A Delaware River Primer

OCCASIONALLY on weekend mornings I like to jump in my car and head out on the road. I work at home and may never leave my house for weeks at a time except for errands. Usually I have no idea where I’m going but more often than not I wind up somewhere along the Delaware River. My good friend Rick says I’m one of those people who can enjoy going for a long ride to a place that has absolutely nothing. Rick never leaves his house either, but he’s happy with that.

There’s something about seeing a large body of water that stirs me, especially if there’s some ship traffic on it. I wonder where they’re going, where they’ve been. The water’s like that too. There’s a history to it, the river.

The Delaware River Watershed

The Delaware River Watershed

The American colonies declared their independence from Britain near its banks and it was crossed and re-crossed many times by troops in the war that followed, including Washington’s famous campaign on a snowy December night in 1776. Also near its banks the first brick house in the U.S. was built and the first log cabin; the first public school in the American Colonies was established; The American Weekly Mercury, the first newspaper in the Middle Colonies was published. The first successful trial run of a steamboat took place on its waters in 1787—and—Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, collected from a secret location along its banks is used to rough up baseballs for all of the Major and Minor Leagues.

Born as run-off from the receding Wisconsin Glacier approximately 10,000-15,000 years ago, the Delaware rises from the western slopes of the Catskill Mountains. Its headwaters are actually 2 branches: the East Delaware and West Delaware. They converge in eastern New York State and become a natural boundary between New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware during a run of over 350 miles. It is the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi.

The river takes its name from English nobleman Thomas West, the 3rd (or 12th, if you’re able to decipher the mysterious British titling system) Baron De La Warr (or Warre), who sailed for Queen, country and the London Virginia Company to North America and landed in the Virginia Colonies on June 10, 1610 (my birthday, although not that year). He had been petitioned to persuade the Jamestown settlers not to give up their nearly disastrous attempts to establish a colony and go home to England. The colonists had arrived in the middle of a drought in 1607 and were ill-equipped to live in a land that could be abundant in good times but completely wretched in bad times. Even the native Powhatan called it “the starving time”. These settlers were businessmen and English dandies who naively expected to step off their ship and literally find gold and other valuables waiting for them. Almost none of them possessed adequate survival skills and as a result, one in every five of the colony died.

Help was on the way however, in the person of Captain Samuel Argall, an English explorer and adventurer who had been appointed to find a northerly route to the New World to avoid harrasment from the Spanish—which he did. Until this time, the customary route was to sail south towards the Caribbean, and then catch the trade winds to the coast of North America. When he arrived at Jamestown, Argall unloaded his life-saving cargo of supplies and immediately headed back to England for more. On the way, however, he was blown off course in a storm and found himself in a very large bay, unaware that Henry Hudson had been there a year before, almost to the day. Where Hudson had not given any name to the bay, Argall took the opportunity to name it in honor of his employer– The Baron De La Warr.

So the entire river, state, valley and any number of other entities have been named for Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, even though he never laid his eyes on any of it. Even the native inhabitants were called the Delaware, although they called themselves by their own name–Lenni Lenape. It means Original People. They had lived in the area for thousands of years, nearly as long as the river itself, which they called Lenape Wihittuck –Rapid Stream of the Lenape.

Their particularly lyrical language remains throughout the Delaware Valley giving us place names like Allegheny, Lehigh, Kittatinny, Lackawanna, Navasink, Pocono, Manayunk, Wissahickon and of course Mauch Chunk.