Standing in the midst of colonial history
Jun 16, 2018 10:18AM
By J. Chambless
Walt Chiquoine with the historical marker near the site of the Nichols house, where Gen. Howe stayed in September 1777. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
amateur historian Walt Chiquoine, the past is never far away. His
table at Drip Cafe in the Lantana Square Shopping Center would have
been in the midst of a seething mob of soldiers, horses, dust and
chaos in September 1777. Just a few hundred feet south would have
been the home of Daniel Nichols, which had been commandeered by
British Gen. William Howe during his march north to the Battle of
Thanks to Chiquoine's curiosity and diligence, the site of the Nichols home has been designated with a state historical marker, and another piece of colonial history has been tucked into place.
For Chiquoine, who moved to the Hockessin area in the 1980s, the question started simply enough. He wondered if British troops had trekked through his property at some point. When he looked for the answer and couldn't find one, he started a two-year research project that would ultimately lead to a greater understanding of troop movements through Mill Creek Hundred during the Revolutionary War.
“I was annoyed that I couldn't find out,” Chiquoine said during an interview over coffee. “We should know these things. I live on this corridor, were they near my house? That question kicked it off.”
After a long career in business, Chiquoine has reserched several aspects of local history, including the location of the Nichols house, which is noted on a map drawn by Major John Andre showing “The position of the Army at New Garden the 8th Sept 1777.” The map, which is lacking context, makes more sense when aligned vertically. The main corridor is what is now Limestone Road. “Limestone Road is very old,” he said. “Some would call it an old Indian trail. One set of the archival documents we have is The Road Papers, and there's a 1762 survey for Limestone Road, which is identical to the road today.”
Finding where Howe's headquarters stood would give the map a more accurate scale, and that had never been done, Chiquoine discovered. It took, by his reckoning, about 2,000 hours of digging through land records and deciphering deeds to other properties in the area to triangulate where the Nichols house would have stood. Today, Chiquoine can point in any direction from the valley where Lantana Square sits and name the families that occupied the land in 1777.
“These farms were huge, 150 acres to 250 acres,” he said. “There weren't that many people. If you were standing on a hillside right here, you could probably have seen maybe five neighbors. It was very sparse.”
When British and Hessian troops were moving toward Philadelphia with a goal to capture the key city, they sailed south from New York for six weeks, landing at Elk Neck in Maryland on Aug. 25. The main force marched to Elkton, then east towards Iron Hill in Pencader Hundred. From Sept. 3 to 7, the forces were camped around what is today Glasgow, Del. One of the startling aspects of Chiquoine's research is just how much space an army of 16,000 men took up.
In his writings, Chiquoine explains, “Whether you were a Patriot or a Loyalist, the presence of the British was rather overhelming to the locals from start to finish. Besides the troops, about 16,000, there were probably about 2,000 wives, servants and laborers, about 275 wagons, and more than 2,000 head of livestock, including horses. The army generally occuped three to five square miles at any given time.”
When this mass of humanity marched into the Mill Creek Hundred area, there were only about 1,500 people living in the 43 square miles. They were clearly overwhelmed.
“The army moved on high ground, in as straight a line as possible,” Chiquoine said. “That way they're avoiding creeks and muddy spots. They had guys who didn't carry muskets, but were carrying saws and picks and shovels to clear fences and roads. When they camped, they needed campfires, so they went after people's fences.”
On the move, the army was so long that those in the front had no idea what was going on at the back of the line – except that those men were choking on dust or slogging through mud. On a good day, to move a distance of a dozen miles took about 24 hours, Chiquoine said.
Soldiers took what they needed from the properties they marched through, and in September 1777, the fields would have been full of crops. Not all of them could be eaten, of course – grains had to be cooked, and apples were likely too tart to eat – but the crops that weren't eaten were trampled by the men and animals as they swarmed roughly on both sides of narrow Limestone Road. Latrines were dug in people's yards, and both men and animals left piles of feces and debris.
For landowners, it was a case of staying put and hoping the troops didn't take too many of their belongings, or leaving home and assuring that their property would be stripped. Among local residents, support for the Crown was split, Chiquoine said, with some Mill Creek Hundred landowners loyal to the King and others decidedly opposed. Daniel Nichols, whose house was taken over by Gen. Howe, was a Quaker. No one, however, was immune to the decimation of property when troops marched through.
Chiquoine shared one anecdote about patriotic bees. Landowner Robert Boggs and his sons had property in the area of what is now the Louviers Building at Milford Crossroads. “As the army came through, Robert Boggs moved to watch from a hill, which must have been the hill where the Newark water tank is now – the only hilltop in the area,” Chiquoine said. “He watched a number of British soldiers break ranks and run to his home and start taking apart his beehives. Within a matter of minutes, they went running back to the lines as quickly as they could. Boggs' grandson later wrote, 'Even granddad's bees were patriotic!'”
In his research, Chiquoine learned that most of the British troopscame up the Paper Mill Road corridor and spread out north and south of the area of Lantana Square. Other troops moved towards Christina Bridge but then turned north, crossing White Clay Creek and camping above Carousel Farm, also on Limestone Road. There was no military action, aside from a few shots fired across the creek in the area of Mill Creek Road and Stoney Batter Road. The terrain was too steep to attempt a larger attack, and both sides withdrew.
After he had determined the land holdings of the Nichols family had straddled Limestone Road and covered what is now the development of Hockessin Greene and part of Hockessin Hunt, Chiquoine was able to pinpoint where the Nichols home – which was described as brick – had stood. A later stone home was at the location until about 1970, but was not the home occupied by Gen. Howe.
“In the tax records and newspapers, something happened in 1861,” Chiquoine said. “I can put a date on it, because in 1858, tax records show a brick house there in Matilda Black's name. In the 1861 records, her brother-in-law had a stone house there. We somehow lost the original house.”
Two years ago, Chiquoine presented his research at the Hale-Byrnes House in Stanton, and posted it online at academia.edu, where it is available for public viewing. Chiquoine is still presenting programs about his findings.
“Joe Lake, who is the head of the Hockessin Historical Society, saw my presentation two years ago and it was his idea to work with the state of Delaware to get a historical marker,” Chiquoine said. Today, the sign stands on the shoulder of Limestone Road, indicating that, 100 yards away in Hockessin Greene, once stood the brick home of Daniel Nichols, which played its part in American history. There is a notch in a ridge along the road that Chiquoine believes once marked the driveway of the property.
“It's been fun learning, and trying to absorb the period information,” he said. “I had to go back to understand how Delaware was colonized by the Swedes, the Dutch and all that, leading up to the Revolutionary War. You get to a point where you can almost climb into Gen. Howe's mind.”
The marker is a tangible sign that he has made a lasting contribution to the history of the region, but Chiquoine said he's more interested in promoting broader interest in history. “I hope people have a a little better appreciation of what their forebearers did. People who lived along this road back then still have descendants living here,” he said.
He is now looking into the history of White Clay Creek Landing, a community in the early 1700s that stood below the connection of the White Clay and Red Clay creeks. A wharf and warehouses stood there through the Revolutionary War, marking the farthest point a boat could travel up the creek. Several wealthy merchants lived there as well.
History like that, Chiquoine said, is all around us. “Mill Creek Hundred still has such a legacy of 18th century stuff. Slowly we lose it and they tear stuff down,” he said. “I don't believe you can stop progress, but we really should document it as best we can, as we go, so we know the story.
“Part of the satisfaction is the detective work – solving something,” he said, smiling. “That's the fun part.”
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email [email protected].