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Self-Proclaimed Kings and Yellow Flags
Petty Island and The Lazaretto
By Lynn Whitney
Petty Island is a small fin-shaped island located in the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden. Currently uninhabited, it is owned by Citgo, which uses it for fuel storage. Home to oil tanks and containers now, its shores are still surrounded by bullhead lilies and wild rice. Bald eagles have been known to build their aeries in the tall trees, as well as hawks and falcons. However, the quiet unobtrusiveness of this island masks a history of Indians, pirates, slave trading and even a self-proclaimed King.
So, let’s begin with Elizabeth Kinsey, a Quaker who fled religious persecution in England. Elizabeth purchased the island, then known as Shackamaxon, from four Indian chiefs for 600 gilders, about $240.00, or ten times the legendary price of Manhattan Island. The Lenape reserved the right to hunt and fish, in return for the promise to “save her hogs from killing and her hay from burning.” William Penn became the next owner, selling it to John Petty, its namesake, in 1732.
During this time, NJ had become the only colony to not impose a tax on African people, and sadly became a slave conduit to other states. Because of the Quaker influence, slaves could not be sold in Philadelphia. Consequently, Petty Island became a major port for slave traders. Largely due to the Quakers, NJ banned the importation of slaves in 1788.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Petty Island acquired a reputation for lawlessness and danger. It was a hotbed for gambling and dueling, was supposedly visited by Blackbeard the Pirate and claimed a large number of shipwrecks.
But, perhaps the island’s most colorful character was Ralston Laird, an Irish immigrant who arrived on Petty Island in 1851, was hired as a farm hand, and raised cows and horses. He grew a long white beard, had 10 children, four of whom were deaf, and eventually declared himself King of Petty Island.
From its purchase by a Quaker woman, through its dark days of slave trading, to the Kingdom of Ralston Laird, Petty Island remains a mystery shrouded in legend and largely unnoticed by the many boaters passing its shores. But, now you know!
Let’s continue on down the Delaware to a flat stretch of riverbank in Tinicum Township, Pa., just past the Philadelphia Airport. Here, you will find 10 acres surrounding a stately Georgian style brick mansion. To the casual observer, it could appear to be the home of a wealthy country gentleman, but in the 1800’s it would have been flying a yellow Quarantine Flag. This is the Philadelphia Lazaretto. Pre-dating Ellis Island by a century, it is the oldest surviving quarantine hospital in the U.S.
In 1873, a devastating epidemic of Yellow Fever swept through the city of Philadelphia killing roughly 5,000 people, about one tenth of the population. Following the epidemic, Pennsylvania created a Board of Health, controlled by the city, with the power to levy taxes for public health maintenance. In 1799, the Lazaretto Quarantine Station was built. All passengers and cargo vessels bound for the port of Philadelphia were required to dock there for inspection. Passengers suspected of contagion were quarantined and suspect cargo stored. Vessels and cargo were disinfected and sick passengers and crew were nursed back to health. According to some estimates, nearly one third of all Americans have an ancestor whose first steps in the New World were through the doors of the Lazaretto.
In August of 1800, the Lazaretto became a safe haven for 135 Africans aboard two American ships, the Phoebe and the Prudent. The two schooners were captured off the coast of Cuba by the U.S. Naval ship Ganges in flagrant violation of the new federal law prohibiting American vessels from engaging in slave trade. The ships were escorted to the Lazaretto where the Africans were clothed, care for and restored to health. A Federal judge granted them their freedom, gave them each the surname Ganges, and asked the Abolition Society of Philadelphia to assume their safekeeping.
The Lazaretto closed its doors in 1895. Since then it has been home to The Philadelphia Athletic Club, a WWI flight school, and one of the first seaplane bases in North America.
Your journey down the Delaware has become a trip through history, through slavery and disease, medicine and caregiving and the hope and optimism of the many new immigrants to the shores of our young nation.