Inspired by Louis' post from "Gotham," I offer the following story from an unlikely-to be-completed collection on the history of Philadelphia.


Before William Penn, before Philadelphia, the Lenni Lenape, the Common People, farmed the land. Seven communities stood here. Seven times seven roads connected them, and seven times seven times seven stories tied their lives together.

In April 1781, at Gnadenhütten in Ohio, a Moravian missionary named John Heckewelder overheard a story told "with ease and an eloquence not to be imitated." Buckongahelas, a warrior chief, was reminding some of his people of the day the Giant Canoe floated into the land of the Lenape. It seemed as if the Creator had come to visit his people. Messengers flew down all the roads. Warriors from across Lenapehoking came to greet Kee-shay-lum-moo-kawng. Meat was readied for sacrifice, a feast was in the making, and dances were practiced for He-who-created-us-by-his-thought.

But it was not their god who came ashore. Perhaps it was one of his manitou, his spirits, there in the circle of the bravest Lenape, wearing a coat of red, raising a cup of strong-smelling brew, and talking in a strange tongue. But none of the chiefs dared drink of his potion. None, until the bravest of the brave strode forward, saying, "Better for one man to die, than for our nation to be destroyed for refusing the hand of friendship from our god." The warrior no sooner drank than he fell into a trance, so deep that some never expected him to return among the living. Yet he arose, and reached for more, and so proclaimed about his glorious dreams that all the assembled warriors drank from the visitors' cup. And when they had done their dreams, they awoke to find beads, and clothing, and new strong tools called axes and hoes. Certainly, these must be gifts from the Creator, and these beings his messengers.

But the Lenni Lenape soon learned their visitors were men. Swanakens, the Bitter People, they called them. And one day, when the Swanakens returned from their boats, they said to the Lenni Lenape, "We desire but a tiny piece of ground where we can light a fire and prepare the food you have given us - only so much land as this bullock's hide will cover." And when the Common People agreed, the Dutch chief pulled out his long knife, and cut the bull's hide into strips no wider than a baby's finger, and tied the strips together, and encircled a giant field with them. The Lenape were shocked by such trickery, since they could not imagine that anything could pass a person's tongue without coming from their heart. But they allowed them to use the land, since there was enough to share.

Yet these strips of bull's hide seemed to swell and bloat, and the circle grew larger and larger, and the Lenape were forced outside, further and further from the rising sun in the east. And as they fought to keep their favorite hunting grounds, blood flowed through the land, and ran into the streams, and into their council fires, which were extinguished, without a spark to kindle new ones where they had burned for generations.

Buckongahelas had come to warn these Christian Delawares that the Pennsylvania militia was on the warpath. They were preparing to slash and burn the human forest where the Lenape fighters found their sustenance. He urged them to move even further from the rising sun, where the land was good and his warriors would protect them, saying: "I admit that there are good white men, but they bear no proportion to the bad; the bad must be the strongest, for they rule. They do what they please. They enslave those who are not of their color, although created by the same Great Spirit who created us. They would make slaves of us if they could, but as they cannot do it, they kill us! There is no faith to be placed in their words. They are not like the Indians, who are only enemies while at war, and are friends in peace. They will say to an Indian, "My friend! My brother!" They will take him by the hand, and at the same moment destroy him. And so you will also be treated by them before long. Remember that this day I have warned you to beware of such friends as these. I know the Long Knives; they are not to be trusted."

Buckongahelas could not persuade the Moravian Indians to follow him west. Heckewelder's account continues: "Eleven months after this speech was delivered by this prophetic chief, ninety-six of these same Christian Indians, about sixty of them women and children, were murdered at the place where these very words had been spoken, by the same men he had alluded to, and in the same manner that he had described."

See Clinton A. Weslager, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972) and John Heckewelder, An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1819, reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1971).

Michael Pearlman