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Washington Crossing State Park

Indian Autumn: The Harvest, Hunt and the Big House Ceremony
by Jim Wade

Autumn was a unique and special time of the year in the lives of the aboriginal peoples that inhabited the Delaware Valley for centuries prior to European contact and settlement in the 1600s. Known collectively as the Lenape- Delaware, these Woodland people lived in small bands or villages in the vicinity of what is now Washington Crossing State Park and throughout New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, southern New York and northern Delaware.

By the end of summer, the seasonal fish that had traveled up the Delaware River and the many rivers, tributary streams and lakes were now migrating back to the sea. Spring and summer had been a good time for fishing and hunting marsh birds, passenger pigeons, and other seasonal game, including frogs and turtles. With the arrival of autumn, edible plants, new roots, berries, nuts and other foods growing abundantly throughout the warm days of late spring and summer would be gathered. Deer, elk, bear, and raccoon may not have been hunted intensively during the spring and summer, due to their thin fur and their flesh being lean. Now with autumn upon them, the animal’s fur began to thicken, and they were fattening up on the variety of plants abundantly available to them during the fall season, preparing them for the coming winter. As hunters and gatherers, the Indian people had to rely on nature for all their food. During the early fall, the people continued to fish, as they did through the spring and summer, along riverbanks and shorelines. In the autumn, adult eels would migrate from the many rivers to the sea to spawn, and the Indians would catch thousands of these in the Delaware in a single night, using a kind of basket weir or “eel pot.” These traps were constructed with a funnel-like insert at the aperture, which was set to face upstream. The captured eels were skinned and the surplus meat was dried and stored for future use.

The Lenape knew well the proper time for planting and harvesting. They had no written calendar but the moon and stars guided them in this. The Pleiades, a bright cluster of stars that were most visible in the wintertime, were particularly related to planting. As the Pleiades began to set in the western sky about the beginning of May, it was time to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. In October, when this star cluster reemerged, the time was right for harvesting the crops. Many garden vegetables were eaten day by day as they ripened, but others were stored for use in the fall and winter. Drying could preserve almost every type of food such as meat, fish, shellfish, nuts, berries, mushrooms, roots, and tubers. Indian women preserved some of the corn they grew by peeling back the husks, braiding the ears, and hanging the clusters from the house poles and roof supports of their bark shelters.

The Indians employed various types of storage facilities. Foods used daily were kept in woven baskets, skin pouches, gourds, or broken clay pots that had been subsequently mended. These could be conveniently stored on shelves or under sleeping platforms in the dwellings. The remainder would be held in simple granaries attached to their houses or in storage pits dug into the earth, located inside and outside the wigwams.

With the first harvest came the “Green Corn Ceremony,” a major annual celebration that probably formed the basis of what was to become the “Big House Ceremony “that the Lenape-Delaware Indians have celebrated in more recent times. One form or another of the ceremony was practiced by most of the horticultural Indians of eastern North America from New England to the Gulf of Mexico. During the Green Corn Ceremony, which could last as long as twelvedays, the Lenapes thanked the Corn Woman, for the crops she had given them. This spirit was sometimes thought of as the first human being. Her existence demonstrated the depth of the Lenape identification of women with horticulture. “Mother Corn” had dominion over all vegetation of the plant world, and is envisioned as an elderly woman who resided in the far heavens.

The harvest would have been brought in and dried in October, and the Indian’s base camps by this time of year, would be well supplied with stored food. By late fall, Lenape Indian family bands, made up of men, women, and older children got themselves ready for the autumn hunt and dispersed into the forest to hunt and gather nuts. The people would reside on and off during the winter months at these interior hunting territories and nut harvesting camps. Nuts of many kinds such as hickory, acorns, walnuts and butternuts were now in abundant supply; and fat, thick-pelted deer, elk, bear, raccoons, and turkeys were available. The meat and pelts of these animals would be greatly needed to survive in the coming winter and early spring season.

