Delaware River Islands in Pennsylvania

How did Delaware River Islands in Pennsylvania get it’s name? This page provides a brief history about Delaware River Islands in Pennsylvania, the people who settled on them, and the industry rising around them.

The jurisdictional status of islands in the river Delaware lying between New Jersey and Pennsylvania was established by a commission appointed by the Legislatures of the two States for the purpose of “settling the jurisdiction of the river Delaware, and the islands within the same.” The commissioners for New Jersey were Abraham Clark, Joseph Cooper and Thomas Henderson; for Pennsylvania, George Bryan, George Gray and William Bingen. The report of the commissioners, adopted and signed April 28, 1783, first “declared the river Delaware, from Station Point or northwest corner of New Jersey northerly to the place upon said river where the circular boundary of the State of Delaware toucheth upon the same, in whole length and breadth thereof, is and shall continue to be and remain a common highway.” As to the islands the report says:

“That all islands, islets, and dry lands, within the bed and between the shores of the said river, and between the said Station Point northerly and the falls of Trenton southerly, shall as to jurisdiction be hereafter deemed and considered as parts and parcels of the State to which such insulated dry land doth lie nearest at the time of making and executing this agreement; and that from said falls of Trenton to the State of Delaware southerly, Biles’ Island near Trenton, Windmill Island opposite Philadelphia, League Island, Mud or Fort Island, Hog Island and Little Tinicum Island shall he annexed to the State of Pennsylvania and considered as parts and parcels thereof; and that Biddle’s or Newbold’s Island, Burlington Island, Petty’s Island, Red Bank Island, Hermanus Helm’s Island, Chester Island and Shiever’s Island, shall be annexed to the State of New Jersey and considered parts and parcels thereof; and that all other islands within the said river between the falls of Trenton and the State of Delaware, which are not herein before particularly enumerated, shall be hereafter deemed and considered as parts and parcels of the State which such island cloth lie nearest.”

The agreement finally provides that, after it is ratified by the Legislatures of both States, “said agreement shall then be considered as a joint compact between the said States and citizens thereof respectively, and be forever thereafter irrevocable by either of the said contracting States without the concurrence of the other.” The Legislature of New Jersey ratified the Commissioners’ report May 27, 1783, and the Legislature of Pennsylvania September 20, 1783. The Commissioners’ report, it will be observed, names Biles as the only island opposite the Bucks County shore below the Falls as belonging to Pennsylvania, but under the “nearest shore” clause, this State has jurisdiction over several other small islands. The list of such islands would therefore be:

Bickley Island

Robert S. Bickley was granted a patent for Bickley Island January 10, 1810. It is a part of Bensalem Township, lying opposite White Sheet Bay near the Pennsylvania shore, and is supposed to contain six acres. [1]Pa. Arch., Third Ser., III, p. 478.

Biles Island

Biles Island, a part of Falls Township, is formed by Biles Creek and the Delaware River, and contains about 300 acres of land. Its first known name, Menahanonck, appears on the Lindestrom map. This is a Lenape Indian name, freely translated meaning “the island formed by a creek.” Later it was known as Orecton Island and is so named in the William Penn deed of July 15, 1682. Orecton, it is claimed, is a corruption of the name of the Indian chief, Okhuckwoan, but positive proof is lacking. This name was dropped after 1680, the year in which William Biles, a trader and one of the first English settlers of Falls, bought the Island from the Indians, and thereafter it was known as Biles Island. The deed for this purchase was lost or not put on record. In 1727 Chief Orecton, Chief Lapowinso and other chiefs confirmed the purchase in a deed to William Biles, Jr. The authority for this statement is the late Colonel Henry D. Paxson, in whose collection of manuscripts relating to Bucks County was a copy (if not the original) of this deed. The plantations of William and Henry Biles were laid out on the mainland near Biles Island. Before Penn came to Pennsylvania, they obtained their grants from Sir Edmund Andros, Governor of New York. The first Friends’ Meeting in Bucks County was held at William Biles’ house.

Jacks Island

As to Jacks Island Hazard’s Register [2]Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania, Vol. VII, No. 2, Jan. 8, 1831, p. 29. says: “In the Delaware a quarter of a mile above the mouth of Poquessing is a small island, containing about an acre of ground elevated six or eight feet above high water, and detached from the mainland by flats, which are sometimes bare at low water. It is called Jacks Island and has small pine trees and shrubs growing upon it. It is principally remarkable for the numerous attempts which have been made on it in search of money, supposed to have been secreted there in old times by Captain Blackbeard. Even recently much labour has been bestowed in burrowing after the desirable hoard of cash.”

