Category Archives: Laurel

Biography of Governor Nathaniel Mitchell

The following biography of Governor Nathaniel Mitchell, possibly the most important individual in the history of Laurel, was published in the Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware in 1899. Recently I acquired a copy of this rare two-volume set, sometimes called Runk’s History of Delaware (after the publisher, J. M. Runk & Co.), and will be sharing a few excerpts on this blog.

Governor Nathaniel Mitchell

Nathaniel Mitchell, one of the early governors of Delaware, was an ardent patriot and distinguished soldier and officer of the Revolution. He was born in 1753, at, or near, what is now Laurel, in Sussex county, Delaware, son of James and Margaret (Dagworthy) Mitchell, and nephew of Gen. John Dagworthy, of Delaware. Little is known of his early life or opportunities for securing an education. He was commissioned adjutant in Col. John Dagworthy’s Delaware battalion of militia in 1775; captain in Col. Samuel Patterson’s Delaware battalion of the “Flying Camp,” from June to December, 1776; captain in Col. William Grayson’s Additional Continental regiment, January 20, 1777; major in the same regiment from December 23, 1777, when he was transferred to Col. Nathaniel Gist’s Additional Continental regiment, April 22, 1779. He was brigade major and inspector to Gen. Peter Muhlenberg, 1779-81. Retired from service January 1, 1781, prisoner of war 1781, and paroled.

Major Mitchell was a delegate from Delaware to the Continental Congress in 1786-88, and governor of the State from 1805 to 1807. (See sketch of the governors). He was a delegate to the general meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati at Philadelphia in May, 1787. He died at Laurel, Delaware, February 21, 1814, and was buried in the cemetery of the old Broad Creek Episcopal Church, near that town. Major Mitchell left descendants, but little is known of them or of his wife.

Many interesting reminiscences of the life and character of this ardent patriot have been preserved, but after such a long lapse of time have almost been lost sight of. In a fragmentary copy of “The Constitutionalist, or the Defender of the People’s Rights,” published September 19, 1804, is found a long tribute to his memory, by “An Old Officer,” from which much that is interesting is gleaned. This writer says that he was not one of those modern patriots, noisy and boisterous after danger has passed, who sheltered themselves in hiding places and courted the clemency of their foes; nor was he one of your wild enthusiasts who thought that the Americans knew nothing about freedom, and that it was a notion imported into the country by foreigners. No; he was one of those men who fought and suffered for his country; who was a true friend in its most perilous moments; who believed that his countrymen knew what liberty was, when they wasted their fortunes and shed their blood to procure it.

This same writer relates some events in his career as an officer in the army, which shows the material of which he was made. In 1776, when about twenty years of age, he forsook his family and the improvement which he was making, to fly to his country’s standard to aid in defending the right. He first joined the “Flying Camp” and the regiment was stationed at Amboy and remained till the time for which the men enlisted had expired. During this period frequent skirmishes between our troops and the British and Hessians took place. On one of these occasions Captain Mitchell particularly distinguished himself. A body of the enemy was sent over to attack our outposts. Captain Mitchell happily discovered the enemy approaching. He rallied his company, and although he had a smaller number of men, he succeeded in capturing nearly the entire detachment of British and Hessians.

When the force composing the “Flying Camp” was discharged Captain Mitchell was commissioned captain of a company in the regiment directed to be raised by Congress, and to be commanded by Colonel Grayson, of Virginia. A warm friendship existed between him and the Virginia colonel. Captain Mitchell addressed himself to the work of recruiting the company he was to command, and so great was his zeal and activity that his quota of men was secured long before the regiment could be formed. In 1777 they were marched to Philadelphia, where they remained till they were inoculated for the small pox. Upon the recovery of the men they proceeded to camp, and, Grayson’s regiment not having joined the army, they were attached to the Delaware troops. As soon as his own regiment arrived, Captain Mitchell was united to it, and his company fought gallantly at the battle of Brandywine. He was frequently seen encouraging his men, and bravely exposing himself, among the foremost, to the fire of the enemy. He greatly endeared himself to his men by his anxiety to secure and remove the wounded.

Not long after this affair Captain Mitchell was prostrated by a dangerous illness, supposed to be camp fever, which reduced him to great extremity, and from which he recovered slowly, owing to the hardships and privations of camp life. He was in this condition when the battle of Germantown took place, and was therefore unable to take part in that engagement.

