Category Archives: Delaware

40th Annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow, Sept. 9-10

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July 30, 2017 · 12:54 pm

Matthew Hosea: An Early Settler Near Trap Pond

This week I’ve been looking at an interesting early settler in the Trap Pond area named Matthew Hosea (pronounced Hozey). I don’t know when he came here or where he came from, but he received a patent for a 100-acre tract named New Dublin in 1716, and was a head of household in 1723, according to the earliest tax list. That’s very early for the neighborhood in question.

Hosea probably lived closer to Trussum Pond and James Branch than to Trap Pond. His “neck of the woods” was called both Hosea’s Neck and the Great Neck, and as early as 1730, surveyors noted a path leading from Matthew Hosea’s to Indian River. I suspect this path crossed either Trap Pond or Raccoon Pond, and parts of it probably survive today. In 1734, a 50-acre tract named Snow Hill (not to be confused with other tracts named Snow Hill) was patented to Hosea; its first bounder was “a Marked White oake standing one the north side of a branch of Broad Creek called the bald Syprus Branch a Littell Distance from the side Of the sd branch and a bout two hundred pole [1,100 yards] above wheere Matthew Hosey Now Lives in a Neck called the Great Neck…”

Hosea’s descendants held onto his land for a long time, possibly even into the 20th century, and a local schoolhouse was labeled Hosey School on maps as recently as 1945.

It would be irresponsible to try to guess what kind of man Hosea was. Why did he settle in what was then an untamed wilderness, far from neighbors and even churches? Was he a sort of free spirit who craved independence in isolation? Or was he a sterner sort of fellow who simply settled where he could afford to?

We can only be sure of one thing: He had to work very, very hard just to survive, build a farm, and provide for his family, out here on the outskirts of civilization.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Delmarva Geography, Laurel, Maryland, Maryland history, Sussex County

A Brief History of Broad Creek Town

This article was first published in the Laurel Historical Society‘s newsletter.

The Nanticoke Indians who moved to Broad Creek in or around 1705 were, in many ways, a defeated people. In the nearly one hundred years since their ancestors had welcomed Captain John Smith’s barge with a barrage of arrows, their numbers, power, and wealth had diminished due to a series of wars and treaties. Even their reservation at the junction of the Nanticoke River and Chicacoan Creek was threatened by aggressive, trespassing English newcomers. This story would require many pages to tell. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that they were desperate and discouraged—but perhaps hopeful that they would be able to preserve their culture in their new home, farther inland with only a handful of English neighbors.

The refugees settled near a site known as the Wading Place, which was one of the easier points at which to cross Broad Creek. It is possible that there was already a village or camp there, although the records seem to imply that the location was a new one for the tribe.  Whether there was an existing Nanticoke settlement at the site or not, the land on both sides of the creek had been granted to Englishmen in the 1680s. The Nanticokes might not have been aware of this—or they might not have cared. Evidently the English did care, and told the Nanticokes that they might have to relocate yet again, for in October of 1711, the Maryland legislature was informed that “the Nanticoke Indians are much dissatisfied they may not be permitted to continue at Broad Creek where they are set down…” Perhaps indicating that the dwindling tribe was still a force to be reckoned with, the provincial government decided it would be unwise to evict them, and instead empowered commissioners to purchase and reserve three thousand acres on Broad Creek for their use.

In a matter of weeks, surveyor William Whittington, Jr., laid out two tracts, one on each side of the creek. The northern tract consisted of the entire 2,500-acre tract known as Greenland, originally granted to William Green. The southern tract consisted of 500 acres on the east side of Little Creek, and included 133 acres of a tract known as Batchelor’s Delight, originally surveyed for Col. William Stevens, but subsequently transferred to James Wythe and Marmaduke Master.

