Members of many tribes displaced from homelands east of the Mississippi River temporarily resided in Arkansas up until the early nineteenth century. Among these were the Delaware, who had settlements in Arkansas until around the late 1820s.
The Delaware (known also as the Lenape) speak Eastern Algonquian and live today in southern Ontario, western New York, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century European explorers met their ancestors living in and around the Delaware River valley in contiguous parts of the modern states of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.
In their Northeastern homelands, the Delaware maintained an agricultural economy supplemented by hunting, fishing, and seasonally collecting nuts and other edible plant foods. They lived in multifamily longhouses occupied by six to eight families, each with their own interior hearth. Villages typically consisted of several longhouses clustered together, though sometimes the residents of more widely scattered dwellings acted as a single community. Each community enjoyed considerable political autonomy, with its own leaders and elder councils. Neighboring villages located along the same river sometimes created alliances. Important decisions were made by village consensus, influenced by the deliberations of leaders and their councilors.
By the eighteenth century, the Delaware were heavily involved in the English and Dutch fur trade, upon which they became increasingly dependent for access to trade goods. Inter-tribal hostilities led to the first stage of Delaware dispersals into adjacent hinterlands. Tensions associated with the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) drove a number of tribes, including the Delaware, into the Ohio River valley. With the permission of the government of Spanish Louisiana, a group of Delaware and Shawnee crossed the Mississippi River in the 1780s and settled south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Soon after, other Shawnee and Delaware settled in southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas, where game was plentiful and fewer communities competed for those resources.
Most Delaware villages in Arkansas were in the western Cherokee territory along tributaries of the upper White River in Carroll and Marion counties, along the White River below the mouth of the Buffalo River, and along the Arkansas River in Pope County. Some groups also moved to the Red River in southwest Arkansas. Contemporary historical documents provide sparse information concerning these settlements.
An 1829 treaty provided the Delaware with a reservation in Kansas, to which most of the Missouri groups relocated. Others, including many Arkansas Delaware, moved to Texas, where they ended up on a multi-tribal reservation along the Brazos River. Following the Civil War, some Delaware shared reservations with Caddo, Wichita, and other groups along the Washita River in west central Oklahoma, while others moved onto Cherokee lands in northeast Oklahoma. When Oklahoma Indian reservations were partitioned into family allotments, two administrative divisions were created: the Registered Delaware in northeastern Oklahoma and the Western (Absentee) Delaware in Caddo County.
Throughout the historic era, the Delaware struggled to maintain cultural traditions by keeping alive cherished institutions, such as the Big House ceremony, through which individuals received personal spiritual guidance. These institutions eventually were replaced by “revitalization” movements such as the “Big Moon” peyote religion introduced in the late nineteenth century by the Caddo-Delaware prophet John “Moonhead” Wilson.
The Delaware today maintain their distinctiveness through practice of modern versions of their own ceremonies and via participation in the ceremonies of neighboring Caddo, Cherokee, and Wichita.
For additional information:
Dickinson, Samuel D. “Indian Signs on the Land.” In Cultural Encounters in the Early South: Indians and Europeans in Arkansas, compiled by Jeannie Whayne. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
Goddard, Ives. “Delaware.” In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.
Lankford, George E. “Shawnee Convergence: Immigrant Indians in the Ozarks.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Winter 1999): 390–413.
Myers, Robert. “The Delaware Indian Odyssey in Arkansas and Missouri, 1775–1836.” Independence County Chronicle 58 (July 2017): 28–46.
Weslager, Clinton A. The Delaware Indians: A History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1972.
George Sabo III
Arkansas Archeological Survey