It is hard for any of us to really imagine New Jersey 15,000 years ago, but what is now Irvington was then buried under hundreds of feet of glacial ice. As the ice receded present-day contours of the town emerged, such as the Elizabeth River. As a kid, we called that "The Brook" and it's a natural feature that bisects the town from north to south.
The river enters Irvington 140 feet above sea level and gradually descends as it exits the town at Hillside at an elevation of 70 feet. The land east of the Elizabeth River is a gently rolling plain and west of the river is part of the Orange Mountains. The town's little "mountaintop" reaches 220 feet above sea level at Franklin Terrace.
The Lenape (who were later named Delaware Indians by Europeans) were the natives who lived in what is now New Jersey and along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, the northern shore of Delaware, and the lower Hudson Valley and New York Harbor in New York when Europeans arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
They were the major tribes that lived in our state
The first inhabitants of this Elizabeth River valley were the Awkinges or Hackensacks, who were a subtribe of the Lenni Lenape. I couldn't find any evidence that there was any significant village there, but before Europeans came to the area there was plentiful game and well-stocked streams.
Around 1676, Newark's first settlers spread out towards the "suburbs" and laid out highways. We know that one Lenape trail became Clinton Avenue which ran straight to the Elizabeth River.
The Lenape Trail of today doesn't pass through Irvington or follow a historical American Indian trail exclusively. Look at a map of the Lenape Trail (which is a component of the Liberty Water Gap Trail). You can see it go through Becker Park with a side trail that goes to to the Walter Kidde Dinosaur Park. The dinosaur tracks there (including the smallest ones ever found) pre-date even the Lenape but it doesn't tell any of our New Jersey natives' story.
The Lenape Trail continues west across the Morristown and Erie Railway tracks and passes under I-280 and continues along Hatfield Swamp and the Essex County Environmental Center before ending at the Patriots’ Path.
Fish leftovers were used as fertilizer. They made maple sugar and had an abundant supply of natural honey. Cultivated garden plots usually contained corn, beans, pumpkins or squash, and tobacco.
The Minsi (AKA Munsee) were the "people of the stony country" whose totem was the wolf. They lived in the rugged country along the upper Delaware and their principal village was Minisink, on the east bank at the Delaware Water Gap.
You might know Mount Minsi and Lake Lenape which are located within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
They were the largest of the subtribes and most warlike of the Lenape because of their proximity to the fierce Mohawks of the Iroquois nation.
In the Central area of NJ lived the Unami, “the people down the river.”
The southern part of our state was home to the Unilachtigo, “the people who lived near the ocean.”
These were some of the Indians that I read about as a kid in The Last of the Mohicans and the other Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper. I don't think I had any sense that these people had walked over the same lands that I grew up walking over myself. Many years later, I taught The Light in the Forest in which a European is adopted by a band of Lenape.
The Lenni Lenape people participated in both hunting/gathering as well as cultivation and fishing. In their lands were a great assortment of animals such as deer, elk, bear, fox, raccoon, opossum, muskrat, beaver, squirrel and rabbit. Nothing went to waste. Furs were used for clothing, bone was used for fashioning tools and toys for children as well as being used for sewing needles, and sinew was used as sewing thread.
They spoke what we call an Algonquian language, known as either Lenape or Delaware. Among other Algonquian peoples the Lenape were considered the “grandfathers” from whom all the other Algonquian peoples originated. Consequently, in inter-tribal councils, the Lenape were given the respect one would give to elders.
The Treaty of Easton, signed between the Lenape and the English in 1758, moved them west out of New York and New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Then they were pushed to Ohio and beyond.
It didn't work to their advantage, but the Lenape were the first Indian tribe ever to enter into a treaty with the United States government. They signed the Treaty of Fort Pitt during the American Revolutionary War and supplied the Continental Army with warriors and scouts in exchange for food supplies.
When the white man arrived, the Lenape had developed an extensive system of trails through the wilderness. These trails were originally 18 inches wide and could only accommodate persons walking in single file. Warriors, messengers, hunters, diplomats and visiting families apparently used separate paths. These Indian paths became bridle trails, wagon roads and twentieth century highways. via newhopepa.comThe Lenni-Lenape of New Jersey were peaceful and they were sometimes intermediaries in resolving problems within the nation. The hostile Iroquois mockingly called them “The Old Women.”
North of my hometown of Irvington, the Lenape were also living in what is now the Passaic valley around where I worked for a number of years at Passaic County Community College.
At the Paterson Museum, I learned that the Lenni Lenape Indians knew the Great Falls well as a prime camping and fishing site. They called it “Totowa” which meant "to be forced beneath the waters" which shows their respect for the power of the falls.
The Passaic Falls, more popularly known as the Great Falls. There is no record of who first "discovered" the Great Falls. History books record the white settlers who moved into the area following the settlement of Newark in 1666. Of course, the Lenape discovered the Falls long before any white hunters or land prospectors from that colony wandered up the river.
Acquackanonck was the land in lower Passaic County from Essex County line to Pompton. The name is said to be derived from several Indian words meaning place of brush net + rapid stream. The V-shaped brush nets were set in the river in shallow places so that fish became entangled in the twigs during the seasons when spawning runs of shad and sturgeon were under way.
Over a long period of time, the area of the falls was a productive source of fish for the Indians and later for the white settlers. During the spawning season, shad and other anadromous species (fish that migrate up rivers from the sea to spawn) would come in great numbers to the waters below the falls, where their upstream progress would be stopped.
These large catches couldn't be consumed immediately and much of the catch was dried for later use. Sturgeon, as well as shad, made their way to the foot of the falls and, because of their size, were especially prized. One of the largest ever reported was taken on August 31, 1817, and was said to have weighed 130 pounds.
The lenape were not the only Indian in this area, but they were the dominant tribe. There is still a group of the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation (AKA Ramapo Mountain Indians) numbering about 5,000 who live around the Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey and southern New York.
- Irvington (Images of America) by Alan Siegel
- Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park