A jury of twelve local freeholders determined that Greenland was worth 50,000 pounds of tobacco; the portion of Batchelor’s Delight, 2,666 pounds of tobacco; and the remainder of the southern tract, 7,334 pounds of tobacco. Additionally, they awarded Henry Freaks 3,000 pounds of tobacco “for his Damages in building Clearing and fencing on the said Land…” and William Denton, Jr., 500 pounds of tobacco “for his damages for work and repareing to build and setle on the Land…”

Note: The exact location of each tract, particularly that of the northern tract, is not entirely clear. The placement of the northern tract on the map below is largely based on shaky assertions about its western boundary made in deeds dated 1816. Personally, I am bothered by the fact that records from 1711 state that the southwestern bounder of the northern tract was on the east side of a small creek which does not seem to appear on modern maps or satellite imagery. I am also bothered by the fact that, according to this placement, the eastern boundary of the northern tract follows today’s Route 13, rather than the much older Alternate 13. It is possible that the entire northern tract should be shifted to the west or to the east. However, its approximate location is known, and the placement of the southern tract is much more precise, although I’ve deliberately matched its western boundary with today’s Little Creek, rather than its slightly different location three centuries ago.

Since the English had a habit of unimaginatively (and often misleadingly) naming any band of Indians after the waterway on which they lived, the Nanticokes on Broad Creek became known as the Broad Creek Indians, and their settlement was called Broad Creek Town. If they gave it a name of their own, it was never recorded.

The approximate boundaries of Broad Creek Town based on the original 1711 surveys.

Little is known of Broad Creek Town, other than its location. Was there a central village, or were the residents spread out? Did they live in traditional wigwams, or European-style cabins? We can’t be sure, but the best guess is probably “all of the above.” The historian J. Thomas Scharf later reported that they “cultivated the land to some extent” and built a “harbor.” Additionally, they probably interacted with the residents of Askecksy, a nearby Indian River Indian reservation established at about the same time.

A little more is known of the leadership of the Broad Creek Indians, but not much. The records of the time mention a number of Nanticoke leaders—notably Panquash, whose leadership stretched from the 1690s into the 1740s—but rarely specify whether they were from Chicacoan or Broad Creek. One such leader was Rassekettham, who accompanied Panquash and Tom Coursey in 1713 to inform the English that the tribe no longer recognized its former emperor, Asquash, who had moved to Pennsylvania. They also inquired as to whether the English had conspired with Asquash to kill Panquash and Rassekettham, and were assured that they had not and would not. Though Rassekettham was not explicitly identified as a Broad Creek Indian, the tributary known as Rossakatum Creek or Rossakatum Branch is assumed to have been named after him. It is likely that he was the chief of the Broad Creek band in 1713.

Another probable leader was King Toby, who, with fellow Broad Creek Indians Lolloway and Whist, traveled to the county court held at Dividing Creek in 1725 to complain that some of the Caldwells had mistreated them in some way. Lolloway might have been the same Indian named Lolloway who had been assaulted so badly in Somerset Parish the previous year that he nearly died. Other incidents reported in and around the various Indian reservations indicate that tensions continued to escalate during this time.

In the spring of 1742, the Nanticokes, Choptanks, Indian River Indians, Pocomokes, and some visiting Shawnees met in Wimbesoccom Neck to discuss a plot to massacre the local settlers and reclaim the Eastern Shore, supposedly with the help of the Iroquois Confederacy and the French. The tale of “the plot in the swamp” has been told elsewhere, but a few details are worth noting. Wimbesoccom Neck consisted of the land east of Wimbesoccom Creek (today’s Gray’s Branch) and north of the main branch of Broad Creek, which flows through today’s Trap Pond. The neck stretched into the outskirts of what would later be called Gumborough Hundred, and was probably heavily wooded and sparsely settled—an ideal location for a secret powwow. Interestingly, some of the Broad Creek Indians spoke of a “logged house” stocked with weapons, located a few miles into the swamp. Their leaders at this time were known as Simon Alsechqueck and Captain John.

But the plot was discovered and foiled, and numerous Indians arrested, and the tribal leaders were forced to sign an extremely restrictive treaty. Henceforth, the Nanticokes could no longer elect an emperor, and every member of the tribe was forbidden to own a gun without obtaining a license from the governor. It was the last straw. Just two years later, Simon Alsechqueck requested and received permission for the tribe to migrate north and live among the Iroquois, and by the 1750s, Broad Creek Town was said to be deserted.

In 1768, the provincial government authorized commissioners to sell what had become known as the Indian Lands, and according to later deeds, Joseph Forman purchased 518 acres at the western end of the northern tract, and John Mitchell purchased 2,236 acres. Barkley Townsend acquired part of the southern tract prior to 1776. Following Mitchell’s death in 1787, his portion was sold to a number of buyers including George Mitchell, George Corbin, and John Creighton. Decades later, Forman’s heirs divided his parcel into two lots and sold one to Dr. James Derickson, and the other to Benjamin Fooks and Kendall M. Lewis.