Captain Mitchell shared the horrors of the rigorous winter at Valley Forge when the American army lay there, watching the British in Philadelphia. During that terrible season, Captain Mitchell was entrusted with highly important duties. He was placed at the head of a company in General Scott’s brigade, with orders to guard a dangerous outpost, and was constantly exposed to great danger, as the commanding general depended on him for information relating to any movement on the part of the enemy, so that the camp might not be surprised. He was also frequently called on to make sudden and dangerous incursions into the country to surprise or watch foraging detachments of the British, which made his duties at all times full of peril.

At the battle of Monmouth, he was in the advanced guard under the command of General Lee, who attacked the rear of the British army in their retreat across New Jersey. Upon this occasion, Colonel Grayson commanding the brigade, the command of the regiment was given to Captain Mitchell. It was exposed to the hottest fire of the enemy, and by a desperate resistance against a heavy column of their army, afforded time for the American troops to form, which were advancing hastily under an impression that the enemy was retreating. The regiment sustained a heavy loss in this engagement, but it nobly maintained the reputation of the American arms.

At the end of the New Jersey campaign, the Virginia troops, to which Captain Mitchell belonged, were ordered to the southward. In the winter of 1779-80 he was appointed brigade major and inspector under General Muhlenberg; and in the succeeding summer he was stationed at Fredericksburg for the purpose of promoting and superintending the recruiting service. Having raised and organized a regiment at Chesterfield Court House, he received from Congress the commission of major. It was about this time that General Lee invaded Virginia, committing great depredations throughout the country. Major Mitchell was ordered to join General Muhlenberg, and received the appointment of adjutant general. General Muhlenberg marched into Suffolk, and during the campaign was employed in watching and repelling the incursions of the British from Norfolk. The country was greatly benefited by this service, though it afforded no occasion to the troops to distinguish themselves.

When Arnold invaded Virginia in 1781, wasting everything with fire and sword, Major Mitchell was appointed to the command of the advance guard, which opposed the advance of the British army. This handful of men frequently engaged with the enemy, and nearly one half was killed or wounded. He succeeded however, in cutting off several marauding parties, making a number of prisoners.

An anecdote of Major Mitchell ought not to be forgotten. Early one morning, being at the head of a scouting party, the principal object of which was to gain intelligence, he came up to the farm house of a poor widow, whose husband had lately fallen in battle, and found her bathed in tears, with several small children crying about her. He inquired into the cause of her distress, generously offering any relief in his power. She told him a party of British had just left her home, and had plundered her of everything necessary for the subsistence of her family, leaving her no food for her children, and she knew not how to prevent them from starving. “Be of good cheer,” replied the Major, “and I will try and make the plunderers restore to you their booty.” He instantly pursued, and fortunately soon came up with the party, consisting of about twenty men, who being encumbered with the pillage of several houses were able to move but slowly. He fell too suddenly upon them to allow any escape; and they were marched back to the widow’s with their stolen goods. The poor woman was desired to name the property that belonged to her, which was immediately restored; and for any article missing the plunderers were compelled to pay the full value. The major left the house with the prisoners, loaded with the blessings of the widow.

When the British had returned from Petersburg, he was ordered to throw a bridge of boats over the Appomattox, to remove and secure a quantity of flour, which was in danger of falling into the enemy’s hands. A party of militia was stationed to over the operation. The duty committed to the major was of the most laborious nature. From the small force allowed for its accomplishment, the service required incessant attention, and no diligence was spared to perform it. In the night, however, between the 10th and 11th of May, 1781, the militia having neglected to guard their posts, the British were enabled to surprise the major and his party, and captured him together with Major Mure and six other officers, who remained prisoners until the treaty of peace was signed.

Major Mitchell ever enjoyed the reputation of an active, brave and enterprising officer. He was always among the foremost upon dangerous occasions, and his operations were conducted with equal address and courage. He was a strict disciplinarian, but while he was exact in requiring attention to duty on the part of his men he was careful to supply their wants, and to protect them from every species of outrage and injustice. His conduct always manifested his warm attachment to the independence of his country. And before the unfortunate event which threw him into the power of the enemy, and for which he was not answerable, no exertion was omitted which could promote the Revolutionary cause. If other men were in higher stations and enabled to render more conspicuous services than Major Mitchell, it cannot be said that they were more zealous and faithful in the discharge of their duties.

