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Delaware River History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of  Pennsylvania Wild and Scenic Delaware River




Original People - 

Long before Henry Hudson sailed into the Delaware Bay in the 1600’s, banks of the estuary and the river were occupied by American Indians who called themselves Lenape, which means “original people” or “Grandfather,” a term referring to their antiquity.   Their “Lenapehoking” (land of the Lenape) encompassed southern Connecticut, New York, all of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and Delaware.  


The Lenape called the Delaware River Lenape Lahitok or Wihittuck (gift of the Lenape). Delaware was the English name given to the river as a tribute to honor the rescuer of Jamestown, Lord de la Warr. It was applied to the Lenape people who became known as the Delawares

European Settlements -

During the seventeenth century the Delaware river  provided the conduit for colonial settlement by the  Dutch (New Netherland), the Swedish (New Sweden). Beginning in 1664, the region became an English possession  as settlement by Quakers established the colonies of Pennsylvania  (including present-day Delaware and West Jersey). 


In the eighteenth century, cities like Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, and Wilmington, and New Castle  were established upon the Delaware and their continued commercial success into the present day has been dependent on access to the river for trade and power. 


The river provided the path for the settlement of northeastern Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley,  and northwestern New Jersey by German Palatine immigrants—a population that became key in the agricultural development of the region.



Washington's Crossing -

The most famous "Delaware Crossing" involved the improvised boat crossing undertaken by  George Washington's  army during the American Revolution's Battle of Trenton on the night of Dec-ember 25–26, 1776, as part of a successful surprise attack on Hessian troops occupying Trenton, New Jersey.

Washington Crossing the Delaware River 1776


George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River, which occurred on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, was the first move in a surprise attack organized by George Washington against the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey, on the morning of December 26.


Planned in partial secrecy, Washington led a column of Continental Army troops across the icy Delaware River  in a logistically challenging and dangerous operation. Other planned crossings in support of the operation were either called off or ineffective, but this did not prevent Washington from surprising and defeating the troops of  Johann Rall quartered in Trenton. 


The army crossed the river back to Pennsylvania, this time laden with prisoners and military stores taken as a result of the battle.

Washington's army then crossed the river a third time at the end of the year, under conditions made more difficult by the uncertain thickness of the ice on the river. They defeated British reinforcements under Lord Cadwalader  at Trenton on January 2,

General George Washington

1777, and defeated his rear guard at Princeton on January 3, before retreating to winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. The unincorporated communities of  Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania and Washington Crossing New Jersey,  are named in honor of this event.


Each December, thousands gather on the banks of the Delaware River to watch the reenactment of General George Washington’s daring Christmas Day river crossing. During this family-friendly event, several hundred reenactors in Continental military dress listen to an inspiring speech by Washington and then row across the river in replica Durham boats. The reenactment is held each year on December 25 at 1 p.m.

Timber Rafting on
the Delaware River

The rafting of lumber downriver to Trenton and Philidelphia beame the first major industry of the Upper Delaware river valley. The tall straight trees that grew  in the river valley were in demand for use as ships masts. David Skinner is credited with the first to float logs to Philadelphia  as early as 1764. Completing this accomplishment, Skinner received the name "Lord High Admiral", an honor that still stands to this date.


By the 1840's sawmills were located at most of the major tributaries to the Delaware and  sawn lumber was rafted down the river. By 1830, at least 1000 rafts  were at work on the Delaware river  with an annual volume of 50 million board feet.


River rafting created a boom for river communities. Hotels and taverns used by the rafters were a significant  aspect of the local economy.

Canals on the Delaware River -


Prior to the railroad competition in 1857, canal construction and use was a major source for moving commerce along the Delaware river and their legacy in varous ways is still with us today.

• The Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal running parallel with the river from Easton to Bristol, opened in 1830.

• The Delaware and Raritan canal which runs along the New Jersey side of the Delaware River from Bulls Island, New Jersy to Trenton, unites the

waters of the Delaware and Raritan rivers as it empties the waters of the Delaware via the canal outlet in New Brunswick. This canal water conduit is still used as a water supply source by the state of New Jersey.


• The Morris Canal (now abandoned and almost completely filled in) and the Delaware and Hudson canal connected the Delaware and Hudson rivers.


• The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal joins the waters of the Delaware with those of the Chesapeake Bay. 

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