A federal judge in Camden last week dismissed a lawsuit filed by a band of American Indians seeking to reclaim land they said the state sold out from under them more than 200 years ago.
The Unalachtigo band of the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Nation demanded the return of 3,044 acres of the former Brotherton Reservation, which sits mostly in Shamong Township in Burlington County.
The group had planned to use the lawsuit to set up casinos, after swapping the Brotherton site for two 1,500-acre plots of state land, in Bergen and Burlington Counties.
The Unalachtigo suit attracted the interest of another tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsee, which claims to be the true heirs to the Brotherton Indians.
Senior District Court Judge Joseph Rodriguez ruled that neither group had standing in the lawsuit because neither sufficiently demonstrated its lineage from Brotherton.
But James Brent Thomas Sr., chairman of the Unalachtigo band, said he planned to file a motion for Rodriguez to reconsider.
"We're going to win this thing," he said. "They overlooked some important law."
If successful, Thomas plans to install 45,000 slot machines.
While many considered the bid for gambling a long shot, the potential to earn billions of dollars hung in the balance of a suit that relied on some of the nation's earliest laws and on hundreds of years of history.
Nearly half of Rodriguez's 40-page ruling was consumed with tracing the tangled history of the Lenape Indians, going back to their first encounters with Europeans.
Donald Veix, who represented the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, said that if the Unalachtigo claim on the Brotherton Reservation succeeded, "there would be a huge amount of litigation."
"It's hard to imagine the chaos that would develop," he said.
Thomas said he had hoped to work with the state and to share profits from the casinos. Indian gambling would help New Jersey "regain the dominant position in the gaming market that they used to hold," he said.
The state, a defendant in the suit, has not been receptive.
"We wanted to do what's right for New Jersey, but unfortunately New Jersey doesn't want to do right by us," Thomas said.
The state's involvement with the Lenape began in 1758, when New Jersey's remaining Indians were living in squalor and being harassed by colonists weary of American Indians during the French and Indian War.
"For all these reasons, the New Jersey government decided to 'right the wrongs and prevent further bloodshed in the province,' " Rodriguez wrote.
The state Legislature approved the purchase of a reservation, which Gov. Francis Bernard named Brotherton. All Indians who wished to remain in New Jersey were to report there, Bernard said.
About 270 Lenape Indians went to Brotherton, but "the land was not sufficiently productive, and colonists . . . continued to harass the group." By 1775, the Indians were near starvation, Rodriguez wrote.
At the turn of the century, the Brotherton Indians accepted an invitation to join the Stockbridge in New York. They petitioned the New Jersey government to sell Brotherton and give them the proceeds, which the Legislature did in 1801.
Thomas has argued that the state's land sale was invalid because a 1790 law gave the federal government authority over Indian land transactions.
Rodriguez's ruling did not address that issue.
In 1996, the Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma, also descendents of the Brotherton Indians, began investigating a land claim.
U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R., N.J.) took the threat to Shamong seriously enough to introduce legislation that would have retroactively ratified the Brotherton sale. The bill never passed.
Thomas claims ancestral ties to South Jersey Lenape who did not join the exodus to Brotherton or leave the state. He backed his position with a certification from a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, who said that Thomas' band was connected to those Indians who stayed here.
That group, known by the place name Gouldtown, near Bridgeton, Cumberland County, survived by hiding its ethnicity and became a "tri-racial" community through inter-marriage with whites and African Americans, the anthropologist said.
Thomas and most of his band still live there.
Thomas' group, which has fewer than 50 members and is organized as a nonprofit organization, is separate from the 2,500-member Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, a South Jersey tribe known for promoting its culture through public appearances.
That tribe opposes gambling as a divisive force and disavows Thomas' efforts.
Veix said the Stockbridge-Munsee, who have about 1,500 members, also wanted to thwart Thomas. The community has not expressed an interest in making a claim or seeking gambling.
"They merely wanted to get involved to get the suit dismissed," Veix said. "The case couldn't continue without us, and we didn't want to be a part of it."
Rodriguez said that Thomas' Unalachtigo band and the Stockbridge-Munsee failed to show they have maintained an "organized tribal structure" that has "some defining characteristics of the original tribe."
"There's overwhelming evidence in the record that the court's overlooked," Thomas said, but he said he would not discuss it until his next motion is filed.
"You'll have to stay tuned," he said.
For Thomas, the pursuit of gambling represents the pursuit of a better life for his people, particularly the elderly, who continue to live in poverty.
"People are dying along the way, people who in the last seven years could have enjoyed a better quality of life," he said. "And that's just wrong."