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Fort Delaware and The Founding Fish

By Judy Van Put
Posted 5/24/22

The Festival of the Founding Fish was celebrated this weekend in lively manner in the Delaware River communities of Port Jervis, Barryville, Narrowsburg, Cochecton, Callicoon and Hancock, with music, …

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Fort Delaware and The Founding Fish


The Festival of the Founding Fish was celebrated this weekend in lively manner in the Delaware River communities of Port Jervis, Barryville, Narrowsburg, Cochecton, Callicoon and Hancock, with music, dancing, book signings, shad fishing presentations and tasty food prepared by master chefs.

Narrowsburg celebrated the grand Re-Opening of Fort Delaware, with honors and awards, a book signing, and a presentation by County Historian John Conway about the founding of Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in 1957, by former County Historian James W. Burbank.

Conway, who also serves as Board member and President of The Delaware Company, a non-profit history education group, presented its two annual awards, the James W. Burbank Award and the President’s Award.

The James W. Burbank Award honors the person who has made significant contributions to local history over the past year, and was given to Myron Gittell, of Kiamesha Lake, for his ten-year effort in re-publishing Manville Wakefield’s classic 1970 book, To The Mountains By Rail.

The President’s Award is given to the person who has made significant contributions to the support or preservation of local history over a substantial period of time, and was presented to Ed Van Put, of Livingston Manor, for his ongoing efforts to chronicle the history of the region through his books, The Beaverkill, The History of a River and Its People; Trout Fishing in the Catskills; and The Remarkable Life of James Beecher.

Colonial music wafted overhead at Fort Delaware; visitors were delighted by the period-dressed historians, who depicted colonial life with aplomb and provided detailed, educational information.
Authentic props evoked the mid-1700s when the Fort was a thriving settlement for 30 families.

Each station offered a glimpse into the lifestyle of these wilderness settlers: the Town Meeting Hall, also used as a tavern, a schoolhouse, and church meeting place; the Blacksmith’s shop where the ‘smithy’ made tools at the hot forge, explaining the intricacies of fitting tools to the craftsman to create needles, nails, knives, and other tools; a weaving shed with hanks of homespun fibers colored with natural plant and flower dyes; a settler’s cabin and woodworking station, among others.

The festival’s name was coined by author John McPhee, in his excellent book, The Founding Fish, devoted to the American Shad.

The importance of this anadromous fish, that migrated by the tens of thousands each spring, to the Native American and early settlers as a food source was so keen that seines and nets were utilized to harvest as many as possible - to be salted down and preserved for the remainder of the year.

Settlers in the early 1700s “fenced in the river in various ways to intercept the spring migration of American shad. They constructed rock dams, V-shaped weirs of piled stones, and fish racks…..shad piled up against the racks like driftwood. Shad that got past the racks were driven back into them by men on horseback beating the water with bushes.”

Skirmishes broke out between these settlers and others who relied on open rivers to float their canoes laden with goods for Philadelphia, who destroyed the fish racks and dams; laws and acts were passed in an attempt to appease the heightened tensions.

Folklore credits the annual spring migration of shad up the Schuylkill to the Delaware as the salvation of General George Washington and his army of starving soldiers at Valley Forge: “The scene was set for the spring migration of 1778, the run of the savior shad from Delaware Bay through Philadelphia and on up the Schuylkill to Valley Forge, the deliverance of embryonic America, the finest hour of the founding fish.”

Washington was a commercial shad fisherman who also fished for sport, as did William Penn, back in the late 1600s, when he and his daughter fished for shad in the Delaware with “Rod and Real with strong good Lines.”

Today the annual Shad run is still celebrated by those who catch these large feisty fish with rod and reel; by commercial fishermen and chefs, who prepare the delicious fare for appreciative patrons in restaurants and local establishments.

Judy Van Put is a long-time member of the NYS Outdoor Writers Association, and is the recipient of the New York State Council of Trout Unlimited’s Professional Communications Award.


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