You are here

A New Exhibit at Ellis Island Tells the Story of the Lenape, the People Who Were There First


This NPS photo shows some artifacts included in the Lenape exhibit now on display at the Ellis Island Museum.

A new exhibit at Ellis Island National Monument draws attention to a seldom-noted fact. When Henry Hudson discovered New York Harbor 400 years ago last September 11, Native Americans were already there. They were the Lenape, aka Lenni Lenape (“the true people”). The Lenape homeland included not only the area now occupied by New York City, but also a large territory that extended between the Delaware and lower Hudson Rivers and included all of New Jersey as well as parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Lenape (pronounced Leh-NAH-pay) fared well for a while after European contact, profiting from the fur trade, but the ensuing centuries saw their fortunes take a bad turn. Crowded out by settlers and ravaged by infectious diseases, the depredations of hostile tribes, and other calamities, the Lenape saw their numbers dwindle and their once-large territory whittled to tatters by treaties. Finally, most of the remaining Lenape were gathered up and removed to the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1860s. Today, most Lenape descendants live in Oklahoma, but there are also scattered populations in Wisconsin, Kansas, Ontario, and in the Middle Atlantic states where the traditional homeland lay.

“Lenape: Ellis Island’s First Inhabitants” is the title of the new exhibit telling the story of “the Lenape people’s experiences from their earliest known presence in the area, through their fateful encounter with Henry Hudson, past their removal from their ancestral homeland to their present-day communities in Oklahoma and Wisconsin.”

The exhibit integrates a variety of materials, including prehistoric artifacts, antique books, maps, archival photographs, traditional Lenape clothing and crafts, ceremonial objects, illustrations, paintings and dioramas, bronze sculptures, and documentary films, that create a historical narrative. These materials are combined with quotations on a wide variety of subjects by traditional Lenape.

The museum staff at Ellis Island worked tirelessly with exhibit curator David M. Oestreicher, Ph.D, using the content generated by him to design and develop the exhibit. Their contributions in this area also included the graphic design for the exhibition as well as editing of the text provided for length and accessibility and incorporating suggestions from one of the Delaware tribes, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.

They also worked with Oestreicher and curatorial consultant Karen Frederic to reorganize the exhibition to fit within the galleries and have a coherent thematic structure. Museum staffers assisted in the selection of artifacts, developed two interactive computer kiosks that will enable visitors to access supplemental content, located additional images to illustrate text, and installed the exhibit.

“Lenape: Ellis Island’s First Inhabitants” can be viewed through January 10 in the third floor galleries of the Ellis Island Museum, which is located in the refurbished Main Building.


Thanks for this interesting information. Growing up in central New Jersey, we often heard about the Lenni Lenape. Indeed, I remember people finding arrowheads along the Manalapan River in my hometown of Spotswood. That said, it's very sad to learn their fate.

Thanks for the positive feedback, islandpaddler. Traveler is sometimes taken to task for leaning too heavily to the Native American side when reporting on issues involving the parks. That's not the case here, of course. Anyone can see that the Lenape deserved better treatment than they received.

Thank YOU! we are indebted to those who lived here before us, and I hope we will slowly learn to embrace their values with regards to the Earth and Animals. I am grateful for the angle you present. We have so very far to go, to return to harmony with Nature. We have made quite a mess, but I think the damage is not irreparable, and we have a chance yet. The movement grows-- slowly, but change must come, and it does.

I'm all for change that brings human systems into sustainable balance with natural systems. Today we treat the earth pretty much like we think there's a spare in the trunk.

Leni Lenape means, “Pure, abiding with Pure.” [Reiter T. Sherwin, The Viking and the Red Man, Vol 1, p.168.]
The “Pure” means pure as in being a Christian. The Lenape ancestors had been Christians for 350 years before they walked across frozen Davis Strait to become the Lenape, the Mahigan, and the Shawnee. [See ] Click on DOWNLOADS > iTEMS #7 or #8

The migration of the Leni Lenape is recorded in the oldest True American History.

Thanks for the feedback, Myron. The map and related information at that website you've referenced are very interesting. As to the meaning of the term Lenni Lenape, well, I'm just going to step out of the picture and let others decide the mater. I just don't know for sure. There are around three dozen separate languages in the Algonquian language family and I find every single one of them confusing. Sources I've consulted carry interpretations of Lenni Lenape (variously spelled Leni Lenape) ranging from true people to pure people to real men to pure men to original men. I suspect that if I had chosen to use the term "pure people" in my article I would have caught flak from people championing other translations. Again, thank you for your comment and the additional information. You've convinced me that the story of the Leni Lenape migration is something I should know more about.


I was confused about the Leni Lenape name in the beginning. The “true,” “real;” and “original” people labels came from our Euramerican ancestors, who had difficulty describing a “pure” person. Especially because our ancestors brain washed each other into believing the natives had no religion. My Shawnee and Leni Lenape authorities insist they behave more like Christians than Euramericans do.

Then I found Reider T. Sherwin. He took word lists from 25 Algonquin speaking tribes and combined them. In the Viking and the Red Man, Vol. 1, Page 158 & 159 he lists all those names you and I found. He shows that the Norse “aa bye” turned into “ape.” In America and abide in English. So the end of the name definitely means “abide with.” Norse and Algonquin syntax is different than English so the “Len” leads the “ape.”

The letters “R” and “L” are formed in the mouth by almost the same mechanics. So “R” and ”L” are often interchanged by people living in different times and spaces. There is the Powhatten Renape Museum and the Lenape High School, both in New Jersey. Whether the word is “Renape” or “Lenape” the ancestors were “Leni Lenape” and Sherwin recorded that they called their fore fathers “Noosh” [Norsk].(pg 130).

“Len” means “pure” because “Len” morphed from “Hrein” in Old Norse. “Ren”and “rein” still means “pure” in modern Norwegian. Before the Little Ice Age a Catholic Bishop built the cathedral in Greenland. He named the fjord and the island at the mouth of the fjord, “Hrein.’

I encourage you to honor the Leni Lenape, who have endured so much of EurAmericans actions caused by misunderstanding. Please use the true definition, “the pure, abiding with the pure.”

I will send you the two pages from Sherwin defining the Leni Lenape and the pages defining the “Noosh” fore fathers.

Fascinating stuff, Myron. I'll be sure to keep that info and your recommended translation in mind when writing about the Leni Lenape.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide