It was a humid summer day in the year 1623 when Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, sailing under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company on the ship Blyde Broodschap (“Good Tidings”), first laid eyes on the peninsula of land separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Delaware Bay. He immediately christened the land “Cape Mey” and that name has persisted through the ages, albeit with a slight change in spelling.
At the time of Captain Mey’s “discovery,” this part of North America had been home to Native Americans for centuries. In particular, the Kechemeches tribe, part of the Lenni-Lenape, a peace-loving branch of the mighty Algonquins, fished and hunted on these shores long before the arrival of the Europeans. Although Native Americans are not featured in this story, their long-ago presence can still be felt in this area, especially in place names and roadways, which were often constructed along ancient Lenni-Lenape footpaths.
Upon the arrival of the Europeans and with the introduction of never-before-encountered European diseases, the population of Native Americans in this area slowly began to decline. Within a hundred years of Captain Mey’s first glimpse of the cape, the population of Cape May County, which had been incorporated in 1695, was less than seven hundred people of European descent and far fewer Native Americans.
There was only one settlement on the cape at that time in history, and it was known by a variety of names: Portsmouth, Falmouth, Cape May Town, Town Bank, and New England Town (or simply, “Town”). It was a tiny settlement, with less than twenty houses and few comforts. Many items, such as saddles, sugar, and cooking utensils, had to be purchased and brought from Philadelphia, which was an arduous two-day journey distant.
It was topography that dictated where this first settlement would be located on the cape. The town, about four miles north of Cape Island, where sits the present City of Cape May, overlooked the Delaware Bay from a high embankment. Fishermen and whalers found it easier to moor their boats in the calmer waters and protected coves of the bay than to be at the mercy of the open ocean in all its moods.
Though whaling was one of the original lures that brought men and their families to Cape May, the industry did not last for many years. Farming, shipbuilding, and the production and sale of building materials (in particular, cedar shingles) became more stable and profitable pursuits. Farming, especially, was a common undertaking, since the sandy, loamy soil along this part of the Atlantic seaboard was perfect for many crops, from maize to vegetables.
Pirates were also known to frequent the waters of the Delaware Bay because it presented a multitude of good hiding places. Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were among the more famous pirates who allegedly visited these shores. Pirates, though outlaws, were often welcomed by the settlers because they brought goods and coin into the economy. There were always those, however, who wished to curry favor with the crown and the provincial governors and these people presented great challenges to the pirates.
Alas, the original settlement in Cape May County was lost to the pounding waves of the Delaware Bay and the erosion of the banks below the village. The original Town Bank is now located underwater about three hundred feet from the current shoreline.
It is in and near this settlement of Town Bank, long years before it disappeared into its watery grave, that Cape Menace takes place.
08 January 1711
I was afraid of wolves even before I journeyed to America. Stories of the creatures abounded in England, where no wolf had trod for two hundred years. Stories of their vicious appetites, of their stealth and speed, of their nighttime prowling through forests and dales.
Just stories, but I believed them, nonetheless.
So when I saw my first wolf in the woods near our new home in New Jersey, I was given quite a fright. It was getting dark and my mother and I were hurrying through the woods to get home from delivering a packet of herbs to a family nearby. The husband had cut his leg and was suffering greatly from the pain.
I stopped short when we came upon the wolf. I knew straightaway what it was, for I had seen the pictures that accompanied all the stories I had been told. Mamma told me in a low voice to remain still and it would go away, but she did not remain still. She moved toward me ever so slowly until she was standing directly in front of me. The wolf watched us with its haunting eyes, its huge paws motionless in the snow and its nostrils widening and narrowing as it sniffed the air.
I did not realize I had been holding my breath until the wolf turned away and padded farther into the woods. Mamma unclenched her fists, which she had been holding tight against her legs, and turned to me.
“We shall not come through the woods again at dusk. We must respect the animals that hunt in the nighttime. We are the intruders.”
Even then, she had known how dangerous wolves could be.