Tag Archives: Worcester County

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Delmarva Geography, Maps, Maryland, Maryland history, Resources, Sussex County

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Delmarva Geography, Indian River Indians, Maps, Sussex County

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.

dsl02787-2

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Delaware history, Sussex County