Traces of the Colonial Riverfront

Bird’s Eye View of Philadelphia from Camden, N.J. 1702

The halftone reproduction, Bird’s Eye View of Philadelphia from Camden, N.J. 1702[1], showcases the development of William Penn’s Philadelphia east to west from the Delaware Riverfront following the grid layout. Although it is not known who created this map, it provides prospective on the rapidly developing city of colonial Philadelphia. There are many familiar features such as Walnut, Chestnut, Market and Arch Streets, which still remain today. However, there are other features which remain mysterious. What was life like around Dock Creek and Duck Pond, in Caves, or the Indian Camp? Perhaps Penn’s “holy experiment” of a utopian city may have been challenged by life focused on the river. In Penn’s absence, how did the river influence how the city developed? How accurate is this mapping truly and what traces and challenges found in the stories of this cryptic map of Philadelphia exist today?

Indian Camp

When William Penn arrived on the Delaware riverfront on October 29, 1682, he was not the first. The Swedes, the Dutch, and Native Americans such as the Lenni Lenape Indians already inhabited much of the land along the Delaware River. While there is no record of William Penn’s “Great Treaty” with Tamanend and other Delaware chiefs at the elm tree at Shakamaxon, it is documented romantically with paintings such as Benjamin West’s. The Penn Treaty Museum documents William Penn’s address to the assembled Native Americans:[2]

“We meet on the broad pathway of good faith and good-will; no advantage shall be taken on either side, but all shall be openness and love. We are the same as if one man’s body was to be divided into two parts; we are of one flesh and one blood.”
The reply of Tamanend, is equally noble:
“We will live in love with William Penn and his children as long as the creeks and rivers run, and while the sun, moon, and stars endure.”
“Treaty of Penn with Indians” by Benjamin West 1771

The Treaty may have been officiated with the Penn’s purchase of land from Tamanend and his associates. Francois-Marie Aroutet (1694–1778), better known as Voltaire, gave credence to the “Peace Treaty” by his often quoted passage from his published 1764 work Dictionnaire philosophique:

“C’est le seul traite entre ces peoples et les Chretiens qui n’ ait point ete jure et qui n’ait point ete rompu. [Dict. phil., 7, 17–18]”
“He began by making a league with the American Indians which were his neighbors. This is the only treaty between those persons and the Christians which has not been sworn to, and which has not been broken.” [2]

So did the Natives live and interact with the early settlers? What is the mysterious Indian Camp labeled on the map? Was this part of Penn’s “Holy Experiment” to maintain a “peaceable kingdom?” Stephen Conn notes that unlike other early American colonies, Penn’s city had no fortification, aiming to “build a city that is both livable and prosperous and that can be shared peacefully by people with varieties of cultural, religious, and ethnic experiences.”[3]

There is record of two “reservations” or camps located on Penn’s grid to accommodate Native Americans whenever they visited the city. One was located at Broad and Walnut streets, named “Marble Court”. Historian Harry Kyriakodis discusses the other, “Wampum Lot”, existing in Old City behind where Bookbinders came to be:

The Indian campsite was granted to a group of Native Americans in 1755 by John Penn (1729–1795), grandson of William Penn.The legend of this grant sometimes mistakenly identifies William Penn as the grantor of the property being discussed. This may be because the founder of Philadelphia resided in a nearby house during his second stay in America, 1699 to 1701. That house was the famous Slate Roof House, an early colonial mansion located on the east side of Second Street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. Despite his prominent position, John Penn did not live in the Slate Roof House in 1755, as it was too expensive for him to maintain! He reportedly lived in a small house near the corner of Second and Walnut Streets, across from the City Tavern. To cement the grant and their friendship, John Penn ceremoniously gave the Native American representatives a belt with a string of wampum attached.He did this in appreciation of their friendliness and support for the British crown during the French and Indian War. The lead Indian envoy who received the belt was a Mohawk chief named King Hendrick Theyanoguin (1692–1755). It is unknown if Hendrick gave John Penn anything in return as a token exchange.[4]

The Wampum Lot challenges the location of the Indian Camp on the 1702 mapping where it appears south of Dock Creek. While the Camp is in the correct neighborhood, was this a map-makers interpretation or was there another camp at that location?