Today, the town of Laurel occupies much of the site of Broad Creek Town, and continues to grow, making archaeological investigation difficult. Even so, the stone artifacts that frequently turn up in nearby fields, and local names like Rossakatum and Sockum, survive to remind us of the first people to call Broad Creek home.

– Chris Slavens

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Sambo, Paris, and Ceasor: Cord Hazzard’s Negro Boys

A few days ago I was reading the will of Cord Hazzard, made in 1766, in the hopes of learning more about a piece of land he sold to John Regua in 1754, and noticed that he had given his son, David, “…one negro boy named Sambo and one negro boy named Paris and one negro boy named Ceasor…”  Slaves, in other words.

I’ve been looking at a number of records pertaining to free blacks lately, and have always been interested in connecting free blacks to slave ancestors, so I did a few quick searches to see if I could learn any more about Sambo, Paris, and Ceasor. Surprisingly, potential matches for all three appear in census records from 1800 through 1830.

First, a bit of background information. Cord Hazzard was one of several men with that name; I can think of four off the top of my head. The unusual name was most likely inspired by a member of the local Cord family. He is most likely the same Cord Hazzard who had a 100-acre tract named Flat Land surveyed for him in 1727. Though located in Somerset County, Maryland, at the time, a reference to a path from Cedar Neck points to today’s Baltimore Hundred in Sussex, perhaps near Ocean View. It seems the peninsular boundary dispute didn’t faze Cord, for he also acquired lands on the north side of Indian River, then controlled by Pennsylvania. Other members of the Hazzard family owned a great deal of land in what is now eastern Sussex.

Will of Cord Hazzard, 1766

Although I don’t know exactly where Cord was living when he made his will, it mentions Swan Creek Branch and Long Neck, both in Indian River Hundred. The probate date is January 11, 1771, meaning Cord died in late 1770 or early 1771.

When David Hazzard made his will in 1790, he mentioned sons Cord, David, James, and John, but not Sambo, Paris, or Ceasor. It’s possible that they were simply considered part of his estate, and divided among the sons, or it’s possible that they were no longer in the elder David’s possession at the time. Strictly speaking — and without digging through manumission records and the like at the Delaware Public Archives — their fate is unknown.

But speculatively speaking, which is more fun, a handful of 19th-century census records suggest that they might have been freed and might have kept/taken the Hazzard surname.

In 1800, there was a free colored head of household in Broadkiln Hundred named Parris Hazzard, and a free colored head of household in Mispillion Hundred named Caesar Hazzard.

Interestingly, there is also an 1810 record for a man named Paris Coard who was living in Broadkiln Hundred. There is no reason to assume that Paris Hazzard changed his surname to Coard, and this might be a coincidence, but it’s worth noting. It’s also worth noting that there were Mispillion heads of household listed as “Ceasar F. N.” and “Sambo F. N.” (free Negro) in 1810, but these are probably not our guys. Sambo is probably the man named Sambo Bounds in the 1820 census. There were also a number of other free black men named Caesar and Sambo living in Kent and Sussex Counties during the early 19th century.

In 1820, Casar Hazzard was a head of household in Murderkill Hundred, aged 45 or older, with a son aged 14-25, and a wife. That son might be the Ceesar Hazzard who appears in Cedar Creek Hundred in 1830, aged 36-54. The Casar Hazzard living in Murderkill Hundred in 1820 was born before 1776, so it’s possible that he was the Ceasor mentioned in Cord’s will in 1766. If there’s any truth to this scenario, then he was probably born in the 1750s and probably died in the 1820s at, say, age 60-75, leaving behind at least one adult son. His migration from Indian River Hundred to Kent County over the course of several decades is consistent with the trends of the time (for example, some members of the mulatto Rigware/Ridgeway family followed a similar path to the Cheswold area).

In 1830, Sambo Hazzard was a head of household in Indian River Hundred, aged 55-99. The only other member of the household was a female who was 100 or older. This gives Sambo a birthdate range of 1731 – 1775, while the woman (if the record is correct) was born before 1731. Personally, I think it’s likely that this is the same Sambo mentioned in Cord’s will, because the name, age, and location are all consistent. All that’s missing is evidence for his manumission. Sambo was probably born in the 1750s or early 1760s, and probably died before 1840 in his seventies or eighties. Where was he prior to 1830? Perhaps he was still a slave, or perhaps he was free, yet living in another man’s household.

