Category Archives: Delmarva Geography

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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Whorekill and Murderkill: Reclaiming Delaware’s Unsavory Place-names, part 2

In a previous post, I examined the English name Whorekill, which has been explained away as being a corruption of Hoorn (a Dutch city) + Kill (Dutch for creek), and concluded that the original Dutch name Hoeren-kil or Hoere kill most likely referred to whoring or prostitution on the part of the local Indian women, not the city of Hoorn. I also pointed out that the term hore could also be translated “mud” in Middle Dutch, the ancestor of the Dutch language spoken during the era in question.

A similar controversy surrounds the English name Murderkill, which is still in use today. The name dates back to the mid-17th century, when the Dutch and the Swedes had settlements along the Delaware River (then known as the Zuydt Rivier, or South River). Kill or kil meant creek, but the origin of the name Murder Creek is a bit more complicated.

Confusingly, the river and associated sites (e.g., a Quaker meeting house) were called both Murtherkill and Motherkill (sometimes substituting the suffix -kiln), murther being an archaic term for murder. This lends some credence to the theory that the Dutch originally named the creek Moeder Kill or Mother Creek, which has been advanced in the News Journal and elsewhere. The similarity between moeder and murder is undeniable, but I think the admittedly limited evidence suggests that the creek was named after murder (for whatever reason); therefore the English names Murtherkill and Murderkill are accurate successors, and it is Motherkill that was the corruption.

The earliest written form of the name comes from the Swedes. Peter Lindstrom’s map of New Sweden, generally agreed to date to the 1650s, includes a waterway labeled Mordare Kijhlen — or, in English, Murderer Creek. The name Moeder Kill or anything similar simply does not appear in any records of the time.

Published in 1691, Lindestrom's map is believed to date to the 1650s. Notice Hinlopen at the far left or southernmost portion of the map.

Published in 1691, Lindestrom’s map of the Delaware River is believed to date to the 1650s. Notice Cape Henlopen at the far left or southernmost portion of the map.

Following the English occupation of the territory in the 1660s, the name became Murther-kill, the English “murther” being an accurate translation of the Swedish mordar. This is the earliest English name for the waterway; Motherkill came later.

I believe it was the name and pronunciation of Murtherkill which gave birth to the alternative name Motherkill or Motherkiln. A number of traveling Quakers wrote of visiting the Motherkill or Motherkiln meeting during the mid- to late 1700s. Yet the names Murtherkill and Murderkill also appear in records of that era. Although I haven’t examined all of the sources in which the various names appear, based on those I’ve read it seems like locals and official records tended to use Murtherkill or Murderkill more often, which visiting preachers and the like may have misheard as Motherkill. For example, William Reckitt mentioned attending a meeting at Motherkill in 1758. In 1763, Daniel Stanton recorded the name as Mother-kiln, and in 1766, John Woolman spelled the name Motherkill. Job Scott recorded the name Mother-kill as late as 1790, yet the local abolitionist Warner Mifflin mentioned the Murtherkill Meeting in 1797. Generally speaking, the creek or river tended to be called Murderkill more often than the other variations during this period, and it is this name that survives to this day.

As to why the Dutch and/or Swedes named a creek after murder or murderers, vague legends involving a massacre of the local Indians have surfaced in sources of questionable reliability, but even the earliest references to these legends seem highly speculative, and were perhaps more an attempt to explain an odd name than to preserve genuine traditions. The possible stories behind both Murderkill and Whorekill might be worthy of a future post or two.

– Chris Slavens

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Whorekill and Murderkill: Reclaiming Delaware’s Unsavory Place-names, part 1

Without a doubt, the two strangest — and most controversial — place-names in Delaware are Whorekill and Murderkill. Whorekill was an early name for Lewes Creek and the town of Lewes, while the Murderkill River flows through southern Kent County and into the Delaware Bay, and is the source of the names North Murderkill Hundred and South Murderkill Hundred. Kill dates back to the Dutch occupation of the region, and simply means “creek.” So — Whore Creek? Murder Creek? What’s going on here?

As recently as 2014, the News Journal published a mythbusting sort of article, assuring readers that the odd names are simply English corruptions of the Dutch terms for Hoorn Creek and Mother Creek, respectively, Hoorn being a Dutch city to which some of the early settlers were connected. Although this seems like a very reasonable explanation — after all, the Dutch moeder is fairly similar to the English murder, and the name Hornkill does appear in some records — I’ve come to believe that there is stronger evidence for the names meaning exactly what they seem to mean.

