The son of Dutch and Irish immigrants, Charles Whitecar Miskelly was a South Jersey shipbuilder who died in 1963 at age 83. He was also a writer, one who shut himself up in his home office and banged out stories on a typewriter he repaired with a fishing line. He wrote historical novels and short stories about the towns around him, as well as beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking poetry.
He was never published. When Philadelphia’s J.B. Lippincott & Co. asked for revisions on a novel he’d submitted, The Cape, he stubbornly refused. After Miskelly’s death, his grandson, George Carlisle, gathered his writings and stuck them in a closet, and didn’t look at them again until he retired from his job as a teacher at a prep school near Boston in 2008.
That was when Carlisle decided to use his retirement to focus on his own writing—and that of his grandfather. “I’m 75,” Carlisle says, “and I thought to myself, If I don’t do something with this, it’ll be burned.”
Two years ago, Carlisle brought The Cape, still in its old paper box, to Exit Zero, a Cape May-based publishing company that specializes in books on Shore lore. After ignoring Carlisle’s package for more than a year, Jack Wright, Zero’s editor and publisher, picked it up and devoured the novel in a single day. It’s now on the company’s summer docket. “I was blown away by the quality of the writing, the detailed descriptions,” Wright says. “I just loved the story.”
The novel centers on John McJack, a Dutchman shipwrecked in Cape May in the mid-1600s who joins the Lenni-Lenape tribe, even marrying the chief’s daughter. McJack protects the Indians from Dutch whalers who want to cheat them, and from traders who seek to swindle them out of their wares.
The book is extraordinary for its backstory, but also because it was so bold for its day. As Miskelly was writing, in the late 1930s, the Lenni-Lenape were lying to census takers, identifying as “colored” because they feared having their land taken away if they admitted they were Indian. The tribe basically stayed hidden from public view until the late 1970s.
Carlisle recalls his grandfather as a quiet man who had a strained relationship with his own children. On the occasional fishing trips Carlisle took with him, Miskelly didn’t say much, except to discuss the task at hand.
Carlisle doesn’t know how his grandfather learned to write, or how he crafted a story about a group that didn’t even admit its own existence. Did he work with Native Americans at the shipyard? Did he have friends he visited on his long solo bike rides from Bricksboro to Cape May? Was he himself a descendant of American Indians? His ancestors arrived in the United States around the time of John McJack’s shipwreck.
The truth may never be known. “I think,” Wright says, “that died with Charles.”
This story originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.