A genealogist could offer any number of objections to this scenario. For example, freed slaves didn’t necessarily go by their former masters’ surnames, though many did. Even so, it’s a matter of fact that Cord Hazzard left slave boys named Sambo, Paris, and Ceasor to his son, and it’s a matter of fact that there were free black men named Parris Hazzard, Caesar Hazzard, and Sambo Hazzard living in the right part of Delaware just a few decades later. Whether these facts are connected in the way I’ve suggested is a matter for further research, discussion, and contemplation.

– Chris Slavens

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Regua, Rigware, Ridgeway: The Evolution of a Nanticoke Surname

During the last couple of years I’ve written several articles about the Sockum family, notable for their unique surname and probable connection to the Nanticoke Indians. It’s a bit easier to research an unusual name like Sockum than others that are associated with the Nanticokes and Moors, such as Clark and Johnson.

The name Ridgeway might seem, at first glance, to be similarly mainstream, but a closer look at the Ridgeway family reveals that their name wasn’t originally Ridgeway, and they can be traced to a specific neighborhood in Sussex County. Considering their association with one of the oldest legends about the Moors’ origins, they are certainly deserving of more attention than they’ve received.

Notable Ridgeways include Eunice Ridgeway (1813 – 1896), the wife of Levin Sockum; and Cornelius Ridgeway, who was described as the “patriarch” of the Cheswold Moors in 1895, and who related a version of the legend in question.

Though there are a number of versions of what C. A. Weslager later dubbed the Romantic Legend, dating back to the 1850s but primarily recorded in the 1890s, many of the details are consistent. Rather than quote or summarize each version individually, I’ll list the core points:

  1. A white woman settled in or near Angola Neck, southwest of Lewes and in Indian River Hundred, roughly fifteen to twenty years before the American Revolution (i.e., 1756 – 1761).
  2. She was either Irish or Spanish, or, in one version, Irish with a claim to an estate in Spain.
  3. Her name was Regua, Señorita Requa, or Miss Reegan.
  4. She purchased some newly arrived slaves in Lewes, one of whom was very handsome. According to most versions, he could speak Spanish, and told her he was a Spanish and/or Moorish prince who had been sold into slavery. In one version, his name was Requa.
  5. The two married and produced mixed descendants who were scorned by the local whites, yet did not wish to marry the local blacks, so they either intermarried amongst themselves or married Indians. Their descendants in Indian River Hundred were numerous. Red hair is often mentioned.
  6. The name Regua (or Requa, etc.) evolved into the surname Ridgeway.

The facts are less dramatic, though they don’t disprove any of the plot points listed above, and are remarkably compatible with them.

John Regua, Indian River Hundred, 1740s – 1790s?

A mulatto whose name was recorded as John Rigway, John Regua, John Rigwaugh, John Rigwaw, and John Rigware, among other similar spellings, was living in Indian River Hundred as early as the 1740s. His daughters were baptized at St. George’s in 1748, and he purchased nearly 300 acres of land near Swan Creek from Cord Hazzard between 1753 and 1754. Variations of his name appear on tax lists throughout the following decades, and in my opinion, most of these creative spellings suggest that the name was not pronounced like the English surname Ridgeway. It seems more likely that the writers were struggling to spell a name which was unfamiliar, and probably foreign.

Although Regua is a rather obscure term, it could very well be Portuguese. Peso de Régua (or Pezo de Regoa) is a city in northern Portugal, and similar names can be found in Spain and in the Pacific. It should perhaps be noted here that another surname suspected to be of Portuguese or Spanish origin, Driggas or Driggers (possibly derived from Rodrigues or Rodriguez), appears in Indian River Hundred as early as 1770.

Little is known of John’s immediate family, and it’s difficult to connect the dots between him and later generations with certainty, but it’s likely that he had sons named William and Isaac, who, like him, appear in early tax lists for Indian River Hundred, as well as the records of St. George’s. In July 1785, William and Jane Riguway baptized a child who had been born nearly a year earlier, and just a few weeks later, Isaac and Lydia Riguway baptized a daughter named Allender. Isaac’s fate is unknown, but William appears in a number of records including the 1820 census (which vaguely described him as being 45 or older), and died before November 1826.

