Beulah Timothy is a ghost of history. So is her brother, Richard Snake, and their childhood friend, Alma Burgoon.
Their home is the Delaware Nation Reserve, 3,000 acres of rich farmland 150 miles southwest of Toronto. Small, well-kept homes surrounded by corn fields dot the reserve, which is crisscrossed by gravel roads and bordered by a slow moving muddy river called the Thames.
Their ancestors came here 200 years ago in the company of missionaries. It was the end of a long journey. The Delaware had been on the run for generations after fleeing the region of the lower Hudson River and western Long Island in the early 1640s to escape certain extinction in a war waged by Dutch settlers.
Nearly 500 people live at Moraviantown, as the reserve is known. They are ghosts of a long lost homeland that has forgotten them as much as they have forgotten it. Their history in New York and on Long Island has been all but obliterated by the passage of 3 1/2 centuries and untold amounts of concrete and asphalt. Hidden away in Canada, the Delaware are a people forgotten by the land they were forced to flee.
But the lives of Richard Snake, Beulah Timothy and Alma Burgoon represent even greater anomalies within their world -- they are the last speakers of a language called Munsee Delaware.
It was the language of New York, centuries before there was a New York, and Long Island, when no one but the Algonquian Indians knew it was an island. Munsee Delaware was the language that explorer Henry Hudson heard in 1607 as he sailed up the river that now bears his name; the language heard by another explorer, Adrian Block, who with his men spent the winter of 1613-14 on Manhattan Island building a ship they christened the Restless. It was the language heard by the Dutch as they expanded their settlements onto the western end of Long Island, pushing aside the Delaware and turning them into refugees. And it was a language spoken for thousands of generations on Long Island.
That the descendants of those refugees still live as a community -- that anyone anywhere can still speak the language -- seems incredible.
“There’re just a few speakers left,’’ Timothy says in a soft voice. She is seated in the kitchen of her home, near the center of the reserve. Her brother sits across from her, smiling and laughing at her stories. Nearby, Burgoon looks through a hymn book translated into Delaware in the 1840s at the urging of the Moravian missionaries who brought a small band of Delaware to Canada in 1792.
Timothy ticks off the names of her neighbors who are fluent in Munsee Delaware. Eight to 10, she says. Maybe not that many, she’s not really sure.
“All the elders spoke it when I was growing up. That’s all we heard. Back then, when the young people went to school, they were sent home to learn English. All we spoke was Indian.’’
Multiple twists of fate brought the Delaware to rural Canada. Drive across their reserve, covered in corn by the middle of August, hear Delaware being spoken, hear children laugh at the playground by the Delaware First Nation office, and a visitor comes away thinking they must have fallen through a hole in the fabric of American history and landed safely in another world. The residents of the Delaware Reserve have been known to a small group of linguists and anthropologists who have studied them and listened to their language, but otherwise the world knows little about them.
These last speakers, nearly all of them elderly, are the rarest of the rare. Nearly every Algonquian language spoken on the East Coast before the arrival of Europeans is considered extinct, and many of them do not even have vocabularies or small word lists that can be held up as windows to lost worlds.
“Eastern Algonquian is for the most part extinct,’’ said Ives Goddard, a linguist at the Smithsonian Institution who visited the Delaware Reserve in the early 1960s when there were more than 40 fluent speakers. “There are a few Algonquian speakers left in Maine, a very small community, but otherwise all the languages once heard from Maine to Florida are extinct.’’
Well, not quite extinct -- Beulah Timothy, Richard Snake, Alma Burgoon and a few others are still speaking Munsee Delaware. But time is against their language. Snake, who is 59, is the youngest. Timothy is 81 and Burgoon is 69. Herb Snake, Richard’s and Beulah’s brother, who was fluent, died as summer began, and a name was removed from the list the aging speakers keep in their heads. Some of the remaining speakers on the reserve are infirm. Others will not see outsiders. The secrets of the language remain only with this small group, and there is no program on the reserve -- or anywhere else in Canada or the United States -- to teach the language.
“It’s a miracle you can hear it at all,’’ says Philip Snake, the tribal chief. “Our people are a miracle. We shouldn’t be here, should we? That what’s all those professors and anthropologists have been telling us for years. We’ve only been in Canada 200 years -- a wink of the eye, really. We were down there for thousands of years. How many people even know we’re still around?’’
There is a fading sign alongside the gravel road that leads to the reserve that reads: “The creator put us in a special place for a reason.’’ It was a long road that brought the Delaware to this special place.
Dutch explorers first encountered the Indians of the lower Hudson River in the fall of 1607, when the Half Moon piloted by Henry Hudson arrived on the scene. Soon afterwards, one of Hudson’s men, John Coleman, was killed by Indians encountered on the western end of Long Island. Hudson later killed a number of Indians he met on his way back down the river after having proceeded almost to where Albany is today.
But it was not these events, or the later settlement of Manhattan Island and western Long Island by the Dutch, that turned the Indians into refugees. It was a war that erupted in the early 1640s and resulted in more than 1,000 Indian deaths across the region, including a massacre at a village in present-day Nassau County.
