The Journal of Philadelphia Waterfront Heritage & Archaeology

Current Issue: Volume 1 2016

Traces of Lenapehoking: Native American Sites on the Philadelphia Waterfront

By Douglas Mooney

Lenapehoking is the word that local Lenape (or Delaware) Indians gave to their ancestral homeland, a portion of which was located in the area that is today the city and county of Philadelphia. As used in this article, the phrase “traces of Lenapehoking” refers not only to the archaeological evidence—the artifacts—the native peoples who inhabited this homeland left behind, but also to the surviving remnants of the original landscape of Philadelphia—preserved fragments of the pre-colonial ground—within which these artifacts were found.

Long before the founding of Philadelphia, Native American people made this area their home for many thousands of years, establishing their camps and villages along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, as well as beside the many streams that crossed the interior landscape. While it is not known for certain when the first indigenous people arrived in this region, archaeological evidence from sites in neighboring parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania suggest that the earliest occupants arrived here by at least 10,000 to 12,000 years ago—at or near the end of the last Ice Age. However, discoveries from a handful of other sites, such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter near Pittsburgh and Cactus Hill in Virginia, suggest that people originally moved into this part of the country as early as 16,000 years ago. Even more recently discovered sites on the Delmarva Peninsula have produced information hinting that the first arrival could date back to more than 20,000 years ago.