In May, I wrote a piece for Philadelphia magazine about the astonishing story behind The Cape, by Charles Whitecar Miskelly — a manuscript that had languished in a closet for 50 years until Cape May-based Exit Zero published it in July. The Cape tells the tale of John McJack, a 1600s shipwreck survivor who becomes part of the Lenni-Lenape tribe that lived in southern New Jersey where Cape May is today — but the story of how Miskelly, who never finished high school, managed to write such an accurate and stunning book is still a mystery. (You can read chapter one here.)
After the story ran, I emailed a copy of the manuscript to Amy Hill Hearth. Hearth, who hit the New York Times bestseller list with Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, is head of the Friends of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians. She’s also board president of Native American Advancement Corp, a nonprofit run by Tyrese Gould, granddaughter of Strong Medicine, who was the subject of Hearth’s 2008 oral history, “Strong Medicine” Speaks: An American Elder Has Her Say.
Last year, Hearth published her first novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society. She’s a Jersey Shore resident, and a friend. Here’s what she had to say about The Cape.
When you finished The Cape, you emailed me to tell me you loved it. Why?
First of all, it’s good. It’s darned good! And, I was astonished — and thrilled — that a white author in the first half of the 20th century would write from a point of view that was sympathetic to the Native people.
What did Miskelly get right?
Lenape culture, the geography of the region, plant and animal life, knowledge of ships, weapons, and so on.
What did Miskelly get wrong?
I didn’t see anything, to my knowledge, that is flat-out wrong. Some will argue that the Lenape never built “teepees” (a word Miskelly uses once or twice) but I suspect he was using the term to mean “a tent made from skins,” and not the teepee that we associate with Plains Indians.
We (and I mean the publisher and I) still can’t figure out how the son of immigrants who had no high school education could write something both so beautiful and so accurate. We can continue to guess about the “beautiful” writing part — what do you think about “accurate”?
I suspect he had acquaintances, possibly relatives, who were Lenape. And I would guess that the Lenape person or persons he knew included a storyteller or an Elder.
Your ancestor had a story similar to John McJack’s, yes? Was this common?
Yes, I have an ancestor, going back ten generations, who arrived in New Jersey via shipwreck. This was in 1639. Shipwrecks were extremely common along the Jersey coast. Surviving them probably was not.
How did you find out about this part of your family story, and that you are part Lenni-Lenape?
My dad is a 12th-generation American and was working on our family tree. He came across evidence that our ancestry includes Lenni-Lenape along with English and Dutch. I reconfirmed his research. While there are great resources on the web, the best material is still to be found in local historical societies, museums, church records, and cemeteries. That is where I did most of my work.
Did this lead you to writing “Strong Medicine” Speaks, or vice versa?
It did lead to “Strong Medicine” Speaks. I began to wonder what had happened to the Lenni-Lenape people. One thing led to another, and I became acquainted with the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indian Tribe, the largest and most vibrant Lenape group still living in New Jersey. They live in Cumberland County. The Chief introduced me to his mother, a tribal elder named Strong Medicine.
How is the tribe doing today?
They are survivors. They have been here for 10,000 years and they’ll be here, I suspect, for another 10,000 years. Like everyone else, they’ve been hurt by the Great Recession, but they know how to live off the land and to live simply.
And what’s next for you?
I have switched gears and have been writing fiction. I just accepted an offer from Simon & Schuster to write a novel set in Florida in 1964. My working title is Good Night Peggy Sue, Wherever You Are. It’s a sequel to my debut novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society, published in 2012.