So I began to wonder why, after living in Philadelphia for thirty years, I had never heard of this island. After talking about it with several people, including fisherman with whom I work, I realized that no one seemed to know about it! I became more intrigued. I pictured a small tree-covered expanse of land, closer to the Jersey side of the river, littered with scuttled rusty tugs and other nautical detritus. Glenn and I would row out to it in the mist, across the channel, cameras and adrenaline at the ready.
I did some research. Around the late 1700s, Petty’s Island was a — PIRATE HANGOUT! A robbers’ nest for seafaring criminals who either knew they were wanted by the authorities or did not expect to be welcomed by them with open arms. Since they could not set foot on the mainland, they would drop anchor on Petty’s Island, where they probably built the first gambling casinos and slots parlors (I would assume). Man, if I had a metal detector, I wouldn’t be looking for lost rings at the beach in Atlantic City, I’d be on this island! I mean, I kind o fancy meself a pirate anyway—I carry an old, wooden-handled iron hook with me when I go exploring in abandoned cemeteries (as my father used to say, it’s not the dead you need to fear—it’s the living). And I’ve been known to enjoy the odd pirate cruise, which is a fine way to meet comely wenches (see "Philly Pirate Cruise" link below).
And just so you don’t think Petty’s Island is just ANY old pirate island, here’s its pedigree:
[Petty’s Island] is thought to be the place where Captain Blackbeard docked his ship when visiting Philadelphia. The island was a hotbed for gambling and dueling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and acquired a reputation for lawlessness and danger; adding to this danger was the large number of shipwrecks which occurred around the island, some of which are still visible at low tide. —Wikipedia
“So I guess you’ve… been there?” I asked, hesitantly. He said no, but he knew people who had (and lived to tell about it, I hoped.) I asked if he could show me there the island is on one of his maps. He went over to a rack of rolled up charts, chose one carefully, and brought it back to the counter. He unrolled it, weighed the edges down, and began tracing the Delaware River with his finger from Wilmington north. While doing so, I asked, “Do you know how people can get to the island?” To which he replied, “Well, there’s a bridge. You can drive over.” What? Oh. My grandiose piratical fantasy fizzled out.
Hugo Chavez owns it. New Jersey controls it. Developers and environmentalists covet it. And one brazen trespasser wants us to pay homage to its forgotten king. Welcome to Petty's Island, a fin-shaped slice of strange, in the middle of the Delaware River.
—Otterbein, Philadelphia City Paper, Jan. 26, 2010
Laird was one of the final inhabitants of Petty’s Island, having died in 1911. He’d immigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia in the 1850s, but due to persecution of the Irish, he adopted Petty’s Island as his home. During the 52 years he lived there, he welcomed other immigrants who were having difficulty adjusting to their new world. A community was built, people fished, farmed, and lived with minimal taxation. After Laird’s death, the island appears to have been purchased by the Venezuelan government, and used as an oil refinery/holding facility for its national petroleum company, CITGO.
The island’s history is brief. Originally purchased from the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1678 by Elizabeth Kinsey (a Quaker who had fled persecution in England), it was later sold to William Penn (in 1681). John Petty bought it in 1732. The island’s pirate era may have coincided with its period as a slave trading depot, in the late 1600 to early 1700s.
|Petty's Island, showing access road from Camden|
"The Island" in Philadelphia City Paper
The Fight to Save Petty’s Island
The Film, “Petty's Island: A Sacred Part of America’s Story”
Philly Pirate Cruise
Links to Abandoned Johnson Cemetery blogs: (1) and (2)