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Local History: Early Documents from New Castle, Delaware


A recent consignment yielded two contracts of significant historical importance pertaining to the early years of the city of New Castle in Delaware. The first is a land transfer agreement that ratified the sale of lands once held by William Penn. The charter traces the ownership of the land, about 200 acres in the Mill Creek Hundred, from Penn, who surrendered it in 1688 to Philip Davies, a fellow Quaker who later helped establish their first church in Lancaster County. Davies sold the land to one William Holmes, who sold it to Christian Urians, who sold it to Joshua Morgan, who sold it to Francis Bradley. Bradley sold most of the land, 114 acres and 30 perches, to John Reed and presumably retained the rest. (A “perch” is an old unit of land measure that equals about 1/160 of an acre, or a 16.5-foot square.) The contract describes the area of the plot by neighboring farms and natural landmarks. Reed sold the parcel to Joseph Rammage, who sold it to John Finley, who sold it to Walter Therford, who sold it to James Walker, who sold it to James Maxwell.


Maxwell lived on the land until he died in 1758. Upon his death, the executors of his last will and testament, George Comey and Samuel Smith, set about dispersing his property, and settled the full purchase of the land to Dr. Robert Bines for the total amount of 200 pounds “consideration money”. Interestingly, Bines was already a vested party in this land long before Maxwell’s death, having married his eldest daughter Sarah Maxwell in 1756, so it seems a little fishy that Comey and Smith had to broker the sale of the land to the deceased’s own son-in-law. Perhaps there were some internal familial tensions or unpaid debts that prevented a clean inheritance of the land? Dr. Robert Bines went on to be a militia surgeon in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. He died in 1774. The Bines family and their descendants maintained possession of the land at least until 1888.

William Penn received the lands of Pennsylvania and Delaware from the Duke of York (future King James II) in payment for debts owed to his late father in 1680, and Newcastle was the first port in America on which he set foot. Executed on a full sheet of parchment and retaining the waxen seals of the signers, this contract bears witness to the full provenance of a portion of New Castle from early English occupation until just a few years before Delaware became the first state.


The second document to discuss is a “Manumate Petition” dated June 27, 1797. A manumate set free one or more slaves in the years before slavery was abolished in the United States. In this contract, William McKennan, a New Castle soldier and politician, set free Maria, a 28-year-old slave woman, and her four children, Tom, Sam, Cyrus, and Maria, who were all under 8 years of age. McKennan served as an officer in the Delaware regiment of the Continental Army from the outset of the Revolutionary War until its close, sustaining injuries at the Battle of Brandywine and spending the long and infamous winter at Valley Forge.


Following the war, he became a member of the Delaware state legislature. He married Elizabeth Thompson, the niece of Thomas McKean, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. Extant in the National Archives is a letter he wrote in 1789 to George Washington, wherein he asked for release from his army duty and a lifelong stipend in recompense for the injuries he received in battle (indeed, the continued reinfection of his wounds led to his death in 1810).

Before we consider McKennan a pioneer of civil rights for manumitting his slave over 50 years before he legally had to, records indicate that the same year he set Maria and her children free he uprooted his family from their Newcastle home and moved to Washington County, PA, in the hopes of escaping the liberal advancements happening in Delaware. Perhaps he did liberate the young mother out of tenderness, but it seems just as likely he simply did not have room to house the family of five in his new abode.

Working with local estates yields treasures like these two documents all the time. It is such a joy to process items like this for auction, and we hope you’ll stop in to see them for yourself. Both will be up for sale in our forthcoming Spring Books and Works on Paper sale.

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