Tag Archives: Delmarva

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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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Maryland, Maryland history, Sussex County

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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Book Review: ‘Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State’

In 2014, local author and journalist Tony Russo explored the history of brewing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Eastern Shore Beer: The Heady History of Chesapeake Brewing. Now he’s back with what is not so much a sequel as a companion volume, Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State, published by the History Press.

Outsiders might expect such a book to be all about Dogfish Head, the state’s largest and best-known brewery and the thirteenth largest craft brewery in the nation. But Delaware Beer is, instead, the story of brewing in Delaware, and Dogfish Head is only one (important!) part of that story.

Russo covers the colonial era in a few pages, briefly summarizing the activities of the Dutch and the Swedes along the Delaware River, and referring interested readers to the more in-depth Delaware Brewing by John Medkeff, Jr. Readers might chuckle over the written request of Johan Classon Risingh, governor of New Sweden, for a wife who could make malt and brew ale, in addition to keeping up with other chores. The first chapter covers the 19th and early 20th centuries as well, when there was far more homebrewing and cidermaking going on than commercial brewing, although Delaware’s very own Diamond State Brewery, located in Wilmington, had its roots in the Nebeker brewery founded in 1859, and produced beer of one kind or another (including so-called “near beer” during the Prohibition era) until it closed in 1955.Delaware Beer by Tony Russo

Delaware Beer – at least the part of the story that most readers are probably most interested in – begins in earnest with the founding of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s Brewing Company in 1995. Russo credits their founders, Sam Calagione and Al Stewart, respectively, with setting “the standard for the way beer would be done in Delaware right from the start.” By focusing on quality rather than quantity, and growing sustainably, both survived the craft beer bust of the late 90’s. In addition to crafting innovative beers, Calagione crafted legislation that chipped away at the remnants of Prohibition, and arguably paved the way for the numerous breweries that have sprung up during the last two decades, not only in Delaware, but throughout the nation.

Following a rather extensive examination of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s, focusing particularly on their roles as pioneers in Delaware craft brewing, Russo takes readers on a tour of the breweries currently operating throughout the state, most of which opened during the last decade. Iron Hill, Fordham and Dominion, Blue Earl, 16 Mile, 3rd Wave, Mispillion and others – all have unique stories, as well as unique strategies for succeeding in an increasingly crowded market. However, these stories are presented as parts of a greater story; the individual breweries are not so much separate subjects as they are characters interacting in a plot that continues to unfold.

Delaware Beer is an entertaining, informative read for craft beer fans, but it’s also an important chronicle of an emerging industry. It offers a rare look into the inner workings of numerous competitors (which, admirably, seem to regard themselves more as independent partners) as they evolve from shaky start-ups into stable, young companies. Whatever the future may hold for craft beer – whether the boom gives way to another bust, or the existing breweries continue to prosper – Tony Russo has performed a vital, valuable task in documenting the local movement’s early years.

– Chris Slavens

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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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Minor update

When I created this blog a couple of years ago, I chose Peninsula Roots as a temporary name, and didn’t bother to register a domain name, expecting it to change. It never did, so I finally got around to registering peninsularoots.com, which looks a bit nicer than the old peninsularoots.wordpress.com. Links to the old address will still work, however.

I’ve also added links to a couple of other Delmarva history blogs, but the Links and Resources pages remain works in progress.

– Chris Slavens

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Additions to the bookshelf, and a shout-out

A few days ago I received a surprise gift from my brother: Copies of A Brief Account of the Indians of Delaware by C. A. Weslager, and History of Lewes, Delaware, and Vicinity by Virginia Cullen, which he stumbled upon in an upstate antique shop.

The former is a 31-page pamphlet published for younger readers in 1953, but this is no vague, babyish text about wigwams. Even two decades after his death, Weslager remains the authority on the original Delawareans, and this early work not only paints a picture of their daily lives, but includes specifics about different tribes, including the locations of some of their villages.

A Brief Account of the Indians of Delaware, Weslager

The book about Lewes is a bit longer, 78 pages, and was published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1956. The format reminds me of another local history book, Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware by Dorothy Pepper, with sections of a few paragraphs or less featuring a particular era, individual, landmark, etc. The book includes local folklore, and concludes with a guided tour of the community with information about numerous historic buildings.

History of Lewes, Delaware, and Vicinity

Both are the sorts of books that one typically finds in noncirculating collections in local libraries. Many of Weslager’s books, in particular, can be very difficult to find, and are treasured by collectors.

While I’m at it, I’d like to give a brief shout-out to Mitsawokett, probably the best online source of information about Native Americans in Delaware from prehistoric times through the present. The site features information ranging from casual speculation to authoritative primary sources, and links to numerous other sites of interest. Someone recently added a couple of my articles about the Nanticoke Indians, causing Mitsawokett to become the top referrer of visitors to this blog (discounting search engines and social media), which I greatly appreciate.

– Chris Slavens

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