By Renée S. Gordon
“Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation”
–Captain John Smith
The state of Delaware is a mere 96-miles long, 36-miles wide at its widest point, is comprised of only three counties. While Delaware’s colonial history largely follows the trajectory of the other 12 Colonies it has stories that are stunningly unique and the footprints of these tales can be traced from Claymont to Fenwick Island. We are going to begin our exploration of the state’s singular sites in southern Delaware’s Sussex County. Sussex the largest and most rural of the three manages to be jam-packed with history, mystery, slaves, knaves, treasure, 24-miles of sandy shoreline, 47 bays, 10 beaches and all manner of leisure options. www.visitdelaware.com
Captain John Smith left Jamestown with 14 men in a 28-ft. shallop on June 2, 1608. A week later he reached the “Kuskarawack” or Nanticoke River in Delaware and made contact with the Nanticoke Indians. Congress designated the nation’s first water trail, the 3,000-mile Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, in 2006. The Captain John Smith Monument at Phillips Landing near Laurel commemorates the journey. The location remains much as it was when Smith encountered the Nanticoke and walking trails take you deeper into the primeval experience. The trail also offers boating, geocaching and scheduled cultural activities. www.smithtrail.net
The Dutch founded Zwaanendael, “Valley of the Swans,” the earliest settlement in the colony in 1631. Twenty-eight men were sent to establish a whaling station and trading post at the site of the current city of Lewes. A dispute with the natives led to the later discovery of the bones of all 28 residents and their livestock scattered in the fields.
Seven years later the Swedes began a settlement known as Fort Christiana, in modern Wilmington. This was Delaware’s first permanent settlement and the first permanent Swedish settlement in the country. They enslaved the native population, though few remained, and in 1639 they brought the first black slave, Anthony, into the colony.
William Penn named Sussex County after the county of his birth. Land granted to Penn in 1681 by King Charles II included land that the Calvert family of Maryland believed had been granted to them by Charles I. Penn controlled the Province of Pennsylvania and the Lower Counties on the Delaware. The conflict was settled in 1750 when a British court declared that the Penn’s land ended 15-miles south of Philadelphia. In 1763 Charles Mason, astronomer, and Jeremiah Dixon, surveyor, began the work of scientifically defining the boundary. Led for 233-miles by Native American guides they completed the survey and established the boundary for all time on October 9, 1767.
It was not until June 15, 1776 that Delaware became a separate colony. On July 2, 1776 the Delaware representative cast the vote that made the colonies’ Declaration of Independence unanimous. The state’s nickname, “the first state,” is derived from the fact that it was the first state to ratify the Constitution on December 7, 1787. It was, in fact, the only state for five days because PA, the second state, did not sign until December 12th.
The southern terminus of the only North-South section of the Mason-Dixon Line is located in Delmar. This crown stone was placed there in 1768 and is now in an enclosure along with three additional stone markers. The limestone markers were brought from England and were 3-5-ft. tall and averaged 450-lbs. The surveyors placed markers one mile apart with a “P” on the north face and an “M” on the south. At five mile intervals the stones bore the coat of arms of the Penn and Calvert families. The stones were brought from England bearing the coat of arms of the Penn and Calvert families. By one account 81 original markers remain in Delaware.
One of the most architecturally and historically intriguing structures in the state predates both the county and the establishment of the boundaries of Delaware. Old Christ Church dates from 1771 and the land on which it stands was an Indian reservation from 1731-69.
The church has been preserved as it was and it is a gem. The 40-ft. X 60-ft. building is heart of pine with an oak foundation and 10 windows. The interior barrel-vaulted ceiling is magnificent as are the hanging pulpit and 45 box pews complete with many original butterfly hinges and rosehead nails. The balcony was built for visitors and parishioners who could not afford pew rental fees.
