THE FIRST LANDING PLACE OF WILLIAM PENN
How many students of United States history would be able to answer the question, ” What town has had at least seven different names and has been under the flags of four different countries? ”
There is such a town, and but oneNew Castle, Delaware. The Swedes laid it out in 1631, and called it New Stockholm. In 1651 the Dutch built a fort there, and called it Fort Kasimir. Sandhoec was a second Dutch name. When the Dutch West India Company ceded it to the city of Amsterdam it was named New Amstel. After 1675 the English took a hand in naming the village. Grape Wine Point, Delaware Town, and, at length, New Castle were the last names assigned to the seaport that, within ,a generation, boasted twenty-five hundred inhabitants.
The site of Fort Kasimir was long ago covered by the Delaware. A quaint house, still occupied, is the only survival from the Dutch period. But it would be difficult to find a town of four thousand inhabitants which is so rich in buildings and traditions that go back to the earliest English occupation.
Many of the buildings and traditions centre about the old Market Square, in the centre of the town, only a few hundred feet from the Delaware. This square dates from the days of Petrus Stuyvesant, in 1658. At one end of the square is the old stone-paved courthouse, which has been in use since 1672. To this building William Penn was welcomed, as a tablet on the outer wall relates :
” On the 28th Day of October, 1682, William Penn, the Great Proprietor, on His First Landing in America, Here Proclaimed His Government and Received from the Commissioner of the Duke of York the Key of the Fort, the Turf, Twig, and Water, as Symbols of His Possession.”
From the steps of the courthouse, as a centre, was surveyed the twelve-mile circle whose arc was to be the northern line of Delaware, according to the royal grant made to Penn. This arc forms the curious circular boundary, unlike any other boundary in the United States.
In the rear of the courthouse, though still on the green Market Square, is old Emmanuel Protestant Episcopal Church, which was organized in 1689, though the building now occupied was begun in 1703. This cruciform structure is the oldest church of English building on the Delaware, and services have been held here continuously since 1706, when it was completed. Queen Anne gave to the church a ” Pulpit and Altar Cloath, with a Box of Glass.” A memorial tablet on the wall tells of the first rector, Rev. George Ross, who came as a missionary from England in 1703, and served for fifty years. His son, also George Ross, was one of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. His daughter Gertrude married George Read, another of the Signers. The tomb of George Read is in the rear of the church.
Across the street from the Market Square is the Presbyterian church, whose first building, erected in 1707, is still in use as a part of its ecclesiastical plant. The pastor and many of the members of this church had a prominent part in the War of the Revolution.
The visitor who crosses from one of these churches to the other is attracted by a stone pyramid, on the edge of the Market Square, whose story is told by a tablet
” These stones were sleepers in the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, completed in 1831, the first railroad in Delaware, and one of the first in the United States.”
The fire of 1824 which burned a large part of New Castle destroyed many of the old houses, but there re-main enough to make the town a Mecca for those who delight in studying things that are old. Most of these houses are on the square, or are within a short distance of it. All are remarkable for the beautiful entrance doorways and wonderfully carved interior woodwork. Artists from all parts of the country turn to these houses for inspiration in their work.
The Amstel House, the home of Henry Hanby Hay, is the oldest of these; it was probably built about 1730. One of its earliest owners was Nicholas Van Dyke, who was a major of militia during the Revolution, and later served six years in the Continental Congress. For three years he was Governor of Delaware. During his residence in this house it was called ” The Corner.” So, at least, it was referred to by Kensey Johns in a love-letter to comely.. Anne Van Dyke, written during the cold winter of 1784:
” This evening I visited ‘ the Corner.’ Soon after I went in Mrs. V. says, ‘ Well, Mr. Johns, what say you to a ride below with me, and bringing Miss Nancy up?’ After an hour passed, I recovered myself and answered in the negative, that my business would not permit of itYour papa discovered by his countenance the lightest satisfaction at my refusal ; this approbation of his afforded me great pleasure. The more I regard your happiness, the more desirous I am by assiduity and attention to business to establish a character which will give me consequence and importance in life. I wish to see you more than words express.
” Mrs. B. says she wants you to come up very much ; she asked me to use my influence to persuade you. All I can say is, that if your Grand Mama’s indisposition will admit of it, and your inclination prompts you to come, it will much contribute to my happiness, even if I should only see you now and then for a few moments. My fingers are so cold I can scarce hold my pen, there-fore adieu. Be assured that I never cease to be,
” Yours most affectionately,
” KENSEY JOHNS.”
On a pane of glass in the guest chamber of the old house some one long ago scratched with a diamond a message that sounds as if it came from the heart of the lover:
“Around her head ye angels constant Vigil keep, And guard fair innocence her balmy sleep.”
Three months after Kensey Johns wrote the ardent letter to Anne Van Dyke, the day after the wedding, April 30, 1784, George Washington came to the Corner, and there was a reception in his honor and that of the bride and groom. The Father of his Country received the guests standing before an old fireplace whose hearthstone has been lettered in memory of the event.
A few years later Kensey Johns, then Chief Justice of Maryland, built near by a beautiful colonial mansion where he entertained many of the leading men of the nation.
Kensey Johns’ predecessor as Chief Justice was George Read, the Signer. His house, an old record says, stood so near the Delaware, which is here two and a half miles wide, that when the tide was high one wheel of a carriage passing in the street in front of it was in the water, and in violent storms the waves were dashed against the building. The house was in the midst of a wonderfully beautiful garden. This garden is still one of the sights of the town, though the house was destroyed in the fire of 1824.
George Read, the Signer’s son, in 1801, built a house in the corner of the garden, which was saved from the fire by a carpet laid on the roof and kept thoroughly wet until the danger was past. This Georgian house is a marvel of beauty, both inside and out. The hand-carved moldings, mantels, and arches bring to the house visitors from far and near. Miss natty mith, the present owner, delights to show the place to all who are interested.
In the early days New Castle was on the King’s Road from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Washington passed this way when on his journeys. Lafayette visited the town in 1824. The house built by Nicholas Van Dyke, son of the owner of the Corner, received him for the marriage of Charles I. Du Pont and Dorcas M. Van Dyke. It is recorded that on this occasion he gave the bride away.
Caesar Rodney, too, passed through the town frequently, notably when he made the famous ride in July, 1776, that helped to save the Declaration of Independence; here he rested after the first stage of his historic journey.
The name of George Thomson, secretary of Congress during the Revolution, is also enrolled in the list of the worthies who visited the town. In 1740 his father, when on his way from Ireland to America with his three sons, died on shipboard. The captain appropriated the meagre possessions of the family and set the boys ashore at New Castle, penniless. George was sheltered by a butcher who was so delighted with him that he decided to bring him up to the trade. George was terrified when he overheard the man’s plan; he did not intend to be a butcher. So he stole out of the town between dark and daylight and made his way to surroundings where the way was opened that led him to usefulness and fame.