The Rigware family in Indian River Hundred, 1810 – 1840s

Census records allow us to identify several Rigware households in Indian River Hundred between 1810 and 1840, headed by:

  1. William Rigware, Sr., enumerated in 1820 and most likely the same man who was a taxable as early as 1774, and who is assumed to be John Regua’s eldest son. Interestingly, William’s household included one female slave who was 45 or older in 1820.
  2. Peter Rigware, age unknown, enumerated in 1810.
  3. John Rigware, enumerated in 1810 and 1820 with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1794. He is most likely the same man who appears in the 1830 census as John Rigway, aged 55-99, with a birthdate range of 1731 – 1775, and again in the 1850 census as 73-year-old John Ridgeway, living in the household of Nathaniel Clark in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred. Comparison of these slightly conflicting records suggests that he was born circa 1776.
  4. Simon Rigware, enumerated in 1820 and 1840, with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1785. In 1840, his name was given as “Simon Rigware alias Jack.”
  5. Jacob Rigware, enumerated in 1820 with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1794. In 1850, a 60-year-old Jacob Ridgway was living in the household of John and Hetty Harmon in Broadkill Hundred. If they are the same man, then Jacob was born circa 1790.

With the exception of the enigmatic female slave living in William Rigware’s household in 1820 (who may very well have been a family member), all of these men and their family members were described as free colored persons or mulattoes. Although researchers using resources like Ancestry.com will find transcribed spellings like Rigwars and Rigwan, a closer look at the handwritten records suggested that the correct spelling is, indeed, Rigware. It should be noted that during this period, the family remained concentrated in Indian River Hundred.

Rigware, Ridgway, and Ridgeway in 1850

The 1850 U.S. Federal Census is notable for the amount of information it provides. Previously, only heads of household were named, and the members of the household were vaguely listed by gender and age ranges. In 1850 (and in every census since), each member of the household was identified by name and age. When it comes to the Rigware family, the 1850 census provides evidence for two important trends. First, they had begun to migrate northward, appearing in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred, Broadkill Hundred, and Cedar Creek Hundred. Second, the name had been changed to Ridgway in certain instances.

Confusingly, the 1850 census also includes a number of Ridgeways who might or might not be related to the Rigwares. Connections to both New Jersey and Indiana are noted, which ought to interest anyone researching Nanticoke genealogy. However, I’ll ignore these households for the moment and focus on those which can reasonably be assumed to be related to the Rigwares of Indian River Hundred.

As was mentioned previously, John Ridgway, a 73-year-old mulatto, was living in the household of Nathaniel Clark in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred. The name Clark, of course, has been associated with the Nanticoke Indian Association since its beginnings, and it was Lydia Clark who first recited a version of the Romantic Legend in 1855. Nathaniel’s wife was named Unicey, and they also had a daughter named Unicey, which might suggest some connection to Eunice Ridgeway, who was living with her husband, Levin Sockum, in Indian River Hundred at the time. It’s possible that the elder Unicey was John’s daughter, in which case her maiden name would have been Rigware or Ridgway. Some relationship between all of these individuals seems likely.

Eunice White Ridgeway, wife of Levin Sockum, 1813-1896.

Another John Ridgway was living in Broadkill Hundred at the time, though this one was 35. His wife, Sophia, was 20, while a third member of the household, 18-year-old Matilda Ridgway, may have been a younger sister.

Also in Broadkill Hundred was the household of John Harmon, who was 25. The only other members were his wife, Hetty, who was 20, and Jacob Ridgway, 60.

Moving northward, we come to the household of William Rigware, age 46, in Cedar Creek Hundred. He is assumed to have been the son of William Rigware, Sr., who lived in Indian River Hundred. William is notable for three reasons:

  1. He was the father of Cornelius Ridgeway, who was later described as the patriarch of the Cheswold Moors, and who remembered a version of the Romantic Legend.
  2. He continued to migrate northward between 1850 and 1860; when one considers his assumed residence in Indian River Hundred between his birth around 1804 and his father’s death in 1826, he is practically a direct link between the Indian River and Cheswold communities.
  3. By 1860, he, too, had changed his surname to Ridgeway.

