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The Festival of the Founding Fish

By John Conway
Posted 5/19/23

As far back as 2012, Debra Conway, at that time beginning her second year as the Director at Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg, was advocating for an annual festival in the …

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The Festival of the Founding Fish


As far back as 2012, Debra Conway, at that time beginning her second year as the Director at Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg, was advocating for an annual festival in the Upper Delaware that would celebrate the significance of the American shad to the region.

Her interest in the shad back then was mainly historical, but she also recognized the economic impact the plentiful fish had on river communities for hundreds of years.

She often pointed out that even before the arrival of the Europeans to the region, Lenape fishermen– or more precisely, women, since they did much of the fishing in that culture— used nets woven from branches, saplings or wild hemp to catch huge numbers of shad— which they called shëwanamèkw-- in the Delaware. Much of their catch would be preserved by a smoking process that would keep them edible through the winter. The Lenape designated March as the month of the shad and celebrated with a festival that often lasted six weeks or more.

The early European settlers learned the importance of shad from the Lenape, and quickly picked up the technique of smoking them to provide food for the harsh winters when game was scarce. William E. Meehan, writing in “Fish, Fishing and Fisheries of Pennsylvania” in 1893, noted that virtually every Colonial era homestead in a broad area bordering the Delaware River “had its half-barrel of salted shad sitting in the kitchen with some choice pieces of smoked shad hanging by the kitchen chimney.”

Shad played an important role in the lives of both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and in 1771, the soon-to-be “Father of our Country” caught nearly 8,000 of them as part of his commercial shad fishing operation. It was but one of young Washington’s many business enterprises, but one of his most profitable.

Some historians believe that it was an unexpected early run of shad up the Schuylkill, a tributary of the Delaware, that saved Washington’s men from starvation while they were stationed at Valley Forge following the brutal winter of 1778. At least one account has the soldiers under the command of General John Sullivan— for whom this county is named— riding into the Schuylkill on horseback and thrashing about in the water to drive huge numbers of shad into crudely constructed nets. A feast of “the most savory fish” ensued.

The connection between Colonial America and the shad is so strong, in fact, that the prolific writer John McPhee, an avid Delaware River fisherman, and part time resident of the Upper Delaware, dubbed the shad “The Founding Fish.” McPhee’s 2002 book of that title “illuminates the sometimes surprising relevance of [the shad] in seventeenth and eighteenth century America.”

By the late 19th century, the average annual catch of shad from the Delaware River was about 4 million fish, totaling 14 to 16 million pounds. Commercial shad fishing became a linchpin of many local economies, and spin-off industries abounded, including those that prepared, packaged, and shipped the fish, as well as those that provided guides and boats and equipment.

Sadly, during the first half of the 20th century, increased pollution in the river put an end to the great shad runs, and the annual catch had dropped to 5 million pounds by 1905, and topped 1 million pounds for the last time in 1916. By the 1960s, the fish had almost entirely disappeared from the Delaware.

Although much of the pollution that caused the virtual disappearance of the shad from east coast waters has been reversed in recent decades, the shad population has been slow to rebound, so much so, in fact, that some jurisdictions passed moratoriums on shad fishing in hopes of building the population. The Delaware River, lacking dams and other barriers to shad migration, has fared better, and is typically exempted from such legislation.

In fact, Delaware River fishermen have seen increasing numbers of shad in recent years, with the 2017 shad run called the largest in recent memory, rivaled only by the prolific 2013 run. One popular fisherman from downriver noted that in 2017 he had his “first back-to-back catches of 100 or more shad since the 1990s.” And his haul on one particular night that year was reportedly “the biggest he’s had since he started keeping records.”

Although known more for her persistence than for her patience, as an historian Debra Conway is fond of quoting Thomas Paine— “time makes more converts than reason”— and in 2022 proved the point by finally seeing her vision for a shad festival come to fruition. 

Sponsored by The Delaware Company, and staged by a team under the direction of John Pizzolato of Barryville, the first annual “Festival of the Founding Fish: Upper Delaware Shad Fest 2022” was, by all accounts, a resounding success, and will return this year even bigger and better, lasting from May 19 to May 28, with additional support now coming from the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway and the Sullivan County Legislature.

No one has yet suggested a six-week-long festival such as the Lenape celebrated so many years ago, but the feeling among those involved in this shad festival is that it can be a major tourist attraction, inspiring many different kinds of spin-offs, and could once again make the Delaware River shad a linchpin of the regional economy.

For more information about this year’s event, visit www.festivalofthefoundingfish.com.


John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.


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