1805/1806: Luke Brodhead and “The Battle of the Butcher Boys and Delaware River Raftmen”

"The City and Port of Philadelphia, on the River Delaware from Kensington". Frontispiece to The City of Philadelphia..., plate 2. Engraving, hand-colored. Wikimedia Commons: In public domain in US due to publication prior to January 1, 1923. (Image shown has been cropped)

“The City and Port of Philadelphia, on the River Delaware from Kensington”. Frontispiece to The City of Philadelphia…, plate 2. Engraving, hand-colored. Wikimedia Commons: In public domain in US due to publication prior to January 1, 1923. (Image shown has been cropped at the top)

Now here’s an interesting tale dating back to 1805/1806 about a memorable ‘David vs. Goliath’ brawl featuring one Luke Brodhead. I found it in The Evening Gazette (Port Jervis, NY), dated Tuesday, May 28, 1878. The paper is one of thousands archived on the free Fulton History website.

Having checked some Brodhead family genealogies, I believe this Luke was probably the son of Luke Brodhead of Revolutionary War fame (my fifth great-grandfather Garret Brodhead‘s younger brother).  I could be wrong, of course, but there have never been that many Luke Brodheads in the family tree, and age-wise Luke Jr. (1777-1845) is a good fit. He would have been about 28 or 29 at the time of this incident, and still a bachelor. Luke Sr., who was left quite disabled by the war, passed away in 1806 at age 65.

On a side note, you may remember one of last July’s posts: “The 1868 murder of Theodore Brodhead of Delaware Water Gap.” Luke Brodhead Jr. was Theodore’s father. Luke Jr. was married to Elizabeth Wills (1789-1873), and together they had nine children—one girl (b. 1812) and eight boys (born between 1814 and 1831), all very tall in stature. Remember how Elizabeth joked that she had “48 feet of sons”?

Luke Jr. and Elizabeth ran an inn* at the Delaware Water Gap beginning circa 1820 to accommodate the influx of tourists to the area. From the “Theodore” post, you know that some of Luke Jr’s sons carried on this tradition, most notably Luke Wills Brodhead, who is deserving of a separate post of his own.

But, back to the story. It’s quite a tale, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It obviously stood the test of time to be featured in a newspaper article some seven decades later! As always, comments, corrections, suggestions are welcome. And of course if you have different thoughts as to which Luke this was, please let me know.

The Evening Gazette. 28 May 1878

The Evening Gazette. 28 May 1878

— — — — — — —

MEMORABLE ENCOUNTER.
BATTLE OF THE BUTCHER BOYS AND DELAWARE RIVER RAFTMEN.
A HAND TO HAND CONTEST IN PHILADELPHIA OVER 70 YEARS AGO—HOW 10 RAFTMEN WHIPPED 30 BUTCHERS—DEATH OF THE LAST RAFTMAN ENGAGED IN THE FIGHT.

In the year of 1805 or 1806 a fierce fight took place in Philadelphia between about 30 butchers and 10 Delaware river raftmen. Some of the latter we have the names of. There was Major Ebeneezer Wheeler, his brother Joseph, Squire Holmes, John Weiss, Rock Run and William Tyler [**], Royal Warner, Luke Brodhead, and Captain C. Fennington of Delhi, N.Y.

Joseph Wheeler owned a very fleet black mare. The spring before the fight truth his horse had a race with one owned by the association of butchers. He won the race, but the butchers refused to give up the stakes, and it was finally agreed to have a second trial the following spring.

When the spring came around the race took place, and again there was a controversy as to which was the winning horse. This dispute led to the memorable conflict. Joseph Wheeler was challenged by the butchers to a single combat. This be declined to accept for the reason, as he said to his brother, that there was no prospect of fair play being shown him, the butchers outnumbering the raftmen three to one.

Ebeneezer Wheeler then stepped forward and accepted the challenge offered to his brother. He is represented to have been a man of wonderful strength and at the same time as fleet as a deer. He was just six feet two. Luke Brodhead was the same height, and was a man of great courage.