Hunting territories could measure up to 200 square miles in area, but others considerably smaller, were bounded by natural landmarks such as streams, rock outcroppings, hills, lake shores, or sea coasts. Traditional rights to such game areas were recognized and respected. Many interior and mountain regions were sparsely populated, or sometimes completely uninhabited except during the hunting and nut-gathering seasons.

An early observer of the Indians, Peter Lindestrom, indicated that the Indians would sometimes burn the woods and thickets to make tracking and hunting of deer easier, and used fire-surrounds to encircle and trap wild game. Burning also opened clearings and allowed a more abundant growth of grass and shrubs. These practices manipulated the natural forest habitat and promoted succulent vegetation and other conditions that greatly favored deer and elk populations.

These hunting and gathering bands periodically returned home to their permanent villages during December with the flesh of the animals they had not been able to eat while fresh, smoking and drying the food enroute. The returning family bands brought back fresh venison, animal skins, firewood, and bone grease. The Lenape Raritan bands are thought to have spent their winters “in the sheltered valleys at the foot of the Watchung Mountains.” The Lenape Indian family bands living in the area of present day Washington Crossing likely had their hunting and nut-gathering territories throughout the Sourland Mountain region.

The Native Americans hunted no more than they needed to survive, in order to preserve the balance of nature. Such conservation in hunting was an integral part of their spiritual beliefs. Animals were believed to be intelligent, conscious fellow members of the same spirit world as the Indians, and therefore would be treated with dignity and respect. In the spirit world, the very existence of the Indian was linked with that of the animals, and both the human hunters and the game animals understood the role each must play to enable the Indian to survive.

Autumn - The Big House Ceremony

The Lenape were a very religious people. Like many other prehistoric-tribal peoples, they believed in a world filled with supernatural spirits. All things were thought to be alive and animated by spirit forces or the manëtuwàk. The manëtuwàk and all other beings were created by Kishëlemukòng or, the “Creator”. Kishëlemukòng literally means “He who creates us by his thoughts” in the Delaware language The Lenape-Delawares believed that this Creator was the single, all powerful supernatural power, and was known to most Native Americans as the “Great Spirit.”

The “Mësingw” (literally meaning “Living Solid Face”) was the “manëtu” or spirit being, of singular importance to the well being of every Lenape person. Also known as the“Masked Being” or “Keeper of the Game” it was this spirit’s responsibility to look after the animals in the forest and he kept a benevolent eye on all creatures. Mësingw surveyed his vast domain from the back of a large buck and it was believed that he could be seen from time to time riding through the forest, herding deer. Mësingw was a strange looking spirit, with a large round face, the right side colored red and the left black; his body was covered from head to foot with long black hair similar to that of a bear. Although usually benevolent, he could be angry and resentful if not properly revered and feasted. If a hunter did not show the right respect to the Mesingw, the animals of the forest might not appear or present themselves to the hunter. Because Lenape hunters had to pursue deer and other game in his domain, and women and children needed to collect nuts, plants, and firewood in the forest, it was especially important that all the Indians be on good terms with the Mësingw. If he was unhappy, he could ruin a person’s hunting and gathering fortunes.

The Big House Ceremony was one of the most important annual events in the religious lives of the Lenape Indians who had migrated from New Jersey to Oklahoma and Canada during the historic period. The Big House Ceremony was no doubt of ancient origin, and there is good evidence that it was probably held in an earlier and perhaps simpler form when the Lenape lived centuries ago in the Delaware Valley. The Big House Ceremony was a sort of thanksgiving celebration that took place most likely, in October. The Lenape people referred to the Big House Ceremony as the Gamwing or Xingwikaon. The purpose of the Big House Ceremony was to give thanks for a plentiful harvest, good hunting, and other benefi ts received from the Creator in the Twelfth Heaven and to his principal spirit agents below: Mother Earth, the Sun, the Moon, the Four Winds, and all the others. The Big House Ceremony was celebrated not only to give thanks to the Creator and the manëtuwàk for past blessings, but also to ensure good fortune for the year. One writer on the subject, L. H. Morgan, stated in an unpublished manuscript: “They believe unless they observe it once a year their crops will fail, and they will lose the favor of the Great Spirit.” (Newcomb 1956:64).