The Indian villages on Long Island were divided into bands, which the Dutch mistakenly called tribes. Linguistically, Long Island was divided in half -- Munsee Delaware was spoken by Indian groups in the western half of the Island. They included the Canarsee, who lived in what is now Brooklyn; the Rockaway, a group on the South Shore; the Matinecock, who extended across the North Shore of Nassau and into Suffolk, and the Massapequa, a group in modern-day Nassau. The Indians on the eastern half of Long Island spoke dialects of Mohegan Pequot, another Algonquian language altogether.
In 1643, warfare between Dutch settlers and Indians spilled across the region. Some of the Indians in western Long Island may have fled east. Hundreds of others looked west for safety.
“The war spawned the mass movement of people west, past the Dutch settlements,’’ said Goddard. “Groups moved to Staten Island, then into New Jersey, then past the Delaware River into eastern Pennsylvania.’’
By the early 1700s, the Delaware were living in different bands along the Susquehanna River, picking up and moving west when the frontier inched nearer to them. By the mid-1700s, they were in western Pennsylvania. And by the 1780s they were spread across eastern Ohio.
All the while, said Goddard, they were living in tight-knit communities away from whites, maintaining their Indian culture. “As they moved west, some groups went in different directions and were absorbed into other tribes,’’ Goddard said. “In other words, they disappeared. But a large number stayed together. They were quite successful adjusting to the frontier and maintaining their way of life.’’
One band, the Turtle Clan, prospered in Ohio. After the Revolution, Goddard said, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- who was fascinated with the Delaware language, as he would later be with eastern Long Island Indian languages -- proposed turning what is now nearly all of Ohio into a protected Indian reservation. Their proposal was never enacted, however, which had fateful consequences for the Delaware.
Many of the Delaware settlements in eastern Ohio were under the protective tutelage of Moravian missionaries. The Moravians were Czechoslovakian Protestants who saw their life’s work in the conversion of the Delaware. But their protection could only go so far, and in 1782, near the mission town of Gnadenhutten, Ohio, 90 Christianized Delaware were massacred by white settlers.
It was this act that pushed the Turtle Clan to flee north into Michigan and, by 1792, into Ontario, to the banks of the Thames River, where their descendants live today and still consider themselves Christians.
“From what I understand, this journey began because there were a lot of land sales down there,’’ said Darryl Stonefish, the Delaware Nation’s researcher. “There were disputes over sales in the New York City area; there were massacres by the Dutch. There were a lot of small sales on Long Island, too. Sometimes, the native people didn’t understand what a land sale really was.’’
Today, the Delaware have no real connection to their old homeland. Small groups have visited New York City. Richard Snake has visited Westchester County to look at an Indian burial ground. And Philip Snake said he regularly receives mail from federal officials in New York informing him, as a possible claimaint, about government land sales.
“They seem to think we have an interest in land down there,’’ he said. “Our lives are right here. We have immediate needs here -- like saving our language.’’
The Delaware do, however, have emotional links to Ohio. Numerous tribal members have traveled to Ohio to visit the massacre site. Many have seen a play about the massacre that is produced almost every summer in a town near the site. They know the histories of the Moravian missionaries who brought them to Canada.
When Canadian linguist John O’Meara arrived at Moraviantown in 1979, he found more than 20 fluent speakers -- half the number Goddard found in the early 1960s. O’Meara made dozens of recordings of the speakers, and today, he wonders if soon his tapes will be all that there is of Munsee Delaware.
“I cannot see it surviving much past the turn of the century,’’ he said.
Recently, O’Meara published a large dictionary of the language, based on the tapes he made at Moraviantown and other research. The dictionary is available through the University of Toronto Press.
The Delaware seem to laugh a lot.
Seated at Timothy’s kitchen table, Dianne Snake -- chief Philip Snake’s wife, and a partial Delaware speaker -- tells a joke in Delaware and everyone but a visitor cracks up. One joke is followed by another, all in Delaware. Did Hudson go back to England and Holland after his epic voyage and report that the Indians were always laughing?
When they finish laughing, Burgoon and Dianne Snake talk about the speakers who have died in recent years, including a woman named Ethel Peters, who told on tape, in Delaware, a witchcraft story. Everyone remembers her.
“Oh, I love that story,’’ Burgoon says. Then she and Dianne Snake sing part of a Moravian hymn translated into Delaware. A quiet, graceful woman, Burgoon speaks of a bus trip she took to the massacre site in Ohio, where she planted a tree in remembrance of the 90 who were killed.
“Is there even a marker at that site?’’ Richard Snake asks. “It seems not that long ago when we found out we used to be in Ohio. Going down there, it was like going back home again.’’ Speaking of the language, he says, “Someone was saying a long time ago, if you can’t speak the language you’re not Indian.’’
They all nod in sad agreement.
Suddenly, they break out laughing again. What now?
“We’ve given you a name,’’ Dianne Snake tells the visitor. She says it, a long gutteral word with a lot of “k’’ sounds. She spells it out on a pad of paper -- kehktaweewsiit.
Asked what it means, she laughs again. “The nosy one,’’ she says.
After speaking of his childhood at Moraviantown, Richard Snake says he wants to learn more about his ancestors’ history -- where they lived, how they lived, what happened to them. But the links back to Long Island are thin.
If he were to speak to schoolchildren learning Long Island history, what would he tell them?
“That we’re still here,’’ he says, smiling.