Academic journal article Early American Studies

"A Flag of Defyance at the Masthead": The Delaware River Pilots and the Sinews of Philadelphia's Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Early American Studies

"A Flag of Defyance at the Masthead": The Delaware River Pilots and the Sinews of Philadelphia's Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

"Give me aplenty of sea-room, and good canvass, where there is no occasion for pilots at all, sir."

- James Fenimore Cooper,

"The Pilot, a Tale of the Sea," 1823

Philadelphia never experienced a Tea Party, of the kind made most famous in Boston. Instead, Pennsylvania Patriots prevented the herb from ever reaching their harbor by enlisting the aid of Delaware's river pilots, "that honest, free, and hardy class" who conducted ships from Delaware Bay to Philadelphia. When the tea ship arrived at the Delaware Capes, neither captain nor crew knew the navigation of the Delaware River, and the pilots stood united in refusing to take the ship up to the city. They further warned that if the ship's crew "presumed to come thither, it would be at their Peril, and the inevitable Destruction of both Vessel and Cargo." Without the pilots, the ship could go no farther, and it was forced to turn back, its hold still packed with crates of tea.

As the episode vividly illustrates, pilots were marginal figures who nonetheless played a central role in the life of colonial America's largest port. Because of its distance from the ocean, Philadelphia depended on skilled pilots to navigate ships to the city. And whenever Philadelphians were menaced by the looming specters of coastal raiding or imported disease, they likewise depended on the pilots to serve as sentries at the capes, offering early warning of dangers from the sea. The port's dependence on the pilots, in peace and war, was the crux of a struggle over who would reap the benefits of Philadelphia's growing Atlantic commerce in the eighteenth century. Pilots struggled against the impositions of the various bodies that attempted to control them in order to maintain their autonomy and economic competency. It was a struggle that alienated them from their twin constituencies: the crews whose ships they conducted and the ports into which they conducted those ships. And it was a struggle that would demonstrate the tenuousness of Philadelphia's commercial links with the wider world.

The Atlantic economy of the eighteenth century was a powerful machine, reordering lives and communities on at least four continents. Many scholars have recognized the almost industrial quality of maritime labor within that world.1 But the copious scholarship on the subject has concentrated on opensea sailors, sometimes excluding the smaller - but equally essential - cogs in the engine of Atlantic commerce. Pilots were one such neglected group. They were, and are, a fixture in ports all over the world, but study of their work patterns, particularly on the Delaware, has been largely the province of antiquarians and enthusiasts. Fully integrated into neither the world afloat nor the world ashore, the pilots were essential to bridging those two realms, which granted them an unusual degree of leverage to negotiate their status. The machine may have been mighty, but like other complicated systems with many moving parts, it was also delicate. The story of the pilots is, in large part, the story of how seemingly minor participants in the Atlantic economy could wield tremendous influence over the conditions and circumstances of their participation in that economy.2


Throughout the eighteenth century Philadelphia's inland location made it an anomalous port for the American colonies. It was in many ways surprising that the city flourished at all. The difficulty of Delaware River navigation had long been recognized, even before William Penn selected the site for his provincial capital. Henry Hudson was unable to take the Halve Maen any significant distance upriver, and though Penn publicly promoted Philadelphia as well situated for trade, he privately lamented that "little about" the river was "suited for trade and navigation. It is long . . . tortuous . . . full of shallows: and its fresh water freezes quickly." The bay was "absolutely unsheltered from . …

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