In December 1637, Peter Minuit’s party boarded the pinnaces Fogel Grip and Kalmar Nyckel in Goethenburg, Sweden, and in 1638 sailed up the Delaware Bay and landed in the New World. There, they established the colony of New Sweden. When Minuit departed in 1639, he left behind a colony commissioner and a small company of soldiers—and his slave, Antonius.
New Sweden gave way to New Netherland in 1655, and the slave trade followed. The Third Anglo-Dutch War ended Dutch colonization of North America in 1674 and cemented an English presence in the Delaware Valley. In 1681, the Quaker William Penn was granted a proprietorship to land on the western side of the Delaware and, with it, the City of Philadelphia and the Province of Pennsylvania were born.
By the late 18th century, Philadelphia would come to embody the tension between the ideals espoused by America’s Founding Fathers and harsh reality faced by those enslaved within its borders; indeed, Philadelphia was both the cradle of liberty for the American Revolution and the region’s largest port for the importation of slaves. Nowhere is this tension captured more starkly than at the Independence Seaport Museum.
Located in Penn’s Landing near the sites of Tun Tavern, the traditional birthplace of the Marine Corps, and the London Coffee House, where enslaved Africans were inspected for sale, the museum’s “Patriots and Pirates” and “Tides of Freedom” exhibits highlight Philadelphia’s role in the founding of the U.S. Navy and the maritime trade and the concept of freedom through the lens of the African experience along the Delaware.
“Tides of Freedom” presents a chronological view of black life in the Philadelphia tidewater region. One steps into the horrors of the middle passage through to the antebellum days while learning both the stories of accomplished freemen and tales of the Underground Railroad through interactives, artifacts, and text. Continuing with life in the Civil War and into the Jim Crow era, naval history enthusiasts can learn about the segregated Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company’s Yard No. 4 in the nearby city of Chester during World War II. The shipyard built both Army transports and naval hospital ships during the war and, later, both the secretive USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer (T-AG-193)—which also has a historical marker outside the museum—and the ill-fated SS El Faro, sunk at sea by Hurricane Joaquin in 2015. The exhibit concludes with the labor and social struggles from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights movement and into the 1980s.
Age-of-Sail historians will be interested in the “Patriots and Pirates” exhibit, which showcases Philadelphia’s role in building America’s sailing navy in the 1790s and early 1800s, including the first of America’s original six frigates, the United States. Here, visitors can see a half-hull carved by the frigates’ designer, Joshua Humphreys, fascinating artifacts relating to the early Navy and the Barbary Wars, and even shipwrights’ tools found now-vanished shipyards during the construction of Interstate 95.
Elsewhere in the museum, visitors can view artifacts from New York Shipbuilding, once located across the river in Camden, New Jersey, and from William Cramp & Sons in Port Richmond, which helped build the new steel Navy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and can step into an interactive exhibit with components salvaged from the USS Lawrence (DDG-4). Naval art lovers will enjoy the wide array of paintings and decorative art available on the second floor, which includes views from America’s foremost maritime painters. Visitors also can tour the museum’s visible storage for its collection of vernacular Delaware River watercraft.
No visit to the Independence Seaport Museum would be complete without touring the protected cruiser USS Olympia (IX-40), included with the price of admission (and featured in a previous Museum Report), and the nearby Balao-class submarine USS Becuna (AGSS-319), moored alongside. History enthusiasts can even book a dinner reservation on board the four-masted steel barque Moshulu, which is permanently moored nearby and serving as a floating restaurant. Just across the river sits another naval attraction: The Battleship New Jersey Museum & Memorial.
Those interested in both regional and national naval history should not pass up the opportunity to visit the museum and other maritime treasures during their visit to the City of Brotherly Love.