Members of the Lenape people gathered on an unrecorded date likely in the 18th century to bury one of their dead atop a peaceful knoll overlooking the west branch of Brandywine Creek.
They dug down 4 feet, 7 inches, and gently laid the man’s 6-foot-1 frame on a stone floor. They customarily pointed his head east, placed some copper objects, glass beads, and a cloth inside, and covered the body with dirt.
The body lay undisturbed until 1899, when two Swarthmore professors dug up the skeleton, as well as objects buried alongside it, and moved it all to the college — a practice not uncommon by white people, both professional and amateur. In fact, four graves at the same site in 1878 were exhumed out of 30 found, indicating a much larger burial ground.
Last year, Carol McCloskey, who owned the land in Newlin Township, sought to donate it to Native Americans as the rightful stewards. It is the only officially recognized Native American burial ground in Chester County.
She’s recently found a taker she feels worthy of the property, a half-acre slice of what was once known as Indian Knoll Farm: the federally recognized Delaware Nation in Anadarko, Okla.
But the search was complex, and McCloskey found herself “overwhelmed” by calls and emails from groups and individuals asking to take the land after seeing an Inquirer story last year about her quest.
Most of those contacting her said they were affiliated with Native American groups, though McCloskey had no way of tracing which were credible, or would make sound stewards.
‘Its rightful owners’
“I find peace in knowing that the land will always belong to its rightful owners,” McCloskey said this week. “I knew that this day would come, but I had no idea how long it would take.”
She and the Delaware Nation closed on the deal for $1 in February, and the deed was officially recorded in March.
The Delaware Nation traces its roots to the Brandywine region, as well as New Jersey and Delaware, at a time when colonists named them the “Delaware” Indians after the titular river, itself named after a governor of the Jamestown colony in Virginia.
But they called themselves the Lenape (len-NAH-pay), meaning simply “The People,” part of the Algonquian language family, and among the first groups to encounter European settlers in the early 1600s.
Colonists took advantage of the Lenape through treaties, leaving them landless and poor. Unable to even farm for food, the Lenape migrated, ending up in Oklahoma and Canada, still carrying their colonial name with them.
Representatives of the Delaware Nation did not respond to multiple requests for comment. So the tribe’s plan for the knoll, marked by a metal roadside sign since 1908, remains unclear. The sign is partially obscured by vegetation along a curvy rural road.
The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act allows burial grounds to be transferred to culturally affiliated tribes. The goal of the act, which provides grants, is to allow tribes to preserve not only the sites but objects associated with them.
McCloskey’s attorney, Chris Zentgraf, who drafted the deed, said the Delaware Nation felt “this was an important property for them” and should be treated as a sacred site.
History of ‘Indian Knoll’
McCloskey first purchased the land in 1987 as part of a 170-acre tract known as Indian Knoll Farm. She subdivided the land into 10-acre lots and sold them. The half-acre burial lot carries a conservation easement saying it can never be developed.
McCloskey held the lot for decades. As part of her estate planning, she sought in recent years to donate it to a group affiliated with the Lenape, believing they were the rightful owners, but found it hard to find takers. Last June, she reached out to The Inquirer, which began researching the land and documenting its importance.
An 1879 document, supplied by the Chester County Historical Society, noted: “There is a place near the Brandywine, on the farm of Mr. Marshall, where there are yet a number of Indian graves that the owner of the ground has never suffered to be violated. One of them, probably a chief’s, is particularly distinguished by a head and foot stone.”
It continued: “The exploring party found traces of at least 30 graves, indicated by shallow depressions, but originally there was a much larger number. ... The plough has been gradually encroaching upon the cemetery, all signs of many of the graves having been entirely obliterated,” the document notes. “The portion yet protected by the receding grove, however, has never been disturbed. Four of these burial places were opened.”
One skeleton was found “stretched at full length on the back, from east to west” with 19 “spherical, opaque, milky-white, Venetian beads, each about an inch in diameter,” draped around the neck. Pictorial etchings likely denoting the importance of one of the skeletons were unfortunately “carelessly thrown into the public road some time ago. ...”
Under the account, members of the Philosophical Society of West Chester in I878 found the knoll north of Brandywine Creek where the Lenape still had land rights.
Finding a new owner
After confirming the importance of the land, The Inquirer put McCloskey in touch with the historical society; Natural Lands, a large nonprofit land trust; and two federal tribes connected to the Lenape and both in Oklahoma: the Delaware Nation and the Delaware Tribe of Indians.
The tribes showed interest but were hesitant to take the land because it would be so difficult to care for and secure from such a distance. Many Native American cemeteries continued to be looted over the years without regard. So tribes have a fear of bringing attention to such sites.
However, the Delaware Nation decided to accept late last year.
For her part, McCloskey credits The Inquirer’s reporting and Natural Lands with helping her find a credible donor.
“This would have never happened without your article,” McCloskey said.