Using Maryland’s Plats.net to research colonial Sussex

A couple of weeks ago a fellow from the lower Eastern Shore contacted me and casually mentioned that I live in what was once Old Somerset before William Penn stole it, and went on to call the Pennsylvania founder a “thieving bastard.” He was alluding to the ancient boundary dispute which resulted in the running of the Transpeninsular Line and the Mason-Dixon Line, giving a substantial portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Pennsylvania — wrongly, in the opinion of some. I tend to share this opinion.

The fact that western and lower Sussex County, Delaware, used to be part of Somerset or Worcester County, Maryland, depending on the time period, is a source of confusion for many researchers, particularly those who are searching for the locations of early settlements. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, Maryland land records are arguably easier to access than those of Delaware.

Plats.net, hosted by the State of Maryland, is an incredibly useful resource for anyone researching the early history of, say, Seaford, Laurel, Gumboro, Selbyville, etc. You can find a Beginners Guide here, which covers the basics, but I’ve learned a couple of tricks to get the most out of the site.

Typically, after selecting a county (either Somerset or Worcester for the Broad Creek area, for example) I do an Advanced Search and enter part of a name — of an individual or a tract of land — in the Description box, then change the the sort order from the default setting, Date Descending, to Date Ascending, so that the oldest records will be listed first. There’s a reason I enter part of a name rather than the entire name. Spellings of even simple names vary — i.e., Stephens vs. Stevens — so it can be helpful to search for the part of the name that is most likely to be spelled consistently. For example, “dolb” rather than Dolby or Dolbee will yield results for both. Or “collin” will pull up records for Collins as well as Collings, an early spelling of the name. Sometimes the old spellings are nearly unrecognizable; for example, Brazier rather than Brasure — yet a search for “bra” would cover both.

Tract names are also subject to spelling variations, i.e., Forrest vs. Forest, Hogg vs. Hog, Lott vs. Lot, etc. Sometimes you have to be creative.

Once you’ve pulled up a particular record, there is usually no need to struggle to read the entire text. All have the same basic format. You can usually skip down to the description of the tract, which will read, “Beginning at a markd white oke on ye south side of Broad Creek…” or something similar. Typically, the only place-names to appear in the descriptions are those of waterways — and more often than not, the names of smaller waterways are obsolete and don’t appear on any map — but sometimes specific neighbors, roads, and even towns will be referenced. There will also be a diagram of the tract, but — frustratingly — this will almost never include any landmarks other than the trees used as markers.

50-acre tract "Priveledge" surveyed for George "Tomson" in 1743, probably in today's Gumboro

50-acre tract “Priveledge” surveyed for George “Tomson” in 1743, probably in today’s Gumboro

Despite the vague descriptions, these records can be used to determine which neighborhood a particular plantation was located in. Later records, even Delaware deeds, might refer to the tract by name and provide more details. For example, a large tract along Broad Creek, patented to Joseph Collins in 1762 and named Collins Industry, was referred to in dozens of deeds in the following decades as the tract was gradually divided into many smaller parcels.

I’ve identified a couple of the old creek names in the Broad Creek area, like Wimbesoccom Creek (today’s Gray’s Branch), and only recently decided that the frequently referenced Bald Cypress Branch probably ran through Trussum Pond rather than Trap Pond (neither of which was known as such during the colonial era). This is a sort of ongoing back-burner project.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Delmarva Geography, Maps, Maryland, Maryland history, Resources, Sussex County

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