Penn Historian Discovers Evidence Documenting First European Voyage Up the Delaware

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Media Contact: | | April 23, 2007

PHILADELPHIA - A University of Pennsylvania scholar has pinpointed 1616 as the year of the first European voyage up the Delaware River.

Jaap Jacobs, a senior fellow at Penn's McNeil Center for Early American Studies, detailed his findings in a paper, "Truffle Hunting with an Iron Hog: The First Dutch Voyage up the Delaware River," presented to the McNeil Center Seminar Series on April 20.

Scholarly discoveries tend to be the outcome of a deliberate process, but serendipity played an important role in Jacobs' discovery of the significance of a centuries-old deposition pinpointing the year of the first Dutch voyage up the Delaware.

Sometime between 1993 and 1994 while doing research for his dissertation, Jacobs copied a summary of a document he found at the Gemeentearchief Amsterdam, the Amsterdam notarial archives.  He said that the summary didn't indicate that the document was important, so he didn't look at the original until July 2000.   At that point it became clear to him that the document referred to the Delaware River rather than the Hudson River, as he had originally thought.  Years later, in 2007, while preparing his paper on early Dutch exploration of the Delaware and Hudson rivers, he revisited the historiography and realized that the document pertained to the first voyage up the Delaware by Europeans.

The document he had found was a deposition of the sworn testimony of sailor Jan Jacobsz Bens.  At the request of an Amsterdam merchant, Bens had testified about a trip he took on one of the earliest recorded ships built in North America, the Iron Hog.  He stated that the trip occurred in 1616.

Historians acknowledge that while earlier European explorers may have sighted the mouth of the Delaware Bay, Henry Hudson became the first European to actually enter it in August 1609.   European exploration of the Delaware River had long been presumed to have occurred sometime during 1614-1616.  The document Jacobs found now pinpoints the year as 1616.

"The document I found provides the missing link in the early cartography of the Delaware River," Jacobs said.  "This document is evidence that the Dutch voyaged to America in 1616 and explored a large section of the coastline, claiming it for the Dutch Republic in the process."

The first trades between the Dutch and the Susquehannock Indians took place during the time when the Iron Hog sailed across the Atlantic to Europe and the northeastern coast of America.

"Jaap Jacobs's discovery of a document that has rested in Dutch archives for nearly three centuries casts our understanding of the Philadelphia region's early colonial history in a new light," said Daniel K. Richter, director of Penn's McNeil Center and a professor of history at Penn.  "Perhaps no other scholar has the depth of knowledge, the insight and the detective skills not only to uncover but to understand the significance of this remarkable discovery."

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