In reviewing the military history of this brave and efficient officer, it may be mentioned as a singular historical fact that not far from the spot where he was captured by the British in the month of May, 1781, eighty-four years afterwards all that section of country bordering on the Appomattox, was the theatre of tremendous military operations, which culminated in the surrender of the Confederate army under General Lee to General Grant, and the greatest civil war of modern times was brought to a close.

Some time after the close of the Revolution Major Nathaniel Mitchell was married, but it is greatly regretted that the maiden name of his wife has not been preserved, nor is it known how many children, if any, they had. About this time he was appointed prothonotary of Sussex county, Delaware, and entered upon his duties with the same alacrity which marked his military career. His office soon became remarkable for the orderly arrangement of court records, his diligent attention to public business and the prompt execution of all his duties.

When Major Mitchell was named as a candidate for governor of Delaware, the people generally recognized his fitness for the position, and his nomination was well received. The country was sparsely settled at that time and politics did not enter into contests for office then as sharply as they do now. He encountered some opposition, of course, but was triumphantly elected and entered upon the duties of his office in January, 1805. His administration was quiet, but marked with the same diligence, method, and care which characterized him while performing the humbler duties of prothonotary; and he retired from its cares with the consciousness of having performed his duty to the best of his ability and leaving behind a clean record.

The private life of Governor Mitchell, as we learn from contemporary writers, was unexceptionable and exemplary. He had the easy gentlemanly manners of an old time officer who had mixed much with the world. His hand was always stretched out to every honest man, without regard to dress or appearance. The integrity of his character was unblemished, and calumny never ventured to attack it.

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The Plantation at Whaley’s Crossroads, 1743-1792

Having lived at Whaley’s Crossroads for most of my life, I’ve always been interested in the history of the land that I call home. Who lived here in the past? Who was the first? If there were old, forgotten houses, where were they? Were today’s fields yesterday’s woods, and vice versa? What routes did the early roads follow? What did the land look like during the colonial era?

With the help of early maps, land records, wills and other genealogical records, and software, I’ve been able to answer some of these questions, but there is much that remains unknown. The Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868, which features local roads, waterways, houses and their owners’ names, and other structures, is incredibly useful — but 1868 isn’t all that early when one considers that there was English settlement activity in the neighborhood in the early 1700s. My goal is to use the atlas as a starting point and work backwards towards the original Maryland surveys, and connect as many dots as possible in this mostly forgotten period of 150+ years.

For this article, I’ve used Plat Plotter, Inkscape, and Google imagery to create a series of maps to demonstrate how I visualize overlapping surveys  and resurveys from the same neighborhood. In theory — my theory, at least — the overlapping area(s) between different early surveys of the same tract of land can be viewed as a Venn Diagram, of sorts. The unchanging core of a plantation over the course of decades probably includes the site of the primary dwelling house and/or the most desirable land. As successive owners buy and sell parcels of surrounding land, they create new property lines which can be compared to the older property lines, and — again, in theory — we should be able to make some educated guesses about where the core of a plantation may have been during a particular period.

All of this sounds very confusing, even to me as I’m writing about it. This is better shown than described.

Let’s start with a plat of the tract Friendship, surveyed for John N. Saunders in 1760:

This is a resurvey which begins with the original, diamond-shaped 50-acre tract (D), takes away several acres which are part of an overlapping “elder survey” (C), and adds vacant land (B), resulting in a new tract. The rest of the certificate (not shown) explains that the original tract had been surveyed for James Bowger in 1743, and was named Bowger’s Choyce (or Choice), but “the Afsd. Bowger had omitted paying Caution for the Land” and the original certificate became “null & void.” James Bowger or Bouger remains a somewhat mysterious figure in the early history of the neighborhood; he appears on the tax list for 1723, and, interestingly enough, the 1760 survey of Friendship refers to Bowger’s Mill, which was probably located at Terrapin Pond. He also received a patent for a 55-acre tract called John’s Folly in 1720.

