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Washington County

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Washington County, Oklahoma

Delaware Big Houses

At the time of European contact, the Delaware (Lenape) lived in the Delaware River basin in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Their Algonquian language shared a common ancestry with groups like the Mohicans and Micmacs. Each village was self-governing, and they farmed and hunted in their eastern woodland homelands. As with many other Native American groups, European-introduced diseases like smallpox were deadly to the Delaware. Increasing pressure from first British and later American settlers forced most of the Delaware from their ancestral lands west to Ohio, Indiana and later Missouri. In the early 1800s, the Delaware relocated to Kansas land given them by the federal government; however, within 30 years they were forced by whites in Kansas to leave once again. They purchased land from the Cherokee Nation and settled in several enclaves in northeastern Oklahoma. One group settled in northern Washington County.

Many of these Delaware practiced traditional religious observances which were held in a log structure known as a Big House. Two Big House sites are known for the area; both were built on ridges overlooking the Little Caney River valley. One was used in the early 1900s. The second was built around 1910 and was used until 1925.

The Big Houses of Washington County were supported by ten large posts -- two on each end and three along each side of the structure. They were oriented on an east-west axis. To help support the roof, an interior post was placed in the center of the structure. During the twelve days of ceremonies held in October, two fires burned between this centerpost and the doors on each end of the building. On the east and west sides of the centerpost hung a carved wooden image of the mesingw or "spirit of the game animals." Half the carving was painted red and the other half was black. A mesingw impersonator danced in the Big House ceremonies.

The Big House ceremonies were directed to the Lenape Creator or "He Who Created Everything with His Thoughts." Since the Creator dwells in the twelfth level of Heaven, the ceremonies were conducted over twelve days and each day the prayers of the people rose to another level.

The ceremonies included a recitation by an elder of his experiences during a vision quest when he had been promised guidance by spirit forces. Dances and singing were also performed. During the middle of the observance, a hunt was conducted and the meat brought back to be shared in the group.

The location of the Big House structures, although they date to the 20th century, is an important part of the archaeological record in Oklahoma. The structures are now gone, but the documentation of their locations and study of the ceremonies associated with them will help keep them from disappearing entirely with the passage of time.

For further information about the Delaware: Delaware Tribe of Indians website

For further information about the Washington County Big Houses: Traditions and Culture Change in the Oklahoma Delaware Big House Community: 1867-1924 by Terry J. Prewitt, Contributions in Archaeology, No. 9, Laboratory of Archaeology, University of Tulsa, 1981.

Number of Prehistoric Sites in Washington County Identified to Time Period

Paleo = ?-8,000 BP / Archaic = 8,000-2,000 BP / Woodland = 2,000-1,000 BP / Village 1000-500 BP
BP (before present)


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