The Lenape chief Tamanend was a trusted negotiator and brought peace to the Delaware Valley for 70 years
If there’s one thing people know about the name Tammany, it’s that it was once tied to New York City’s powerful, albeit corrupt, political machine, Tammany Hall.
Which is precisely the problem. That’s pretty much the one thing people know. Correction: Manhattanites probably also know that the famous namesake building on Union Square was, until the pandemic, home to Frank’s Wines & Liquors. Handy if you’re on an architectural walking tour in February. But whether people know one thing or two things, it’s nowhere near enough things. Tammany had a life well before he became a building.
Also known as Tamanend, or “The Affable One” in his native language, Tammany was a sachem, a trusted spokesman, of the Lenape Indians. The Lenapes had lived in the Delaware River Valley for centuries, inhabiting portions of what now encompasses Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware. It was likely Tammany who welcomed William Penn to this continent in 1682. It was Tammany who helped his people coexist with Penn and adapt to the colonization Penn’s arrival ushered in. It was Tammany who broke new multicultural ground, negotiated unprecedented agreements and helped put in place a plan that kept Pennsylvania relatively violence-free for almost 70 years.
That so few people know about Tammany doesn’t surprise Mark Hirsch, historian at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. “William Penn is in all the history books,” said Hirsch, “and Tammany isn’t. It’s the issue of erasure. The erasure of American Indian tribal cultures, tribal presence and tribal leaders in American culture. Very few tribal leaders appear in American textbooks, Tammany included.”
That’s not to say that a good many Native Americans don’t appear elsewhere. They do. But not always to our credit. We turned Pontiac, the Ottawa chief, into a GM car division. Crazy Horse became a beer. Wamsutta, a line of bed linen. Talk about identity theft. “There’s a long history in this country of appropriating the names of indigenous people, and appropriating them in a way that’s disconnected from the actual past,” said James Spady, a historian, writer, and journalist who specialized in Philadelphia’s Black History. “Tammany and Tammany Hall is a very good example.” Spady died in February 2020.
Oddly enough, Tammany’s chapter in American history was written some 3,000 miles away, in England. In 1681 Charles II granted Penn a 45,000-square-mile chunk of North America, proclaiming that the indigenous “savages” had no more right to the land than the squirrels and rabbits and, in the process, displaying an uncanny ability to offend three mammalian varieties simultaneously. Fortunately, he also offended Penn, who quickly moved to counter Charles’s hubris. Penn’s “Letter to the Kings of the Indians” assures the Lenapes that he wants to live in peace. That he understands they’ve often been treated unfairly. That he wants a fresh start.
“That’s all quite distinctive,” Spady said. “You can see in his rhetoric and in his early efforts that he is truly desirous as a Quaker, as a pacifist, of creating a different kind of relationship.”
Land would be paid for, not confiscated. All Indian claims would be settled before any surveying began. And each land purchase would be dutifully recorded. Basic stuff by today’s standards. Revolutionary stuff by Voltaire’s. The French Enlightenment philosopher saw in Penn new hope for indigenous peoples, new hope for an end to European enslavement. He praised Penn’s willingness “to enter into an alliance with his American neighbors,” unlike “the other Christians who had conquered and laid waste America.”
In the end, of course, it wasn’t the end. But, to Michael Witgen, it was at least an improvement, though one to be taken with a very large grain of salt. Witgen, a Red Cliff Ojibwa, is a professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan and part of its Native American Studies program.
“Penn’s coming from the Quaker tradition,” said Witgen. “Certainly, he’s a more generous, more humane, more enlightened person in terms of Indian affairs than in other colonial places, where there’s far less regard for Indian cultural identity.”
“But there’s still a certain amount of unfairness to it all. The fact that the king of England thinks he can make a grant of land in North America to William Penn—that’s not super fair. Or when people show up and decide that the continent you live on is not inhabited, and they have a right to claim it, settle it and build colonies on it. That’s not fair.”
So why did Tammany reach out to Penn?
“I think there really was no choice,” said Witgen. “People like Tammany were just trying to carve out a place where they could preserve their communities and [way of life]. That was the point of negotiation: to try and put limits on the colonial expansion. Any process that delayed that was a help. Besides,” he added, “you weren’t going to win an all-out war. The demographics were not on your side.”
But, according to Professor Spady, Tammany’s ties to Penn had benefits well beyond security. “Tammany realized colonialism could be a source of prosperity for his people,” said Spady. “It made a lot of sense.”
For both sides. The Lenapes got the manufactured goods they desired. The Europeans got the land they wanted—and they wanted it a lot.
“The colonies were predicated on the idea of possessing land and expanding their settlements by building farms and private property,” said Witgen. “Even though there are Indians occupying the land, the English philosophy is that since they haven’t produced settlements, since they haven’t
created individual and private property rights, it remains an unsettled wilderness. The Europeans believed they had the right to settle it and make it into, quote, ‘a civilized space.’ ”
True to his word, Penn did try to do things differently, but his business model had a rather significant flaw. The land Penn thought he was buying, Tammany wasn’t selling. The idea would never have entered his mind. Private property was simply not a Lenape concept. Kin groups might occasionally hold collective rights to a particular hunting ground, but no individual Lenape ever held land. According to NMAI historian Hirsch, the Lenape probably felt they were giving Penn “use” rights, not “ownership” rights. The land issue would never truly go away.