A word of explanation is in order before we look at the next image, which shows the approximate location of Bowger’s Choyce. Although I’ll be presenting the next few maps in chronological order, I had to locate and plot each of them in reverse chronological order. Their locations are based on the boundaries of other parcels of land. To the north, a large tract sold in 1811 bordered land owned by Jonathan Betts, and it just so happened that two pieces of land, which Betts purchased from Thomas Paramore in 1791 and 1792, fit the neighboring tract like a glove. The boundaries of these two parcels, which we’ll look at in a bit, begin with the original bounder of both Friendship and Bowger’s Choyce, and although slight errors in the surveys make it impossible to pinpoint its exact location, we can get very, very close.

Here is the approximate location of Bowger’s Choyce, mostly in the area between Route 24, Whaleys Road, and Samuel Hill Road:

Bowger’s Choyce, 1743

The boundaries begin at the southernmost point, which, in 1743, was a marked red oak sapling. As I said, there’s a margin of error here, and the tree is long gone, so we can’t be sure of the exact spot, but it’s close.

Apparently, Bowger’s Choyce overlapped with another tract — “C” from the plat of 1760 — which I’ve yet to identify. The next image is based on a crude tracing of the plat, since I don’t have any other information about the mystery tract’s boundaries.

“C”

Though “C” was called an elder survey in 1760, it’s unclear whether it predates the survey of Bowger’s Choyce in 1743. It certainly predates the resurvey of Friendship in 1760.

Beginning at the same red oak at the southernmost point of Bowger’s Choyce, it’s fairly easy to plot the boundaries of Friendship:

Friendship, 1760

A small section of the tract extends beyond the map. The shape of Friendship doesn’t match the modern landscape in an overtly recognizable way, but there are boundary markers that seem to align with modern features (i.e., roads and tree lines), and may have been used in drawing later property lines.

Friendship was resurveyed yet again in 1776, resulting in a much larger tract called Delay. I don’t have the boundaries of Delay to plot it, although it appears on the incredibly detailed and useful maps created by Mike Hitch and the late John Lyon. However, additional records allow us to piece together the history of Friendship/Delay over the next few decades. Worcester County land record indices indicate that Matthew Parramore purchased a piece of land from John N. Saunders in the late 1760s; though the deed itself isn’t available online and I haven’t sought it out, it seems clear that this purchase included Friendship. Matthew Parramore willed the resurveyed version of Friendship to his son, Ezekiel, who, in turn, conveyed it to Thomas Parremore in 1791. (Note that the name Paramore was spelled differently in various records at that time.) Almost immediately, Thomas sold a 100-acre parcel of the land to Jonathan Betts, Sr., in 1791.

Here is the approximate location of that parcel:

Parremore to Betts, 1791

Notice how a couple of the boundary lines on the northeast side align with modern tree lines. The point near the middle of the tract, at what is almost a right angle, was described as the northwest corner of Parremore’s plantation in 1791, and the line extending to the east and into the woods followed a fence at that time. But just a year later, he sold an additional parcel to Betts, shown below:

Parremore to Betts, 1792

The 1791 and 1792 surveys don’t fit together perfectly, so I’ve erred on the side of matching the 1792 parcel to the tree line along its northeastern corner, which seems to match it perfectly. Its westernmost boundary is questionable, however, and actually overlaps the 1791 parcel somewhat. Both parcels begin at the red oak used as the first bounder of Bowger’s Choyce in 1743 and Friendship in 1760.

I haven’t quite pieced together the history of the land after Betts acquired it in the 1790s; I suspect it passed to Hezekiah Matthews at some point, because I know his son, Henry Clay Matthews, owned it at the time of his death in 1917. Since then, the old plantation has been divided into increasingly smaller parcels owned by a number of landowners including members of the Mitchell, Whaley, Morris, and Slavens families, among others.

The Pomeroy & Beers Atlas offers a glimpse of the neighborhood in 1868 —

Beers Atlas of 1868 + modern imagery

— but it still doesn’t tell us much about the way things were 100+ years earlier. To get a better idea, I’ve stacked the images we’ve already looked at. Where the changing property lines overlap, they reveal what may have been the core of the plantation owned by Jonathan Betts, and the Parremores before him, and John Saunders before them, and — possibly — James Bowger before him, although it’s not clear whether Bowger actually did anything with his land between 1743 and 1760.