Mint Island

Mint Island is a small island near the Pennsylvania shore at the mouth of Welcome or Scotts Creek, a short distance below Pennsbury. Its Indian name on Lindestrom’s map, 1654-1656, is Pessenewinning, the meaning of which is uncertain. [3]Dr. Amandus Johnson in Geographia Americae, pp. 571, 372. In the text of Dr. Johnson’s translation of Geographia Americae (p. 164) Lindestrom speaks of Pessenewinningh Island, and Dr. Johnson … Continue reading

Moon Island

Moon Island, just below Morrisville and a part of Falls Township, like Biles Island, is a cut off from the mainland by Biles Creek. It contains 130 acres. The Indian name, as marked on Lindestrom’s map, was Kentkateck, interpreted as “at the place of the dance,” no doubt so named because Indians resorted there for their dances. This name was not retained. Members of the Moon family were for generations owners or part owners of the island, and naturally it took the family name.

Willow Island

A description of this island was not provided in Place Names in Bucks County.

No definite designation of jurisdiction for the islands above the Falls of Delaware having been made in the report of the commissioners, it became necessary to appoint another commission and enact additional legislation. This was done. George Wall, John Okely and Jonas Hartzel were appointed commissioners on the part of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey had but one, Moore Furman. The commissioners caused an actual survey of the river to be made by Reading Howell, of New Jersey. The work was done upon the principle adopted by the first commission that each State should have jurisdiction over islands nearest its shore. The report of the commissioners was adopted and signed in 1786, and was ratified by the Legislature of New Jersey on March 26 of that year and by the Pennsylvania Legislature September 25, same year. The Pennsylvania Act provides for extension of the boundary lines between Northampton, Bucks, Philadelphia and Chester across the river, directing that the respective commissioners of the counties ascertain the lines and fix them with lasting marks on the river shore. Disputes as to what townships islands belong to must be settled by the Quarter Sessions Court. At the time this report was adopted and ratified there were but two organized counties opposite New Jersey above the Falls, Bucks and Northampton. The islands along the Bucks County shore designated as within the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania were:

  • Opposite Falls Township, Bird’s Island.
  • Opposite Lower Makefield Township, Slack’s three islands, Dun’s Island, and Harvey’s lower island.
  • Opposite Upper Makefield Township, Harvey’s upper island, and Lownes’ Island.
  • Opposite Solebury Township, Smith’s Island and bar, and Paxson’s Island and bar.
  • Opposite Tinicum Township, Prall’s two islands, Walls’ Island, Resolution Island, Marshall’s Island, Wall’s two islands, Fishing Island, and Pennington’s Island.
  • Opposite Nockamixon Township, Laughrey’s Island.

These were the names of Bucks County’s islands above the Falls when the commission reported 155 years ago. Before and since that time the names of a number have been changed several times, and it is difficult to know sometimes what islands are meant by certain names. Names changed with the change of individual ownership. Even today there seems to be little name stability, especially for the smaller and unimportant islands, some of which are colloquially called by several names. Laughrey’s Island, opposite the Narrows, named for James Laughrey an early landowner in Durham Township, is now Wykers Island. On the Kennedy “Map of Bucks County,” 1817, it is marked Laughreys. Paxson’s has since been known as Hendricks and probably by other names. Pennington Island, below Uhlertown, was later Gilbert’s and still later Fabian’s. Another name was Yerkes Island. On the Kennedy Map of 1817 it is called Benningtons Island. In Noll’s Atlas of Bucks County (1891) it is marked Wykers Island. It contains 36 acres. It was once owned by James Rymond, who leased it to several people for 50 years as a shad fishery, the lease providing that the “said party of the first part, his heirs, executors, administrators or assigns, shall have the thirteenth shad or fish caught on said farm or island at the close of each and every day’s fishing.” There was a great deal of confusion in names over the Marshall group of islands, opposite Tinicum Township. In this group the present Treasure Island was formerly Ridge’s Island (so marked as early as 1832 on the Kennedy survey of the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal). Concerning Treasure Island the following interesting information has been supplied by Thomas G. Cairns, a member of the executive staff of the Philadelphia Council, Boy Scouts of America: “Treasure Island, that part of Marshall’s Island (as indicated on some topographical maps) which is occupied by Philadelphia Council, Boy Scouts of America, is a part of the State of New Jersey. The United States topographical maps indicate Marshall’s Island as covering several islands, when as a matter of fact the largest one is Ridge’s Island and has been known as such since 1806. In 1913 the Philadelphia Council came into possession of Ridge’s Island and renamed it Treasure Island. Some five years ago this whole question (the State ownership of this island) was reviewed by the secretaries of the States of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the United States Topographical Service, the Mapping Service of the Post Office and the Post Office Service itself. There was found in the files of the secretary of the State of New Jersey a map made in 1754 (?) for the commissioners of the Delaware River who were commissioned to clarify the ownership and State boundary of islands in the Delaware River. This map indicated clearly that the island occupied by ourselves is in New Jersey and was an original grant from the proprietors of West Jersey to the owners immediately preceding the Ridge family.” From Howard Scarborough, 263 Rochelle Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa., the following additional information was received in a letter dated March 25, 1940: “Treasure Island contains approximately 60 acres and belongs to Philadelphia Council, Boy Scouts of America, the money for the purchase of the island having been a volunteer gift of Mr. Edward Bok. The post office address of this island is Treasure Island, N. J.”

