Walam Olum, Tribal Chronicle

Walam Olum. The sacred tribal chronicle of the Lenape or Delawares. The name signifies ‘painted tally’ or ‘red score,’ from walam, ‘painted,’ particularly ‘red painted,’ and olum,’ a score or tally.’ The Walam Olum was first published in 1836 in a work entitled “The American Nations,” by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, an erratic French scholar, who spent a number of years in this country, dying in Philadelphia in 1840. He asserted that it was a translation of a manuscript in the Delaware language, which was an interpretation of an ancient sacred metrical legend of the tribe, recorded in pictographs cut upon wood, which had been obtained in 1820 by a Dr Ward from the Delawares then living in Indiana. He claimed that the original pictograph record had first been obtained, but without explanation, until two years later, when the accompanying songs were procured in the Lenape language from another individual, these being then translated by himself with the aid of various dictionaries. Although considerable doubt was cast at the time upon the alleged Indian record, Brinton, after a critical investigation, arrived at the conclusion that it was a genuine native production, and it is now known that similar ritual records upon wood or birch bark are common to several cognate tribes, notably the Chippewa.

After the death of Rafinesque his manuscripts were scattered, those of the Walam Olum finally coming into the hands of Squier, who again brought the legend to public attention in a paper read before the New York Historical Society in 1848, which was published in the American Review of Feb. 1849, reprinted by Beach in his Indian Miscellany in 1877, and again in a later (15th) edition of Drake’s Aboriginal Races of North America. All of these reprints were more or less inaccurate and incomplete, and it remained for Brinton to publish the complete pictography, text, and tradition, with notes and critical investigation of the whole subject, with the aid of native Lenape scholars, in ” The Lenâpé and their Legends, with the complete text and symbols of the Walam Olum,” as No. 5 of his library of Aboriginal American Literature, Phila., 1885.

After sifting the evidence as to its authenticity, Brinton concludes (p. 158):

“It is a genuine native production, which was repeated orally to some one indifferently conversant with the Delaware language, who wrote it down to the best of his ability. In its present form. it can, as a whole, lay no claim either to antiquity or to purity of linguistic form. Yet, as an authentic modern version, slightly colored by European teachings, of the ancient tribal traditions, it is well worth preservation and will repay more study in the future than is given it in this volume. The narrator was probably one of the native chiefs or priests, who had spent his life in the Ohio and Indiana towns of the Lenape, and who, though with some knowledge of Christian instruction, preferred the pagan rites, legends, and myths of his ancestors. Probably certain lines and passages were repeated in the archaic form in which they had been handed down for generations.”


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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