There was a time when Lenape fishermen – or women, since they did much of the fishing in that culture— would use nets woven from branches, saplings or wild hemp to catch huge numbers of shad in the Delaware River. Much of their catch would be preserved by a unique smoking process that would keep them edible through the winter. The Lenape designated March as the month of the shad and celebrated with a festival that often lasted six weeks or more.
The early European settlers learned the importance of shad from the Natives and quickly picked up the technique of smoking them to provide food for the harsh winters when game was scarce. Some historians, including William E. Meehan writing in Fish, Fishing and Fisheries of Pennsylvania in 1893, have noted that virtually every Colonial era homestead in a broad area bordering the Delaware River “had its half-barrel of salted shad sitting in the kitchen with some choice pieces of smoked shad hanging by the kitchen chimney.”
Shad played an important role in the lives of both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and in 1771 the soon to be “Father of our Country” caught nearly 8,000 of them as part of his commercial shad fishing operation. 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 1778. At least one account has the soldiers under the command of General John Sullivan—for whom Sullivan 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.
The connection between Colonial America and the shad is so strong, in fact, that the prolific writer John McPhee, an avid fisherman himself, has not lightly dubbed the shad “The Founding Fish”. McPhee’s 2002 book of that title “illuminates the sometimes surprising relevance of [shad] in seventeenth and eighteenth century America.”
By 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. Commercial shad fishing became a linchpin of many local economies, and spin off industries abounded, including those that prepared, packaged, and shipped the fish, as well as those that provided guides and boats and equipment.
Sadly, during the first half of the 20th century increased pollution in the Delaware River put an end to the great shad runs, and the annual catch had dropped to 5 million pounds by 1905 and topped 1 million pounds for the last time in 1916. By the 1960s, the fish had disappeared almost entirely from the Delaware.
Although much of the pollution that caused the virtual disappearance of the shad from east coast waters has been reversed in recent decades, the shad population has been slow to rebound, so much so, in fact, that some jurisdictions have passed moratoriums on shad fishing in hopes of building the population. The Delaware River, lacking dams and other barriers to shad migration, has fared better, and is typically exempted from such legislation.
In fact, some Delaware River fishermen have announced that the 2013 shad run was among the largest in recent memory. One venerable fisherman from downriver has boasted that this year’s is the most abundant shad run in his lifetime.
All of this excitement about the resurgence of the shad has given rise to talk in some circles of reviving the long dormant Delaware River Shad Festival that once was an annual event in the area. One scenario would involve exploiting the Colonial, George Washington, and John Sullivan connections in collaboration with Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg, which has been in the forefront of providing educational programs about the Upper Delaware region’s past.
Fort Delaware Museum has recently featured programs by renowned experts on related subjects, including last summer’s intensive day long presentation on the Lenape culture by John T. Kraft and several that have discussed the significant role that fishing in general has played in the development of the region’s economy, so such a collaboration would not be a stretch for them.
There are already various shad festivals held elsewhere along the Delaware, and several have been around for years so there is no shortage of examples of what a similar event here might entail.
Although no one has yet suggested a six week long festival such as the Lenape celebrated so many years ago, the feeling among those discussing such a possibility is that the festival could serve as a major tourist attraction, inspiring many different kinds of spin-offs, and could once again make the Delaware River shad a linchpin of the regional economy.
Illustration by John T. Kraft (Lenape Lifeways, Inc.); used with permission.