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Blackfoot Town (Dagsboro) in colonial primary sources

The early history of the town of Dagsboro, located in lower Sussex County just off Route 113, is a matter of controversy and speculation, as anyone who has ever googled the subject is aware. Scharf’s History of Delaware, published in 1888, states that the town was known as Blackfoot Town before it was renamed Dagsbury in memory of General John Dagworthy, and subsequent sources have repeated the information. However, specifics concerning the origins of the town and its unusual name are frustratingly elusive, inspiring theories about settlers slogging through black mud, or even Blackfoot Indians.

The purpose of this post is not to comment on those theories, but simply to offer some early primary source references to Blackfoot Town. They’re not necessarily the earliest; just the earliest I’ve stumbled upon. Since the name doesn’t appear on any map, the best place to start is colonial land records for Worcester County.

The description of Thomas Dazey’s 62-acre tract named Jacob’s Neglect, surveyed in 1748, states that the boundaries began “at a marked White Oak standing on the North side of the County Road that leads to blackfoot Town…” This tract was patented to Dazey (or Dasey, presumably one of the forerunners of the local Daisey clan) in 1755. According to Scharf, Thomas Dasey lived in Baltimore Hundred. I’m unsure about the location of the county road; possibilities include roads from Blackfoot Town to Cedar Neck, the Sound, or St. Martin’s River and points south.

Survey for Thomas Dazey, 1748

When the surveyor John Watson traveled to Fenwick’s Island in December 1750 to begin surveying and marking the Transpeninsular Line, he mentioned in his journal that the party stopped at Blackfoot Town and”lodged some at one Carters an Inkeeper & one Reads a private House.” He described the territory between “Lewis” and Blackfoot as “Barren Grounds,” and estimated that the towns were about twenty-two miles apart; a very accurate estimate which proves that the town was, in fact, located on or very near the site of Dagsboro.

Work on the line was suspended nearly a month later due to inclement weather. The party made their way from Romley Marsh across the Head of Sound, then crossed Black Foot Creek on a makeshift bridge of two logs while the horses swam across. They reached Blackfoot Town in the early afternoon, and stayed at Joseph Carter’s inn again. Black Foot Creek was probably an early or alternate name for Pepper’s Creek or, less likely, Herring Branch, although both names were already in use at that time. Throughout his brief entries, Watson used the spellings: Blackfoot Town, Black foot Town, Blackfoot, and Black foot. I include them all for the sake of search engines.

When a 265-acre tract named Red Oak Ridge (not to be confused with unrelated tracts sharing the same name) was resurveyed for Uriah Brookfield in 1756, the first boundary marker was described as “standing on a ridge on the southeast side of the Cyprus Swamp Road about five miles above Blackfoot Town back in the woods & about a mile to the eastward of a cyprus swamp called the Green Swamp…”

Another reference appears in the description of a 100-acre tract named Waples Luck, surveyed for Paul Waples in 1757. Although the wording is a bit confusing, “a County Road leading from Snow Hill to Lewis Town” and “a place called blackfoot Town” are mentioned. This tract may have been adjacent to the town, which might explain the number of Waples households in and around Dagsborough in 1868, according to the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas. Other tracts patented to Paul Waples mention Pepper’s Creek. Paul was the son of Peter Waples, who settled on the north Shore of Indian River (Pennsylvania territory) in the 1690s and ran a ferry across the river. The name Ferry Cove still appears on some modern maps.

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Yet another reference can be found in a survey for Joshua Burton, dated 1760. His tract named Trouble Reviewed was described as “lying and being in [Worcester County] above black foot Town…” and “near the lower end of the Indian Land…” This is almost certainly a reference to the old reservation known as Askekecky (among other spellings) bordered by today’s Indian Town Road, south of Millsboro and northwest of Dagsboro.

Survey for Joshua Burton, 1760

Based on these four sources alone, we can be certain that:

  1. Blackfoot Town, whatever its origins, was established by 1748.
  2. A creek to the south of the town was also named Blackfoot or Black Foot, though it’s hard to say which was named first.
  3. Joseph Carter ran an inn there in the early 1750s, and a man named Read lived nearby.
  4. Paul Waples owned a considerable amount of land near, and possibly in, the town by the late 1750s.

We can probably assume that there were also a couple of mills nearby, and although there’s no record of a house of worship prior to the construction of Prince George’s Chapel between 1755 and 1757, there were Presbyterian and Anglican churches within a somewhat reasonable distance.

The colonial history of this part of Sussex County is murkier than others. Blackfoot Town, and settlements near the Sound and Fenwick’s Island — not to mention the branch of the Sound known as Indian Town Creek — are surely deserving of further research.

– Chris Slavens

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Bull’s Mills

A few days ago I posted a short piece about Terrapin Hill, a forgotten hamlet between Laurel and Gumboro, and mentioned Bull’s Mills a couple of times.

By the Civil War, the sawmill and gristmill named after Manaen Bull, a former British soldier who married Governor Nathaniel Mitchell’s widow, were already more than one hundred years old, having been built by Joseph Collins before 1760, when the area was still claimed by Maryland. They were built on a branch of Broad Creek known as Wimbesoccom Creek during the colonial era, Sockum Creek during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Gray’s Branch from about the 1850s to the present. In modern terms, they were located on the south side of Laurel Road (Route 24) immediately before the road to Trap Pond, though at that time that road didn’t exist and the Trap Mills were relatively unimportant.

