Skip to content

A Lenape among the Quakers, by Dawn Marsh.

January 17, 2014

A Lenape among the Quakers, by Dawn Marsh.  University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 240 pages.


 An outstanding history/biography focusing on a Native American woman living in 18th century Pennsylvania as her homeland was being filled with Quaker settlers.  Offers new perspectives on Native American History, Quaker History, and Women’s History.

 Dawn Marsh is on the faculty of Purdue University where she teaches a course on the history of Native American women.  She has published and spoken about issues of gender and race.   This is a fascinating book which sheds light on the early interactions of white settlers and Indigenous people whose land they sought.  I recommend it strongly to anyone interested in history and in the ways we can research and write individuals who left no paper trail.

 Hannah Freeman was a Lenape, or Delaware, Indian, who lived most of her life in the fertile Brandywine River valley near Philadelphia during the years when Quakers were moving into region.  She was a strong independent woman who never gave up her people’s beliefs and traditions.   Her Quaker neighbors bought the baskets she wove and hired her to treat them and their children with her natural medicines.  She learned to spin and sew, increasing her ability to support herself.  She worked periodically for many of her neighbors, living with them at times.  She was proud of her set of silver spoons and her garden from which she sold vegetables.  As she aged, her neighbors assisted her, but by then they were also developing new methods of caring for the poor.  Labeled “the last of the Lenapes,” she ended her days in a “poorhouse” on land she still claimed as belonging to her people.

 Like most “ordinary” people, Hannah Freeman left no diaries, letters or other personal documents.  Dawn Marsh has addressed this problem in several ways.  She has combed the documents left by the Quakers who were Freeman’s friends and employers and compiled a picture of Hannah as she moved around the valley with her small cluster of cows and pigs working for different families.  In addition, Marsh uses Hannah’s story to explore the larger historical changes which were taking place around her.   Marsh also explicitly speculates from what she does know to what probably happened to Hannah.  More innovatively, she also raises questions, encouraging readers to image what took place or how Hannah Freeman might have felt as the conditions of her life shifted. In the process, March is able to make Hannah come alive for readers.

 In addition, Marsh uses Hannah Freeman as a prism for examining the multiple ways in which the Brandywine Valley was changing during her long life.  During the French and Indian War, violence swept through her valley and a Revolutionary Battle was fought near her home.  Perhaps more importantly demographic and economic change forced Hannah and others like her to adapt to new ways of life. In telling Hannah’s story, Marsh challenges some of our assumptions about the relationship between Quakers and Indians.  William Penn attempt to treat Native Americans fairly is an iconic story.  While Marsh honors the ways in which some Quakers acted sympathetically toward Hannah, she recognizes that the story is complicated.  Penn also believed the English would eventually dominate the region.  The treaties he authored were to be in affect only as long as the “last” of the tribes was present on the land.  Hence the importance of Hannah Freeman as the “last” of her tribe, even when those calling her that had to have known that she was not literally the last Lenape in the region.

 Marsh also establishes that we should not treat the Quakers as one homogenous group.  Some Quakers followed Penn’s lead in dealing fairly with the Lenape, but others did not.  In the treaties which Penn and the Lenape signed, the land one mile back on each side of the Brandywine River was to be reserved for the Indians. Not all Quakers obeyed the treaty restriction.  Some surveyed and sold that land.

 A Lenape among the Quakers is somewhat similar to Katie Gale, by Llyn De Dannon, another book about a Native American woman living on the edge of white settlement a century later.  Both books incorporate the story of the region into the story of the woman whom they describe.  Both ask readers to imagine what their subject’s life would have been like, but De Dannon shares more about her own experiences, involving us in her writing.  Katie Gale would make a great companion read for Marsh’s book. While books are thoroughly researched they are more accessible to general readers than most more traditional scholarly histories.

 I read this as an ebook from the University of Nebraska Press which is to be congratulated for publishing such an important book.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    January 18, 2014 4:20 pm

    I put this one on my wish list after seeing your post on Eva’s blog. I hope I am able to read it soon(ish).

  2. January 19, 2014 11:57 am

    Good. I think you will like it, if the historical debates don’t get you down. It is a good answer to the invisibility that Thomas King deplores. So is Katie Gale, which you may like even more.


  1. Review roundup | University of Nebraska Press blog
  2. Water Tossing Boulders, by Adrienne Berard. | Me, you, and books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: