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Consumer Reports

Indian claim tests a Pennsylvania family's roots | (KRT) FORKS TOWNSHIP, Pa. - A stone monument erected in the backyard of Warren Werkheiser's home attests to the German family's longevity on several hundred acres of farmland near Easton.

"In memory of the generations who occupied and worked this land since 1779," reads the inscription, above a genealogy of Werkheisers dating to 1733.

But this month, a party stepped forward with a claim on that land that predates the Werkheisers': the Delaware Indians.

Members of the two federally recognized tribes, now based in Oklahoma, say 315 acres in Northampton County were deeded to an ancestor in 1733 and stolen 200 years ago - and they want the land back to establish gambling rights in Pennsylvania.

Usually in land-claim cases, which have been on the rise since the 1960s, the Indian tribes are not interested in the specific acreage. The tribes use the claim to gain leverage with the state; in this case, the Delaware tribes hope to open a casino, possibly in the Philadelphia area.

For the families, developers and companies that own the largely undeveloped parcel, however, the announcement set off feelings of anxiety, frustration and anger.

Paul Reese found out that he lived on contested property by reading a newspaper article Thursday morning. "I was real upset at first," he said. "It's just not right."

Reese, 43, has lived on the same three acres on Chief Tatamy Trail, a private road, for 30 years. His family has resided in the area long enough to qualify him for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. He grew up hearing stories about the Lenape Indians, from whom the Delaware tribes are descended, and feels some sympathy for them - but not enough to support their claim.

"I'd like to see the Indians get their way, but not on my property," he said. "The Indians could come and say that about any piece of land."

There is no question that the Delaware-Lenape have deep roots in the Forks area. After serving as an interpreter between the fledgling Pennsylvania government and the Indians, Chief Moses Tunda Tatamy was given a tract of land by the Penn family in 1733. A copy of the grant is encased at the Historical Society in nearby Tatamy, where a picture of an Indian chief greets town visitors.

Local historians believe Tatamy's descendents lived on the tract for a generation or two before moving West. In their claim, the Delaware Indians say the land was fraudulently taken from them in 1802 when they were forced to move.

Attorneys for the Indians say they will file a federal lawsuit to reclaim the land, unless they can reach an agreement with Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., to open a casino. Philadelphia lawyer Stephen A. Cozen said the suit would be "predicated on overwhelming historical fact."

Rendell, who supports slot machines at horse racing tracks, has vowed to fight the claim. With an Indian casino, the state would have less control over gaming and not receive as much revenue as it would from slots at tracks.

At the cramped Historical Society, where softball jerseys from winning teams compete for space with faded books celebrating the Tatamy Centennial, librarian Nancy Werkheiser wonders how the tribes will prove the land is still theirs.

"We were not aware of it," she said. Tatamy's descendents may have neglected to pay their taxes when they moved West, she speculated.

Nancy Werkheiser is related remotely by marriage to Warren Werkheiser; it's a common surname around the area, she said. With his 93rd birthday approaching next month, Warren Werkheiser is an undisputed expert in Forks Township history and first-rate amateur genealogist, she said.

In his house on the fringe of the disputed property, Warren Werkheiser has a bookcase full of carefully organized maps, deeds and family trees. He pulled them out as soon as a Forks Township supervisor told him of the Delaware tribes' claim.

"It's a shock when you hear something like that all of a sudden," he said. "I don't see how they can take it. I don't think it's possible."

According to family records, Valentine Werkheiser - Warren's great, great grandfather - and his brothers bought property in the disputed area in the late 1700s, Warren said. Warren took over in 1948, raising corn and wheat, alfalfa and soybeans on 185 acres.

"We used to hear there were Indians, but everyone always told me they were up over the hill," Werkheiser said, gesturing to the trees along the horizon from the motorized cart he uses to get around his yard. Several years ago, Werkheiser sold much of his property to developers Nic Zawarski & Sons. The developers, who have built subdivisions of $200,000 homes across the street from the disputed parcel, did not return phone calls.

But neighbor Reese believes the lawsuit may impede the scheduled development on the former Werkheiser farm. "Who is going to want to buy a house when there is a chance the Indians will come in and take it?" he said.

It's a valid fear, said Perry Dane, a law professor at Rutgers University at Camden, as there have been times that private landowners have suffered because of pending litigation.

"Once that cloud is on the title, it's difficult to find someone willing to buy," he said.

A spokesman for Binney & Smith, the 118-year-old company that manufactures Crayola crayons, said the company, which owns 200 acres in the disputed parcel, has no worries. The company bought the land in 1968 and has three buildings there, including its world headquarters, spokesman Eric Zebley said. It isn't going anywhere.

"We have no reason to believe that this will displace us from our property," Zebley said. Still, the case "seems almost surreal to a degree."

For Warren's daughters, Joanne Werkheiser and Marian Jaxheimer, the claim smacks of an unnecessary power ploy that will only aggravate their father in his advanced age.

"I think it's all about money," said Joanne Werkheiser, who lives within the disputed land in a renovated schoolhouse. "I don't think it's going to amount to anything. You can't build a patio in Forks, let alone a casino."

"It's for the courts to decide, I guess," Jaxheimer said, as she planted flowers in her father's yard. "It's just a thing he doesn't need at 93."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services