June 26, 2013 —
For years now, I’ve driven past it, making a mental note to stop by “sometime” and check it out—the Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History. I have a keen interest in the rich historical significance of the early settlers’ lives here in the Upper Delaware River Valley, but until a few weeks ago, hadn’t pulled into the lot. Unwilling to let another summer go by without paying a visit, I made my way to Narrowsburg, NY and toured the Fort, chatted with museum director Debra Conway and left impressed that this historical gem is glittering so close to home, welcoming visitors with an entertaining and educational glimpse of the past.
Before my trip, a quick glance online revealed that “Fort Delaware is an authentic depiction of the life of the Delaware Company pioneers who settled in the Upper Delaware Valley in 1754. A tour of the facilities includes demonstrations of early settlers’ lifestyles and craft-making. A gift shop, vending area and picnicking facilities are located on the grounds. Each spring, the Fort is host to over 1,000 students who participate in the Student Days program.” (www.co.sullivan.ny.us ). While this was a decent overview, Conway was most helpful in filling in some of the blanks. “There is a misconception that the original settlement was actually built on this site,” she said, “but in reality, this replica was built by James W. Burbank in 1957 as a roadside attraction, during the sightseeing boom of the ‘50s.”
Faithful in all details, the complex that we see now recreates what was once part of the “Cushetunk Settlement” where early settlers befriended members of the native Lenape Tribe and secured a deed to some of the land in 1754. With no written language, the native word ‘Cushetunk” was at some point interpreted as “Cochecton,” which lingers to this day. “In reality, there was no such thing as ‘Fort Delaware,’” Conway said, “but the Cushetunk settlement served as a site where 28 families within a 30-mile radius could take refuge if they felt threatened during the height of the French and Indian War. Lots of visitors think that the ‘Lower Fort’ saw action during the conflict, but Burbank actually came up with the name on his own, in his attempt to create the tourist attraction.”
Although the complex was never really a military installation, the threats of everyday life in the wilderness and the inherent danger that came with the territory were very real, and the stockade served a purpose. “Although friendly relations with the Lenape were in place,” Conway continued, “there were unknowns when other tribes were encountered, and if settlers were unnerved, the women and children would hole up in the original Lower Fort, and signals would alert the others, but it appears that the only real threat occurred there in 1763. It’s a great story that visitors can hear in detail when they come to visit.”
Not far away, the very real Battle of Minisink is re-created each year and throughout the season the Fort Delaware Museum hosts lecturers and scholars who stop in to share the “very colorful, very rich” history that the region was home to. “The sacrifices that these people endured were no less real than those who encountered battles during better known scenes of war,” Conway continued, “and the tableaus of everyday life recreated here are faithful depictions.”
I strolled the grounds with a guide, who was well versed, and his anecdotal references were interesting, informative and vividly illustrated the settler’s life. Around every corner, re-enactors could be found in period dress, making history come alive, and I learned a great deal about colonial life during my stay. “We get a lot of visitors en route to another destination,” Conway reported, “and the Fort provides a picture of what was going on in America during this period in history. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 90% of traveling Americans make it a point to explore places of historical significance, and it is our goal to provide those visitors with a great experience. I love observing the kids who are being exposed to a radically different way of life. As they put down the iPads and cell phones, they are transported to another era and seem to walk away with renewed appreciation for what they have, and what their predecessors did not.”
The Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History is a great place to share with relatives and friends. Whether you have an hour to spare or an entire afternoon, you’ll find the place interactive and educational. My visit there was one worth repeating and is a great destination for the whole family, located along the Scenic Byway at 6615 State Route 97, Narrowsburg, NY. For more information call 845/252-6660 or visit their page at www.Facebook.com/Fort-Delaware-Museum-Of-Colonial-History .