The Big House ceremony lasted for twelve days as practiced by Delaware people in Oklahoma. The ceremony participants (most everybody in the village) attempted to get on good terms with the manëtuwàk and the spirits of the game animals for success in the autumn hunt. If the spirit-forces listened to the hunter’s prayers, they made the animals present themselves to the hunter to be killed. In historic time, the Big House Ceremony was held in a large log building which represented the universe; its dirt floor, the earth; the four walls represented the four quarters of the universe or the four sacred directions, and the roof represented the sky in which the Creator lived. The center post was the most important feature in the Big House, signifying the “World Tree”. This center post symbolized the staff of the Great Spirit with its base upon the earth and its top reaching the hand of Kishëlemukòng. Two faces were carved on the east and west sides of this post, four faces carved on the posts of the eastern and western door frames, and six additional faces were carved on the posts of the north and south walls of the Big House. These twelve faces, representing the Mësingw, were painted red on the right side and black on the left. It is believed that these markings represented the duality in the world - life and death, day and night, hot and cold, right and wrong, male and female etc.

Much less is known about the Big House prior to European contact because the prehistoric Lenape had no written records or documents. Most likely, the ceremony took place in a building that also served as a council house and was similar in structure to the Iroquoian Long House. One assumes that each community of native villages had its own Big House constructed of the same material as used in building the wigwams.

Men and woman looked for guidance and power from all the manëtuwàk through dreams, visions, and prayer during sacred ceremonies, such as the Big House Ceremony. The ceremony featured selected individuals who recited poetic renditions of their religious visions and people prayed, danced, and sang sacred songs. Red cedar, which was considered sacred to the Lenape, was burned to purify the people and all things, and its smoke carried the prayers of the people up to the twelfth heaven where the Creator lived. One individual was chosen by the village elders to represent the Mësingw at the Big House ceremony. This Mësingw impersonator or, Mësinghòlikàn, usually a shaman-medicine man, put on a full-body bear skin costume (with fur) and wore a face mask painted red on the right and black on the left. At this ceremony, the Lenape called upon the Mësingw and the other manëtuwàk to express thanksgiving for their blessings. The Mësinghòlikàn brought the presence of the Mësingw into the Big House. The Mësinghòlikàn could not speak during the ceremony but used a turtle shell rattle and a stick to communicate his thoughts. This calling upon the Mësingw was done in hopes of bringing prosperity and good health to the people. The manëtuwàk were believed to have powerful abilities and the Big House Ceremony was practiced by the Lenape, in thanks to the spirit-forces, and was carried out to ensure the spiritual needs of the people.

Autumn was a special time of year in the lives of the indigenous peoples that inhabited the Delaware Valley and the area of Washington Crossing State Park in centuries past. It is still a special time. Wildlife abounds, the air is fresh and cool the growing season climaxes as wild fruits, nuts and other seeds ripen and drop from their mother plants. The scarlet leaves of the sumac, maple, the sassafras and the sour gum reminds us of the passion, of the hunt once so important in the lives of the native people.


Dowd, Gregory Evans
1992 The Indians Of New Jersey. New Jersey Historical Commission, Trenton, NJ.

Grumet, Robert S.
1989 The Lenape. Chelsea House Publ., New York.

Kraft, Herbert C.
1986 The Lenape: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, NJ.

2001 The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 B.C. - A.D. 2000. Lenape Books, Stanhope, NJ.

Kraft, Herbert C., and John T. Kraft
1985 The Indians Of Lenapehoking. Seton Hall University Museum, South Orange, NJ.