There were only about a dozen houses clustered around Bull’s Mills, but the surrounding area was populated enough to justify a post office and schoolhouse. The nearest church was Bethesda M.E. Church, about a mile and a half to the southeast, but there was also a new Methodist Protestant (M.P.) congregation meeting in another schoolhouse, only about a mile to the northeast. They would eventually build their own church and name it Trinity.

It seems that there was a sizable black population in the area between Bull’s Mills and Hitchens’ Crossroads, about two miles north. In The Churches of Delaware, Frank R. Zebley briefly mentioned that “Gray’s Church, colored” was “located south of Record’s School near Gray’s Branch,” but offered no additional information. An A.M.E. church was built across from the Ross Point Colored School in 1884, on what is now East Trap Pond Road. I’m not sure how old the schoolhouse (which was replaced in 1922) was; it doesn’t appear on the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868, but the atlas isn’t perfect. Unfortunately, historians have tended to overlook 19th-century black churches, schools, and communities, particularly in rural areas.

Today you will not find the name Bull’s Mills on any map. Or Bull’s anything, for that matter. The community became known as Pepper’s Store or simply Pepper, and the old mill-pond was named Pepper Pond. The mills, store, and schoolhouse are long gone.

– Chris Slavens

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Terrapin Hill

If you were to travel from the thriving town of Laurel to Gumborough during the Civil War, you would not take today’s Route 24 to Lowes Crossroads. You couldn’t. At that time, the main road ran roughly parallel to what was known as the main branch of Broad Creek, veering southeast shortly after Bull’s Mills, about six miles east of town. A mile farther, and you’d be at Terrapin Hill, a low hill that was probably prime real estate during the colonial era, when the surrounding area was part of the Pocomoke or Cypress Swamp and the local landowners were still working to drain it with a network of ditches. There was a community there, smaller than a village, but busier than the typical country crossroads; there were four intersections within a quarter mile, and about thirty houses within a one-mile radius.

Terrapin Hill appears on a map published in 1856. I’m not sure how old the name was at that time. In Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware, Dorothy W. Pepper stated that the name was of Indian origin, but didn’t elaborate. I suspect she meant that terrapin is an Algonquian word, not that the Nanticokes named this specific location after terrapins. Other local Nanticoke place names include Asketum or Assacatum (possibly derived from ah!secque, or crane), Rossakatum, and Wimbesoccom or Winnasoccum (possibly derived from weensquaaquah, or cedar; wineak, or sassafras; and/or sachem, or chief). Nanticoke place names are a fascinating subject for another day.

There was a sawmill at Terrapin Pond, and another at nearby Raccoon Pond, which were owned by various members of the Hudson, Matthews, Wootten, and Cannon families over the years. The nearest gristmill and post office were back at Bull’s Mills. Two stores offered whatever the residents didn’t make or grow themselves. Most attended Bethesda M. E. Church, which had been built in 1823, but the slightly older St. John’s at Little Hill, a small Episcopal chapel, was only about a mile away. Children learned to read and write at the one-room Bethesda schoolhouse. From Terrapin Hill, you could travel south to Whitesville, southeast to Gumborough, or northeast to Lowe’s Crossroads and Millsborough—in the unlikely event that you needed or wanted to.

 A century and a half later, little remains of the community at Terrapin Hill. The stores, mills, and schoolhouse are gone, as are all but one of the old farmhouses. Bethesda M. E. Church, which was replaced in 1879, has been beautifully restored, but St. John’s was converted into a private residence a few years ago. Even the roads have changed; part of the old road to Little Hill has been a driveway for decades, and the road to Lowes Crossroads has vanished completely. Terrapin Hill still shows up on some modern maps, but the name is meaningless to most locals, little more than the fading ghost of a forgotten community.

Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, located near Raccoon Pond, was built in 1879. Photo taken by Brittney Slavens in February 2014.

Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, located near Raccoon Pond, was built in 1879. Photographed in February 2014.

– Chris Slavens

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Yet Another Blog

When I started thinking about creating a blog about Delmarva history, folklore, and genealogy, my first thought was, Yet another blog. I’ve published one about politics, one about religion, and contributed to several others. It seems like I’m always telling people about the latest blog I’m publishing or contributing to. But, as a matter of fact, I haven’t written for any blog in over a year. So, yes, this is yet another blog, but it’s also my only blog at the moment.

I decided to create this blog for several reasons. First, I’ve been interested in genealogy — family history research — since I was a kid, and although I periodically share stories about and photographs of my ancestors on Facebook, I’d like to share that sort of information on a site that anyone can stumble upon. Second, I’ve been working on a short book-length history of Laurel, Delaware, since November, and I frequently come across information that just doesn’t fit into the book. Sometimes, pages of research boil down to a single sentence. I’ll share some of that “overflow” material on this site. Third, I’m interested in learning what others might know about a particular subject — like the Nanticoke village at Broad Creek during the 17th and 18th centuries — so I hope that posts about such subjects will provoke discussion.

Concerning the name of the blog, I chose Peninsula Roots on a whim and will probably change it several times. Once I settle on a name, I’ll buy the domain. I liked the name Between the Bays, but apparently that’s already a thing. Peninsula Roots will suffice for the present.

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