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Delaware, "A Small Wonder"

Photos and article by Ren�e 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.

Captain John Smith Monument at Phillips Landing -Photo credit Delaware CVB

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.

De Vries Monument noting first settlement - Photo credit Delaware CVB

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 12 th.

The Mason Dixon stone

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 5-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).

Nanticoke Indian Museum

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.

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

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 20 th -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.

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.

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.

Fresh produce a local Farmers Market Photo credit Southern Delaware Tourism

Southern Delaware Tour-ism officially launched �Local on the Menu� in Millsboro on April 17 th. 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.

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.

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.

The earliest European settlement in what is now Delaware was established as a whaling station and from that time on the events and cultures of Delaware have been shaped by its geography. Penn gained possession of the territory at the end of the 17 th -century to ensure that his holdings would have access to the sea and Sussex County, more than any other, developed based on its variety of waterways. The county, one of the largest east of the Mississippi River, is a total of 1,195-sq. miles of which 20% is water with 47 bays and 24-miles of sandy beaches.

Of Southern Delaware's ten beaches arguably the most famous is Rehoboth. The area was founded by Wilmington Methodists as a camp meeting site in 1837 and named after a well in Genesis 26:22. They purchased 400-acres and raised funds by selling tracts of land. -For another article about Rehoboth click here

Modern Rehoboth is filled with trendy eateries, unique shopping venues and a host of sites and attractions. These factors and its location make it an ideal city from which to tour other nearby areas. Dart First State Transit Bus links the resort areas and the shopping outlets from Memorial Day through mid-September. The Jolly Trolley of Rehoboth operates between Rehoboth and Dewey Beach with stops along the way making a car unnecessary. The trolley is also available for private charters. Fees and schedules are posted online.

The historic Bellmoor Hotel provides outstanding accommodations for the casual traveler, the intrepid tourist or those seeking the perfect romantic getaway. The Bellmoor manages to provide all the amenities of a luxury hotel with the ambiance of a B&B. The offerings include two pools, suites with fireplaces and whirlpools, fitness facility, hot tub and day spa with more than 30 services, complimentary parking and wireless and full buffet breakfast. The Bellmoor is listed as one of the Select Registry Distinguished Inns of North America.

Indian River Life-Saving Station was built in 1876 and mandated to assist floundering ships and reduce the loss of life. The station, the only one in the state in its original location, is outfitted to reflect the period. Tours begin in the center with an orientation film and continue in the colorful pumpkin and cranberry Victorian station itself. It should be noted that this is a working history museum that presents a full schedule of activities including squid dissections. Interior cellphone tours start in the Mess Room where the table was always set as a symbol of welcome. Other areas are the Boat Room, complete with the station's surfboat and rescue equipment, Keeper's Office, Keeper's Room and Bunk Room.

Less than 50-years after Captain Smith sailed on the Nanticoke River pirates emerged as a serious problem. They loved the region because they could use the inlets, bays and islands as places to rest, recuperate and divide their plunder. For the next century pirates and privateers would raid towns and ships laden with colonial goods. The �rock stars� of piracy, Blackbird and Captains Kidd and Avery, are known to have been in the area. King James I issued the first colonial laws against piracy in 1687. In 1788 James McAlpine was the last person to be convicted of piracy in the state. Because of this history Southern Delaware is a destination for treasure hunters who are seeking the booty that was left behind.

Fenwick Island, nestled in the southeast corner of the state, was named for Virginia's Thomas Fenwick who purchased the property in 1686. The salt industry operated there between 1775-1825 and it became a religious oriented summer camp shortly thereafter.

Artifacts from the Heneritta Marie at the Shipwreck Museum

The Discover Sea Shipwreck Museum, on Fenwick Island, is jewel and it is not to be missed. The museum recovers, preserves and displays articles that interpret regional maritime history. This private collection of artifacts includes 10,000 items of which 10% are on display. The tour begins with the story of the 1622 sinking of the Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha. It was a treasure ship that was part of the Spanish fleet taking North American treasure to Spain. The astonishing cargo included 24-tons of silver, 125 gold bars, indigo, tobacco, copper, armaments and jewelry. There were only 5 survivors, of the 265-man crew, 2 of which were slaves. The search for this ship lasted 16-years before it was located in 1985 and the $1.8-billion treasure was recovered.

