Tuesday, January 25, 2011

James Black, Forgotten Early Leader of Mill Creek Hundred

The "mill" that started it all
 A few weeks ago, near the beginning of the the first of several posts dealing with the Eastburn-Jeanes Lime Kilns, I mentioned that I had found a little bit about the earlier history of the property. I'd like to take this chance now not only to share with you what I found, but also the process by which I found the information. I think it's a good example of what I think is one of the most enjoyable aspects of researching history -- uncovering interesting things that you didn't even know existed before you started digging. In this case, I only went looking for the previous owner of a property, and ended up finding a man who was an early leader in the area, and who even played a part in the establishment of Delaware and the United States.

This particular journey began while I was looking into the history of the Eastburn-Jeanes Lime Kiln Historic District. Everywhere I looked, the history began with Abel Jeanes' purchase of the property sometime around 1815. There were no mentions of any previous owners -- not even who it was that Jeanes bought the land from. The only clues I could find anywhere came in Francis Cooch's book, Little Known History of Newark, Delaware and Its Environs. First, while visiting the area in the early 1930's, he stated that he believed part of the Jeanes House (then resided in by Joseph Eastburn, Jr.) to be older than the ownership of Abel Jeanes. Secondly, he also was sure that Jeanes' warehouse was originally built as a grist mill. In fact, Eastburn told him that the story he had heard was that it was burned by passing British troops during the Revolution. Finally, the last clue Cooch gives us is a passing mention by Eastburn that he thought the owners before Jeanes were named "Black". Not a lot to go on, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

The name "Black" didn't mean anything to me in this context, so I started thinking about the mill. Then I remembered that Scharf's history contained a list of mills and mill owners on the 1804 tax assessment. So I looked it up, and sure enough, one of the "forgotten" mills was owned by "James Black's Estate". Now that I had a name to go on, I started digging to see what I could find about James Black. Honestly, I only hoped to maybe find a reference to the name on a genealogy site, or a quick mention of the name on a report somewhere. Needless to say, I was quite surprised when I started to find more than just a quick mention of his name. As it turns out, James Black was probably one of the more well-known people in MCH in the second half of the 18th Century.

James Black was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1736, and came to America with his Scotch-Irish family four years later. He was married three times, his first two wives having died in 1774 and 1779. (Here is a book that has some family info.) Although he seems to have been raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by at least the early 1770's he had moved to Mill Creek Hundred. In 1777, he was elected to serve a one year term in the state House of Assembly in Dover -- the forerunner of the House of Representatives. Black didn't just involve himself in politics, though. He also performed military duty, serving as a captain in Delaware's Whig Battalion, and later as a major in the Delaware Militia. All of that aside, his main line of work was the law. Black was a practicing lawyer, and served as a Justice of the Peace in 1778. In 1785, he was elected to serve on the Privy Council, which, under Delaware's first constitution, was a four-member body that shared executive power with the President of the state (the position later to be changed to Governor). Finally, in 1793, he was elected to the state House of Representatives, a term that would be cut short by his death the following year. [*See below for a late addition to this post.]

As if all of that wasn't enough (and sure would have been for me!), Black was also a major landowner in the MCH area. This is where we rejoin our story. Unfortunately, Scharf doesn't give any clues as to where Black's mill was located. I was still hoping to find something -- anything --  that would link this prominent figure to the tract purchased by Abel Jeanes when I stumbled across this advertisement. It's from an 1809 edition of the American Watchman, a Wilmington newspaper. It lists for sale "a valuable merchant mill and plantation, the late residence of James Black, Esq., dec'd.,". Although I was really hoping that this might be the property I was looking for, I couldn't ignore the fact that the ad stated it was "situate on White Clay Creek", not Pike Creek. After doing a bit more research, I now think the ad referred to the Roseville Mill, which was located near where Kirkwood Highway now crosses White Clay Creek. (There may be more about this mill in a later post.)

However, just today, I finally found what I think is the answer. The advertisement pictured above (also from The Watchman) has not only the ad for the merchant mill and James Black's former residence, it also has a second "Valuable Plantation in the upper part of Mill Creek Hundred". Among the other amenities list, very excitingly it states that, "There is on the land a quarry of fine limestone, at present open and in use, and a kiln for burning it." It also states that the land has been rented out as two farms, and there is a house and outbuildings for each. Personally, I don't see how this could be anything else but the two farms purchased by Abel Jeanes and David Eastburn. This also proves that those two men did not originate the lime business at the site, although they may have bought the tracts with that industry in mind. So I believe this shows that Jeanes and Eastburn purchased their farms from the estate of James Black, an early leader in MCH. (The J.R. Black in the ad is James Riddle Black, son of the deceased, a lawyer himself and later a State Superior Court Judge.)