It was proposed by the butchers that the fight should take place with a rope between the combatants. To this Major Wheeler would not concede, saying: “Gentlemen, if I fight I fight to win, and want nothing between us.” An adjoining field was selected for the contest. The butcher who was to be Mr. Wheeler’s antagonist put one hand on the fence and as if to show his agility sprang over into the lot with a bound. The Major followed and jumped the fence without touching it.

Luke Brodhead and Mr. Weiss happened at the place by accident, not knowing any of the parties. They were mere spectators and not called upon to form a part of the ring around the fighters. The fight between the two men began. Mr. Wheeler’s antagonist fell at the first blow. He arose and the second blow from Mr. W’s big fist again sent him to the earth.

At this juncture Mr. Brodhead saw a butcher strike Wheeler with a heavy whip. (It afterward appeared that all the butchers were armed with loaded whips.) Mr. Brodhead went to one of the butchers and told him of the occurrence. He was thrust aside and told it was none of his business. But he persisted and said he would not stand by and see such foul play practiced. He had scarcely done speaking when he received a heavy blow on the head with a whip. The blow nearly stunned him.

Delaware River. An extract of an 1806 map of New Jersey, depicting the area around Philadelphia and Trenton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Source: Source=http://maps.bpl.org/details_12444/?mti

Delaware River. An extract of an 1806 map of New Jersey, depicting the area around Philadelphia and Trenton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Source: Source=http://maps.bpl.org/details_12444/?mti

In the mean time the fight in the field had progressed, and Wheeler had given his antagonist such a blow that it nearly killed him. Of course he retired at once from the contest.

But the fight now became general. The butchers used their loaded whips freely and the numbers being greatly in their favor gave them courage. Unfortunately, however, for the butchers every time one of them received a square blow from the raftmen he was forced to leave the field. Their numbers soon became less, none of them caring to risk a second blow. The contest thus steadily grew in favor of the raftmen, none of them becoming disabled. They stood their ground to the last, the butchers dropping away one by one until the field was cleared and the victory won for the sturdy raftmen, the butchers finally running from the field.

The mistake the butchers made was in using their whips instead of their fists. They were large, strong men, yet they could not strike the whip with sufficient force to prostrate one of the sturdy raftmen. Nevertheless some very severe blows were given them. Messrs. Wheeler, Brodhead, and Fennington were cut badly and were confined to their boarding-houses several days under medical treatment.

It is said that Mr. Eb. Wheeler and Brodhead each disabled five butchers from as many blows. Captain Fennington of Delhi was a giant in strength and rendered very efficient aid to the raftmen. Mr. Weiss was badly scared and climbed a tree when the fight became general. He was not to be blamed, however, for he was a little fellow and would not have stood much of a chance. Royal Warner also showed the white feather. Joseph Wheeler got over the fence to see the fight when he received the blow of a loaded whip. He picked up a new beaver hat and left.

Luke Brodhead and the Wheelers became warm friends after this fight. The latter insisted on his accompanying them home after their recovery, which he did and remained with them several months. He frequently visited them. They afterward presented him with a tract of land on the Delaware river in Delaware county, which he declined to accept.

Brodhead was one of the most peaceable of men, and was esteemed for his good character and sound judgment, integrity and love of justice. The characters of Mr. Fennington and the Wheelers were also beyond reproach. Rock Run Tyler, the last of the survivors of this fight, ever memorable among raftmen, died in November, 1877, at a very old age.

That part of the family tree

How we are related

*Better in the Poconos by Lawrence Squeri (Penn State Press, 2010), p. 23.

**I think they mean “William ‘Rock Run’ Tyler” judging from the brief bio about him on p. 634 in the book History of Wayne, Pike and Monroe Counties by Alfred Mathews (Philadelphia: RT Peck, 1886)

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Categories: Brodhead, Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “1805/1806: Luke Brodhead and “The Battle of the Butcher Boys and Delaware River Raftmen”

  1. As you said— a great tale. And justice. 🙂 –Curt

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