Another person of interest in the 1850 census is a mulatto named Tilman (or Tilghman) Jack, who was living in Dover Hundred with his wife and six children. By 1870, he had become Tilghman Ridway and was living in Northwest Fork Hundred, near Seaford; by 1880, Tilghman Ridgeway and family were back in Dover. It should be remembered that Simon Rigware of Indian River Hundred was called “Simon Rigware alias Jack” in 1840. The significance of the Jack name is unclear.

The Ridgeway family in Kent County, 1850s – 1890s

By 1860, William Rigware had become William Ridgeway, and had moved his family to Duck Creek Hundred. Personally, I believe the change from Rigware to Ridgeway was deliberate. The former spelling, which followed older spellings like Rigwaugh and Regua, was used consistently for decades. I find it hard to believe that multiple individuals previously known as Rigwares suddenly became Ridgways or Ridgeways in 1850 without having decided to. It was not long after this that Levin Sockum’s family changed both the spelling and pronunciation of their surname to Sockume (sock-yoom). It’s possible that some of the multiracial families who claimed Indian ancestry changed their names during this period in a subtle attempt to improve their social status. Rigware was a mulatto name, Ridgeway was a white name — or so they may have reasoned. This is not to say that they were attempting to claim to be white; they continued to be described as mulattoes, and sometimes as blacks. Yet Weslager wrote of some of the Cheswold Moors successfully “passing” for white and moving away.

Cornelius Ridgeway — who was probably the great-grandson of John Regua — was talking about his own family’s history when he told a journalist about the legend of Señorita Requa in 1895, and had himself been a Rigware as a young boy.

Conclusion

Although there is no evidence that the Ridgeway family associated with the Nanticokes and Moors is descended from a white woman who married a handsome slave on her plantation in the Angola area in the 1750s, it’s a matter of fact that a free mulatto named John Regua bought a considerable amount of land in the right area during the right time period, and his descendants lived in Indian River Hundred for nearly a century before they began to migrate northward, and his surname evolved into Rigware by the late 18th century and Ridgeway by the mid-19th century. These facts are delightfully compatible with the core points of the Romantic Legend.

I should note at this point that there is no obvious connection to the historical Nanticoke Indians who lived along the Nanticoke River. I’ve called Ridgeway a Nanticoke surname in the sense that it is associated with the modern Nanticoke Indian Association and related groups in Kent County and New Jersey.

This article might have raised more questions than it has answered. Who was John Regua? Where did he come from? Where did he come by what seems to be a Portuguese name? Is it a coincidence that men named Driggas were among his neighbors, and Angola Neck was named after a major Portuguese colony?

Other surnames with a possible Portuguese or Spanish connection are found throughout the colonial records of the peninsula, such as Gonsolvos (Gonçalves), Francisco, and Dias. Some of them were associated with the Cheswold Moors.

When one considers these curious facts, the legends of the Nanticokes and Moors — including not only the Romantic Legend, but also tales involving shipwrecked pirates — begin to sound surprisingly plausible.

– Chris Slavens

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The Roofed Graves of Delmarva

This article was first published in the Laurel Historical Society‘s latest newsletter.

In the 1930s – 1940s, several sources reported the presence of old, roof-like, wooden grave covers or shelters in cemeteries in lower Sussex, notably at Bethel M.E. Church on the east side of Gumboro, the John C. West family cemetery near Raccoon Pond, and King’s M.E. Church near Trussum Pond. Their age, origins, and purpose were a matter of speculation. Additional sources published in the 1960s – 1970s indicate that the shelters were also used across the state line in eastern Wicomico County.

However, the mysterious shingled structures were documented only sparingly, and never seriously investigated. None are known to have survived to the present, making a handful of 20th-century sources and photographs the only evidence that such a custom ever existed.

Although the earliest known description is found in Delaware: A Guide to the First State (1938), compiled by members of the Federal Writers Project, Frank R. Zebley’s The Churches of Delaware (1947) is more helpful in that he mentions three specific sites, as well as two specific graves, those of John C. West (1814-1858) and his first wife, Mahala B. Truitt (1822-1852). Zebley also photographed some of the structures. Other sources include Graveyards and Gravestones of Wicomico by John E. Jacob, Jr. (1971) and Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware by Dorothy Pepper (1976). Usually called “roofed-over graves” or “A-frames,” the structures featured cypress or cedar shingles and gabled ends. Most were in poor condition even in the 1930s.