Perhaps for a period of time Penn’s vision for a “Peaceable Kingdom” played out with the Indians. Yet their relationship with the new settlers was not parallel. John Watson writes about Indian visits to the city:

From a very early period it was the practice of Indian companies occasionally to visit the city — not for any public business, but merely to buy and sell, and look on. On such occasions they usually found their shelter, for the two or three weeks which they remained, about the State-house yard. [There was a shed constructed for them along the western wall; under it was sheltered for some time, as old Thomas Bradford has told me, old King Hendricks and a party of his warriors, just before they went to join Sir William Johnson at Lake George.] There they would make up baskets, and sell them to visitors, from the ash strips which they brought with them. Before the revolution such visits were frequent, and after that time they much diminished, so that now they are deemed a rarity…Old people have told me that the visits of Indians were so frequent as to excite but little surprise; their squaws and children generally accompanied them. On such occasions they went abroad much in the streets, and would any where stop to shoot at marks, of small coin, set on the tops of posts. They took what they could so hit with their arrows. [5]

The Caves

The 1680s caves as imagined by an unknown painter. The Library Company of Philadelphia

Many of the earliest urbanites, arrived before homes were built for them. These pioneering Quakers braved the weather in man-made caves dug into the banks of the Delaware River. Some of them were temporary shelters formerly used by the Lenape in winter months. The land on the Delaware Riverfront was most valuable and these settlers hoped that their grottos might secure them land from the Pennsylvania Proprietary. John Watson best describes them in the Annals of Philadelphia,

Most Philadelphians have had some vague conceptions of the caves and cabins in which the primitive settlers made their temporary residence. The caves were generally formed by digging into the ground, near the verge of the river-front bank, about three feet in depth thus making half their chamber under ground; and the remaining half above ground was formed of sods of earth, or earth and brush combined. The roofs were formed of layers of limbs, or split pieces of trees, over-laid with sod or bark, river rushes, &c. The chimneys were of stones and river pebbles, mortared together with clay and grass, or river reeds.[6]

Daniel Francis Pastorius, devout Quaker, abolitionist and founder of the Germantown Settlement, was among the cave dwellers on his arrival to Philadelphia in 1863. The river was a trade center and when 150 enslaved Africans arrived in 1684 for trade, Pastorius saw hypocrisy as Quakers held slaves over freedom. It was in the caves that Pastorius drafted some of the first abolitionist papers.[7]

Another notable Quaker, Alice Guest, founder of the reputable tavern the “Crooked Billet”, founded her trade in a riverside Cave. Alice Guest arrived in Philadelphia in 1683 with her husband George Guest, with plans for Brick-working on the riverfront. Soon after, her husband died leaving her with nothing. It was then when she began keeping a tavern in her waterfront cave. She was a true entrepreneur. Historian Peter Thompson writes, “In 1686 she put up a bond of 20 pounds as security against good behavior on her premises. Within five years of receiving the patent, Guest had built a conventional structure on her lot that housed a tavern she named the Crooked Billet. In 1693, Alice Guest’s estate was assessed at 250 pounds. By the time of her death in 1705, she had wharfed out her riverfront holding, equipped it with warehouses, an additional dwelling, and access via Crooked Billet Alley. She had also acquired a house on the west side of Front Street. Perhaps because she was a devout Quaker, guest appears to have kept house in full compliance with the law.”[8]

But not all cave dwellers were devout Quakers. Did this lifestyle threaten Penn’s “Holy Experiment”? Many settlers had little interest in Quakerism. Watson recounts:

In 1685, the Grand Jury present Joseph Knight, for suffering drunkenness and evil orders in his cave; and several drinking houses to debauch persons are also presented. They also present all the empty caves that do stand in the Front Street, “which is to be sixty feet wide”, wherefore, the court orders that they forthwith “be pulled down” by the constables, and “demolished” [terms intimating they were in part above ground] and upon request of John Barnes and Patrick Robinson, [the Clerk of Council] who asked one month to pull down their respective caves, it was granted, on condition that they fill up the hole in the street. On another occasion, they are called Caves, or “Cabins” on the king’s highway.[9]

Many caves became sites of unlicensed taverns and illicit activities. Alice Guest was exempt from this court order to tear down or fill in grottos as she had permitted her land. Ultimately, caves were emptied. Historian Harry Kyriakodis comments, “Some were filled in, while others became part of the basements of houses and stores that were built between Front and Water Streets, right on top of the caves. Yet others were converted into arched vaults under the east pavement of Front Street and then connected to newly dug basements.”[10]

Duck Pond

Watson remarks, “It will hardly be credited that there should have been once a great pond, filled with spatterdocks, and affording a place of visitation to wild ducks, situate along High street, westward of Fourth street, and forming the proper head of Dock creek. The poetic description of High street, in 1729, describes it then as a “plashy” place — equivalent to a water lot or puddle, to wit:

“Along their doors the clean hard paving trends
Till at a “plashy” crossing street it ends,
And thence a short arm’s throw renewed tends;
Beyond, — the street is thinly wall’d, but fair,
With gardens paled, and orchards here and there.” [11]

In the history of Philadelphia’s watershed, many streams and creeks connected the Schuylkill River to the Delaware River. The Philadelphia Times paid tribute to it’s hidden streams that have since been turned into sewers and paved over. The 1889 article poetically explains,

Under the streets and houses of this city courses many a stream which once sparkled and babbled along through the forest years before the white man had placed foot on the soil of the new world. The limpid waters once visited by the deer and panther have lost their sweetness and their beds have changed from the mossy banks in the woodland to the slimy walls of the sewer.
Dock Creek was originally surrounded by marshes and the neighborhood was known as “The Swamp.” The main creek ran northwest under the present Dock Street to Chestnut, near Fourth street, thence almost direct north to High, where it culminated in a pond on the northwest comer of Fourth and High streets. This pond was deep and uninviting.[12]

What is left is the memory of Duck pond in the watershed. There is very little information other than the stories and myths passed down from the generations of the nature of the pond. Watson explains how duck pond disappeared,

In the year 1750 the Grand Jury presented the gutter of the northwest corner of Fourth and High streets, as rendered dangerous for want of a grate at the common sewer — the passage being large enough for the body of a grown person to fall in, and that Fourth street, from Market street to the south-west corner of Friends’ burying ground, wants regulating, and is now impassable for carriages.[13]

Dock Creek

As portrayed in the 1702 map, two boats are entering Dock Creek. Although Penn’s grid layout of Philadelphia spans 1,200 acres west to the Schuylkill River, at the time, the plots of land along the Delaware River including Penn’s Landing were most valuable. Maritime trade was the anchor for the growing economy and carpenters, merchants, shipbuilders and fisherman thrived on the riverfront. The Blue Anchor Inn stands to the right of the bridge near the mouth of the creek. Built in 1682 by George Guest, the Blue Anchor was the earliest inn and tavern in Philadelphia. It was there where William Penn first landed at Dock Creek’s primitive wharf and broke bread. Thomas Allen Glen reported about the Blue Anchor Inn,

“The favorite landing-place was on the bank of the Delaware, between the present Walnut and Dock Streets, and it was directly back of this landing, on the higher bluff, that the Blue Anchor Tavern was subsequently built. There were other stopping-places along the north Delaware serving a similar purpose, and at these landings or trading-posts it was the custom to establish ordinaries. In the year 1671 it was proposed by Captain Carr, on behalf of the townspeople of New Castle, and Plantations on Delaware, to the Governor and Council, “ That ye number of Victuall™ or Tappers of Strong Drink be ascertained, That is to say, Three only for ye Towne & some few up ye River, who ye Offic™ shall think fitt & approve.” Of the “ some few up ye River,” the Blue Anchor Tavern became one.”[14]

And by 1693, there were already twenty taverns (some illegal) along the waterway. “Man Full of Trouble tavern”, built in 1759 off Dock Creek, near the Blue Anchor Inn still stands today at 127 Spruce Street although its adjoining structures have been torn down.

