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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What's the "Hundred" in Mill Creek Hundred?

A couple weeks ago I was talking to a friend who lives out of state, and he asked me what seems like it should be a fairly simple question: "What does "Hundred" mean, in "Mill Creek Hundred"? For those of us who have lived for an extended time in Delaware (especially New Castle County), we're probably used to hearing "Mill Creek Hundred", or "Brandywine Hundred", but we may not think much about where the term comes from. I've actually sidestepped this post for this long because there really isn't a good, simple answer to the question. Or, there is a simple answer, but it's not good enough. Or, there's several good answers, but none of them are exactly right ... but none of them are completely wrong. Sometimes, thinking too hard about a word only serves to confuse things. But, I've come this far, and never let it be said that I'm not willing to try to confuse things even more.

We'll start with what should be the simple answer to the question of "What is a Hundred?" -- It's an old English political unit, smaller than a county or shire. Even this, though, is not quite exactly accurate. Besides England, equivalents to hundreds have been used in parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Australia. Their use in England dates back to at least the 900's, but were probably in use long before that. The ultimate origin of the term may date back almost 2000 years to Teutonic armies, and their custom of dividing their armies into groups of 100 men from a given area. When Teutonic tribes invaded England in the 5th and 6th Centuries, the division of land and the invader's settling patterns may have been influenced by these "hundreds" of warriors.

This story, as difficult as it is to verify, seems to get to the heart of the two most common explanations usually given for the meaning of the term "Hundred", when inquiring minds want more than "an old English political unit". Many sources claim that a hundred was the area from which 100 soldiers could be mustered in times of war. Others state that it was an area inhabited by 100 families. Odds are, that at times, the term meant both of these in different places. My feeling is that it was originally probably roughly an area containing 100 families, as the designation seems to have been used mostly for governing and taxation purposes. Over the years, its meaning became less of a literal designation, and more of a generic term for an area of the same size -- just as a "county" is no longer a region ruled over by a Count.

Naturally, when the English began to colonize North America, they brought their customs and political designations with them. At one time, there were hundreds in parts of Virginia, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and of course, Delaware. Hundreds were first set up in Delaware in 1682, by order of new proprietor William Penn. Though I have not found the original quote, its reported that they were set up to roughly include 100 families. There were five hundreds established in New Castle County in 1682: Brandywine, Christiana, New Castle, Appoquinimink, and St. Georges. There were five hundreds in Kent County also, and two in Sussex. As the population grew, more hundreds were formed from the originals, including Mill Creek Hundred, which was carved out of Christiana Hundred in 1710. By the 1870's, there were 33 hundreds in the state.

By then, though, their practical use was on the decline. All other states had long since abandoned the hundred as a sub-county division, preferring to use things like towns, townships, and boroughs. Even England moved away from them the 19th Century. Only in Delaware did hundreds continue to be used, among other things serving as voting districts up until the 1960's. Until the 1870's, there was usually only one polling place for the entire hundred. Nowadays, the only thing they're used for officially is in real estate transactions. All land parcels are assigned numbers based on their hundred.

As you can see, the exact origin of the term is clouded in the mists of time, but the general gist of it is fairly easy to see. Now, hundreds are most often used in historical discussions, and it really seems like each hundred has its own character. Personally, I like the hundred as a regional designation, and I like the uniqueness of it. Somehow, it's just very Delaware.


  1. Yes, "Hundreds" are something unique to Delaware. Your explanations are pretty much spot on as I have done a little research on the subject myself. One variation is that a "Hundred" consisted of only ten Freeholder families, each family averaging ten members. In any event your blog should help keep the term around for another hundred years or so.
    Delaware is also the only state to have a curved border (12 mile arc), a lot of which is Mill Creek Hundred's own border.

  2. delaware21 -- Thanks for another possible explanation. I'd seen that one, but didn't get it into the post. "Keeping Alive Archaic Terms for No Apparent Reason" -- Might have to adopt that as motto.

    I think a whole site could be devoted to DE's borders and their history. There's the 12 mile arc, as you said, the original dispute between the Penns and Calverts, the Mason-Dixon Line, the Wedge, and the river border dispute with NJ, which went to the Supreme Court. Even something as simple as the arc has been redrawn several times. Lots of fascinating history.

  3. Scott P: I need to make a correction regarding my previous comment on Hundreds. Actually, a hundred consisted of ten "tithings", each of which held ten freeholder families. 10x10=100