Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 15. The Walam Olum, or Red Score of the Lenni Lenape

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 15. The Walam Olum, or Red Score of the Lenni Lenape

We may select for analysis two of the best and best known of these culture epics, the Walam Olum already mentioned as the earliest American book, and the Zuñi Creation Myth as it has been made known to us through the labours of Frank Cushing.

The record of the Red Score was obtained by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque while he was holding the chair of Historical and Natural Science in the Transylvania University of Kentucky, and a translation was printed by him in 1836. The original copy was a collection of the before-mentioned bark or “board plates,” incised and painted with the picture writings of the Lenni Lenape. The words, found somewhat later by Professor Rafinesque, have been pronounced by Daniel Brinton to be a genuine oral tradition written down by one not very familiar with the language.

The text consisted of a series of ideographic writings, each one representing a verse, obviously metrical, with syllabic and accentual rhythm, and occasional alliteration. That the syllabic arrangement is not accidental, but studied, is shown by the frequent sacrifice of the correct form of the word to secure it. The tendency to rhyme, especially to what is known today as internal rhyme, is noticeable, but Brinton thinks it possible that this may have been owed to influences of Christian hymns, with which the Lenni Lenape had been familiar for two generations. This seems hardly likely. It is as unlikely as that the Psalms of David should be affected by modern revivalism.

Two examples of the ideograph and accompanying verse from the Walam Olum are here given, those two which are probably of most interest to Americans of today, the advent of the first Tammany chief (Tamenend) and the coming of the Discoverers.

  • Weninitis Tamenend sakimanep nekohatami All being friendly,
  • The Affable was chief, the first of that name.
  • Wonwihil wapekunchi wapsipsyat
  • At this time Whites came on the eastern sea.
  • The Red Score beings with creation, when “On the earth there was an extended fog … at first, for ever, lost in space, there the Great Manitou was.…” After the creation, began the rise of the Lenni Lenape in a land which has been identified as north of the St. Lawrence, toward the east.

  • The Lenape of the Turtle were close together
  • In hollow houses, living together there.
  • It freezes where they abode:
  • It snows where they abode:
  • It storms where they abode:
  • It is cold where they abode.
  • At this northern place they speak favourably
  • Of mild, cool lands,
  • With many deer and buffaloes.
  • Accordingly they set out for that land, but found their way blocked by the Tallegewi, generally conceded to be the Mound Builders, who in turn are supposed to be the forebears of the present Cherokees. At first the Lenape made a treaty by which they were to be permitted to cross toward the south and east, but treachery arose. The Lenape retreated across Fish River, which was probably the Detroit crossing of the St. Lawrence, and, making an alliance with the Mingwe, the originals of the Five Nations, they descended on the Mound Builders and, after a hundred years’ war, drove them south of the Ohio.

    The Red Score relates further how the descending northern peoples distributed themselves in the region south of the Great Lakes, and the Lenni Lenape finally separated themselves from their allies, going toward the East River, the Delaware, where the English found them. The record ends practically with the beginning of white settlements, and there is no reason to believe that the epic as a whole is anything other than a fairly accurate traditional account of actual tribal movements.