Thursday, January 25, 2024

By Michele W. Berger
Photos by Brooke Sientinsons
Full Article at OMNIA

The reading room at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia is nearly silent but for Marian “Molly” Leech’s slow and deliberate page-turning, the fragile sheets she’s inspecting yellowed by the passage of time. Outside, rain is pounding. In the carpeted room, book-lined walls and large white busts flank several long wooden tables.

Leech, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, is there studying the personal correspondence of John Heckewelder, a missionary and linguist who, in the 1800s, lived in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, among a Lenape community that had converted to Christianity. “He was really interested in the Lenape language,” Leech says. “Of course, every colonial source is problematic, but he provides insights that Dutch colonists didn’t have in the earlier time period or weren’t interested in recording.”

The collection’s 113 private letters and other papers offer a glimpse into life several hundred years ago in what is today New Jersey, southern New York, and Pennsylvania. Heckewelder, who recorded and translated many of the area’s Lenape place names, also wrote about the Lenape’s relations with neighboring groups, as well as their views on animals.

In Leech’s research—in the reading room that day, during an ongoing fellowship at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, at archives in New York and New Jersey—she has been flagging any such references to the non-human world or the fur trade, specifically those that relate to the Dutch colony of New Netherland and beaver pelts. In particular, she’s curious about the exchange of goods that took place there in the 1600s and how differently the groups doing the swapping related to the non-human world.

“Colonists didn’t just arrive and trade but claimed Native homelands as their possession,” she explains. “I’m interested in how this distorted many settlers’ views of the landscape, how it obfuscates the region’s deep Indigenous histories—histories that are often not fully discussed in colonial sources or are purposefully downplayed.”

Hometown History

For the better part of the past decade, Leech has made a habit of learning about the history of people and places. As an undergraduate at Lafayette College, she studied anthropology, then earned a master’s degree in archaeology from Leiden University in the Netherlands. When she began her Ph.D. at Penn, Leech planned to study early colonial northeastern American history, but within that, needed an area of specialization.

She’d always been curious about her hometown in Monmouth County, New Jersey, a place that was also the ancestral home of a group of Lenape called the Navesink. “References to this community are few and far between, which could be because they were intent on keeping colonists out of their communities,” says Daniel K. Richter, Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History Emeritus and one of Leech’s advisors.

One way they did interact with the settlers, however, was trading fur and wampum—beads made from whelk and quahog shells—a tradition that far predated the arrival of the Dutch in 1609. “To make a very long story short, because we’re literally talking about thousands of years, there were these massive trade networks that centered on the exchange of rare and presumably powerful goods like shell beads,” Richter explains. “They had deep significance to Native peoples that settlers don’t understand very well.”

In New Netherland, trading between the Dutch West India Company and Lenape took place throughout most of the 1600s. “Furs and wampum were the two materials in New Netherland tasked with reinforcing diplomatic views and understanding,” Leech says. “It was more complex than just an economic exchange.” Part of that had to do with Indigenous patterns of diplomacy and the animal whose fur was being traded, according to Leech’s research so far, as well as consultation with Margaret Bruchac, Professor Emerita in the Department of Anthropology, and close collaborators at the Lenape Center.

The Role of the Beaver

When Leech references beaver, she’s talking about two species, the Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber, found on the European continent, and the North American beaver, Castor canadensis. Leech says that within this context, there are many animal histories that could be told; she’s intrigued by this particular one for many reasons, like the profound effect beavers have on the environment, the fact that they were hunted nearly to extinction in western Europe, and their designation as “other-than-human kin” by the Lenape and other Indigenous groups.

“Many Indigenous communities across today’s northeastern America have oral traditions about the giant beaver as an ‘earth-shaper,’” she says, citing work previously conducted by Bruchac.

“These traditions, which recount constantly negotiated reciprocal relationships among human and other-than-human beings,” Bruchac adds, “also record ancient geological events that re-shaped the land itself.”

To learn more about the plight of beaver in western Europe, Leech has been focusing on Medieval bestiaries—detailed texts about animals, both real and imaginary, which she says tend to represent the beaver inaccurately and almost always being hunted—and the writings of 17th-century natural historians. During the first half of her yearlong Dr. Anton C.R. Dreesmann Fellowship at the Rijksmuseum, for instance, she found papers from a mayor, collector, and naturalist in the Dutch Republic who had never traveled to North America yet referred to the North American fur trade and Native customs and beliefs about the beaver. “Often these writers will refer to other scientists who they’ve received information from or other collections they’ve heard about,” she says.

Letters lead to maps and deeds. References to beaver and the fur trade and wampum beget those about diplomatic views and economic exchange.

Leech has two advantages in parsing these details: She’s fluent in Dutch and for years, she has studied paleography, the practice of learning how to decipher older handwriting. “She’s really able to dig into archival sources in the Netherlands and in the U.S. in ways that few other historians have been able to,” Richter says.

Though she’s only about halfway finished with the work, Leech has begun to see patterns emerge. For instance, she’s noticed that the deep history of the beaver in a European context is tied to histories of deforestation and overhunting. Beyond that, “the Dutch are not just arriving and trading and bringing the pelts back to Europe. They’re part of a colonial project that radically transforms the regional ecology and is invested in trying to attract more settlers to Indigenous land,” she says. “That claim of possession is constantly being challenged by Native leaders.”

‘Getting a Little Bit Deeper’
To view photos and the rest of this article, go to this OMNIA link.