Native Americans who once occupied the east coast from Virginia to Massachusetts have a history of friendliness toward white settlers in America. Known as the Delaware or Lenni Lenape tribe, they endured migrations and removals to western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and, ultimately, within the Cherokee Nation in the Indian Territory.
Given reassurances that the tribe’s land in Kansas would be preserved for all time, the Delawares nevertheless fell victim to the tide of white settlers homesteading in the West. By 1854, they were persuaded to cede much of their land, with paltry sums in payment.
Arrival of the railroad in the 1860’s signaled the death knell for the Delaware tribe’s desire for a stable environment. The railroad company managed to acquire some of the Delaware’s best farmland for much less than its worth.
Despite constant upheaval, the Delawares managed to maintain a positive attitude toward and a sense of cooperation with the government of the United States. When the winds of an impending war were blowing through the Southern states in early 1861, the Delawares, from their Kansas reservation, appealed to other tribal nations to continue their alliance with the American government in Washington.
In a letter dated Jan. 3, 1861 — more than three months before the outbreak of hostilities between the Northern and Southern states — John Connor, head chief, and Charles Journeycake, assistant chief, of the Delaware Nation wrote to the Muscogee Chief Warrior Oputhlayarhola: “It gives us great pleasure to hear that you are good and true friends to the President and to the Government of the United States.”
Speaking in their patriarchal role as Lenni Lenape or “original people,” the Delaware leaders referred to other tribes as “grandchildren.” They praised the Muscogees: “Grandchildren, it does our hearts good; we rejoice to hear of the victory you gained over your enemies and the enemies of the Government” of the United States.
When war came in April 1861, the Delaware Nation demonstrated its loyalty when 170 of the 201 tribesmen between the ages of 18 to 45 who were eligible for service joined the Union army. The U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs confirmed, “They have distinguished themselves as faithful soldiers.”
The Delawares attempted to induce the Creek Nation to remain loyal to the U.S., with only partial success. In addition to the Creeks, elements of the Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee tribes fought on behalf of the Southern Confederacy.
Capt. Fall Leaf, a Delaware, had served as a scout for the U.S. army prior to and during the Civil War. The government demonstrated its confidence in this man by assigning him to accompany the Prince of Wales while he was touring this country in 1860. The prince would later become King Edward VII of England.
Fall Leaf served under Union Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont once the Civil War erupted. He raised a company Delaware soldiers and proceeded on a mission into Missouri. Upon his return, Fremont promised to reward him with 160 acres of land. As Richard C. Adams relates in “A Brief History of the Delaware Indians,” in 1862, Fall Leaf and his men engaged in combat against the Choctaw tribe.
Despite their service, in which they provided their own horses, none of the men received payment. By war’s end, the Delaware soldiers petitioned the government to send them to their Kansas reservation to be discharged, rather than in isolated locations in the field, because they “were afraid of our homes, and want … to protect our own women and children, and our own property” from hostile tribes.
Adams sums up the sad tale of the “original people” who had once inhabited the banks of the Delaware River with their ultimate fate. In a post-Civil War treaty, the Delaware Nation was removed from Kansas to the Indian Territory.
There was no happy ending to this story. In a reprisal of the 1830s Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” the Delawares were herded from their land in mid-winter, with many dying along the way. It is noteworthy, however, that their resiliency as a tribe was reflected in the superiority of their farms and homes once they settled in this new territory that became known as Oklahoma after the turn of the century.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.