Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ambrose Reed

Ambrose Reed
In reading this site or through research of your own, you've no doubt realized that the history (and for the most part, the present) of Mill Creek Hundred is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather white. That's not to say that there were no non-white residents in the hundred, however. For example, in 1800 there were 85 free blacks and 82 slaves (for comparison, there were 2,027 white residents), and in 1840 there were 311 free blacks and 43 slaves (2,789 white). After the Civil War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, there continued to be free black residents in the hundred, mostly working as hired farm labor, although some did own their own properties. And while it's difficult to find much information on most of the area's black residents, there is one man we do know a little about, although not as much as I had hoped.

In his excellent 1976 book Hockessin: A Pictorial History, author Joseph Lake briefly mentions the story of Ambrose Reed in the chapter dealing with the kaolin clay mining industry in the region. When I saw the name in the book, I remembered having been asked about him by a commenter earlier this year, and I recalled having found some information about Reed. I also remembered that some of the information didn't seem to line up exactly right. As it so happened, things only got more confusing as I dug further.

To make things even worse, it turns out that the Ambrose Reed I had first traced, all the way from Mill Creek Hundred to Media, PA, was not the right one. I now think he was the uncle of our Ambrose, and no doubt who he was named for. The story that Lake tells (in only a few sentences) is that Ambrose Reed was the son of a slave, and that, "At the age of one, he had been placed in the care of Mrs. James Dennison and raised and educated in the Quaker tradition." By the mid-1890's, Reed had become the first engineer at the Peach Kaolin Company, and was, "probably the first Negro to achieve a management position in any of the industries in the Hockessin area". While I have no reason to doubt this story, it is frustratingly short on details.

The first things to try to determine are when Ambrose Reed was born, and to whom. These both fall in the category of "Easier Said Than Done". As for Reed's date of birth, almost every public record I find has something different. He doesn't appear to be in the 1880 census, but is included in 1900, 1910, and 1920 (the 1890 census for Delaware was destroyed). In 1900, he was listed as 22 years old (but no month or year of birth shown). In 1910, it looks like 36. In 1920, he's 41, but the count was done earlier in the year, so this agrees with the 1900 number. If you assume the 1910 age to be a mistake, it puts his birth year as about 1878. This puts him in his mid to late teens when he likely began working for the Peach family in their clay business, which began in 1893.

The one document that throws everything for a loop is the death certificate shown below. The problem, obviously, is that it shows Ambrose Reed's DOB as being February 28, 1884. This is about 6 years later than the censuses indicate, and makes him only about 10 when the Peach Kaolin Company begins operations -- pretty young for an engineer even then, even if "engineer" may only have meant he was supervising a few workers and some machinery. The caveat, of course, is, "Is this the same Ambrose Reed?" Well, the 41 year old of the same name in the 1920 census was a laborer in a boat yard, and lived on the east side of Wilmington, where Pusey & Jones was located. He lived as a boarder with no family, so it's hard to tell for sure. Frustratingly, there is no mother's name listed on the death certificate, but there is a father's name -- Jerry Reed.

Remember when I mentioned that I had originally tracked another Ambrose Reed, one who turned out to be a different, older man? Well, that Ambrose -- whose family appears to have lived just northeast of Loveville, between Old Wilmington Road and Barley Mill Road -- had an older brother named Jerry. I'm unable to find Jerry Reed in the census after 1860, but I wonder how many black laborers were missed by the census at the time.

The only other possible census-related lead I could find was a Hannah Reed, listed in 1880 in the house of her father, Charles B. Brown. She is shown as married, but there is no husband in the household. She does have four children, one of which is a two year old boy named Jeremiah. It's admittedly a bit of a stretch, but this Jeremiah could be our Ambrose (with that as a middle name), named for his father (Jerry -- Jeremiah). Another problem with this is that Hannah (Brown) Reed was born in Pennsylvania in 1855, which means she could not have been born a slave, as slavery in PA was completely abolished by 1847.

