Jean Soderlund is Professor of History at Lehigh University. This interview is based on her new book, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn (University of Penn Press, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn?
JS: My goals in writing the book evolved over time as I researched and thought about the project. The plan initially was to write about the Lenapes in New Jersey because colonial historians focused primarily on Pennsylvania and suggested that all the surviving Lenapes—called Delawares by the Europeans during the eighteenth century—moved west. I knew that a sizable number of Lenapes remained in New Jersey and wanted to tell their story. With research I learned that the Native people had a significant impact on the development of the Delaware Valley, so that became the larger focus of my book.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn?
JS: During the seventeenth century, Lenapes controlled the Delaware Valley, limiting settlement and allying with the Susquehannocks, Swedes, Finns, and other Europeans against heavy-handed Dutch and English authority. In the process, the Lenapes and these colonists interacted on the basis of personal liberty, religious freedom, decentralized government, trade, and peaceful resolution of conflict, thus creating the cultural platform on which Delaware Valley society grew.
JF: Why do we need to read Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn?
JS: Colonial scholars typically begin their histories of other colonies such as Virginia and Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century but start the history of Pennsylvania in 1681 with William Penn. My book uncovers the history of the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth century—one that is quite different from the Chesapeake and New England because the Natives retained control. When the Dutch attempted to establish large-scale plantation agriculture at Swanendael in 1631, the Lenapes killed all its residents and demolished the colony, discouraging expansive settlement for more than fifty years.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JS: I always loved history, and wanted to be a teacher and writer since I was a teenager. My career has been varied: I taught high school and community college; served as an associate editor of the Papers of William Penn and as an archivist; and since 1988 have taught colonial American history at the university level. My primary interest has been relations between people of different ethnicity, economic status, and gender. Peace and justice remain central issues in our society: we can understand society today only if we first learn about the past.
JF: What is your next project?
JS: I’ve started a project on West New Jersey, which was divided from East New Jersey until 1702 when the two unified as New Jersey, but has remained separate—it could be argued even to the present—culturally and economically. West New Jersey was Lenape country in the seventeenth century and remained the homeland of many Natives as late as the 1750s. Its decentralized government, ethnic relations, and pinelands created a society and economy quite different from other colonies, even Pennsylvania. I want to write a history of West Jersey that includes the Lenapes as well as the colonists.