“Man Full of Trouble Tavern” 1835 Sketch by W.L. Breton

Property by the water was most valuable and taverns were the place for meeting, business, and hospitality. In time, Penn’s grid was slowly broken as valuable lots became subdivided.

Past to Present

Having witnessed the Great Plague and London fire, William Penn arrived with a vision of a “Greene Country Town”, envisioned with the grid with large lots free of dark alleyways. Yet, even from it’s birth Penn saw a breaking of the grid. As Watson puts it,

The history of the “bank lots” on the river-front is a topic in which all, who can feel an interest in the comfort, beauty, or fame of our city, must have a concern. It was the original design of Penn to have beautified our city, by a most graceful and agreeable promenade on the high bank of the river-front, the whole length of the city. Thus intending Front Street to have had an uninterrupted view of the Delaware and river scenery, after the manner of the celebrated Bomb Quai at Rotterdam.[15]

Restoring the riverfront was brought up even by the founder, William Penn just a few years after his arrival. Just two years after his arrival in Philadelphia, Lord Baltimore of Maryland attempted to claim ownership of Penn’s land. In order to defend his right to land, Penn returns to England for an extended period of time to fight for his ownership. When he returned in 1699, Penn sees how life on the riverfront has changed.[16]

Watson writes,

How mortified and vexed must Penn have felt on his second arrival in 1699, to witness the growing deformity of his city, and to see how far individual interest had swerved his agents from the general good! Logan's letter of 1741, to Penn's son, in explanation of the preceding facts, shows how sensibly Penn regretted the measures so taken, even while his circumstances prevented his reversing and canceling the things already done; as if he had said: "Mine necessity, not my will, hath done this.
In my youth, I saw the only remaining original shore of the city unwharfed; it was called Taylor's Dock; above Vine Street there was a place of considerable width. At the Dock Bridge too, north side, was a similar dock, used for like purposes. At both places shallops brought loads of stone and street pebbles, which they unloaded into the carts, as the carts backed into the water along side of the vessels.[17]

This longing for an open waterfront applies still today. Although the riverfront has been substantially disconnected from the city due to I-95, in many ways Penn’s vision for open green space has returned to the Delaware waterfront.

Another longing also remains for Penn’s “Great Experiment.” As the city continues to grow and develop, it should not forget its social and racial struggles of the past. Instead, it should be harnessed for greater change.

[1] “ Bird’s Eye View of Philadelphia from Camden, N.J. 1702”. Castnor Scrapbook Collection. Free Library of Philadelphia.


[3] Conn, Stephen. Metropolitan Philadelphia, Living with the Presence of the Past. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

[4] Kyriakodis, Harry. The Wampum Lot: A Legendary Indian Campground in Old City Philadelphia. 2011.

[5] Watson, John. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Vol II. Ch3. 1857.

[6] Watson, John. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Ch 15–18. 1857.

[7] Gold, William. “Francis Daniel Pastorius Homestead — Building a Haven for Religious Freedom in Germantown”. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[8] Thompson, Peter. Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1999.

[9] Watson, John. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Ch. 15–18. 1857.

[10] Kyriakodis, Harry. Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront. History Press, 2011.

[11] Watson, John. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Ch.70. 1857

[12] “Our Hidden Streams. Forgotten Watercourses beneath the City of Philadelphia”. Philadelphia Times Aug 11,1889. Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Vol. 12, p. 33–36).

[13] Watson, John. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Ch.70. 1857

[14] Glenn, Thomas Allen. The Blue Anchor Inn. Being a report made to the colonial society of Pennsylvania ,November 9, 1869. Philadelphia 1897.

[15]Watson, John. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.Ch34–39. 1857.

[16] “In Penn’s Shadow 1680–1720”!archives/jbnpr

[17]Watson, John. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. 1857.