Mayan sculpture at the Shipwreck Museum

Between 1641 and 1865 there were more than 3,000 shipwrecks from Lewes, Delaware to Cape Charles, VA and the tour continues with artifacts from some of these wrecks and others as well as interactive displays and areas that interpret the work involved in marine archeology. Gallery highlights include artifacts from the slave ship Henrietta Marie, the Titanic, emerald encased ballast, Mayan gold sculptures and a magnificent 22-kt, 10.5-ft, gold wedding chain. The chain was to be given to the Queen of Spain for use as a �loaner� to Spanish brides. Gold was often crafted into jewelry because the Spanish government did not tax jewelry. Admission is free.

The fully restored 1938 Lightship Overfalls (LV118), one of only 17 left of the 179 originally made, has been moored in the Lewes Canal since 1973. Early documents indicate that there were lightships in Egypt 2000 years ago. Then, as later, they had a light on top and were anchored offshore as beacons for passing ships. Visitors can tour the entire vessel. Particularly interesting are the captain and crew's cabins and the pilothouse.

Slavery entered Delaware with the first permanent European settlement in the 1630s and in 1700 the initial discriminatory law, setting up a separate court for the trial of Negroes, was enacted.

Sixty years later a law was passed that permitted owners to free the enslaved and in 1767 the state's first documented slavery debates began with the anti-slavery contingent largely in Kent County. Rural Sussex County was against a ban. In 1776 the importation of slaves into Delaware was banned and in 1789 slave ships were no longer allowed to use Delaware ports. After the American Revolution it became illegal to sell Delaware slaves to the West Indies, Georgia or the Carolinas, amended to include Maryland and Virginia, and in 1797 freedom was instantly given to any slave sold out of the state. By the onset of the Civil War Delaware had proportionately more freedmen than any other state with the state's greatest number of slaves, 1,350, in Sussex County.

Delaware did not secede and Lincoln offered to emancipate all of the state's slaves and compensate owners $500 per person. His efforts failed and it was not until the passage of the 13th Amendment in Dec. of 1865 that the slaves were freed. Slavery was not abolished by the state until the early 20th -century.

The Governor Ross Mansion & Plantation is a 20-acre complex that preserves the 1859 brick Italianate Villa-style mansion and farm dependencies including an ash house and the sole log slave quarters in the state. The slave quarters were relocated and restored to its original specifications, 24' X 16'. Mansion tours feature original, ornate, plaster ceilings and medallions and a staircase and 99% original woodwork.

Gov. William Ross was a staunch confederate sympathizer and he was forced to flee to England to escape prosecution. The site presents scheduled activities and programs and is open for scheduled visitation. 302-628-9500.

A Black river pilot at the Seaford Museum

The Seaford Museum, located inside a former post office, is one of the best small town museums in the country. Area history is explored through interactive stations, dioramas, artifacts, memorabilia and informational text. The galleries are chronological and begin with a facsimile of John Smith's original map and continue through its cultural and business history. Of special note are the displays devoted to Seaford's time as DuPont's nylon capitol, the chicken industry and the diorama recounting the history of the black river pilots.

Midway through the museum Patty Cannon rocks on the front porch of her cabin surrounded by plaques that recount her story and the belief that she is the earliest documented female serial killer in the country. Patty's cabin straddled the Maryland/Delaware border and due to lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies she would commit crimes in one state and retreat to the other.

Patty and her gang ran a reverse Underground Railroad. They kidnapped and sold free blacks if the price was right, if not, she robbed and killed them. She did not confine her crimes to African Americans, she would rob and kill anyone for profit. In May of 1829 she was tried and sentenced to hang the next day. She committed suicide that night. In a macabre twist, her skull wound up in the Dover City Library.

A great way to end this trip is with a peaceful ride across the Nanticoke on the Woodland Ferry. The ferry, one of the oldest operating ferries in the country, dates from the 1740s and was once run by Patty Cannon's family and the view is much as it would have been in the 18 th -century.

It is hard to believe that all of Southern Delaware's small wonders are very affordable. You'll find so much to love there.




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