Despite it all, Hirsch appreciates Tammany’s efforts to work with Penn to develop a relationship that would stand in peaceful contrast to the violence around them in Virginia and New England. “I look at Tammany as somebody who was smart, who was visionary. Somebody who really tried to build something lasting,” said Hirsch. “And that it didn’t last is certainly not his fault.”
By the time of Penn’s arrival in 1682, intertribal warfare and disease had devastated the Lenape, reducing their numbers by some 90 percent, to about 4,000. By contrast, the colonist population was soaring. Within 10 years, it would hit 20,000. Within 30 years, more than 60,000. “That population change is essentially the foundation for what happens in Pennsylvania afterward, for the complete and final dissolution of Penn’s experiment,” said Hirsch. “The kind of parity that had once existed in terms of power had eroded.”
More people meant more farms. More pressure on the land. More depletion of the game the Lenape depended on. Yet Tammany never broke the peace. “I think that’s a testament to who he is and who Penn is,” said Hirsch. “They are trying to figure out a way to live together in what is really a Lenape homeland.”
Tammany is thought to have died in 1698. Yet decades later, during the heady days of the American Revolution, he would re-emerge in a big way. The colonists desperately wanted their own distinctly American identity. They wanted a symbol, a myth, a legend, an icon. And what could possibly be more American than a Native American? It had to be a nice Native American, though.
According to Spady, historically we prefer our Native Americans on the pastoral side, the welcoming side, the friendly side—that is, the nonthreatening side. Tammany, he said, was the colonists’ Sacajawea. Much the way the Lewis and Clark interpreter became what Spady called the “mythological midwife” of American western expansion, Tammany provided absolution for the early English colonists, his peaceful manner and partnership with Penn seen as tacit approval of their colonization.
Seemingly overnight, Tammany celebrations sprang up everywhere. Tammany societies hailed the Lenape sachem as the patron saint of American liberty. The troops at Valley Forge honored him. As far west as the Ohio River, songs and poems lauded his wisdom, his love of freedom. Toasts—lots of toasts—were drunk to his generosity and benevolence. James Fenimore Cooper would find a spot for him in Last of the Mohicans (1826). And Ann Julia Hatton’s opera Tammany: The Indian Chief (1794) would take him all the way to Broadway.
Benjamin West did his part, too. His 1771 painting William Penn’s Treaty With the Indians, now in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, depicts Penn and Tammany beneath a giant elm, entering into what has become known as the Elm Tree Treaty. The meeting was said to have taken place at Shackamaxon, near today’s Fishtown neighborhood in Philadelphia. It may well be the most recognized piece of Tammany lore ever, and among the more problematic.
If such a meeting occurred in July 1682, as some maintain, then West did a little Photoshopping. Penn was in England at the time, though his deputy, William Markham, did deliberate with the Indians in Pennsylvania that summer. If, as others maintain, the painting portrayed a 1683 meeting between Penn and Tammany, which actually did happen, it shows a then-nonexistent brick building, the wrong-century Quaker clothing and a much-too-old Penn. The biggest problem is that there is little direct evidence that any Elm Tree meeting ever occurred.
Bottom line? West was a painter, not a historian.
Ironically, Tammany may be far more evident in West’s painting than in Native American culture as a whole. The reason? There is no whole. “You really can’t extrapolate to a generic Native American culture,” explained Witgen. “If you polled the average Ojibwa here in Michigan, for example, I think you’d find, more often than not, that they don’t know who Tammany is.”
It’s a matter of resonance. Sitting Bull has it. Crazy Horse has it. Tammany doesn’t. “Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are people who signify a resistance to European expansion,” said Witgen, “and the willingness to fight for the right to exist as a native person. Tammany isn’t seen as that sort of figure.”
The Lenape leader resonates in other ways, however. Gettysburg has a 38-foot monument, in honor of New York’s 42nd Infantry, the so-called Tammany Regiment. Louisiana has a St. Tammany parish. Philadelphia, a Tammany statue. For a time, a Tammany statue even graced the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. That is, until it was renamed Tecumseh, affability apparently losing out to ferocity. Perhaps no one noticed that the Shawnee leader had opposed the United States during the War of 1812. (In 2003 a resolution was introduced in Congress to establish a national day of recognition for Tammany. Still waiting on that one.)
Maybe a second look at the historic Tammany is in order. There’s no debating that the Lenapes suffered tremendously as a result of colonization. But, said Hirsch, that was in spite of Tammany, not because of him: “I think Tammany tried to represent Lenape aspirations, and tried hard to represent his people as best he could in the face of what turned out to be a much stronger opposing force.”
With the growing interest in Native American history, hopes are high that Tammany may one day go mainstream. Like most history, it will be a somewhat messy tale, but one James Spady thinks well worth telling. “The difficulty around questions of race and colonization is part of our story. It’s a productive thing for a society to be talking about,” he said. “It’s a reality native peoples live with to this day.”
Fine. But if you want Tammany front and center, forget the historians. Forget the textbooks. Forget the museums. Go with the Weather Channel. Have them name their next “T” storm “Tammany.” In no time, his name will be in every newspaper. There will be specials on the evening news. Cable will give us endless interviews with Native American experts, some of whom might even be Native American.
And, at long last, Tammany might escape the sticky shadow of that red brick building on Manhattan’s Union Square. At long last, the un-erasing of Tammany might take hold.
Dennis Maurizi is a former Chicago copywriter who now lives in Hancock, Mich. His features have appeared in more than 20 publications.
This story appeared in the February 2016 issue of American History.