Newcomb, William W., Jr.
1956 The Culture And Acculturation of the Delaware Indians. University Of Michigan Museum of Anthropology Anthropological Papers 10, Ann Arbor MI.

Wallace, Paul A.W
1961 Indians in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,Harrisburg, PA.

Weslager, C.A.
1972 The Delaware Indians: A History. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
Jim Wade worked as a field archaeologist and archaeological field assistant at several Indian sites throughout Central New Jersey. Mr. Wade also worked as an archivist with the N.J. State Museum documenting Native American land holdings in New Jersey from the 17th & 18th centuries. He is a frequent volunteer at WCSP where he assists with our Native American and primitive technology events. Mr. Wade is available for talks and demonstrations to groups. His e-mail address is: Mr. Wade will be giving a presentation on the Indians of N.J. at the Nature Center on November 10. (see attached program schedule)

Volunteer Notes

Nettie Rekowski, Ewing, Terri Miller, West Trenton and Cheryl Burgos, Morrisville all came in to staff the facility and assist with programs. Nettie and Priscilla Damiani, Ewing, performed maintenance on the Yellow Dot Trail.

Gene Ramsey of AAAP (center) provided solar observing opportunitiesGene Ramsey, Pennington, Brought his telescope in on two September weekends to provide solar viewing for park visitors. Gene came to us courtesy of the Amateur Astronomers Assn. of Princeton.

John Ecks, Washington Crossing, performed trail maintenance.




Around the Park

  • Scout, 4-H and camp groups visited the Nature Center this summer to participate in a variety of interpretive events. The programs offered to these groups included compass training and ropes course activities, hikes, shelter building/wilderness survival, natural dyes, new games, pond studies and rope bridge construction.
  • Seasonal Interpretive Specialist Lauren Seiler has returned to Penn State for the school year to continue her studies. Carol
    Strattman, Titusville, started working at the Nature Center part time in July.

Astronomy Seminar

“Introduction to Amateur Astronomy” a short course spanning four Friday evenings in October and November will once again be jointly offered by Washington Crossing State Park and the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton. The course has been developed with those in mind who have ever gazed with wonder toward the mysterious beauty of the night sky and have pondered the prospects of becoming engaged in this very interesting
hobby. The seminar will be taught at the Nature Center starting Friday October 5 at 5:30 p.m. and will continue at 7:30 p.m. on the following three Friday evenings (10/12, 10/19, 11/02). The adjacent AAAP Observatory will be utilized on clear nights. Each session will run from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours in length and will be structured for the interest of those at the eighth grade through the adult levels. The instructor will make use of slide presentations, lively discussion, and group activities created to excite the interest of participants. “Introduction to Amateur Astronomy” will be taught by Mr. Manick Rajendran of Plainsboro, long time amateur astronomer and member of AAAP with over 20 years of professional experience in the banking and healthcare industries. Enrollment in this course will be limited to about twenty five people and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Advanced registration will be required. The cost will be $5.00 per participant with the charge being applied towards handouts and other materials. For further information or to register call the Nature Center at (609) 737-0609.

Primitive Technologies Day
Sunday October 21, 2007

If you've ever been curious how our ancestors from any culture survived in prehistoric times then Primitive Technologies Day is for you. Volunteers knowledgeable in a variety primitive living skills will be stationed on the grounds around the Nature Center demonstrating their areas of expertise. Stone tool making, fire-by-friction, fiber processing and cordage production, edible & medicinal plants, Native American artifacts, traps, snares, and primitive weapons will be among the various skills and crafts on display. In its ninth season here at WCSP, this year's event is once again being organized by Dr. Bill Schindler of the Center for Experimental Archaeology. Primitive Technologies Day will be a rain or shine event. Admission is free for all ages and demonstrations will be ongoing 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Come on out. You will be amazed..


Check out the Autumn Programs at the Nature Center.

Check out the Autumn Programs at the Visitor Center.

Check out the Autumn Programs at the Johnson Ferry House.

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