So sometimes I really hate history people. For example, whenever I read about the exploration and settlement of the Americas. The people who did this are ADVENTURERS! Sometimes they are PIRATES (err… PRIVATEERS)! They are going into the UNKNOWN! It’s DANGEROUS. They could all DIE. Often times THEY DO. Early European settlers in the New World are the same situation. These people had to be at least half crazy! Yet crack open a book on this period and…
I mean, they manage to make Henry Hudson getting launched into Hudson Bay in a boat NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN boring. I think the only spark of life these folks ever show at all is with the Lost Colony of Roanoke. WHERE DID THEY GO!? CROATOAN! WHAT HAPPENED!?!?!?!?!? Then right back into a snooze fest.
And then if you want to learn specifically about the Delaware Valley, just forget it (unless you have a trained nurse to hook an IV of coffee up to you and change it every quarter hour or so). The books on this subject have been chock full of facts, a little disjointed on narrative, and very light on color. I know, I’ve read five or six of them already. I have more waiting on my shelf.
Anyway, meet Hal Taylor.
I first met Hal a number of years ago at Lines on the Pines, where I gave him my money in exchange for his The Illustrated Delaware River: A History of a Great American River, which he wrote AND illustrated (the classic double threat). It was the history of the Delaware mixed in with his own adventures along that river. I loved it.
So I got REALLY excited when I picked up the Winter 2017/2018 issue of SoJourn Magazine and read Hal’s article “Le Balloonist” about the first hot air balloon flight in the Americas back in 1793. Sure, the article was great, but I got extra excited when (because its the kind of CRAZY person that I am) I got to the end where it announced that Hal had a new book coming out – Before Penn: An Illustrated History of the Delaware River Colonies – 1609 – 1682. Like, unreasonably excited over a not-yet-released book on a subject that has proven to be some of the most boring history in the history of ever (at least according to the writing of every single author who’s made the attempt). These books make paint drying look like that Eagles Super Bowl win.
Fast forward to summer. Hal’s book is is finally out. I bought a copy the first day. I waited anxiously for it to arrive in the mail…
One lovely August day, Hal was nice enough to meet up with me in New Castle, Delaware (it’s no South Jersey, but we won’t hold that against it. It’s not New Castle’s fault) to talk about the settlement of the Delaware River valley, his book, and his art. We started at Battery Park. This is where the little town of New Castle got its start, the waterfront where ships have been pulling up to dock since the 1600s.
Hal explained how, from this spot on the river, the original settlers could have seen any ships coming from down the Delaware River toward the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, this spot was SO important that, in 1682, William Penn (aka, that guy in the funny hat at the top of City Hall in Philadelphia who once owned all of Pennsylvania and Delaware and is definitely NOT Ben Franklin) first set foot in America here at New Castle to take symbolic ownership (also, real ownership) of the land, before heading up to that place which took his Dad’s name, New Jersey.
No, it’s Pennsylvania! haha! Just making sure that Delaware Valley history didn’t put you to sleep yet.
Anyway, we walked around New Castle to take in a view of that fine city. New Castle is chock full of charming old homes and historic buildings.
While signers of the Declaration of Independence and antebellum notables may have walked these streets, New Castle has a much older history, and plays a pretty central role in the early history of the Delaware Valley. It was originally the site of a settlement of Lenape Indians. In 1651, the one legged Peter Stuyvesant ordered that a fort be built here (Fort Casmir) to protect the interests of the Dutch on the Delaware River… then part of New Netherland.
Now if you are wondering what the heck is New Netherland, it’s probably because your high school history textbook contained up to three sentences about it, and that may be generous. If you know anything at all about it, it’s that even old New York was once New Amsterdam (which I had to drill into my history students is NOT New Hamsterdam). But the Dutch once controlled large pieces of what are now New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania for decades and decades. Luckily, I had Hal Taylor to walk me through the history of the four countries whose flags have flown over New Castle.
So why did the Dutch need a fort here? To protect their claims against the mighty Swedish. While the Swedish today are best known for you-build-it-furniture, Swedish meatballs, and their world famous chef (“Bork! Bork! Bork!”), don’t be fooled – these people are the same people as the Vikings. They built themselves quite the empire under Gustavus Adolphus, and then were convinced to take a try at colonizing. They ended up on the Delaware River in what is now Delaware, South Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The Dutch did not take kindly to this, as they saw this as THEIR land, even if they had done a poor job of colonizing it. Hence, Fort Casmir to try to take this land back from the Swedes.
The Dutch were right to worry… just three years later, the Swedish colony captured Fort Casmir, renaming it Fort Trinity. But don’t feel bad for the poor Dutch, they rallied from their base in New Amsterdam to retake this fort… and all of New Sweden with it. The area was renamed New Amstel.
But New Amstel (and New Netherland) were every bit as doomed as New Sweden had been, as the Duke of York (future King James I) sent a fleet to capture the whole area for the English. They first took New Amsterdam without firing a shot (mostly because everyone hated Stuyvesant and refused to fight for him), renaming it, you guessed it, New Jersey. Kidding again! They renamed it New York. With New Amsterdam gone, the Dutch colony on the Delaware was doomed as well.
The English took control, and soon afterwards, William Penn gained control of the whole area.
There isn’t anything left of New Sweden or New Netherland left in New Castle today, but there is a LOT of old history still here to see. So much, that this area was declared as First State National Monument by President Obama back in 2013, and Congress reaffirmed this as First State National Historical Park by Congress a few years later.
There’s a LOT more history of New Sweden, New Netherland, English settlements, and early America in the Delaware Valley, but New Castle provides a nice little glimpse into a slice of all of it. Thank you to Hal for a great day!
Now that my tour of historic New Castle with Hal is done, what do I think of his new book Before Penn?
The awful, terrible, boring, no good, very bad history writing that is nearly all writings about the early exploration and settlement of the Americas is, well, awful, terrible, boring, no… well, you get the idea.
Hal Taylor fixes that. He’s written an organized, coherent history of the Delaware Valley, walking you efficiently and effectively through the background of what various European countries were up to in the new world, the long lines of explorers that came to the Americas, before arriving at the settlements of the English, Swedes, and Dutch. Not only is it clear and well organized, it uses words like “badass” (because seriously, a lot of these people were) and mixes in plenty of stuff to flesh out the character of these oh-so-very-human early explorers and settlers of Delaware, South Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Pirates (sorry, privateers!), tyrants, greed, strongly worded letters to other governors, rebellions, massacres by Native Americans, starvation, vicious assaults by mosquitos… this book has it all, it’s all true, and Hal makes it all fascinating. It really gives you a great sense of the early history of the east coast of North America, and gave me the best feel I’ve ever gained on the early history of the Delaware Valley.
The other problem with books about history that has nearly all disappeared is the that, if you are lucky, there are a few poor copies of old maps and maybe a copy of a painting somewhere. These are likely to be small and tough to really read or understand. Hal Taylor does double duty as author and illustrator of this book, creating a series of beautiful pictures and maps to perfectly go along with the narration of the story.
“So Mike,” you are probably asking by this point, “is this book a must have for anyone who wants a better understanding of the history of the Delaware Valley and/or wants to see the word ‘badass’ in a history book?”
The answer is yes, as if you had any doubts.
You can head over to haltaylorillustration.com to find out when Hal is selling his books in person (he’ll be at the Burlington County Historical Society next month, at the Cumberland County Eagle Festival, and at Lines in the Pines come March), or if you just can’t wait you can find his book on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble.