delaware
New Castle, Kent and
Sussex counties in Delaware

"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything." Harriet Tubman.

All along the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad, there remain signs of those who passed secretly through. Historic homes, barns, meetings and roads stand as a tangible legacy to the courage of those who escaped and those who helped them. Although many landmarks have unfortunately been razed in the years since the railroad operated, museums and historical organizations continue to collect and display what is left to evidence this time in history.

Wilmington
View of Wilmington, Delaware from a pasture, 1870

The three counties of Delaware are a microcosm of the United States. The northernmost county, New Castle, is an urban and suburban industrial area; Wilmington, a city that is home to the world's largest chemical companies and credit card banks, represents a typical American metropolis, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. Kent County lies in the middle of the state and straddles agrarian and industrial interests; the capital of the state, Dover, resides there. Sussex County is the southernmost county and is comprised largely of rural, farming interests.

Wilmington
These characteristics were at work during the 19th century. The period before the Civil War augmented these differences in the state because of the divergent stances which agrarian and industrial populations took on the issue of slavery. Geographically, the state was divided by pro-slavery and abolitionist interests.
Artist's Rendering of Wilmington, Delaware and the Christiana River, 19th c.
Thomas Garrett
Thomas Garrett

This division is evident in the facts of Thomas Garrett's trial of 1848, in which a New Castle County abolitionist was convicted by a stacked jury of Sussex County farmers who relied on slave labor.

It is not an accident that grass roots abolitionist movements began in both New Castle and Kent County Quaker meetings. With Lancaster County's pacifist Amish community, Chester County, Pennsylvania's Quaker strongholds, Kent and New Castle Counties' Methodist and Quaker populations and Philadelphia's progressive Anti-Slavery offices nearby, the Great Awakening met with enthusiasm in the region. Delaware became the bridge to freedom for fugitives and the site of the last attempt at capture for slave hunters.

Longwood Meeting
Longwood Meeting and it's Members 19th c.
Wilmington Friends Meeting
Wilmington Friends Meeting
in Quaker Hill
The city of Wilmington, with Thomas Garrett, myriad seaman, stevadores, and willing conductors, served as the final stop to freedom before Philadelphia and New Jersey. After the second Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, requiring free citizens and lawmen alike to aid in the capture of escaped slaves in the free states, the city could not be seen any longer as the last stop before freedom, but an important resting point before the second leg of a very long journey to Canada.

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President Abraham Lincoln, circa 1860

Delaware, Lincoln and a Unique Proposal
Delaware's position as a true border state, in a political sense, cannot be denied in spite of the state's decision to cast its lot with the Union. Although Abraham Lincoln's support within the state of Delaware grew between the elections of 1860 and 1864 (from 24% to 48% of total ballots cast), his was not an overwhelming brand of support as the statistics attest. In fact, Lincoln recognized Delaware's unique situation and used it for a political litmus test in November of 1861.

Lincoln proposed that the state legislature move to emancipate all of the state's slaves. In return, the federal government would reimburse slaveholders $500 for each slave set free. Because this proposal was never brought to a vote by the legislature, Lincoln's attempt at the use of diplomacy in the struggle to liberate slaves failed in Delaware and throughout the nation. As Lincoln had expressed to a Sussex County, Delaware slave holder, Benjamin Burton, "If I can get Delaware to undertake this plan, I'm sure the other border states will accept it. This is the cheapest and most humane way of ending this war and saving lives."

Instead, the war continued for four more years and modern estimates for the death toll reach 500,000 with some scholars assigning a number as high as 700,000 men.

Further demonstrating Delaware's precarious geographic position are these facts:

The state legislature failed to pass a law abolishing slavery on two separate occasions. Both failures were by only one vote! In addition, for slave states like Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky that sided with the Union, but remained slave-holding, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply. For their loyalty to the Union, the slaveholders of these states were rewarded with the use of their slaves until the end of the war. In fact, Delaware did not formally abolish slavery until 1903!

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Harriett Tubman's birthplace
Historial Marker at Harriett Tubman's Birthplace on the Eastern Shore of Maryland

Treacherous Terrain
A corridor of courage stretched north from the eastern shore of Maryland to Philadelphia. Swamps, marshes and thick forests provided camouflage for fugitives from slave catchers. Runaways faced many hidden dangers such as fatigue, hunger, insect-spread disease, poisonous snakes, wild animals and the possibility of drowning.

Nanticoke River
Nanticoke River
Lifesaving Waterways
Delaware's waterways served as paths to safety when followed by runaways who stealthily avoided horse-trodden roads and pedestrian paths. Rivers like the Choptank, Nanticoke and St. Jones provided cover and the means to hide one's tracks. On the other hand, these same waterways were treacherous. Patty Cannon's gang in the southernmost county of Delaware trolled the rivers seeking innocents to capture and sell into bondage for profit. In a time when waterways were an excellent means of travel, rivers were used for commercial purposes. Some of that traffic could have been comprised of slave buyers and sellers as well as slaves themselves as they were transported throughout the south.
Choptank River
Harriet Tubman used the Choptank River to make her way north
The Choptank River, which originates south of Dover at the Maryland and Delaware borders, provided fugitives from Maryland's eastern shore with a route to the north—to the safe houses of Kent and New Castle Counties in Delaware.
The Nanticoke River, which flows south and eventually empties its tributaries in the Chesapeake Bay, could be followed from as far south as Vienna, Sharptown and Federalsburg, Maryland. Its main branch flows southwest of Salisbury and finds its origin in Kent County, Delaware near Harrington—not far from Odessa, Camden-Wyoming and friendly Quaker Meetings.
The St. Jones River flows from northwest of Dover, Delaware through the heart of the state's capital and east to Bower's Beach, where it empties into the Delaware Bay. As it passed Wildcat Manor in Lebanon, Delaware, the St. Jones provided many fugitives with a stopping point where they could safely regroup and press northward.

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Market Street Bridge
Market Street Bridge, Wilmington, circa 1867

Last Stop to Freedom
Delaware was the northernmost slave state. Delaware sided with the Union in the Civil War. Explore the state's unique position in the history of the Underground Railroad by discovering some of its most important landmarks. Picture the quiet streets of Quaker Hill where Thomas Garrett waited to send fugitives to freedom.

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Market Street
View from Above 3rd and Market Streets,
Wilmington, circa 1870

Old Town Hall
Old Town Hall

Delaware History Museum/Historical Society of Delaware
The Delaware History Museum and Historical Society of Delaware has an extensive exhibit on Delaware's role in slavery and artifacts of the Underground Railroad. Admission price to the museum includes the Old town Hall, which was built in 1801 and occasionally used for abolitionist meetings. Location: 5th and Market Streets in Wilmington, Delaware.

Open
12-4 Monday-Friday and
10-4 Saturday.
The Historical Society is free.
Museum admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors and students.
Call 302-655-7161

 

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Peter Spencer Plaza
Memorial and burial site of the Rev. Spencer, a slave who escaped from Maryland and founded the African American Church in Wilmington. The plaza once served as a station for runaway slaves. Location: French Street between 8th and 9th Streets, Wilmington, Delaware.

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Mother AUMP Church
Mother AUMP Church Founded by Peter Spencer in 1813




Quaker Hill Historic Neighborhood including Wilmington Friends Meeting House
Wilmington's oldest historic neighborhood, Quaker Hill stands today between 2nd and 8th Streets and Jefferson and Tatnall Streets awaiting the urban renaissance needed to restore its architecture, history and spirit. Quaker Hill was first settled in 1738 by William Shipley and his wife Elizabeth. They, along with other Quakers, built the first Wilmington Friends Meeting in 1739. After they outgrew that structure and then a second, a third was built in 1816 at the current site.

 

wilmington friends meeting
Wilmington Friends Meeting

St Peters Church
St. Peter's Church

Abolitionist Thomas Garrett attended meetings there; his grave in the meeting's cemetery is marked by its place beneath a large oak tree and a simple stone. As the Hill became more populated, the streetscapes became the most varied in the city with traditional brick rowhouses and neo-Gothic detached homes standing together. In the late 19th century, Quaker Hill became a more working class neighborhood, but many prominent citizens including the Mayor still lived there. The 20th century has brought decline. Newer areas of the city have attracted residents and the "urban renewal" efforts of the 1970s cleared the area south of 4th Street of all 18th century structures. Quaker Hill was registered on the National Register as a Historic District in 1970. For more information about the Quaker Hill Historic Neighborhood click here.

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Thomas Garrett Gravestone
Thomas Garrett's Gravestone
 

New Castle Courthouse
New Castle Courthouse

Old New Castle Courthouse

The site of Thomas Garrett's 1848 trial. The courthouse's authentic appearance offers a real perspective on the events of the trial and the judicial system of the time. Exhibits in the museum section of the courthouse include displays about Garrett and his associates as well as other significant trials which took place there.

The Courthouse is open:
Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Further information about educational tours can be found by calling (302) 323-4453
South State Street, Old New Castle, Delaware.


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The Appoquinimink Meeting House and the Corbit-Sharp House

The Friends Meeting is another example of the role Quakers played in the Underground Railroad in the east. A tiny meeting house, Friends' historically preserved appearance affords the visitor the opportunity to imagine a fugitive hiding there. The Corbit-Sharp House, owned and managed by the Winterthur Museum, was built by its original owner, William Corbit, by the Appoquinimink Creek in 1774. Corbit hid runaway slaves in cabinets on the third floor. In 1938, Corbit's family sold the house to H. Rodney Sharpe. Today it remains one of four locations in the Historic Houses complex in Odessa, Delaware.

Corbit-Sharp House
Corbit-Sharp House
Both places are open:
Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sundays from 1 p.m. to four p.m.
Admission is $4 per person for one location and $6 for both.
Senior, student and children's discounts are also available.
For more information, call (302) 378-4069.
Appoquinimink Meeting House
Appoquinimink Meeting House
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Woodburn
Woodburn

Woodburn
The Governor's house in Dover, Delaware, Woodburn is believed to have been a station stop on the railroad. The Georgian-style mansion was built around 1790 and once contained a secret underground tunnel used as a passage to escort slaves to the St. Jones River. Boats would then carry slaves across the Delaware River to New Jersey, a free state. The tunnel has been filled in recent years.

Admission is free,
but appointments must be made by calling (302) 739-5656.


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The John Dickinson Plantation
One of the largest plantations in Delaware, John Dickinson's farm was once home to about sixty slaves. After inheriting the property from his father, John Dickinson granted his slaves full freedom in 1785 as a result of Quaker beliefs. An important figure in the American Revolution as a signer of the Constitution, Dickinson is one of Delaware's most prominent historic figures.

This National Historic landmark is open to the public:
Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
and Sundays from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m for free.
Kitts Hummock Road off Rt. 113
Jones Neck, Delaware.
Call (302) 739-3277 for more information.

Dickinson Plantation
John Dickinson Plantation
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Ross Mansion
Ross Mansion

Delaware Governor William Henry Ross' Plantation
Once the Governor of the State of Delaware, William Henry Ross ran a plantation that, today, features the only restored log slave quarters in Delaware. Located on North Pine and Railroad Avenue in Seaford.

Guided tours are available:
every Saturday and the fourth Sunday of each month.
Admission is $2
information can be found by calling (302) 628-9500.


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Other landmarks in the area include:

  • Christina River (Market Street Bridge)
  • The site of Thomas Garrett's home at 4th and Shipley Sts. in Wilmington
    (home has been razed and is now the site of Delaware Technical Community
    College of Wilmington campus)
  • Wildcat Manor in Lebanon, Delaware ( private residence)
  • Great Geneva in Kent County, Delaware (private residence)
  • The home of the Mendenhalls in Kennett, Pennsylvania (private residence)
  • The Longwood Meeting House in Pennsylvania
Wildcat Manor
Wildcat Manor
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Quaker Hill Historic District
 
Quaker Hill Historic District
Click here to learn more about
the scenic Quaker Hill area in
Wilmington, Delaware.

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