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King Nummy sold tribe’s land to settlers, forcing them to move

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If you can’t find Thomas Nummie in your history books, try King Nummy instead.

Probably in keeping with the European tradition, there were several American Indians called kings riding around in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 17th century. Trenton had its King Teddyuscung, Hackensack its King Oratam and Pennsylvania King Tamany. There is no record of a King Elvis, however.

King Nummy was no dummy. Somewhere along the line the one-time Thomas Numee became head of the Unalachtigo Tribe, a branch of the Lenni-Lenape. Part of his territory included what is now Rio Grande in Middle Township, Town Bank in Lower Township and Cape May. Still unsettled, the land and its waters from ocean to bay were ripe for real estate transactions. Nummy was right in the middle of the deals, sometimes with the Dutch who were there before the English.

The early history of the American Indians in Cape May is sketchy given the fact that they wrote very little, if anything, about their lifestyles. It was not until missionaries, mainly Presbyterians, arrived in the 18th century that they started communicating the way the mainline people did.

The earliest reference to American Indians in the area is said to have come from Henry Hudson who was exploring in 1609 on his small vessel Half Moon to find the North West Passage. He first thought he found his destination and then discovered instead he was on the way to Cape May. Once there, although never to land on its shores, Hudson and/or his 18-member crew were said to have sighted American Indians on land.

Robert Juet, the senior officer on the ship, was skeptical of what he saw from the water. “We durst not trust them,” he was quoted as saying.

The next year Captain Samuel Argall, on a voyage from Jamestown, seeking food for his Virginia colonists, saw Lenni Lenapes on the shore as he entered the bay. Legend has it he named the bay, the river and the American Indians “the Delaware,” in honor of the Virginia Governor Lord De La War.

Some 20 years later in 1630 there was evidence that American Indians were very much at the southern end of the cape. They were busy negotiating the sale of land to the Dutch who envisioned profitable business opportunities on the Jersey side, especially after they viewed whales spouting off close to land. If Virginia can profit from tobacco, why can’t Jersey do the same with the oil from whales?

But although there was a cordial relationship at the cape between the American Indians and the Dutch there was also an uneasiness in view of the events that were happening across the Delaware Bay in the usually peaceful town of Zwaanendael, its name standing for valley of the swans. A group of angry Nanticoke Indians rose up and massacred the population of the town.

Years later, William Penn changed the name to one that is quite familiar to passengers on the ferry that crosses the bay today. He called it Lewes. Today there is a museum in the heart of Lewes that includes information about the massacre as well as other history about that area.

Confronted with the alarming news from Delaware, the Dutch entrepreneurs on the Jersey side warily embarked upon their own whaling project after acquiring land from the American Indians. It didn’t work out for the purchasers or the sellers.

David Pietersen DeVries, who had visited the bay earlier and had been encouraged by the sight of whales, reported that they had killed only seven small whales and that yielded only a few barrels of oil. The project failed although whale hunting emerged again toward the end of the century with the arrival of fishermen from Long Island and Connecticut.

The Dutch, concerned about the effects of the massacre on the other side of the bay, abandoned their economic ventures at the cape and the population was to be mostly American Indians for awhile.

King Nummy entered history’s accounting in 1685 when he is said to have sold a whale to Evan Davis, who also made whaling history when he was fined in court for stealing a whale carcass from the Carman Whaling Company.

As the years passed, the American Indian population in this area diminished. Their lands were sold and so went their hunting, fishing and planting territory. Finally, in 1735 they held a tribal council meeting at Gravelly Run, which was part of Middle Township, and they decided they needed more space.

Many of them left for greener pastures in the west. All but King Nummy, that is, who stayed to help take care of the children of his niece, Snow Flower, who died after she married English missionary Benijah Thompson.

In modern times, more evidence has been unearthed that leads to some conclusions that American Indians, enticed by seashore life, spent their summers near the ocean and the bay at Cape May Point. One man, who vacationed there since he was a boy, found an arrowhead on the beach as well as other indicators that American Indians were there.

Some Indians died before the grand exodus. Where they and the king are buried is a matter of conjecture. Some say it is on an island in the Hereford Inlet not far from North Wildwood. Others contend there was a gravesite in a village called Nummyland in the Rio Grande area of Route 47 and Fulling Mill Road where Menz’s Restaurant now stands. Some 300 gravestones were once there, but have disappeared with the passage of time, many having been stolen, one to be used for ballast for a man’s boat.

Three burial grounds for American Indians are said to be in the historic cemetery of Cold Spring Church which is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year.

King Nummy was the last king of his tribe and by the time the Civil War arrived few Lenni Lenape descendants remained in the territory in which they once prevailed. But stories still persist about the American Indians as amateur and professional archaeologists uncover evidence. Some of it is on exhibit at the George F. Boyer Museum in Wildwood and at the county museum in Court House.

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the book “Cape May County New Jersey, The Making of an American Resort Community,” by Jeffery M. Dorwart.)

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