River of People, Part 1

As River of the Year in 2020, the Delaware River and its watershed provide us with so much to appreciate. Many of us have sought the abundant forests and parks as refuge from our homes. While the solace, space and recreation have been especially valued this year, the appreciation and use of its resources are not new.

For centuries, the Lenni Lenape have called this area home and stewarded this land long before European settlement. The Delaware River, called the Lenapewitik in Lenape, is known as the “River of People” in their language. The Lenape who settled along the banks of its streams and tributaries built a strong, independent community based on the watershed’s abundance and successful fisheries.

European settlers soon adopted the harvest of American shad and other Lenape traditions. However, recognition and appreciation for the Lenni Lenape expired when European greed took over, manifested by the Susquehannock Confederacy and the “Walking Purchase” swindle by William Penn’s sons. These and other actions against the Lenni Lenape led most of their people to move away, leaving behind their homeland.

American shad

Today we can connect with Lenni Lenape descendant and book author Carla Messinger, from the Turtle Clan, and learn from the Lenni Lenape Historical Society and Museum of Indian Culture, which she founded in Allentown, Pa. Many other Lenape people are spread through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Delaware, New York, the Delmarva peninsula, Oklahoma and Kansas, and in Canada. 

Fish were central to the culture of the Lenni Lenape, and the Delaware and its tributaries provided productive fisheries. Anadromous fishes, like American shad, striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon and herrings, migrate each year from the ocean to the river and its tributaries in the spring, then back to the ocean in late summer and fall. These species were not only a major source of sustenance, but also an important part of Lenape culture.

The Lenape fished the annual American shad run, where our rivers and streams seemed to barely hold enough water for all the fish. The migration of millions of fish would have looked like the river was boiling! The abundance of American shad, American eel, alewife, striped bass, blueback herring, sea lamprey, brook trout and other migratory fishes allowed the Lenape to settle in one area for a substantial period of time.

Every March they held a festival for the return of the shad from the ocean, which could last up to six weeks. The extensive use of fish and shellfish for nutrition protected the Lenape from periods of drought when maize crops were scarce.

Rivers are not just a source of sustenance for the Lenape, but sacred areas, too. The calendar of the Lenape was based around the cycles of nature, especially freshwater, within our watershed.

The fish communities in the Lenapewitik indicated the seasons through coinciding with certain plants — the shadbush (juneberry or serviceberry bush) bloomed with the shad run, and the trout lily (dog-toothed violet) also indicated that the trout had returned. If you live outside Philadelphia, you will know that the spring peeper, a tiny species of frog that lives in Pennsylvania marshes, still lets us know when winter is over.

Throughout the watershed today, fish populations are recovering from drastic declines caused by pollution. Industrial pollution, urban growth and wastewater runoff created adverse conditions in the Delaware River that affected the health of both wildlife and humans by the mid-1900s. In some areas, the river was almost a complete dead zone, and low oxygen conditions prevented the migration of many species.

American shad, a once sacred and celebrated fish, became scarce, unable to migrate past the most urbanized portions of the river. Studies and water quality regulations were instituted in the 1960s leading to legislation that evolved into the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The Delaware has recovered immensely since then with rebounding fish populations and increased water quality that typically meets or exceeds regulatory standards. As a result, American shad have returned to the river to be celebrated once more at many local festivals like the annual Shad Fest in Lambertville, N.J. A recent series by WHYY documents the history and success of these efforts.

Nonpoint source pollution is major threat that still exists, but is being actively targeted by the Delaware River Watershed Initiative and several state, local and federal agencies as well as non-profit organizations. Nonpoint source pollution means you can’t indicate the pipe or specific area pollution is coming from, such as leaking septic tanks and agricultural runoff of pesticides, fertilizer and other chemicals.

Reductions in nonpoint source pollution are a result of work with farmers and abandoned mines to reduce their impacts on streams. Dam removal and river restoration has opened the rivers once again to migrating species like American eel and American shad in areas where they were historically abundant.

A recent success was seen in the Musconetcong River, where American shad were seen for the first time in recent history following the removal of the Hughesville Dam. The ability of these fish to migrate 300 miles or more is truly a wonder!


By Stefanie Kroll, Academy watershed ecology section Leader and scientific lead for the Delaware River Watershed Initiative; Carla Messinger, children’s book author and Lenni Lenape tribe member; and Allison Stoklosa, Academy fisheries scientist.

This post is the third in our 2020 series celebrating the Delaware River as River of the Year. Look for more installments to come. For previous, visit:

Data and the Delaware

How Do You Manage a River?


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3 comments

  1. My mother was a child of the Delaware; her German father grew up in Trenton, and her Swedish/Welsh mother was raised in Camden and then Trenton. My mother grew up in Trenton. I grew up in Cinnaminson, NJ, collecting tiny frogs and ice skating on the Pompeston Creek, camping with my Girl Scout troop at Camp Kettle Run in the Pine Barrens, and learning about Ruth Patrick in Biology class with teacher Joseph Lavenberg at Cinnaminson High School. Our family kept a sailboat on the Delaware; we motored and sailed south past Philadelphia all the way to the Chesapeake and made the best summer memories along the way. I remember doing a little field study in along the Maurice River for a college ecology course; I collected diatoms in a homemade trap, identified the species, and made drawings. At present, I’m developing a native bee habitat garden at a local county park in a Philadelphia exurb. FUN!!!

    1. Karen, thanks for sharing all your connections with the Delaware! I am hoping that at a time that folks are spending more time in nature, they might incorporate these river and nature explorations more in their own and children’s lives! 🙂 I’m also glad you learned about Dr. Ruth Patrick, a trailblazer for women in the environmental sciences and a force of nature in and of herself!

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