Native American History in New Jersey

Land acquisition was central to early colonial settlement in the Americas.  Settlers first took control over the most desirable lands, which had already been cleared by Indigenous people.  Such land was ideal for extending the plantation system, already established in the Caribbean, to North America.  For example, Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, near Long Island, NY, was established in 1651 as a “provisioning plantation for the Barbadian sugar trade.”  It was originally “owned by an Anglo Dutch sugar consortium and worked by enslaved Africans, indentured or paid Native American and European laborers…”  Thus, a massive redistribution was enacted on good, workable Indigenous land.  Many Native American bands left New Jersey as their land was disassembled.  This caused a lot of dynamic movement over vast territories, and it is not a neat or simple story, as bands and tribes were reorganized through the movement and resettlement.

Some may question how any Indigenous people managed to stay in their homelands along the eastern seaboard, yet it is too simplistic to assume that all Native communities left their lands.  Some chose to stay in the region, even as they were pushed off of more desirable land and into the mountains and the swamps.  These were places where people were able to escape colonial land systems; they became places where fugitive communities were able to establish new land bases. 

 A recent study published in Science in October 2021 on “Effects of land dispossession and forced migration on Indigenous peoples in North America” shows the long-term impact on tribal land ownership.  The researchers established a comprehensive dataset and catalog that indicates that:

“Roughly 42 percent of the Indigenous groups from the historical period have no federally- or state-recognized land base, such as a reservation. Of the tribes that still have a land base, their territories are an average of 2.6 percent the size of their ancestral lands” (Farrell, 2021).  

Chart showing effects of land dispossession

Chart from  Farrell, Justin & Burow, Paul & McConnel, Kathryn & Bayham, Jude & Whyte, Kyle & Koss, Gal, 2021.  Effects of land dispossession and forced migration on Indigenous peoples in North America.  Science. DOI 10.1126/science.abe4943

Land dispossession and forced migration impacts between historical and present-day periods.  (Top left) Proportion reduction for coextensive land area estimation (accounting for multiple tribes in a single area). Limitations in the historical record likely result in an underestimation of total historical land area. (Bottom) Plots show changes in tribal land conditions (mean and 95% confidence interval) for selected variables.

At the time of European contact, early Dutch, Swedish, and English settlers in the lands that became New Jersey encountered a number of different Native American bands with distinct identities and geographical bases.  Linguists have delineated a linguistic distinction, with the northern groups speaking a Munsee dialect of the Delaware language, and southern groups - located in central and southern New Jersey - speaking the Unami dialect.

"In the aftermath of European colonization, epidemic diseases, warfare, and other disruptive factors led to the disintegration of these original groups. The survivors were forced to combine with other remnant populations to form new unions, which, in the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries took on names like Lenape (Renappi in Swedish), Lenni Lenape, Delaware, Unami, Munsee, and Unalachtigo." (Kraft, 1986, p.xv).

The territory claimed by the Dutch was known as New Netherland (1614- 1674). The Dutch West India Company drafted an agreement in 1630 - “Privileges and Exemptions for Patroons, Masters and Private Individuals, who will Settle any Colonies and Cattle in New Netherland” - which enabled members to petition for any “unoccupied” land of their choosing, as long as it was outside of Manhattan. Each “patroon,” as land grant recipients were known, had to recruit at least fifty additional colonists for the land, and likely brought along enslaved people. This agreement required settlers to negotiate contracts with Native Americans. These were often indecipherable to Indigenous peoples, and Dutch attempts to force compliance with contracts were met with resistance (Kraft, 1986, pp.221-22). Conflicts with the English, who took control of the territory from the Dutch, from 1664 onwards put additional pressures on Native American populations, along with the impacts of diseases like smallpox, measles, and influenza, leading to the practice of selling or leaving their lands and moving westwards (Kraft, 1986, p.225). This was a period of upheaval, movement, and continuous resettlement


Kraft, Herbert C., 1986. The Lenape: Archaeology, History and Ethnography. New Jersey Historical Society; Edition 1.


Kraft, Herbert C., 1986. The Lenape: Archaeology, History and Ethnography. New Jersey Historical Society; Edition 1.

Conflicts and disputes connected to the French and Indian War (1754-63) and the Treaty of Easton (1758) accelerated the displacement of much of the remaining Native American population from New Jersey. Many Lenape had moved west, for a time into Pennsylvania, while Christian converts moved further south to the short-lived Brotherton Reservation (active from 1758–1802) near the Pine Barrens. The establishment of this one reservation in New Jersey came about after 3,044 acres of land were purchased in Burlington County. A small population of Native Americans who had converted to Christianity lived here until 1802. Non-Christian groups were invited to join, but chose to live in their own small communities (Kraft, 1986, pp.231-32). Life on the reservation was not viable, and most chose to move north to New York and join the Stockbridge community of the Mohican people, eventually settling in Wisconsin as the Stockbridge-Munsee, now a federally recognized group.


Treaty of Easton

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Native American History in New Jersey