The yellowest area  is our “hot spot” (for lack of a better term), not only because it is included in both the 1743 and 1760 surveys, but also because it isn’t included in the first parcel that Thomas Parremore sold in 1791. It seems unlikely to me that he would have sold the most important part of his plantation first. The deeds aren’t helpful, since both vaguely mention housing, fencing, and orchards, which was pretty standard for the deeds of the time, and part of the price of the 1791 parcel is illegible.

So I’ve created two images, the first, showing what I consider to be the primary hot spot; the second, showing adjoining land that may have also been considered part of the core of the plantation between 1743 and 1791, yet, for some reason, was sold a year earlier than the land to the east.

Probable hot spot, 1792

 

Probable hot spot prior to 1791

It’s only my opinion, but I’d like to suggest that the area within the solid yellow lines may have included the earliest and/or primary dwelling house, outbuildings, gardens, and orchards, while the area within the dotted yellow lines may have included early features of less importance; perhaps the earliest fields. I would also suggest that the land outside the yellow lines may have included wooded land and later fields, as the owners expanded and improved their holdings, all while buying and selling surrounding parcels.

The location of H. Matthews’ house on the Beers Atlas seems to support this theory, allowing for minor errors in both the atlas and the surveys layered underneath:

So we have the earliest known house site depicted in 1868, located on the part of Bowger’s Choyce (1743) that was included in resurveys of Friendship (1760 and 1776) and sold in two transactions in 1791 and 1792. This probably isn’t a coincidence.

The overlapping tracts/parcels might also explain why an earlier version of Samuel Hill Road looks like it leads directly to the H. Matthews house before heading east towards Lowe’s Crossroads and Millsboro. It’s possible that this section of the road was built specifically to connect Bowger’s Choyce and Bowger’s Mill, to the south, during the period between 1743 and 1760, if not earlier.

Further research might tell us more about the neighborhood, not only as it appeared in the 1790s, when the vacant land was disappearing and the land records are a bit easier to decipher, but perhaps even as it appeared in the 1740s, when only a handful of settlers were establishing plantations in this part of Wimbesocom Neck. We still know little of this early period.

– Chris Slavens

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Map of Vinson’s Pond, 1792

Yesterday I gave a presentation about the early history of the Trap Pond neighborhood at the Baldcypress Nature Center in Trap Pond State Park, covering some of the interesting people and places in the area between the early 1700s and 1840, when the mills there were named the Trap Mills. My presentation included an incomplete map of the area as it may have looked between 1772 and 1792 — during the days of Newbold Vinson’s plantation on the west side of the pond — featuring waterways, roads, mills, and a few houses. See below; the text should be clear when viewed at full size, or when printed on a sheet of paper.

It’s difficult to make a map like this, because the earliest map to depict many of these details is the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868, and land records and plats don’t always mention or depict nearby roads and other features. I’ve had to make educated guesses about the roads, in particular, and in some cases, those guesses might not be correct. Many of today’s roads are based on 18th-century roads, with minor changes made here and there, but in some cases, roads that we use today were created surprisingly late. For example, since the mills at the north end of Trap Pond probably date back to the 1770s, and the mills at Pepper Pond date back to at least 1760, it would seem reasonable to assume that the section of Trap Pond Road which connects these two early landmarks was built around the same time. Yet it wasn’t. The legislation authorizing the creation of this road wasn’t passed until 1867. Previously, the Goose Nest Lane was the main road leading to and from the Trap Mills, at least on that side of the pond.

Another missing road that throws people off when they look at the map is Route 24, or at least the section between Little Hill Road and Samuel Hill Road, running right through Whaley’s Crossroads. This section wasn’t built until the 20th century. Previously, the main road veered southeast with today’s Little Hill Road. From Terrapin Hill, one could continue southeast towards Little Hill, or follow an early, curvier version of Whaleys Road towards the Line Meeting House.

One of the earliest roads seems to be Wootten Road, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much. When the tract Forest Chance was surveyed in 1730, its first bounder, a poplar tree near the southern end of Trap Pond, in today’s terms, was said to stand near the road from Matthew Hosea’s to Indian River. Hosea lived near Trussum Pond. The route that this road followed from Terrapin Hill to Indian River is less clear; it’s possible that it followed the southern side of Saunders Branch towards Lowe’s Crossroads, but it’s also possible that it veered north, roughly following Whaleys Road to Samuel Hill Road, then followed one of several routes to the northeast. I’ve allowed for this possibility on my map, not only because it seems logical, but because the land along this route was settled fairly early, and I think there could have been a dwelling house near this section of Samuel Hill Road as early as the 1760s, if not earlier.

