Like many Algonquins, the Lenápes believed in a great spirit (manitou) as well as the presence of other spirits in all living things. Personal guardian spirits were acquired in adolescence and were said to be connected with future success. The bear sacrifice, held in the midwinter, was the most important of at least five annual religious festivals. Others revolved around foods, such as maple sugar (early spring), corn (late spring and late summer), and strawberries (early summer), as well as curing.
After death, spirits were said to travel to an afterlife. Names were given with the benefit of a personal vision by the name giver, which enhanced his or her status. Chiefs often served as religious as well as political leaders of the village. Shamans of both sexes were responsible for holding the curing ceremonies.
Each of the three autonomous divisions maintained its own territory; there was never any political unity. Each village group of several hundred people had its own hereditary chief (sachem or sagamore). The chief had no coercive powers, instead acting as mediator, adviser, and hunt leader. With the chief, other lineage leaders and elders formed a council. Village groups were autonomous, but they often acted in concert for purposes of hunting drives and defense.
There were traditionally three matrilineal clans. Women grew and prepared foods, took care of children, gathered firewood, and prepared skins. Men hunted, fished, traded, fought, cured, made houses and most tools, and served as chiefs. People from the coast tended to visit the interior in the spring, when they moved to fishing and hunting camps, whereas people from the interior visited the coast in the summer. Murder was generally expiated by a payment.
Premarital girls were secluded and observed strict behavioral taboos during their periods. Pre-marital sexual relations were condoned, but adultery was not, except when consent was given, such as in wife lending on the part of a polygynous chief. Divorce was easily and frequently obtained. Corpses were buried in a sitting position with some possessions. Mourners blackened their faces and visited the grave annually.
Each of thirty to forty villages, located on river and tributary meadows, was surrounded by fields and hunting grounds. Houses were circular, domed wigwams or thirty- to sixty-foot (but up to 100-foot) multifamily, grass or bark-covered, single-doorway longhouses with both pitched and arched roofs. Both dwellings contained smoke holes. Interior longhouses may have been palisaded in times of war.
From at least about 1300, inland groups depended mostly on corn; beans and squash were also important. Game hunted in seasonal trips included deer, elk, bear, raccoons, rabbit, wolves, squirrel, and fowl. Fire surrounds were used as part of a general practice of burning the undergrowth of certain lands. Men also trapped various small mammals, turkeys, and other birds. Coastal people depended mainly on fish and shellfish (generally dried and preserved), seaweed, birds, berries, and meat and oil from stranded whales. Women gathered various roots, greens, wild fruits, and nuts as well as maple sap. Tobacco was also grown.
The Walum Olum ("red score") was a picto-graphic history, painted or engraved on wood or bark, of the people's legends and early migrations. A later manuscript, the only one that survives in any form, interpreted the pictographs in the Lenápe language. Men made dugout and bark canoes. The Lenápes traded in, among other items, rounded-bottom pots; grass mats, bags, and baskets; wampum (polished shell); and bark and skin containers. Woven items, such as baskets, were decorated with painted spruce roots or porcupine quills.
Women made clothing of deerskins and furs. People generally wore few clothes, such as breech-clouts for men and skin kilts for women, in warm weather. Both added leggings, deerskin moccasins, and robes of bear or other skins in the winter. Other items of clothing included turkey feather cloaks, leather belts, and temporary cornhusk footwear. People dressed their hair and bodies with bear or raccoon grease mixed with onion, in part as a protection against the sun and insects. Various personal adornments included earrings and necklaces, tattoos, and body paint.
According to the Walum Olum, the Lenápes may have originated to the northeast, possibly in Labrador, where they were united with the Shawnees and the Nanticokes. They may have passed through the eastern Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley, where they met and possibly defeated Hopewell Mound Builder people. They likely encountered non-Natives in the early to mid-sixteenth century.
Contact with Henry Hudson in 1609 was followed by the people's rapid involvement in the fur trade. In short order, their dependence on items of non-Native manufacture, such as metal items, guns, and cloth, fundamentally altered their economy as well as their relations with neighboring peoples. Other changes in material culture included the introduction of new foods such as pigs, chickens, and melons. In 1626, the Manhattan band of Lenápes traded the use of Manhattan Island to a Dutchman for about $24 worth of goods. This arrangement was quickly interpreted as a sale by the Dutch, who, unlike the Lenápes, valued property ownership.
Growing numbers of non-Natives, Indian land cessions and pressure for more, and intertribal rivalries brought on by competition over furs led to conflict with the Dutch from the 1640s until the British took possession of the colony in 1663. In 1683, the Lenápe people, represented by Chief Tamanend (from whose name the designation of Tammany Hall was taken), signed a treaty of friendship with the Quaker William Penn (who gave his name to the state of Pennsylvania).
By the late seventeenth century, the Lenápe population had been decimated by disease and warfare. In the early eighteenth century, the Iroquois Confederacy dominated the Lenápe people, even going so far as to sell some of their land to the British. By the middle of that century, more and more Lenápes had moved into western Pennsylvania and the Ohio River Valley. A group of Lenápes established farms in eastern Ohio, but hostilities with non-Natives increased as the frontier moved west. About 100 Lenápes were slaughtered by Kentucky frontiersmen at a Moravian mission in 1782.
Unami speakers living in the lower Allegheny and upper Ohio Valleys in the mideighteenth century formed the nucleus of the emerging Lenápe or Delaware tribe. These people were organized into three groups, or clans—Turkey, Turtle, and Wolf—each with a chief living in a main village. One of the chiefs acted as tribal spokesman. The Lenápes fought the British in the French and Indian War and were generally divided in the Revolutionary War. In 1762, a Lenápe medicine man called Delaware Prophet helped to unite the local Indians to fight in Pontiac's Rebellion. Some Lenápe also participated in Little Turtle's war (1790–1794) and in Tecumseh's Rebellion (1809–1811).
As the non-Natives kept coming, groups of Lenápes continued west into Missouri and even Texas, where they remained until forced into western Oklahoma in 1859. These "absentee Delawares" began hunting buffalo and assumed some aspects of Plains life.
After the Lenápes remaining in Ohio were defeated, with their Indian allies, in the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, they moved to Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas. From their base in Kansas they fought with the Pawnees, who claimed their land, as well as with other Plains tribes. Many also served as scouts in the U.S. Army. After living in Kansas for a couple of generations as farmers, trappers, and guides, they were forced to relocate to Oklahoma in the 1860s. Following a court battle, these Lenápes became citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
Meanwhile, groups of Munsee speakers had joined the Stockbridge Indians in Massachusetts and New York and moved with them to a reservation in Wisconsin. Others joined the Cayugas in New York and migrated with them to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario in the late eighteenth century. Still others moved to Canada as well, one group founding a Moravian village in 1792 along the Thames River and another group living at Munceytown. Yet another group joined the Swan Lake and Black River Chippewas near Ottawa, Kansas.