This is still an active church and it may be rented for weddings. Special services are held here and each first Sunday from May to October. Old Christ Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). www.dioceseofdelaware.net/oldChristChurchDE.html
Approximately 550 Nanticoke Indians reside in Delaware and they preserve and present their history in the only Native American museum in the state, The Nanticoke Indian Museum. The Nanticoke,” the people of the tidewater,” greeted Smith in 1608 and shortly thereafter established trade with him. The tribe initially lived in wigwams but learned to build longhouses from the Iroquois. The museum interprets their culture and lifestyle through dioramas, artifacts, and handcrafts. Highlights of the museum are a collection of Skookum dolls, an original R.C. Gorman sculpture and a sacred thunderbird created from 85,000 beads.
The annual Nanticoke Powwow is held annually the first weekend after Labor Day and attracts between 30-40,000 visitors. www.nanticokeindians.org/museum
Georgetown, Delaware was created specifically to serve as the Sussex County Seat in 1791 when it was removed from Lewes. James Pettyjohn’s field was deemed a more central location than the coastal city and land was purchased on which to build a courthouse. Excess land was sold in lots to help defray the cost. The city was named Georgetown and the town was built around its central circle, recognized as the geographic center of the county.
The Old Courthouse was erected on Circle with the exact dimensions of the previous one in Lewes in 1791-92. The restored 2-story frame building with cypress shingles is outfitted as it would have been when court was in session. On the exterior there is an 8-ft. concrete whipping post used into the 20th-century. Interior displays include a facsimile cat-o-nine-tails used for whippings, photographs and two verdict poles. Justice was a public event and the verdict pole points were white on one side and red on the other. The crowd outside would learn the verdict based on the color of the points displayed in the window. You will be glad to know that women were not whipped after 1849 and during the period they were whipped another woman imposed the penalty. The Old Courthouse was moved from the Circle in 1836 and a new one was built in its place by 1839. Both courthouses are on the NRHP. www.georgetowncoc.com
Georgetown’s Federal and Greek Revival-style Brick Hotel was constructed on the Circle in 1836. It functioned as the courthouse until the new one was completed. In 2008 the hotel was renovated and now offers fine dining and 14 rooms for overnight guests. www.thebrickhotel.com
Southern Delaware has more than its share of history but it also has other unique options. Dagsboro was founded in 1747 as Blackfoot Town in the state of Maryland. It was renamed in honor of colonial war hero General John Dagsworthy and became part of Delaware as a result of the redrawn boundary. This charming town has much to offer but visitors should definitely take in a movie in the historic Clayton Theater. It opened in 1948 and retains its original projectors. It is the state’s sole first-run, single screen, theater. www.theclaytontheatre.com
Southern Delaware Tourism officially launched “Local on the Menu” in Millsboro on April 17th. The culinary initiative guidelines make it mandatory for the included venues to purchase from a minimum of one local farm and at least four dishes must include local products. Two of the restaurants I personally tested had creative menus and something extra in the way of history and ambiance. www.localonthemenu.com
Luca Ristorante & Enoteca of Millsboro is an authentic Italian restaurant and wine bar using only the freshest ingredients. It is situated inside a former bank and you can reserve the bank vault as a private dining space. www.lucaristorante.com
Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth serves delicious dishes as well as handcrafted beers that are not available anywhere else on earth. They also serve “ancient ales,” brewed from recipes resulting from archeological digs. Mayan and Egyptian cultures are represented as well as a saki from 7,000 B.C. They have been featured on the Discovery Channel. www.dogfish.com
We have only scratched the surface. In part two we meet pirates, patriots, slaves and possibly the first female serial killer in the nation.
In the meantime check out the websites and plan to make the 2-hour trip to Southern Delaware. www.visitsoutherndelaware.com
I wish you smooth travels!
A great summer read that is both exciting and informative is James W. Russell’s book, “Escape from Texas.” The novel explores the central role slavery played in Texas, then part of Mexico, and the war for independence. This appears to be the only place in the country where slavery was outlawed and then reinstated. The locations in the novel still exist and if you travel there you will see the history and the destination through different eyes. www.sloanpublishing.com