Looking at many of the other roads in the area, it’s entirely possible that they date back to the 18th century, since they seem to connect mills that existed at that time. However, I’m less certain about those I’ve omitted from the map, at least for now. I hope to continue to add details, especially houses.

– Chris Slavens

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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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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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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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A Brief History of Trap Pond

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

Trap Pond has long been a favorite destination in the Laurel area. With a large campground, shady picnic areas, a network of trails, boating, public hunting areas, and—in simpler times when water quality wasn’t a concern—swimming areas, our local state park has served as a tranquil oasis of sorts, offering generations of families a respite from an increasingly busy world, and a taste of nature.

Yet Trap Pond wasn’t always associated with recreation. It wasn’t always named Trap Pond. In fact, it wasn’t always a pond. The early history of the site is, like its waters, a bit murky, but scattered clues in old records tell its story.

When English surveyors began laying out tracts of land for aspiring tobacco planters along the branches of Broad Creek in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the area was part of a wild frontier. The land was swampy, black bears roamed the woods, and Nanticoke Indians outnumbered the white newcomers. In 1730, a 100-acre tract named Forest Chance was surveyed on the southwest side of what is now Trap Pond, but the site was simply described as “the main branch of broad creek.” It’s unclear who dammed the creek near the northern boundary of Forest Chance or exactly when they did it (possibly a Collins or Stevens in the mid-1700s), but by 1791, Newbold Vinson, Sr., owned a sawmill and a gristmill there. The mills stayed in the Vinson family for the next couple of decades, and during that time the pond that powered them was known as Vinson’s Pond. However, by 1816, the mills were owned by Joseph Betts, and the pond was named after him.

Forest Chance, 1730

Forest Chance, 1730

In the following years, deeds referred to the millpond by both names. In 1836, for example, William Hitch purchased a share of “a certain saw mill and grist mill called and known by the name of the Vinson or Betts mill” from John Betts. However, just four years later, Hitch and Philip Short sold Ebenezer Gray “one third part of…a certain saw and grist mill house & lot adjoining said mills known by the name of Vinsons Mills (now called the Trap Mills)…” The origin of this new name — which, as we know, stuck — is uncertain, and has inspired creative yet unlikely theories involving a trapiche distillery, a tract of land named Turkey Trap (which was actually located elsewhere), or even French Trappist monks, but one possible explanation is that the pond became known as a trap because it collected unwanted runoff from an extensive network of drainage ditches. Now that the mills were co-owned by multiple investors, naming them after a particular individual or family may have been impractical. Henceforth they were known as the Trap Mills.

Forest Chance and Betts Pond, 1816

Forest Chance and Betts Pond, 1816

In his History of Delaware, published in 1888, J. Thomas Scharf (or an anonymous contributor) reported that the sawmill was no longer used, but the gristmill was owned and operated by M. G. Truitt. The gristmill continued to operate until 1920.

It should be noted that during this era, Trap Pond was an industrial site, valued for its milling power, location, and resources rather than its beauty. In the early years, the pond had been full of trees, which were eventually harvested along with most of the surrounding timber, leaving behind acres of unsightly, slowly rotting stumps. Such was the scene in 1933, when a devastating flood washed out the old mill dam. Subsequently the federal government bought the pond and surrounding land, and set about creating a recreation area. Between 1936 and 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps removed the old stumps, rebuild the dam, created small beaches, and built bath houses, park benches, and pavilions, which attracted thousands of visitors in the following years. In 1951, the State of Delaware acquired the pond from the federal government and established the state’s first active state park.

Pavilion at Trap Pond, 1937

Pavilion at Trap Pond, 1937

Photo: Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress

Picnic area at Trap Pond, 1937

Today Trap Pond State Park is larger than ever, consisting of 3,653 acres, including nearby Trussum Pond (another early millpond), the historic Bethesda M. E. Church and cemetery, smaller cemeteries created by the Wingate and Warrington families, and old public roads that survive as trails, all of which have their own stories and are important parts of the history of our community.

– Chris Slavens

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