Oh yeah -- At the top of the post, I mentioned that James Black played a part in the establishment of our state and nation. Partially, I base this statement on his service in the Continental Army and the Revolutionary legislature of the fledgling State of Delaware. However, Black did play one more role, in 1787. In December of that year, on the 7th to be exact, James Black was one of ten representatives from New Castle County to participate in the Constitutional Convention in Dover. Along with the other 29 men present, he voted to ratify the new Federal Constitution, thereby making Delaware the First State in the Union.

* After completing this post, I came across an excerpt from an obituary address given for James Black by Rev. John Creery. I include it here because I think it gives a feeling for how he was viewed by his contemporaries:
"Mr. James Black was a warm friend to his country, and early took an active part in defence of her rights and privileges; his usefulness, open and candid deportment, procured the love and esteem of a large circle of acquaintances. He served his country with reputation for several years in places of public trust, and his fellow citizens have, on several occasions, fully manifested the confidence they reposed in him. In his extensive and various branches of business for many years, he was much esteemed for his probity and punctuality. By his industry he acquired a large fortune, and was able and ready to relieve the distressed; his sincere friendship and piety endeared him to many, especially those who were intimately acquainted with the doctrines of Christianity; a lover of the truth, and truly exemplary for sobriety, and a steady performance of the duties enjoined by our holy religion. 
"In his death, the public hath lost a faithful servant; the religious society to which he belonged, a worthy and useful member; and his family, a careful and indulgent head."


  1. Do you think the old house across from Perkins is the mill house? It's pretty cool to read the ads from 1809.

  2. I think it's possible, Larry, but I'm looking into it. After a brief search I've found some conflicting evidence, so I'm not sure. I did come across another interesting person, though, and I think it (the Roseville Mill) will be the next post.

    I think the ads are cool, too. Another way to humanize the past, when you see these people who are often just names "talking" to us in print. I may do a few more posts in the future just on content from some of the old papers.

  3. Scott, see


    Gen. Washington's map from August 1777. Newark and White Clay Creek are marked, road from Newark to Stanton shown (Kirkwood Hwy, Capitol Trail, King's Highway). Where this road crosses White Clay Creek, to the west, is the "Mill of Capt. Black's." That's Roseville to my eye.

    Your interpretation of the 1809 ad seems spot on. There are other mysteries on this map, have fun with it. Possibly the oldest map of the area in this detail. -Walt

  4. Another resource for Roseville is a delightful book published in 1938 called "Delaware: A Guide to the First State." It includes guided "tours" along various roads in Delaware with a lot of historical info given.

    Larry T, you might like this too. View at:


    Pg. 454 identifies the original mill as built by Capt. James Black. It refers to a "two-story stuccoed stone structure" as all that remains of the mill in 1938. The structure would be on the north side of Kirkwood Highway, very close to the current bridge over White Clay Creek. I don't think the mill exists today, but its certainly worth a quick look.


  5. Thanks for the links, Walt. I actually have a copy of the Delaware: Guide to the First State book. It was written as part of the WPA program (thanks, FDR!). And you're right about the map. It does seem to show Cpt. Black's mill in "the right spot". I'll have to study it a bit and see if there's anything else good we can pull out of it. I'm actually going back and looking at the Roseville stuff again, for a reason. I'll say more about it in a few days...

  6. We live there and I have a picture of the "stuccoed" stone structure" before it was restored by the architects of the White House during JFKs admin.

  7. Very interesting piece. Two sides to every story with both truly believing they are right.
    Here is part of what the Quaker Book of Sufferings has on James Black that relates to Hale Byrnes House, home of another local contract mill owner. (So how much was patriotism and how much was wiping out a business competitor???)

    1780. Taken from Daniel Byrnes by virtue of execution from James Black by James Carr Constable at the suit of William McClay capt., demand not known, one case of drawers.5.

    1781. From Daniel Byrnes by a number of armed men 31 bushels of shorts @2/6 and by McGhee Constable by execution of James Blake [sic] and Evan Reece ...

    So, let's get together and piece out some more of James Black's story.

    Kim B.


  8. More on James Black. His wife was the daughter of Samuel Patterson, a Christiana miller and leader of local militia. About 3 miles downstream from Hale Byrnes House.


    James Black (d. 1794) of Mill Creek Hundred served in the House of Assembly in 1777 and was a member of the Delaware convention that ratified the Constitution in 1787. He was a Captain of the Whig battalion in 1777. He served as a justice of the peace in 1778 and on the Privy Council in 1785. His property was assessed at £37 in 1778 and at £115 in 1786. In his will he bequeathed to his wife £200 per year, and to his son a grist mill and an adjacent farm. Another plantation, in Maryland, was bequeathed to his five daughters. The inventory of his personal possessions totaled £1,846. His total assets amounted to £13,390, including bank stock. He left a bequest to the White Clay Presbyterian Church. (Delaware Military Archives, II, 1081, 1195; Scharf, History of Delaware, 1: 262; NCC Levy Court Assessment List, 1778, 1786; NCC Probate Records, DSA