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Philadelphia Water Department
Water and Drainage History Course

Module 1
Philadelphia Before William Penn: The Natives and Other European Settlers

Portraits of Chieftains Tishcohan (left) and Lapowinsa (right), painted around the time of the Walking Purchase treaty, circa 1735.
(SOURCE: The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent)

Native people inhabited the area in and around Philadelphia for at least a thousand years before the arrival of the Europeans, but estimates of their population are difficult to determine. One estimate put the number at the time of European contact (around 1600) at 10,000; but Marshall Becker, an archeologist at West Chester (PA) University who has studied this subject for many years, surmises that there were no more than 500.[1] New research, detailed in a new book, The First Frontier, by Scott Wiedensaul (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), indicates that there were likely many more natives in the New World, but beginning with the first contact with Europeans in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, epedemic diseases to which the natives had no immunity decimated their populations.

The natives did practice a form of slash-and-burn agriculture, but the clearings they made to grow maize in the summer were small. Perhaps in their summer encampments they might have created local sanitation problems, but this cannot be said for sure without knowing more about how they disposed of their wastes. One might assume that they chose to deposit their wastes “downstream” of their encampments, which seems to have been a dictum that the more “civilized” Europeans who later inhabited the area ignored to their great peril. What can be said for sure is that the native people caused no permanent harm to the landscape or the water supply; and in fact, the only evidence of their existence is often found only during archeological digs.

Exploration of North America by Henry Hudson (Wikipedia).
Hudson visited the Delaware Bay in 1609, claiming it for the Dutch.

English explorer Henry Hudson was probably the first European to discover the Delaware Bay and River. He came here, to what he called the South River, on a 1609 voyage undertaken for the Dutch East India Company during which he also discovered another river, father north, which now bears his name. A year later an English expedition, carrying Lord Thomas de la Warr to Virginia, made a side trip into the South River, which was named Delaware in his honor. The English claimed this river and its bay as their own. The conflicting English and Dutch land claims played out over the next seventy years, with the English finally gaining control of both the Hudson and Delaware Rivers by the 1670s.[2]

While the Dutch and English were the dominant forces in the area, Swedish settlers also made claim to land along the river in the 1630s and became the area’s first permanent settlers, clearing land for agriculture, building several forts (including Fort Christina near present-day Wilmington), and a church (now called Gloria Dei/Old Swede’s Church) in Wicaco, now part of South Philadelphia.

“Old Swedes Church and Burial Ground.”
From an engraving in the 1888 Philadelphia Record Almanac.
(Adam Levine Cllection)

As with the native population, the small numbers of Europeans and the scattered locations of their settlements in this pre-Penn period mitigated any impact that they might have had. One estimate is that on the eve of the arrival of William Penn, “the total European population along the Delaware River was less than 2000 (counting the newly-arrived English settlers in New Jersey), and the total Native American population was not much larger. About fifty subsistence farmers and their families were living within the limits of modern Philadelphia, mostly Swedes and Finns, with a few Dutch and English. Although some of them, such as the Dalbos, Rambos, Svenssons, and Cocks, had been there since the 1640s, most had moved to the site within the past decade. Their farms averaged about 200 acres in size, but the land was heavily wooded, and the clearings for fields relatively small.” [3]

Local sanitation problems at forts and towns might have caused some health problems, but these too are impossible to document. Clearing the land for agriculture was the beginning of a process that continued for hundreds of years, and might have had some effect on water quality in the rivers and smaller streams, with increased runoff carrying increased amounts of sediment into the streams. Damming of streams for mills (the first built by the Swedes along Cobb’s Creek in 1643) [4] certainly affected water flow and quality in those streams. However, since most early mills were simply grist mills (grinding grains into flour) or sawmills (sawing logs into lumber), there was little issue with industrial waste being deposited in the streams.


[1] Becker asserts that most of the people north of the Chesapeake Bay were foragers, or hunter gatherers, not agriculturists who lived in one place and used simple tools to cultivate small patches and stored food through the winter. “The aboriginal Lenape (“Delaware”) were foragers, both before and after European contact, and were organized in small bands, each of which grew some maize during their summer encampments, but stored none of it. The total population of the Lenape, as well as that of the ‘Jerseys’ and other cultures in the immediate area, was rather small.” From abstract to “Lenape population at the time of European contact: estimating native numbers in the Lower Delaware Valley,” by Marshall Joseph Becker, Proc. American Philosophical Society, v. 133, n. 2, 1989.

[2] The early history of Pennsylvania and the surrounding area is exhaustively recorded in Hazard’s Annals of Pennsylvania 1609-1682. A good summary of the early explorers is provided by Thompson Westcott, as follows: “The first European who trod the soil which now belongs to the city of Philadelphia was probably a certain Captain Hendrickson, who commanded one of the five vessels fitted out by the Dutch East India Company in the year 1623, of which little fleet Captain Cornelis Jacobsen Mey was commodore. Before that time, as early as the year 1609, Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the service of the Dutch East India Company, in the yacht Half-Moon, discovered a large river which flowed into a great bay opening into the Atlantic Ocean and north of the Chesapeake Bay. Into this newly-discovered bay he entered and penetrated a short distance; but coming out of it, sailing north-east and keeping near the coast, he discovered another great bay into which a large river emptied. From this circumstance he gave to the river first discovered by him the name of the South River, and to the other the name of the North River. In the year 1610 a ship, which carried the Lord Thomas de la War on his voyage to Virginia, entered the South Bay and discovered the river flowing into it, and then went on to Virginia. Under these two discoveries arose the conflicting claims of two nations. The Dutch claimed the North and South Rivers and the intervening territories. The English claimed the territory adjoining the South River, which they called the Delaware. Captain Mey found two prominent capes at the mouth of the South Bay, which he named after himself. One bears his name to this day [Cape May, New Jersey]. The other, now named Cape Henlopen, was named Cape Cornelis… In 1638 [the] Swedish West India Company…sent out a colony to the South [Delaware] River under the patronage of the young queen, Christina. Conceding informally to the Dutch possession of the east bank of the river, the Swedes settles on the west, and it is said that they bought of the Indians the title to all the land between Cape Cornelis and Sankikan, or the falls of the river below the site of the present city of Trenton. The Swedes may be considered the first permanent settlers, neither the Dutch nor the English being very successful in establishing their expeditions, several attempts being made in that direction without permanent success. The Swedish government sent out governors for the colonies. Forts were established and towns laid out, and the country opened to agriculture.” (Thompson Westcott, The Official Guide Book to Philadelphia: A new handbook for strangers and citizens. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1875, pp. 13-14)

[3] Mary Maples Dunn and Richard S. Dunn, “The Founding: 1681-1701.” Chapter 1 in Russell F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia,: A 300-Year History. Philadelphia: W. W. Norton, 1982, 3

[4] Samuel Hazard, Annals of Pennsylvania from the Dicsovery of the Delaware. Philadelphia: Hazard and Mitchell, 1850, 3.


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