Historical Society of Mooresown

The King’s Highway by Jason Sherman at The Historical Society of Moorestown

The latest installment of the Historical Society of Moorestown’s History Speaks lecture series included a format change. In lieu of a lecturer, this one featured a film. The Society both educated and entertained audience members with its screening of The King’s Highway; a documentary film written, directed and narrated by Jason Sherman.

Mr. Sherman’s website describes him as an entrepreneur, a film maker, an author and journalist. In spite of this busy schedule, Mr. Sherman visited the Historical Society of Moorestown on January 8th.  After the audience watched his documentary regarding one of “the most important roads in American History,” he participated in a talk back.

1650 King Charles planned development of a road that extended from Boston to Charleston. The actual King’s Highway proved an ambitious endeavor. So did the film documenting its history. Mr. Sherman explained that he performed 90 per cent of the work himself. He self-funded the project through its first six months.

The documentary included beautiful panoramic views of the Delaware Valley. The film maker added interviews with local historians and political leaders. They provided insights and valuable information for local history buffs.

The King’s Highway included three themes. The history of the area the road traversed took the forefront. People have resided in the Philadelphia area for over six thousand years. The film described the cultures of indigenous people who served as its first inhabitants. The film also showed how European settlers lived. Both groups shared a common interest in the King’s Highway.

The film then showed how Northeast Philadelphia played as crucial a role to the development of the American republic as events in Center City Philadelphia did. The community’s inns and taverns entertained a host of important figures from American history. They included George Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The documentary reported an anecdote about the “Frankfort Advice.” John Adams claimed that these ideas discussed at Frankfort’s Jolly Post Inn were later included in the Declaration of Independence.

The final third of The King’s Highway explored the issue of building preservation. When Mr. Sherman made the film in 2016, Philadelphia allocated $500,000 to address this issue. Only two per cent of the city’s historic buildings were designated for preservation. In the film’s most dramatic scene, the director included footage of a nineteenth century home getting demolished by a wrecking crew. The image made one member of the audience gasp.

Mr. Sherman explained that his film has stimulated an interest in historical awareness. Since its release, he has conducted walking tours of Northeast Philadelphia, he’s posted his own historical markers and he’s hosted reenactments. The City of Philadelphia has declared August 20th “King’s Highway Day.” The documentary has also sparked a movement for historical preservation.

The King’s Highway received the Best Feature Documentary Award at the 2016 First Glance Film festival. It is available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Those interested in learning more can visit the website: kingshighwayfilm.com.

Lenape Libertarianism

Peace. Tolerance. Autonomy. If asked who established these concepts on the North American continent, I’m sure many would respond the Founding Fathers. Those more familiar with the history of the Delaware Valley would say the Quakers. While great guesses, historical ‘myth buster’ Dr. Jean R. Soderlund of Lehigh University asserts that the Lenape Indians established these ‘American’ values prior to the other groups’ respective arrivals. She elucidated her ideas at the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 9th.

The parallels between Lenape society and modern day libertarian thought amazed me. The Lenape opposed the concept of a central government. They lived in small autonomous villages. A ‘sachem’ led each town. These villages would ally only for purposes of war and diplomacy. I interpret this act as forming a de-facto central government for the purpose of foreign affairs.

Freedom served as the core value of their society. They permitted their children to ‘run free’, in Dr. Soderlund’s words. Women had a much higher status in society than their European counterparts. They even had the authority to divorce if they so choose. These socially liberal ideas didn’t exist among newcomers to the region.

The Lenape supported free trade. Corn, beans and squash served as their major agricultural products. They would exchange these items with Europeans in return for cloth.

While establishing a reputation for welcoming others into their society, they resorted to force when necessary. Dr. Soderlund used the Swanendael Massacre of 1631 as an example. The tragedy germinated from a communication gap between the Lenape and the Dutch. The latter asked the former to turn over a sachem. He’d defaced a sign defining the area as Dutch territory. The Lenape killed the chief and provided his head. The Dutch had a much more benign punishment in mind, but the language barrier complicated their request. The sachem’s family executed 32 members of the Dutch settlement as retribution.

Dr. Soderlund asserted that the Lenape resorted to violence to encourage the settlers to go elsewhere. They recognized European encroachment in the region. This act sent a message. In 1687 the Lenape wouldn’t allow cartographer Thomas Holme access to their lands to complete his map, either.

The Walking Purchase of 1737 concluded the professor’s lecture. An unscrupulous negotiator inveigled a large tract of land in Eastern Pennsylvania from the Lenape. Their distrust of government and the settlers turned out well-founded.

Dr. Soderlund delivered a well-researched presentation on Lenape life. I’m still amazed by their libertarian value system. The professor discredited various myths surrounding Native American life. Unfortunately no historian can include the narrative of them getting cheated out of their land among them.