The first time Ambrose Reed does, for sure, appear in the census record is in 1900, in the household of Abraham Dennison and his widowed sister Elizabeth Moore. Abraham and Elizabeth were, indeed, the children of James and Elizabeth Dennison, which does put Ambrose in the house Lake claims (James Dennison died in 1893, and his wife in 1899). The 1900 census lists Ambrose Reed as a laborer, but Levi B. Moore, Elizabeth's son, is shown as a clay worker, as are four other men on the same page. The Dennisons (James was the brother of Samuel Dennison) lived off of Limestone Road, just south of Paper Mill Road. The Peach clay pits were practically in their backyard. Here is a 1921 newspaper article about the Peach Kaolin Company.

By 1910, Ambrose was married 8 years to Emma Massey (note the marriage license above was signed by John Peach), had three children, and was still working in the clay yard, this time shown as so on the census. Assuming the man in the 1920 census was the same one, Ambrose left the Peach Kaolin Company sometime between 1910 and 1920. In 1916, the Peach family sold their business to a Philadelphia company which kept the Peach name. It's very possible that Ambrose left (or was forced out) at this time. There is really not much else that I was able to find.

Among the unanswered questions are:
  • Are my guesses about Ambrose and his family correct?
  • Was his mother really born a slave, or was this a later embellishment?
  • Why was he taken in by the Dennisons?
  • How much of an education did Ambrose receive?
  • Did he actually attend a Quaker school, and how unusual was this (for a black child to attend)?
  • What exactly did he do for the kaolin company?
Whether or not we ever find these answers, the story of Ambrose Reed is still an interesting and unusual one. It's also a good reminder that there was a fair bit of diversity in Mill Creek Hundred, even if some groups' stories are sometimes overlooked.


  1. Interesting story! My guess is that Ambrose was not all that educated. It appears that he signed his marriage license with the provebial "X". If he spent a couple of years in a Quaker school I would think he would have learned to read and write.

  2. Thanks for all the work you put into sharing public history through the Mill Creek Hundred Blog. I enjoy reading your posts. Also nice piece of research with this one.



  3. I found a WWI draft registration for an Ambrose Reed, born 1/31/1877, wife named Emma, living at 419 Taylor in Wilmington and working as a stationary fireman at Diamond Fibre in Elsmere. I also found a birth record for an un-named baby girl, born 1/23/1884, with the father, Ambrose Reed, named, but the mother only appears as ____ Mann (?). From the dates, I'm thinking that this child's father is the older Ambrose you had found, born about 1857 and married to Annie (1880 census) and that he is perhaps also the father of the 1877 Ambrose, while the 1884 Ambrose is the son of Ambrose Sr.'s brother Jerry. Does that make sense? Just to make it more fun, there is also a Jerry Reed, who died in 1887, aged 10, with no parents named. Since the 1884 Ambrose is buried at Mt. Olive, maybe a trip over there would find some family members as well.

  4. delaware21 -- I think you're absolutely right. You know, I did notice that, but it slipped my mind when I was writing. Although Ambrose Reed's story is certainly interesting and noteworthy, I now have even more of a feeling that there has been a bit of, shall we say, "padding" to it around the edges. Good catch.

  5. Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it.

    Mary -- Several excellent points. First, if the draft card (presumably 1917 or 18) is our Ambrose, that may support the idea that he left the Peach Co around the time of the sale, 1916. Makes sense he's still doing industrial work, and gives an intermediate picture of where he is.

    That 1884 girl was the older Ambrose's daughter, and her name was Mabel. She appears as a 16 year old in the 1900 census. I have this family in 1880, still together, with no 3 year old son. It's possible that there were two younger Ambrose's (1878 and 1884), I've seen worse (ie., more confusing) things, but I've never found more than one in any given census.

    Great catch with young Jerry. I found what you mean, and he died of an accidental drowning in Christiana Hundred. I'm pretty sure I saw somewhere else something about a lake at the Ferris Industrial School. You're right -- no parents listed. This has to be Hannah's son. Outside of the wild idea of Jerry and Ambrose being twins, still don't know where everyone fits. Great follow-ups, though!