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Discovering the Hidden History of Lewes

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The quaint town of Lewes beguiles visitors with its charming shops, restaurants and restored homes. It’s hard to believe, amid today’s civility, that its earliest colonists were murdered by Indians, the first elections brought riots to the streets, Betsy Bonaparte (Napoleon’s sister-in-law) caused a scandal, and German submarines slinked off the coast during both World Wars. Michael Morgan, author of “Hidden History of Lewes” (The History Press, 2014, $19.99), shares these stories and other tales in his new book about the Sussex County town that claims to be the First State’s first settlement. Here’s an excerpt:

Bombs Bursting in Air’

War of 1812

In April 6, 1813, the British flotilla assembled off Lewes, and the British fired two shots over the town to get the attention of the town’s defenders. Several officers were sent ashore under a flag of truce, and they repeated [Commodore James] Beresford’s ultimatum: provide supplies or face destruction. Colonel [Samuel B.] Davis refused to comply. The British answered with a directive to evacuate the women and children, and a short time later, the bombardment of Lewes began. In his diary, Daniel Rodney of Lewes noted the first day of the attack: “The cannonade then commenced and continued till 10—their shot pitched beyond the town and did but little damage—firing ceased until daylight…”

On Wednesday, April 7, the British resumed the bombardment of Lewes with these fearsome weapons. In his diary, Rodney noted that “again began and continued [to] 5 or 6 last night. The firing of bombs 12, 18 and 32 shot and rockets till 1 o’clock in which time 537 shots were sent against the town.”

Although the sound and fury of the bombardment had been awesome, the results had been negligible. Many shots passed over the buildings and landed harmlessly in the fields beyond the town. The British solid shot hit a number of chimneys, knocked corner posts off several houses and lodged in the walls of buildings. Peter Hall’s tavern was hit several times, and the building sustained significant damage. At one point, a woman heard a whistling sound over her head. She turned to her husband and asked, “What’s that noise?” Her husband curtly answered, “Bullets, my dear.”

During the bombardment of Lewes, most of the town’s defenders huddled behind the breastworks of pine logs that had been erected along the creek. At Block House Pond, a number of the town’s residents had taken shelter in the small fortification, including a pregnant woman who gave birth during the attack. The infant girl was cradled in a bed of cornstalks and lullabied by the boom of cannons.

Whenever possible, the Delaware troops fired back at the British, but the Americans were unable to damage the enemy ships. Colonel Davis decided on a bit of trickery to convince the British that a large army was defending the Delaware town. Davis ordered the militia and volunteers to march along the waterfront so that they could be seen by those aboard the British ships. Once the troops reached a point where the buildings shielded the troops from British view, the soldiers marched out of town. From there, they circled around to their original starting point. The result was a continuous parade of troops that appeared to be a vast army marching into Lewes.

When the bombardment was over, a few buildings had sustained minor damage, and a frustrated Beresford ordered the British squadron to set sail…

The [Niles Register] described the results of the attack on the Delaware town: “The people of Lewistown are making themselves quite merry for the late bombardment of that place. They enumerate their killed and wounded as follows: one chicken killed, one pig wounded—leg broken.” 


c. 1609 
Henry Hudson sails around today’s Cape Henlopen into Delaware Bay, searching for a water passage to the Pacific.

c. 1620 
Capt. Cornelius Jacobsen Mey dubs the land “Cape Henlopen” as he sails past the coastline.

c. 1629
The Dutch West India Co. decides to start a colony in the Cape Henlopen area as a whaling station and farming area. The Siconese Indians sign a document ceding the land to the Dutch.

c. 1631 
The first Dutch settlers arrive to the area called Whorekill, supposedly named because of the Dutch traders’ interactions with the Indian women. The word “kill” means creek or river in Dutch. The pioneers dubbed the new colony Swanendael, or Valley of the Swans.

c. 1682
The town of Whorekill is renamed “Lewes” after a town in the English county of Sussex.

c. 1765
Cape Henlopen Lighthouse To guide ships safely around the coast’s dangerous shoals, the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse is constructed.

c. 1791
The county seat moves from Lewes to a new town called Georgetown for a more central location.

c. 1798
The HMS De Braak  sinks off Cape Henlopen, leaving tales of lost gold and silver. Its remains are located in 1986, with a number of artifacts recovered. No word on the treasure.

c. 1869
The Junction and Breakwater Railroad is completed to Lewes.

c. 1918
A German submarine is reported in the waters during World War I. Patrol boats search for the elusive U-boat.

c. 1938
As the situation in Europe deteriorates, the U.S. upgrades its defenses, erecting a tent city at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Eventually, a permanent Fort Miles is constructed.

c. 1942
German U-boats return to the Cape Henlopen coast  attacking tankers, cutters and other ships. Injured American crewmen are taken to Lewes for treatment.

“Hidden History of Lewes” is available at amazon.com.

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