The story of the Delaware River is as old as America itself. It was famous explorer Henry Hudson who first recorded and mapped the river during his 1609 voyage on behalf of the Dutch. The river and surrounding area eventually became part of the Nieuw-Nederland Colonie or New Netherlands Colony, an area that included the territory of modern New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Dutch colonists soon began to settle on the river’s banks which at that time was known as the Zuyd Rivier or South River.
In 1664, New Netherlands was conquered by the English in the third Anglo-Dutch War. The English renamed the river after Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, an English colonist and governor. Over time this came to be known as simply Delaware, the name the river bares to this day. Under English administration, colonization along the river increased and villages and towns popped up on its banks. The river served as an important travel route for these earlier colonists to travel between settlements and trade with local Indian tribes.
One of the colonists to settle along the Delaware River at this time was William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. He plotted and built a city along the river he thought would make a central location and an ideal port. He was right; his city of Philadelphia on the Delaware River became the largest port in the colonies by the mid 18th century. This made the city and the river one of the most significant areas of the time.
It was in the busy city of Philadelphia that Benjamin Franklin lived and worked and it became a center for revolutionary thought and activity. The city’s central location and size made it a natural choice to hold early Continental Congresses. These congresses hosted all the most famous men of the Revolutionary era, many who arrived in the city by way of the Delaware River. It was during a Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4th 1776 — only a few blocks from the bank of the Delaware River — which the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence giving birth to the United States of America. One might say that America was founded on the banks of the Delaware River.
In the Revolutionary War that followed, the Delaware River was naturally of great importance due to its strategic location as a border between multiple colonies and a gateway to the temporary American capital of Philadelphia. The British realized this early on and seized most of the river at the outbreak of the war. This had a terrible impact on communication and transportation for the Americans and also hurt morale as Revolutionary troops were forced across the river and out of much of New York and New Jersey.
In December of 1776, George Washington was with his forces on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. The British occupied the other side in New Jersey at a small town called Trenton. He came up with a daring plan to attempt to reverse America’s fortunes and capture the other side of the river. On Christmas night of 1776, George Washington and his forces made a daring crossing of the river in hazardous wintery conditions. It was not easy due to terrible weather and large ice blocks in the river. Some of his troops were unable to make the crossing, but ultimately Washington crossed the river with some 2,400 men.
The British forces, mostly made up of Hessian mercenaries, at their garrison in Trenton believed the weather too harsh for any crossing and had let their guard down to celebrate a Christmas feast. This allowed Washington to totally surprise the British forces. In the subsequent short battle, the Americans utterly overwhelmed the British garrison capturing many of the enemy while they still slept. The Americans suffered nearly no casualties and the enemy was completely defeated. Washington would capture Trenton, and thus the other side of the important Delaware River.
The battle was not numerically important but it served of great importance to the morale of American troops and the young American nation. Washington’s daring crossing of the Delaware would be immortalized in the minds of Americans to come. Years later, a German-American painter Emanuel Leutze would paint the famous Washington Crossing the Delaware. It depicts George Washington standing bravely on a small boat as patriots paddle through the icy waters of the Delaware. This painting of America’s greatest founding father and one of America’s great rivers remains to this day one of the most iconic images of the American Revolutionary War.
The Delaware River remained significant in the post-Revolutionary era. In the 19th century, the river continues to serve as an important transportation route for the new nation. Many canals were built during this period that extended the reach of the Delaware for trade and transportation by connecting it to other waterways in the region. This was important as before the development of other modes of transportation, waterways were the fastest and most efficient method of carrying goods and people. As a result, many factories were built on the banks of, or near the Delaware River in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, the Delaware River is not as essential for transportation, nor industry as it once was but it remains one of America’s most important waterways and is still used for transport of goods to the busy city of Philadelphia. After suffering from pollution for much of the 20th century, the Delaware River is now much cleaner due to increased environmental regulations. This has given the river a new purpose for Americans, recreation. Today, many boaters can be seen on the Delaware River enjoying the river’s beauty. Its banks are also a popular place for people to relax or picnic. Tourists often take a cruise along the river by the historic Philadelphia waterfront or retrace the famous route of George Washington from the Battle of Trenton. In this way, the Delaware River connects today’s Americans with the great Americans of the past who founded the nation.
- George Washington does it again (politico.com)
- Renewal Ahead for Delaware River, Newest Site of Urban Waters Federal Partnership Program (usresponserestoration.wordpress.com)
- Drama on the Delaware, intro (thistle25.wordpress.com)
- A Delaware River Primer (haltaylorart.wordpress.com)
- Our grandfather crossed the Deleware and fought with George Washington! (heartofasouthernwoman.wordpress.com)