History Corner: Joshua Fisher And His Chart of Delaware Bay, Part 1

Among the Society of Friends who were passengers accompanying William Penn in the ship "Welcome" on its first voyage to his new colony in Pennsylvania was a glazier named John Fisher, who became the ancestor of a large American family. His son Thomas Fisher became Overseer of Highways and a justice of the peace in the new colony, and served also as agent for the Proprietary in Sussex County. His son, Joshua Fisher (1707-1788), was to achieve lasting fame for producing the first nautical chart to be made of Delaware Bay and Delaware River, a resource that remained the authority until it was supplanted by modern Federal topographical surveys.

Born in Delaware

Joshua Fisher was born in 1707 in Sussex County, Delaware to which his father had moved from Philadelphia in about 1686. Following his father's death in 1713 he inherited three hundred acres of land containing a plantation, in addition to another tract of five hundred acres "lying on the Cold Spring at the head of Long Branch." Opportunities for learning were few and Fisher endeavored to supply this deficiency as best he could. Recognized as an enterprising man from his early youth, he was self-taught in mathematics and described as skillful in mechanical sciences. Much of his early learning is attributed to the influence of Henry Brooks, a British Customs official in Sussex County, who had befriended him.

Following his marriage on July 27, 1733 to Sarah Rowland, Fisher settled at Lewes near Cape Henlopen. There for many years he carried on the trade of hatter supplied with furs of small animals with which the forests abounded, and he also established a considerable trade for beaver and small furs with Indians in the region; he used the skins for his own trade and also shipped large quantities to England. In addition to maintaining his hat making business and operating a large country store in Lewes, Fisher also served as Deputy Surveyor General of Delaware, a position to which he had been appointed by Pennsylvania Proprietor Thomas Penn, and from which he acquired much intimate knowledge of the region.

The Fisher country store in Lewes was frequented by the more than sixty Delaware River pilots living in the region, from whom Fisher amassed considerable knowledge about Delaware Bay and the Delaware River. During his years in Lewes, Fisher was frequently urged to render his extensive knowledge about the waterways into some usable form but he could never find time to do so.

In 1746 Fisher sold all hi Delaware property, resigned from the Duck Creek Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends, and moved with his wife, two daughters and three sons to Philadelphia. His first home was on the north side of Walnut Street above Front Street, and in 1753 he built a new dwelling at 110 South Front Street. In Lewes he had owned five slaves, all of whom he sold prior to moving to Philadelphia. Later thereafter he became uneasy about having sold fellow creatures and arranged to repurchase them and their offspring for approximately fifteen hundred dollars in order to set them free, which he accomplished in about the year 1776.

Large Mercantile Business

Within a short time Fisher established a large mercantile business in Philadelphia with the firm name of Joshua Fisher & Sons. His stock in trade included every imaginable object, and his advertisements appearing from time to time in the Pennsylvania Gazette contained incrediblelists of these goods. Within the next several years Fisher also established the first line of packet ships to sail regularly between Philadelphia and London. In 1765 his firm appeared fifth on the Non-Importation Act listing Philadelphia merchants and citizens, and he was elected a member of a committee to represent the Act's objectives and procedure signatures.

Interest in Charity

Due to his involvement in the shipping business, Fisher's interest in charting the Bay and River continued. He added to his already extensive knowledge of navigation by attending night school classes offered by Thomas Godfrey, a prominent figure in Philadelphia science, with whom he had become acquainted soon after his arrival in the city. In 1740 Godfrey had advertised in Benjamin Franklin's newspaper that during the winter season he "Proposes to teach Navigation, Astronomy, and other parts of the Mathematicks."

Fisher was to spend almost twenty years compiling his chart, from notes of information he gleaned in discussions with Bay and River pilots and particularly with his brother-in-law Samuel Rowland, who was a Delaware Bay pilot, and based upon his own observations. Godfrey assisted him in establishing latitudes and longitudes for his chart by means of observations taken from at least two points with Godfrey's newly invented octant one taken from the tip of Cape James (later re-named Cape Henlopen) and another a land point on an island in the middle of Delaware Bay which was not named on the Chart. The inscription at Capt James on the published Chart stated that the observation had been made "by the Author and T. Godfrey." These observations must have been made prior to 1749, the year of Godfrey's death.

The chart was drawn with a fine degree of accuracy, and reflected Fisher's skill in surveying and navigation. It included soundings marked in feet and fathoms, shoreside place names and indications of the shore's condition. In it Fisher identified harbors, shoals, sandbars, ship channels, outlets and creeks in addition to major navigational risks. When the chart was finally completed, it was engraved for Fisher by James Turner and printed in 1756 by the Philadelphia printer John Davis. When his manuscript chart was ready for engraving, Fisher enlisted the cooperation of a group of merchants and ship owners. who subscribed a total of one hundred pounds to defray the cost of engraving and printing.

Silvio Bedini is a historian emeritus with the Smithsonian Instution in Washington, D.C.

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