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

Joshua Fisher, an enterprising Quaker merchant who manufactured fur hats and operated a country store in Lewes, Delaware, moved to Philadelphia in 1746 where he developed a large general store and a shipping line between Philadelphia and London. In 1756 he published a detailed nautical chart of Delaware River and Delaware Bay which he was about to distribute. In 1756, just as Fisher was about to publish his chart of Delaware Bay and River, he was ordered to postpone it by order of the governor and Council of Pennsylvania.

Publication Postponed

Relatively few copies of the first printing had been distributed when on March 4, 1756 he received the following order issued by the Provincial Council and Governor Robert Hunter Morris:

Being informed yt you are abt publishing a Chart of ye Bay of Delaware, with all ye Sounds and Bearings, and such full Directions yt Strangers to ye Navigation of ye Bay, may, by ye help of your Draft, bring Ships into the River without a Pilot; Tho' this is a very useful and commendable work, yet as at this critical juncture, when from the state of affairs in Europe, we are in daily expectation of a French War, there is yt reason to fear; if your map of the Bay should be published some Copy of it may fall into ye Enemys Hands. I have therefore thought fit, by the advice of the Councils, to order, as I hereby do, that the Publication of the Map or Chart be postponed till a more proper time; when ye Danger of the Enemys paying us a visit from Sea, may be over, or this city and Province in a better condition to repel an invasion.

Fisher protested the delay, concerned because of his obligation to his subscribers and because he claimed that a prospective enemy could easily avail itself of the services of expert bay pilots without need of a map. He suggested furthermore that an enemy might in fact be deterred from an attempt to reach Philadelphia by the very complexities clearly demonstrated in his chart. On the following day he protested the order in a letter to Richard Peters, the Proprietary secretary, informing him that some copies had been distributed locally and other copies had been sent to England. He noted that some sixty Delaware Bay pilots constantly cruised off the Capes so that an enemy vessel would never be in want of a pilot. He further advised --

. . . this Chart is only calculated to bring Ships out of danger from Sea, and shows them but about 20 miles in the River, and the remaining part very intricate tho' not dangerous, is another strong inducement no Enemy will attempt comin up so dangerous a Bay and a long difficult River without good Pilots … .

Nonetheless, in the first printing the upper river channel to Philadelphia was not included. Fisher continued to distribute copies of the chart locally and in England while discussions continued until finally he was prevented from distributing the remainder of his stock. Fisher had not including sailing directions in the first printing, but a separate printed guide was published anonymously and added to the chart when it was re-engraved in Philadelphia in 1775.

Merchandise Commandeered

With the beginning of the American Revolution, Fisher and his family found themselves in a quandry. Being merchants they had many shipments in progress that could not be recalled or terminated. Their warehouse contained much merchandise for sale that was commandeered by the military and sent to public stores with no accountability and payment made only in the depreciated paper currency of the period. Although at the end of the war they received credit for part of the confiscated property, payment was never received.

In addition to his Philadelphia residence and store, Fisher maintained a farm near the shore of lower Delaware Bay. In the winter of 1779-1780 his son Thomas and one of his black slaves were captured on the farm by a press gang from the crew of a British war vessel lying offshore near Cape Henlopen. They were held as hostages for a ransom requiring an immediate delivery of one hundred bullocks. The terms were met promptly by Fisher, the bullocks were driven across the ice of the Bay on Christmas Day and the hostages were released.

The American Revolution brought unending problems to Fisher and his family. As members of the Society of Friends, the Fisher family took a neutral position in the country's conflicts, a position for which they were severely criticized, and their activities were closely watched. Those Philadelphia residents who did not openly support the colonial effort came under severe suspicion of being Tories. In March 1779 a letter from Fisher's son Thomas to his brother Samuel in New York was intercepted and deemed evidence of Toryism. The sons, Thomas and Samuel refused to take the oath of allegiance because they were Quakers and consequently were apprehended, pending official orders for their disposition. A search was made but no incriminating papers were found. Joshua, at the advanced age of seventy-two, was too ill at the time to be taken from his home, and after he had given his oath of allegiance, the charges against him were dropped.

Exiled to Virginia

Although the Fisher family had never been active in politics nor involved with publications relating to the Revolution, they continued to be harassed. When on September 3, 1777 Joshua's sons -- Thomas, Samuel and Miers Fisher -- refused to deliver the firm's business records as ordered, with son-in-law Thomas Gilpin, they were exiled to Winchester, Virginia, where they remained for many months. By the summer of 1781 Samuel had become quite ill and was ordered released upon payment of the costs of prosecutio, and was pardoned. The others were finally released by order of General Washington and the Congress. Fisher died in Philadelphia on February 1, 1788.

The Fisher Chart was re-engraved in Philadelphia in 1775 and again in London in 1776 by Thomas Faden. The British version was accompanied by a printed guide prepared by Captain James Campbell entitled Directions for Navigating Up Delaware Bay from the Capes to Ready-Island. By 1800 ten editions of the chart had been published and distributed in London and Paris. The first nautical chart to be made of the region, it remained for many years the unique authority of these waterways.

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

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