Marshall Island opposite Erwinna, Tinicum Township, has probably had but two names. The first was Tinicum Island, from the Indian word Tennakonk, meaning “along the edge of the island.” The name was no doubt given first to a camp along the shore opposite the island, and later to the island itself. It has been best and longest known as Marshall Island, from the famous family of that name who owned it for about too years. William Marshall, probably the first owner, died in 1757 and willed it to his brother Edward, the “Walker” of the Indian Purchase of 1737. Following the “Walking Purchase,” Edward had moved, about 1752, from Bucks County to Mt. Bethel Township, Northampton County, and in 1755 was forced by attempts on his life by Indians to remove to New Jersey. There, after his family was broken up by a surprise attack by Indians, he learned of his brother’s death and of the bequest of the island to him. He decided to return to his old home in Bucks County. Thereafter he owned it for about 30 years. For some unexplained reason William Marshall and Martin Marshall [4]Pa. Arch., Third Ser., III, P. 475. applied December 17, 1808, for a patent for the island. The notation is as follows: “William Marshall and Martin Marshall, warr’t issued 18th Dec’r, 1.810. Patented Jan’y 17th, t811. 116 acres 6g perches. Apply for an Island in the river Delaware called ‘Marshall’s Island,’ situate in Tinicum Township, Bucks County, supposed to contain 75 acres.” This action was taken under a report on unappropriated islands surveyed by James Scull, Deputy Surveyor. The claim made by local historians that Edward Marshall lived on the island appears now to be an error. Mrs. Sarah Ridge, a direct descendant of Edward Marshall, always said that the Walker did not live on Marshall. Island, but made his home in the stone house in which she lived, located between the Delaware Division Canal and the river. This was the homestead of the Marshall family. Mrs. Lewis Sigafoos, of Doylestown, who in her girlhood days was a neighbor of the Ridges and visited them frequently, says that she often listened to the aged Mrs. Ridge talk about Edward and heard her tell the following story: “Some men came one day to ask me about Edward Marshall. They said they were writing something in a history book about him. We talked awhile, and then one of the men said, ‘Edward lived on the Island when he came back from New Jersey.’ I told them Edward never lived on the Island, but they said he surely did live there and I must be mistaken. I thought, ‘Well, if you believe that, you may have it that way,’ and did not say anything more about it. But I know Edward never lived on the Island. There was no house on it in his time. He owned it and did some farming on it, but he lived right here in this house. He had boats and used them to ferry across to the Island whenever he wanted to go there.” The house, of which Mrs. Ridge speaks, is still standing, but very much changed by the addition of two annexes, one built about thirty years ago. It was in this house that the Ridge family preserved the rifle carried by Marshall on his “Walk” and used in his many encounters with the Indians. The rifle is now in the museum of The Bucks County Historical Society, presented by Marshall Ridge.

Bird Island was first called Wood Island, from John Wood, its first owner, an Englishman, who bought practically the whole site of Morrisville in 1679. The John Wood tract and island are figured on the Holme Map (1681-84). The following interesting reference to this purchase is found in the Pennsylvania Archives: [5]Pa. Arch., Sec. Ser., XIX, p. 309, Minute Book “G,” Board of Property. (9 mo. 8, 1703) S’r Edm’d Andros, Gov’r of N. York, 1679, granted John Wood a Certain Tract of Land near Dellaware Falls, which, after the Propr’s arrival, being Resurvey’d by his Warr’t dated 9th 3mo., 1684, was found to Contain 478 A’s, and for that quantity confirmed together with an Island in the River adjoyning called Wood’s Island (whether included in the s’d Number of Acres is uncertain) by the Propr’s Patent dated 31st 5 mo., 1684, to the said John Wood, whose only son and Heir, Joseph Wood, being now possessed thereof, requests a Resurvey on the Same, Ordered that a Warr’t be accordingly granted and a Patent on the return, he paying for the Over-plus if any, &c.” On Kennedy’s canal survey (1832) the island is named “Bird’s or Morrisville Island.”

Source: MacReynolds, George. Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania, 2nd Edition. Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1955.

Footnotes:

Pa. Arch., Third Ser., III, p. 478.
Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania, Vol. VII, No. 2, Jan. 8, 1831, p. 29.
Dr. Amandus Johnson in Geographia Americae, pp. 571, 372. In the text of Dr. Johnson’s translation of Geographia Americae (p. 164) Lindestrom speaks of Pessenewinningh Island, and Dr. Johnson in a footnote (same page) says, “Pessenewinning, not given on the map. Perhaps what is now Mint Island at the mouth of Scotts (Welcome) Creek.” However, the name Pessenewinningh does appear on the Lindestrom map, but a point on the Pennsylvania side of the river far below Kihimenskyl (Neshaminy Creek), so it is very doubtful that he means the name to apply to Mint Island.
Pa. Arch., Third Ser., III, P. 475.
Pa. Arch., Sec. Ser., XIX, p. 309, Minute Book “G,” Board of Property.

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