Let’s take a look at the Lewes area first, and save Murderkill for another post. The Dutch established the short-lived Zwaanendael settlement there in 1631, and called the creek Blommaert’s Kill in honor of Samuel Blommaert, one of the directors of the Dutch West India Company who had purchased the tract from the local Indians, who massacred the settlers shortly thereafter. However, the creek was called Hoeren-kil as early as 1640, and Hoere-kil as early as 1642. Hoere means whore, harlot, prostitute, etc., and hoeren is simply the plural form of the term; the obvious translation is Whores Creek or Whore Creek.

Section of a copy of Jan Jansson's map of the New Netherlands, 1651, incorporating much of the information from John Smith's map of 1612, and erroneously placing Cape Hinlopen at Fenwick Island.

Section of a copy of Jan Jansson’s map of the New Netherlands, 1651, incorporating much of the information from John Smith’s map of 1612, and erroneously placing Cape Hinlopen at Fenwick Island.

There was also a Hoeren Eylant (island) in what is now the Connecticut River. Later writers explained both names as originating from local Indian prostitution or sharing of women.

Notice Lange Eylant (Long Island) near the bottom, and Hoere Eylant near the center.

Notice Lange Eylant (Long Island) near the bottom, and Hoeren Eylant near the center.

An alternative, but somewhat speculative translation could be Mud Creek, based on the rather obscure Middle Dutch word hore or hor, meaning mud, excrement, filth, etc., from the Old High German word hore. Interestingly, it has been suggested that both the English whore and the Dutch hoere could be derived from slang referring to prostitutes as filth or scum. I have never heard or read of anyone suggesting this translation, nor am I arguing in favor of this possibility. I just think it needs to be mentioned, and perhaps investigated further by an authority on 17th-century Dutch.

There is one reason, in particular, that leads me to believe that “whore” is indeed the correct translation, and it requires an understanding of the history of the area. Following the disastrous destruction of Zwaanendael, both the Dutch and the Swedes more or less left the Hoere Kill alone until a Dutch Mennonite named Pieter Plockhoy established a small settlement nearby with forty-one settlers in 1663. The settlement was destroyed by English forces less than a year later, but there is evidence that some of the colonists not only survived the attack, but continued to live in the area. A 1671 census indicates that there were several Dutch households in the town known as Horekill or Whorekill. I’m guessing that the old Hoere Kill became Whorekill not because the English mistranslated a Dutch name, but because the Dutch locals stayed put, became English subjects and learned the language, and translated the name themselves. Hoere and whore were so similar that the spoken name really didn’t even change, only its spelling.

On the other hand, the theory that the creek was named after Hoorn not only requires us to assume that the English botched the name (which would be understandable), but that the Dutch themselves consistently misspelled the name from the very beginning of its use. They did not make this error with other sites named after Hoorn, such as Kaap Hoorn (Cape Horn) in South America. I have trouble believing that Dutch mapmakers who were well aware of the spelling of the important city of Hoorn (see any map of the Netherlands of that period) would have gotten it so badly wrong on maps of the American colony, not only misspelling it but substituting the word for prostitute. I also have trouble believing that rough Dutch seamen, soldiers, fur traders, and the like would have objected to naming a site on the wild frontier after prostitution on moral grounds — particularly since generations of respectable English colonists (and then American citizens) continued to use the name Whorekill even after the town had been renamed Lewes.

Thornton's map of 1706 shows Whorekill as an alternate name for Cape Henlopen.

Thornton’s map of 1706 shows Whorekill as an alternate name for Cape Henlopen.

It is my position at this time, while keeping an open mind, that the occasional usage of Hornkill in Swedish and English records was an alternative spelling of the original Hoeren-kil, and that the English name Whorekill did, in fact, accurately reflect some association with prostitution. If I were to propose an alternative explanation for the name, I would point to the similar Middle Dutch words for mud, which would make sense in the context of naming a creek. I think the explanation involving the city of Hoorn is the weakest of all, and is perhaps based more on a desire to whitewash history than on primary sources like Dutch maps and records which clearly use Hoeren or Hoere, not Hoorn.

– Chris Slavens

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Indian Town Creek(s) in colonial Sussex

Even the most experienced historians and genealogists consider the land records of colonial Sussex County to be unusually challenging. Much of the territory was once claimed by both Pennsylvania and Maryland, and although Pennsylvania eventually came out ahead in that dispute, more than half of the county was patented to Marylanders who paid Maryland’s taxes and obeyed Maryland’s laws into the 1770s. To further complicate the situation, the Maryland portion was originally part of Old Somerset County, but most of it was included in the new Worcester County in 1742. The shifting boundary lines can make it seem like a particular family relocated several times, when, in fact, their (quite stationary) farm may have been located in Somerset County, Maryland; Worcester County, Maryland; and Sussex County, Delaware, in a period of just over thirty years.

