Delaware Indians

By: Carol A. Lipscomb

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: October 21, 2020

The Delaware Indians were one of many immigrant tribes from the United States who ventured into Texas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Texas Delawares were remnants of a once-powerful people who had experienced more than 150 years of upheaval and relocation as they were pushed west by advancing Euro-American culture. The traditional home of the tribe was the Delaware River basin, an area that extends from what is now southern New York to Delaware Bay. The location on the Atlantic coast brought the tribe into early contact with English colonists, who called them Delawares because they lived on the bay named in honor of Lord de la Warr, governor of the English colony at Jamestown in 1610. The Delawares, members of the Algonquian linguistic family, called themselves Lenni Lenape, or "common people." The people called Delawares lived in small villages scattered along the numerous waterways of the region. Each village was an independent community with its own chieftains, who served as counselors and decision makers. Often residents of villages along the same stream constituted a band. The most influential village leader functioned as head of the band. The Delawares lived in one-room bark huts, called wigwams, with a single doorway and a smoke hole in the roof. When first contacted by Europeans, they had no metal tools, and their principal weapon was the bow and arrow. They grew corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, and tobacco, and supplemented their diet by hunting, fishing, and gathering. Their clothing was made of animal skins, feathers, and plant fibers, and both men and women often painted and tattooed their bodies.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in Delaware territory. They arrived in the 1620s, interested primarily in the fur trade, and established the colony of New Netherlands. The Dutch negotiated the first land purchases from the Delawares in the late 1620s, followed by the Swedes in the 1630s, and the process was begun that ultimately removed the Delawares from their homeland. In 1664 the Dutch colony was taken over by the English, and the Delawares were subjected to yet another European power. The tribe fell victim to warfare, alcoholism, and epidemic diseases, and within a century none of the tribe remained in the valley of the Delaware River. The surviving Delawares began to drift west in the 1740s, first to the Susquehanna River valley, then across the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio River, where they settled on land belonging to the Six Nations of the Iroquois. In 1768 the Iroquois ceded their land east of the Ohio River to the English, and the Delawares were forced to move west of the river into what is now Ohio. The American colonies declared independence from England in 1776, but the change of government did not alter the fate of the Delawares. Americans, driven by a pioneering spirit, continued to advance into Indian territory and claim land through warfare and treaty. Between 1778 and 1830 the Delawares were party to sixteen treaties that moved them from Ohio to Indiana, across Illinois, and into Missouri. The fact that they were compensated for land that they ceded and given new land on which to settle did not lessen the hardships involved in relocation. The main body of the Delawares lived on the White River in Missouri for nine years before government officials negotiated their move to the junction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers in what is now Kansas. The tribe resided there from 1830 until their final relocation to Indian Territory in 1868, when they were settled on land purchased from the Cherokees in present northeastern Oklahoma. The location of the main body of the Delawares was dictated by the United States government from the late 1770s on, but small groups of the tribe often moved independently. In 1789 a group of Delawares received permission from Spanish officials to move into Missouri. They settled near Cape Girardeau, where they later became known as Absentee Delawares.

Remnants of that Missouri band drifted into Texas around 1820 and settled in the northeast corner of the Spanish province around the Red and Sabine Rivers. Those Delawares, along with other immigrant bands from the United States, shared East Texas with remnants of the Caddo Indians and a growing number of White settlers. After Mexico secured independence from Spain in 1821, the Delawares continued to have a peaceful relationship with Mexican officials, as well as with other immigrant tribes and Anglo-American colonists. When Gen. Manuel de Mier y Terán made an inspection of East Texas in 1828, he estimated that 150 to 200 Delaware families were living there. They petitioned the general to grant them land and send "teachers of reading and writing" to their villages. Mier was impressed with the level of acculturation that the Delawares had achieved and forwarded their request to Mexico City. The Mexican government, however, never granted the tribe legal title to any land. When Texans began their revolution against the Mexican government in 1835, they were anxious to win the immigrant tribes to their cause, or at least to ensure their neutrality. To accomplish that, the provisional government pledged to honor the land claims of twelve tribes living in East Texas, including the Delawares. In addition, government officials appointed three commissioners to negotiate a treaty with those groups. The resulting treaty, concluded in February 1836, delineated the boundaries of Indian land, but the agreement was never ratified by the Texas government.

When Texas became a republic in 1836, President Sam Houston sought peace with all Texas Indians. He enlisted the services of the friendly Delawares in protecting the frontier from hostile western tribes. In 1837 Delaware scouts accompanied several ranger corps as they patrolled the western line of settlement. Houston also worked to secure the land claims of the immigrant tribes, but without success. Houston's successor to the presidency, Mirabeau B. Lamar, considered the immigrant tribes to be unauthorized intruders who threatened public safety and illegally occupied Texas land. He ordered them to be expelled from Texas. His removal policy culminated in the Cherokee War (1839), a conflict that involved all the immigrant bands. As a result of the war, most of the immigrant Indians in the Republic of Texas, including the Delawares, were forced north of the Red River into Indian Territory. A few scattered Delawares remained in Texas after the war. When Houston was elected to a second term as president in late 1841, he immediately reinstated his peace policy. His emissaries negotiated a treaty with the Delawares and remnants of eight other tribes in 1843 at Fort Bird, near the site of present Fort Worth. Houston then elicited the aid of the Delawares in his attempts to make peace with the Comanches. He allowed a group of Delaware scouts and their families to settle along the Brazos and Bosque rivers, where they used their influence to induce the Comanches to come to council. Most prominent among those Delawares were John Conner, a mixed-blood chief, and Bill and Jim Shaw, brothers who had earned reputations as skilled traders and scouts. The Delawares' diplomacy helped to bring the Comanches to a treaty council in 1844.

After Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845, the Delawares continued to play important roles as scouts, diplomats, and interpreters for the United States Army and the Indian Bureau. John Conner helped guide the Chihuahua-El Paso expedition in 1848 and was compensated with a league of land, granted by special act of the Texas legislature in 1853. Jim Shaw helped John Meusebach settle his German community in the Hill Country in 1847 and continued to scout for military units on the West Texas frontier until his death in 1858. Black Beaver, a prominent Delaware chief, guided Randolph B. Marcy's map-making expeditions through West Texas in 1849, 1852, and 1854. In 1854 remnants of the Texas Delawares and other friendly tribes were moved to the Brazos Indian Reservation, established by the United States government on the Brazos River near the site of present Graham. But the Texas reservation system was short-lived. In 1859 the resident Indians were transplanted to a site on the Washita River in the vicinity of present Anadarko, Oklahoma. In 1874 the Anadarko Delawares decided to merge with the Caddos, while the main body of Delawares, transported to Indian Territory from Kansas in 1868, remained citizens of the Cherokee Nation. Both groups currently are represented by tribal business committees that meet respectively at Anadarko and Dewey, Oklahoma. Other significant groups of Delawares reside in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Ontario, Canada. The Delaware Nation, venerated by other American Indians as "the grandfather tribe," has survived a long journey.

H. Allen Anderson, "The Delaware and Shawnee Indians and the Republic of Texas, 1820–1845," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 94 (October 1990). Rupert N. Richardson, "Jim Shaw the Delaware," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 3 (1927). C. A. Weslager, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1972).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Tribes (Major)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Carol A. Lipscomb, “Delaware Indians,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 21, 2020