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Munsee vs. Lenape – What’s in a name?

As we move to be more inclusive in the historic narratives we share, we often come into conflict with information commonly known and used by the public. In broadening the story around Philipse Manor Hall, we include information on the Native or Indigenous people who lived in the area. For many years the term ‘Lenape’ or ‘Leni-Lenape’ has been used as a catch-all phrase to name all the tribes and bands from Manhattan up into the mid-Hudson River Valley. It appears on signage throughout Westchester County. However, for historians, archeologists, and the descendant community, using more precise language is a priority. While appropriate, specific tribe names like Wappingers are sometimes used, the land which became Philipse Manor covered more than one tribe, and these many tribes shared the same dialect of Munsee.

Phonetic variations of the spelling of the word Munsee appear throughout historic records. Muncy, Munsies, and Monsays are just a few.  Historic references vary from official letters written by some of the founding fathers, like George Washington, who wrote to Colonel Daniel Brodhead:

Head Qrs West point October the 18 1779/Dr Sir/I had on the 15 the pleasure by Captn McIntire to receive Your Letter of the 16th Ulto continued to the 24th. I am exceedingly happy in your success in the expedition up the Alleghany against the Senecca & Muncy Nations—and transmit you the enclosed Extract from General Orders...

Similarly, in this January 1, 1779 letter From Thomas Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, Jefferson stated:

The defences at Detroit seem too great for small arms alone. And if that nest was destroyed the English still have a tolerable channel of communication with the Northern Indians by going from Montreal up the Utawas river. On the other hand, the Shawanese, Mingoes, Munsies, and the nearer Wiandots are troublesome thorns in our sides.

There are numerous documents written by British Colonial Indian Agent Sir William Johnson and George Croghan, the Deputy Indian Agent for the Ohio under Johnson. Croghan reported a “list of different Indian tribes” noted 150 “Monsays” living at Diahogo (Tioga).

Columns of text with detailed information about numbers of members of native groups

Throughout Johnson’s papers, he uses the term Munsee:

Text list of items and dates, headed with the word Munsees

 Another example from  Johnson:

Text of letter from Sir William Johnson to Richard Penn
The Papers of Sir William Johnson - https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000622241 

The term appears in the historic record other places as well. A man named Egohohowen identified himself as a “Munsey Chief” at the famous 1758 conference at Easton, Pennsylvania, and at that conference the Governor of New Jersey produced a deed that read:

His Excellency Governor Bernard produced the following Deeds; one executed by five Indian Attorneys, appointed by a Council of the Delaware Nation, for all the Lands lying in New-Jersey, South of a Line from Paoqualin Mountain, at Delaware River, to the Falls of Laometung, on the North Branch of the Rariton River, and down that River to Sandy-Hook; dated the 12th of September last, with Endorsements thereon, made by Teedyuscung, Anawallcckon, and Tepascouon, signifying their Agreement thereto, and Acknowledgement of their having received Satisfaction thereon, witnessed by three Chiefs of the United Nations, who, in Behalf of the United Nations, approved the Sale; and also by several English Witnesses:
 Another Deed, dated the 23d of October, Instant, at Easton, from the Chiefs of the Munseys, and Wapings, or Pumptons, Sixteen in Number, and included all the remaining Lands in New-Jersey, beginning at Cushetung; then to the Mouth of Rariton; then up that River to Laometung Falls; then on a strait Line to Paoqualin, where it joins on the Delaware River; and up Delaware to Cushetung; endorsed by Nimham, a Chief of the Pumptons, or Wapings, who was sick at the Execution thereof, and approved by the United Nations, which was testified by three of their Chiefs, signing as Witnesses. And Governor Bernard desired all present might take Notice of the same, the Indian Title to all the Lands I the Province of New-Jersey being conveyed thereby; which being interpreted as the Six Nation and the Delaware Languages, his Excellency addressed the Indians…

Source: http://www.virginiaplaces.org/settleland/graphics/easton2.pdf

As we move through the eighteenth century and more tribes and bands are displaced from their land, they often banded together by language groups. By this point, Munsee speakers would have been from multiple tribes. In response to a recent article written on the Esopus War, the following reply was shared and speaks well to the issue of Munsee or Lenape:

The terms Lenape and Delaware do not apply to these Native people [Esopus]. Munsee-speakers referred to themselves by their local band affiliation, thus, the Esopus were Esopus, the Wappingers, Wappingers, and so forth. The name “Lenape” is not from the Munsee language. The use of “Lenape”– meaning “Indian” for modern speakers, while in the nineteenth century, “human being, person”– to designate a Native people is actually very recent. Even so, “Lenape” in the contemporary inclusive meaning does not correspond to a Native usage. In addition, no one originally had an inclusive name for Munsees collectively. To be historically, culturally, and linguistically accurate, the appropriate term is “Munsees” rather than “Lenapes.” See Ives Goddard, “Delaware.” In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 213 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978).

Source: https://www.newyorkalmanack.com/2013/12/forgotton-history-the-esopus-wars/#comment-1931304

Adjusting historic narratives often means expanding upon and sometimes correcting the information commonly known and shared. Although this can be challenging, the more we know, the more accurate and inclusive we can be.


Preserving Heritage

To preserve heritage within the Lunaape (Lenape) nations, elders take great care to pass down traditional knowledge. This knowledge has been preserved for hundreds of years thanks to the careful protection of language and knowledge, in spite of intentional repression by the Federal government through its policies regarding indigenous groups. Today, the elders not only pass on that knowledge orally from generation to generation, but nations have also utilized new ways to capture and disperse their rich culture.


In North America, the Delaware Nation in Moraviantown, Ontario and Munsee-Delaware Nation in Muncey, Ontario are the keepers and protectors of the Munsee language. It is important to acknowledge that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin language revitalization efforts would not be possible without the generosity and tutelage of Munsee speakers from Delaware Nation in Moraviantown, Ontario and Munsee-Delaware Nation in Muncey, Ontario. The Stockbridge Munsee see language as a cornerstone of their cultural understanding, as it brings healing and a sense of connection to their community.

Due to COVID restrictions, the Stockbridge Munsee put their language camp online, teaching their community about traditional practices such as medicines, making pitch pine glue, planting the “three sisters,” and flint knapping. Visit their YouTube channel to learn more about their rich culture.

Round seal with silhouettes of a wolf, a turkey, a bear and a turtle
Tribal Seal of Stockbridge Munsee

The Delaware Tribe of Nations hosts The Lenape Talking Dictionary. On this website, they preserve the “southern Unami Dialect” of the Lenape language. Though this is different from the Munsee language, this resource also preserves some of the stories of the Lenape (Lunaape) people.

People of Delaware Nation have captured some of their stories in documentary form in an effort to form a deeper connection to their heritage. One documentary, Grandmother’s Apron, shares the stories of women of Delaware Nation and the women who raised them while they participate in a workshop that passes down sewing skills. Another documentary shares the historic journey of young people from the three Lenape descendant nations traveling back to their homelands in 2016. The Water Gap-Return to the Homeland may have been the first gathering of all Delaware people in their homelands for hundreds of years. It chronicles the important connection of the Lenape (Lunaape) people to their ancestral land.

For more information on the media created by Delaware Nation visit their website.