Sunday, June 17, 2018

Conquered by mosquitoes: New Sweden's Fort Elfsborg

Not a cloud in the sky, and temperatures were expected to hit the mid 80s -- perfect beach weather. No doubt, the sandy expanses of Long Beach Island, Wildwood, Asbury Park and Sandy Hook were already reaching peak capacity.

Yet here I was, standing all alone on the beach, my only companion being a grounded turkey vulture. According to an aged New Jersey historic marker I'd seen before I made the turn down a long, narrow road, I wasn't far from the site of Fort Elfsborg. But as far as the 21st century was concerned, I was at Oakwood Beach in the Elsinboro Point Parking area of PSEG Nuclear's Estuary Enhancement Program. On the way, I'd passed several residential garages and driveways, evidence of a shore community whose more photogenic side was pointed toward the lovely bay view.

New Jersey has its share of forts that don't exist anymore (we've shared the stories of the Revolutionary-era forts Billings and Mercer along the Delaware River), but Elfsborg is the granddaddy of 'em all. Not only is it not there anymore; it was the product of a colony that most New Jerseyans are unaware ever existed.

I first discovered the existence (or maybe the concept) of Fort Elfsborg many years ago on an aimless drive through Salem County, where there are still reliable signs at crossroads to tell you which towns are in which direction. One, somewhere, pointed to Fort Elfsborg. My trusty WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey noted that Elsinboro Point was the site of the first Swedish settlement in the state. The colonists built a fort there in 1643 "to force Dutch trading ships to haul down their flags."

Colonizing Swedes came to the Delaware Valley in 1638, with hopes of getting their share of the lucrative New World fur trade, despite the fact that the Dutch had already claimed the area and built Fort Nassau near current day Gloucester City along the Delaware, then known as the South River. The Swedes chose to build their fort closer to the mouth of the river, figuring they'd force the Dutch and English to get their permission to sail past, rather than having unfettered access to their own territory.

It was a perfect case of "looks good on paper" - an idea that probably seemed so logical that the Swedes might have wondered why the Dutch hadn't already secured the area. Reality proved different. The true adversary did not reach the Swedish settlement by ship, but by air, as evidenced by the name the colonists gave their fort: Myggenborg, or Mosquito Castle. The marshy land on which the fort was built was so rich with the pesky skeeters and gnats and their stinging so relentless that it was said the garrisoned soldiers appeared to have been afflicted with a horrible disease. It's small wonder that the fort was abandoned not long after.

Historians suspect that the actual fort site is underwater, somewhere off the Salem County coastline. In fact, PSE&G, the Swedish Colonial Society and the New Sweden Centre funded a 2012 expedition that explored both the Delaware Bay and the phragmites-infested coastline for evidence of human habitation. While they discovered portions of smoking pipes and arrowheads, none could be linked to the Swedish settlement. Given changes in sea level, the inevitable depositing of silt and whatnot over the years, impact of storms, what was close to the surface in the 1600s is likely well buried at this point, and the complex root systems of the phragmites are unlikely to give up any secrets.

As for the beach itself, the public portion is relatively small, but serviced by a gated 10-stall paved parking lot courtesy of PSEG Nuclear (that's right - free beach parking brought to you by the wonders of nuclear power!). Fans of natural beachscapes will appreciate the rustling phragmites and the dried-out bay vegetation along the high tide line, but that's about it. It's beautiful and somewhat secluded, but best left to the locals.

The WPA guide notes that Oakwood Beach was a summer colony, named for large oaks that once stood there and were taken down to build ships before the Civil War. Given the tidy upkeep of the homes there today, one has to believe that folks still enjoy living the shore life on Delaware Bay, hopefully without the relentless pesky insects.

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