With Thanksgiving approaching, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon our connection with the indigenous people who first lived on this land. As we enjoy and protect the beauty of Willistown, we cannot forget its original inhabitants and how their lifestyle echoes throughout the conservation of this land and its natural resources. While we preserve the land we must also preserve its history and the history of the native people. By sharing their story with the community, and working with local Native American organizations, we can hope to ensure that their legacy lives on with the land.
The indigenous people of southeastern Pennsylvania, known as the Lenape, lived throughout the Delaware River watershed. Just southwest of Philadelphia, along the banks of Crum, Ridley, and Chester Creeks, resided a small clan called the Okehocking. They belonged to the Unami, one of three Lenape tribes.
Like much of the Lenape, the Okehocking Clan felt immense pressure from European settlers. In 1701, they asked William Penn for the land of their own, safe from European encroachment. By 1703, Penn agreed to provide them 500 acres in modern day Willistown, the first Native American land grant in the American colonies. The diamond-shaped tract was bordered on the east and west by Plumsock and Garrett Mill Roads and extended north and south roughly to what is now known as Goshen Road and West Chester Pike. It is believed that this land was chosen largely due to a rock outcropping near its center resembling a turtle’s head, dubbed Turtle Rock since the tortoise was a symbolic representation of Mother Earth for the Unami Tribe.
Aside from the Ridley Creek floodplain, most of the area was not conducive to farming. The Okehocking, like many Native American tribes, burned fields to provide more ground for agriculture, while also hunting and fishing. The women foraged fruit, nuts, seeds, and even small amphibians from the forests and streams. During the winters, their Clan would move north towards the upper Schuylkill River. This ensured that the land was never overused, and had the ability to restore itself naturally.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the European settlers resumed their intrusion of indigenous land. Just a few years later, in 1710, the surrounding landowners had a new road added through the center of the territory, making Delchester the first recorded road in Willistown. Ongoing disputes over hunting grounds strained things further, and in 1718 the Okehocking Clan began moving out of their Willistown home. They returned in the summers for several years, but by 1735 they had abandoned the land entirely.
The respectful and harmonious relationship that the Okehocking people had with the land is still a model for conservation. Their stewardship is reflected in the work we do, from the regenerative clearing of fields and brush at our preserves to the sustainable agricultural practice of seasonal crop rotation on Rushton Farm. We are also focused on creating collaborations with the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania to help teach both us and the community about their history here. They generously consulted with our Watershed Protection team before the large tree planting project at Ashbridge Preserve to identify some of the species that would be illustrative of their way of life and moving forward, we hope to have representatives from the organization come out for public educational engagements. In the meantime, follow the links below to learn more about their organization and the history of the Lenape in Pennsylvania. And of course, come out to the preserves in Willistown to walk the land and experience some of the history firsthand.
– Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania
– Educaitonal video made through Penn Museum, a great source for information about the area’s indigenous people. Click to find out more about the video.