However, the shifting boundaries aren’t nearly as confusing as the ever-changing and -evolving of the hundreds of tiny creeks and branches which are often the only geographical references found in early land records. Typically, surveyors referred to the nearest river and the nearest of its tributaries, the neighboring farmer if there was one, and occasionally a county road. It seems that many of these tributaries had numerous names over the years, few of which appear on surviving maps. Pinpointing the location of a particular location can become frustrating, and possibly even futile, when its description includes a place-name that doesn’t seem to appear in any other records. Or, worse, when the same name was given to entirely separate waterways or other places in the same region.

For example, at one point, more than one local river or creek had a Great Branch, which was, of course, accompanied by a Great Neck. In the Broad Creek area, there was a Bald Cypress Branch which does not appear labeled as such on any map, yet just a few miles away, a tributary of the Pocomoke River is known as Bald Cypress Branch to this day.

An especially confusing, yet important, example is the name Indian Town Creek or Indian Town Branch. The name doesn’t appear on any map that I’m aware of. Even the most seasoned researcher could be forgiven for coming across the name in colonial Worcester land records and not realizing that it belonged to two different creeks; one in Baltimore Hundred, now known as Dirickson Creek; and the other less than a day’s journey away near the head of Indian River, now known as Irons Branch, which was a boundary of the so-called Indian River Indians’ reservation known as Askeksy. As both are on the south side of Indian River, surveys which mention the creeks can sound as if they’re describing the same neighborhood.

The first, but perhaps lesser-known Indian Town Creek, is a tributary of the body of water known as the Sound, or Little Assawoman Bay. It’s labeled Herring Creek on the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868 (itself a cause of confusion, since there is a Herring Branch just a few miles northwest), but has been known as Dirickson Creek since at least 1901.

The origin of this name is rather mysterious, and surely deserving of further research. Obviously, English settlers named the creek after a nearby Indian settlement — but where was it? When was it established? Who lived there? And when did they leave?

It’s possible that the band of migrating refugees who would become known as the Indian River Indians lived near the creek in the late 1600s. In 1705, their chief Robin stated that they had been forced to move from the Buckingham area to “Assawamen” before migrating northward yet again. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t have joined an existing Indian settlement. Chief Robin’s brief statement allows for many possibilities, and the name Assawamen shouldn’t necessarily be associated with the Little Assawoman Bay (a later name for the Sound), anyway. In the absence of additional written information, archaeology might be able to shed light on the Indian presence at this location. What is certain is that the English continued to call the creek Indian Town Creek or Branch long after the town in question had been abandoned; the name appears in Worcester County land records in the mid-1700s, and was still in use when the original Sound Methodist Church was built on the southeast side of the creek in 1784.

Since the second and better-known Indian Town Branch was the home of the Indian River Indians from at least 1705 into the 1740s, I’ll briefly comment on their journey from Assawamen to that final settlement. According to Robin, the band had lived at another site near Indian River after their (presumably involuntary) departure from Assawamen. We can only speculate as to where this settlement, perhaps occupied during the 1690s or even later, was located, but I think it’s worth noting that there is a persistent, albeit controversial, local legend associating Blackfoot Town (Dagsboro) with Indians. Without getting into all of the arguments for and against this alleged connection, I’d like to point out that Blackfoot Town was conveniently located between the head of the Sound and Askeksy, on one of the tributaries of Indian River. And although I’m not arguing that Blackfoot was an Indian name (for one thing, the name doesn’t appear in English records until the 1740s), I am suggesting that if the English village of Blackfoot developed on or near the site of an Indian settlement — possibly even the Indian River settlement alluded to by Robin — it might explain why local folklore vaguely hints at a Blackfoot Town – Indian connection. This is simply speculation on my part.

Wherever the band’s first Indian River settlement was located, their next stop is well-documented. By 1705 they were living along a tributary near the head of Indian River, in the sparsely inhabited, swampy, northern outskirts of Somerset County, but were fearful of being forced to move yet again. In response to Robin’s request, the colonial Maryland government created a 1,000-acre reservation which apparently included the land the group was already living on. It was known as Askeksy or Askekecky (among other spellings), but the English unimaginatively called the residents of the reservation the “Indian River Indians,” and the creek that formed much of the reservation’s southern boundary was called Indian Town Branch, or sometimes Indian Branch. But, like its relative in Baltimore Hundred, it, too, was renamed. By the late 1800s, it was known as Yellow Branch (which is itself an interesting name; is it a coincidence that the local multiracial descendants of the various Indian tribes were called “yellow men,” as opposed to white, black, or red men, at that time?). During the first half of the 20th century, the branch’s eastern prong continued to be labeled Yellow Branch on U. S. Geological Survey maps, but the northern portion was known as Irons Branch, and eventually the name Yellow Branch fell out of use.

– Chris Slavens

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