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Retrospect

A New Era Begins for Fort Delaware

John Conway, Columnist
Posted 6/25/21

The first time the Declaration of Independence was read aloud to the public was in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776, making the residents of that city the first outside of the government to learn of …

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Retrospect

A New Era Begins for Fort Delaware

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The first time the Declaration of Independence was read aloud to the public was in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776, making the residents of that city the first outside of the government to learn of Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece.

In the days that followed, readings took place in many other communities around the colonies, with wild celebrations—including at least one incident in which King George III was hanged in effigy-- typically following the completion of the recitation. 

It has not been recorded when or how the settlers at Cushetunk in the Upper Delaware may have learned of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, nor is it known if there was a celebration as a result, but if any such revelry did take place, it was likely a subdued one. 

That’s because a hefty percentage of the settlers at Cushetunk were Tories, choosing to remain loyal to King and country. And likely any recitation of the Declaration of Independence—if it did take place at all—would have been followed by a passionate Tory response, possibly delivered by the settlement’s most notorious Loyalist, Robert Land, or perhaps Joseph Ross, who later served as a scout for Joseph Brant and his marauders when they raided settlements in the Delaware and Mamakating Valleys on behalf of the British. 

On July 10 this year, that speculative scenario will be recreated at the Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg. 

The reading aloud of the Declaration of Independence followed by a Tory response will highlight an afternoon of demonstrations of the colonial frontier lifestyle and other activities designed to welcome people back to the Fort and introduce them to plans for the future as the non-profit history education group, The Delaware Company, assumes management of the facility. 

Fort Delaware, a replica of what was known as “the lower fort,” a stockaded portion of the Cushetunk settlement dating to about 1760, was originally opened in 1957 by former Sullivan County Historian James W. Burbank. 

At the height of the nationwide Davy Crockett craze created by the Walt Disney television segments-turned-feature film, and with other period-themed parks making their appearance throughout New York's upstate, Burbank reasoned that a venue along the Delaware River that would highlight colonial frontier history seemed like a no-brainer.

Burbank had spent years researching the life of men named Skinner and Thomas and Tyler and Tracy and the earliest European settlements along the river.

He had written about the sprawling community at Cushetunk and the Delaware Indian uprising of 1763 that had tested the fortification built to protect its inhabitants. He was determined that a replica of that stockade, with docents dressed in period costume, would lure people to Narrowsburg and entertain and inform them.

Burbank ran Fort Delaware as a private enterprise until 1970, when, struggling, it was rescued by Sullivan County, which turned it over to the Division of Public Works. By that time, the Davy Crockett craze had long since faded, American history had lost a lot of its luster for school kids, and most of the period-themed parks that had thrived in the 1960s had closed their doors long before.   

The County has operated the Fort ever since, that is, until 2020, when COVID kept it closed for the entire year. The pandemic’s lingering restrictions have made a traditional schedule impractical for this year, as well, but The Delaware Company is planning a number of special events for the summer and fall, and expects to re-open for a conventional season next year. 

Details of the July 10 event, including the hours and run of show, are still being finalized, but in the meantime, mark your calendars, because The Delaware Company typically organizes events you wouldn’t want to miss.

Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History is located along the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway in Narrowsburg. It is owned by Sullivan County, and operated by The Delaware Company.

 

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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