Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Poconos: Of Lenapes & Luminaries

The biggest lie told about the Pocono Mountains is that they are mountains. While that technically is true, they aren’t mountains in the sense that the Colorado Rockies are mountains. The Poconos are more like worn down nubs, the result of a geologic bump and grind that began 900 million years ago and continues to this day.

It was during the Precambrian Era that this dance began. Earth's continents collided, creating an immense supercontinent and the first Appalachian mountain range. Almost as quickly – in geologic time, at least – the supercontinent split apart and the Appalachians washed into a primordial sea, the ancestor of the Atlantic Ocean. The continents reversed course and began moving back together about 500 million years ago during the Ordovician Period. As they crept closer, sediment from the first mountains was pushed back out of the sea, forming a second Appalachian range. The continents again collided, resulting in a second supercontinent that geologists call Pangaea. The new Appalachians were pushed westward as the dance continued, forming the parallel ridges that are so evident when you look at a map of the region.

About 200 million years ago, the beginning of the Jurassic Period, Pangaea began breaking up and the resulting continents drifted toward the present-day positions of North America, Europe and Africa. Then the Appalachians began to shrink yet again because of the erosive effects of wind and water, and most notably because of ice as the Earth went through a period of profound cooling. This ice, over a mile thick in some places, carved out valleys, lakes and rivers, as well as rounded off the modern-day Appalachians, which are known in Pennsylvania as the Alleghenys, to the north as the Adirondacks, Berkshires, Taconics, Greens, Whites, Longfellows and Notre Dames, and to the south as the Blue Ridges, Great Smokys and Cumberlands. The three-foot-wide, 2,173 mile long Appalachian Trail runs atop the ridgeline from northern Georgia to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin at the border with Canada. The trail passes within an hour's drive of the East Coast's most populous cities, making it accessible to millions of hikers each year; tens of thousands of those pass through Delaware Water Gap.

The mountains that border the eastern edge of the Poconos are as worn down as any in the Appalachians, with a uniformly flat (some would say boring) ridgeline broken in only one place by a spectacular mile-wide gap where layers of limestone, quartz and shale are laid bare and plunge 1,300 feet from the ridgeline at an almost precise 45-degree angle to a river before reappearing in mirror image on the other side.

The first humans didn't arrive in the Poconos until the last glacier had receded and the transition from tundra to forest was well underway. It was the onset of the Holocene Period, the name given to the last 11,000 years of the Earth's history. The Minsi, Shawnee and Paupack tribes, the first permanent settlers of any consequence, arrived 800 years ago, about the time the barons of the Runnymeade were demanding that King John sign the Magna Charta.

The Minsi were the northernmost Lenni Lenape tribe and part of the great Algonquin nation. They named the river that ran through the gap in the mountains the Lenape, the wide valley above the gap the Minisink and the mountains themselves the Kittatinny. The Minsi were expert farmers, fishermen, hunters, toolmakers and carvers. Their corn grew tall in the fertile valley soil. They fished for eel, sturgeon and shad in the river, trout in its many tributaries and sunfish that they speared in a pond on a meadow atop the Kittatinny ridgeline. They hunted deer, bear and beaver in the woodlands. They made arrowheads, spear points and adzes from flint and chert and cooking vessels from soapstone cut from faraway quarries connected through an extensive network of footpaths. They bore and raised their young in the river valley and buried their elders on the highest rock outcroppings so that they would be just a little bit closer to their heavenly forebears. Life was good.

The beginning of the end of the good life came on August 28, 1609 when Henry Hudson, captain of the Dutch ship Half Moon, arrived on the shores of the New World. Change had played out in the region in increments of millions of years, but was now occurring at a speed and in ways that the Minsi could neither comprehend nor slow down. Within 25 years of Hudson’s arrival, Dutch colonist Hendrick Van Allen had trekked to the gap in the mountains and opened a copper mine nearby. Copper ore was soon being carried by wagon to smelteries nearly 100 miles away on
Copper Mine Road, which was built on improved Indian footpaths. It was the first road of any length in the New World.

The Minsi traded pelts, tobacco and foodstuffs to the Dutch for iron pots, needles and woven cloth. This commerce flourished, but in 1664 the British took over New Amsterdam, which the Dutch had famously purchased from a local tribe for $24 worth of beads, and sent them packing to the Old World.

Local legend has it that Van Allen had fallen in love with the comely Winona, an expert canoeist and archer and daughter of Chief Wissinoming. He was ordered by the Dutch crown to close the mine and skedaddle home. When he tearfully told Winona that he was leaving her behind, the Minsi princess jumped to her death from an outcropping high above the gap in the mountains. Van Allen followed.

As the British were wont to do when they went a conquering, they renamed everything. The river and tribe became the Delaware for Lord De La Warr, otherwise known as Sir Thomas West, and the gap in the mountains became Delaware Water Gap. New Amsterdam, of course, became New York. The closest person to a British chief for the Lenape was William Penn, a devout Quaker and crusader for religious freedom who was into King Charles II for a lot of money. Years of war with France had left the treasury empty, so Charles paid off Penn with a proverbial king’s ransom in the form of an enormous tract of land between Maryland and New York, much of it woodland, that was larger than all of England.

Penn admired the Lenape for their intelligence, intimate relationship with their surroundings and willingness to mediate rather than fight when problems arose. He believed that they were descended from the Lost Tribe of Israel and refused to call them the Delaware, although he did agree to name his vast holdings Pennsylvania, or Penn’s Woods. The deeply-religious Lenape liked Penn, too, and entered into a treaty under which they would coexist with the colonists "as long as the sun will shine and the rivers flow with water." The Lenape would keep the area in northeastern Pennsylvania, including the Poconos, while the British would stay to the south and east.

Penn would be the last white leader of any note who kept his word. His son, Thomas, was an unctuous weasel who drew up the infamous Walking Treaty of 1737, which expropriated most of the Lenape’s ancestral lands. The normally peaceful Minsi were enraged and went on scalping sprees that continued through the French and Indian War in the 1760s and into the 1780s when, decimated and exhausted, they finally conceded they never would never regain their precious Minisink again.

Image: "William Penn's Treaty With the Indians"
By Benjamin West (1771)
© 2004-2008 by SHAUN D. MULLEN

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