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The Fish That Saved America

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 5/15/20

In 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, and commercial shad fishing had become a linchpin of …

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The Fish That Saved America

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In 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, and commercial shad fishing had become a linchpin of many local economies, launching spin-off industries including those that prepared, packaged, and shipped the fish, as well as those that provided guides and boats and equipment.

But the shad's impact on life along the Delaware considerably predates that. In fact, it considerably predates the founding of the nation.

Many writers have chronicled the importance of shad in the lives of the early American settlers, and the subject is a small, but significant part of an excellent new book, Lee Hartman's “The Delaware River Story: Water Wars, Trout Tales, and a River Reborn,” published this year by Stackpole Books.

“Charting the Delaware River in the winter of 1632 - 1633, Dutch explorer David De Fries wrote of waters so filled with fish that one drop of a seine net caught enough perch, roach, and pike to feed his crew of thirty for a day,” Hartman writes. “William Penn was equally impressed by the natural abundance in the region, writing of oysters so large they needed to be cut in half before eating, giant sturgeon that leaped in the air in such numbers they often endangered small watercraft, herring that ran the shoals so thick colonists could easily shovel them into tubs, and rockfish (stripers) so abundant, they were barreled like cod.”

Be that as it may, it was the shad that impressed the early settlers more than any other fish.

And each spring the shad, an anadromous fish (meaning they live in salt water except for spawning, which takes place in fresh water) “leave the Atlantic Ocean and return to the waters where they were born, often hundreds of miles upstream.”

By late April or early May, depending upon water temperatures, the shad run typically reaches the Upper Delaware.

For centuries, the timing of the shad run was fortuitous for settlers who had often been forced to survive the winter without much to eat.

“The Indians of the mid-Atlantic region were skilled and resourceful fishermen who employed a wide variety of weirs, traps, scoop nets, spears, bow and arrow, gigs, hand poles, and other ingenious devices to capture their prey,” Hartman notes. “The colonists quickly learned from the locals how to catch and preserve shad for use during the lean winter months. The fish quickly became the region's most important commodity and provided a considerable portion of many river settlements' economy.”

George Washington was a successful commercial shad fisherman, and in 1771 the soon to be “Father of our Country” caught nearly 8,000 of them. It was but one of young Washington's many business enterprises, but one of his most profitable.

Some historians believe that is was an unexpected early run of shad up the Schuylkill, a tributary of the Delaware, that saved Washington's men from starvation while stationed at Valley Forge following the brutal winter of 1777 - 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.

Despite the role the fish may have played in winning the Revolutionary War, the 18th century was a tough one for the shad. So many downriver fishermen constructed racks across the river to collect the shad that the migration upriver was severely curtailed and laws had to be passed to prevent such practices. Pennsylvania's 1724 law failed to discourage the building of racks, however, and there was actually a shooting war that erupted in 1738 between the upriver and downriver factions. Abuses continued, and the overfishing, and increased pollution, eventually took its toll.

The annual Delaware River shad catch had dropped to 5 million pounds by 1905, and topped 1 million pounds for the last time in 1916.

Fortunately, the story doesn't end there, and Hartman tells it well, presenting the facts and figures to illustrate the historical anecdotes he so adroitly weaves together. And as fascinating as it is, the story of the shad, or what Hartman calls “the fish that saved America,” is only part of the book. The author's treatment of trout fishing, timber rafting, the Tocks Island project, and other significant parts of the Delaware River's history—including a number of interesting personalities-- are equally compelling.

Ed Van Put, accomplished fisherman and author of both “The Beaverkill: A History of a River and Its People” and “Trout Fishing in the Catskills,” says Hartman's book “chronicles the natural and unnatural history of the Delaware, one of America's most popular designated ‘Wild and Scenic Rivers' that many believe is the best wild trout fishery east of the Mississippi.” And David Kinney, the Eastern Policy Director of Trout Unlimited, says the book “offers the full sweep of the Delaware's story.” Other experts concur.

“The Delaware River Story” is 267 pages, beautifully bound in hardcover, and features hundreds of photographs, mostly in color. It sells for $24.95 and is available in several local shops, as well as online.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com and ask how to purchase his latest book, “In Further Retrospect.” He will discuss the book and how to order it during a virtual program offered by Time & The Valleys Museum on Sunday, May 17 at 2 p.m. Email the museum for information on how to take part: info@timeandthevalleysmuseum.org

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