multi-millennium long habitation in our area. Numerous caches of large stone tools, large and poorly crafted arrowheads and spearheads denote their occupancy here in the hunter-gatherer/Archaic Period (6,000 to 3,500 years past). Later woodland points (post 100 B.C.) are in evidence as well, showing their development over time. These points were more finely made, improving the yield from hunting.

One Munsee meeting area was located on the former Governor Murphy Estate. Other sites were Brookside Community Club Little League field, the former Fisher Farm on the end of Cherry Lane, and one on Corey Lane, which is now hidden below the golf course at Mendham Golf and Tennis Club.

Native American Site Morris County

Native American sites in Morris County

In the Ralston section of the Township a large village of Munsee, called the Roxiticus, was still occupied early in the Colonial Period. Mount Paul in Chester Township was named for their Christian chief who was buried there in a grove of pines. Other sites have also been discovered.

To the east, the relationship with the Dutch from New Amsterdam soured in the 17th Century. The Lenni Lenape, who would willingly negotiate, did not understand the acquisitive policies of the Dutch and later the English. These Europeans preferred a land emptied for new settlements to accommodate the swelling flow of settlers. Violent interactions with the Dutch to the east, resulted in the murder of large groups of Lenape. The word of this reverberated among the Munsee.

The Munsee were friendly to the new settlers, even supplying food at times. However, Europeans supplanted the Munsee as they farmed larger and larger tracks of land in Northwestern Jersey.

Diseases such as Measles and Smallpox, for which the Lenape had no immunity, were unknowingly spread by the Europeans, causing great loss of life among the Munsee. With the population reduced, entire villages were emptied. Eventually, only a few thousand Munsee remained.

These Munsee struggled on with little means to support themselves and became impoverished. In 1720-1730’s Squire Pitney allowed a small group of Munsee to remain on his farm. Mendham Township was formed in 1749. The Easton Treaty of 1758 resulted in the Lenape losing their right to even remain in New Jersey, except at a reservation in Burlington County, which the government set aside for them.

The Munsee and all the Lenni Lenape were not equal to the challenge of the European colonization. Devastated by European diseases, bad agreements, and the aggressiveness of the Europeans, the remaining Munsee settled at the new reservation or moved west across the great Delaware River and away from their former lands to a troubled, terrible future. The few Munsee who remained intermarried with the Europeans. Thus, they blended into the new settlements. Today, there remain two small, local tribes on the former Munsee lands. We, the present-day stewards of this land, are unequal to the Original People’s ability to live in harmony with the land.

Sam Tolley   July 4th, 2023


Bud Hall – local Archaeologist & author on the Leni Lenape

“The Mendhams” Published by the Mayor’s Tercentenary Committee, Martha G. Hopler, Edward W. Roessler and Wallace G. West, 1964