At this time, there are five known sites in Sussex County:

  1. Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church in Gumboro.
  2. King’s Methodist Episcopal Church near Laurel.
  3. The John C. West family cemetery on Wootten Road, near Raccoon Pond.
  4. The Daisey family cemetery on Wilgus Cemetery Road, between Roxana and Bayard.
  5. A cemetery associated with the Timmons family near Lowe’s Crossroads.

Jacob did not specify any sites in eastern Wicomico, but they were most likely located in the area between Pittsville and the state line. No sites are known to have been reported in Worcester County.

The grave of Elijah Daisey (1888-1891) near Bayard, Delaware, photographed in 1947. Courtesy of Joan Howard.

The grave of Elijah Daisey (1888-1891) near Bayard, Delaware, photographed in 1947. Courtesy of Joan Howard.

The available evidence suggests that the custom dates back to the 1840s, but it is unclear whether it developed locally, or was inspired by similar traditions in the South. Stone, peaked grave shelters known as combs are found throughout the Upland South, and have been dated to the 1810s, while shelters made of metal roofing have been erected even in the 21st century. (Dr. Richard C. Finch’s extensive studies of comb graves can be found at graterutabaga.com). All of the styles of shelters seem to be intended to protect graves, whether from animals, weather, or both. Different materials might simply reflect what was available; though stone slabs were rare and expensive on the peninsula during the early 19th century, durable cypress shingles were readily available, especially in the neighborhood of the Pocomoke Swamp. Cypress slabs were also used as grave markers, some of which still survive.

Locally, the custom’s association with John C. West and his family might prove to be important. Some of his descendants are buried at the King’s Church site, while some of his relatives and ancestors lived in eastern Wicomico County, relatively close to the Bethel Church site (but closer to Line Church, where, disappointingly, no roofed graves were ever reported). Interestingly—perhaps importantly, perhaps coincidentally—there is an area of high elevation in this neighborhood which was known as Quaacosan Ridge as early as 1758. Native American quacason houses were crib-like wooden structures which protected human corpses while the flesh decayed, after which the bones were removed. Although there is no obvious link between quacason houses and roofed graves, it is certainly fascinating to consider that the early English settlers encountered Native American “cemeteries” featuring above-ground wooden structures all over the peninsula, and used them as landmarks for decades.

Although the origins and purpose of the roofed graves of Delmarva are still unclear, it might be possible for us to learn more. They disappeared between the 1940s and 1970s; surely there are living locals who remember them. I am especially interested in learning about any additional sites, specific graves, or photographs, and hope to publish a much more detailed article about this mysterious custom in the future.

– Chris Slavens

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Delaware Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1915

Proclamation

The lengthening shadows of the passing days remind us that we are approaching the completion of another year.

To some, there may have come sorrow and misfortune; to others, gladness and success; but whatever has been the measure of our experience, we should not be unmindful of the obligation we owe to Almighty God. The acknowledgment of this obligation, which it has been our custom to express since first inaugurated by our forefathers, has left its imprint upon our National life and character and distinguished us as a Christian Nation.

For the great benefits we have received out of the abundant harvests, and other blessings which have been conferred upon us, we should be ever thankful and, altho peace and plenty abound on every hand, the people of our Country have seldom before stood in need of the strengthening power and guiding influence of Divine Providence.

Therefore, I, Charles R. Miller, Governor of the State of Delaware, do designate Thursday, November twenty-fifth, Nineteen Hundred and Fifteen, as a day of general thanksgiving and prayer.

Let us on that day, throughout the State, cease from our usual occupations and join together in our churches and in our homes and render thanks to the Divine Creator and Ruler of the Universe for the great benefits which we have received at His hands and implore of Him to grant to our Nation and to our State a continuance of the blessings of Peace and Prosperity.

In testimony whereof, I, Charles R. Miller, Governor of the State of Delaware, have hereunto set my hand and caused the Great Seal to be affixed at Dover, this tenth day of November, in the year of our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Fifteen, and in the year of the Independence of the United States the One Hundred and Fortieth.

By the Governor:

Chas. R. Miller

Charles R. Miller, Governor of the State of Delaware

Charles R. Miller, Governor of the State of Delaware

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