Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Robinson-Murray House

The Robinson-Murray House, 1958
Generally speaking, as far as post subjects are concerned, I usually prefer to move around as much as I can, geographically and topically, to give as much variety as possible. In this case, though, I decided to stick very close to the last post -- for a reason -- and I'm glad I did. I chose to look at the Robinson-Murray House now because of a specific connection to the Lynam (or Springer) Log House (one that had me kind of confused for a while), and because otherwise it might have been quite a while before I would have written about it. In and of itself, the Robinson-Murray House was not particularly significant, except that part of it survived for over 200 years. It (well, almost all of it) was demolished in 1958, but prior to its razing, a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) report was made on it, preserving a few pictures of the house, and uncovering a bit about its history.

The house sat on the east side of Limestone Road, south of Milltown Road. As best as I can tell, it appears to have been right about where the third house is south of the Mealey Funeral Home. It was built in two phases, about 30 years apart. The oldest section, a two-story, gambrel-roofed log house (later stuccoed), was built in 1741, according to an inscription in the chimney. A two and a half story stone section was built onto the west end sometime between 1768 and 1781. Beside the facts that they were both 18th Century homes and less than a half mile apart, the connection between the Robinson-Murray and Lynam Houses came after their removals, which occurred within a few months of each other. Since fires years ago had damaged portions of the interior of the Lynam House, sections of the wood paneling from the Robinson-Murray House were removed from it and installed in the Lynam House when it was reassembled at the Smithsonian.

This last fact was what had me confused for a little while, mostly because I never read it closely. I had already known about this house, but thought it was the one taken to DC. When I then learned of the Lynam House and found out that it was "The Delaware Log House", I thought there might be two. It didn't help my confusion that the picture of the Lynam House used at the top of that post was actually included in the HABS report for this one. After reading it again, I realized that only the woodwork (seen below) was taken from the Robinson-Murray House, not the whole thing.

Wood paneling taken from the Robinson-Murray House,
while on display at the Smithsonian Institution

Despite the fact that it was torn down over 50 years ago, the early history of the house and property does give a useful and informative insight into the goings-on in colonial-era Mill Creek Hundred. The tract on which the house sat was first patented in 1702 to James Robinson (1667-1726), a member of an obviously well-connected Irish family. (His brother George married the daughter of Valentine Hollingsworth, who owned much of Brandywine Hundred, and George built the first section of what's now Lombardy Hall on Concord Pike.) James' tract covered 921 acres, and stretched from Mill Creek to Calf Run. He soon erected a mill along Mill Creek*, probably just about where the Harlan-Chandler Mill stands now. He also acquired several other properties: one on Bread and Cheese Island southeast of Stanton, and another along Mill Creek further south. From this second tract he donated the ten acres on which St. James' Church was built.

Even before becoming the benefactor for St. James', Robinson served as a warden of Immanuel Church in New Castle, and secularly served in 1716 as a member of the Assembly of New Castle County. In 1691, he had married Englishwoman Catherine Howell, and the couple would have 12 children. Many of these children would end up moving to Virginia, but several did stick around until about mid-century.

It seems that after James' death in 1726, his mill may not have been upkept all that well. There was a flurry of transactions in the 1740's between some of the siblings and a few outsiders. Eight of the children had been granted equal portions of a tract that included the mill property. Their mother, Catherine Robinson, died in 1750, but I don't know if this was related in any way to the real estate transactions and the emigration of several of the children to Virginia -- all within a few years' time. There was an agreement made for two of the sons -- Joseph and John -- to fix up the mill that was by that time in a poor state of repair. By then, it was "commonly known as" Robinson's Mill, but it's not clear if any of James Robinson's children intended to operate his mill themselves, or if they were repairing it for resale. In any case, by the late 1740's the mill property was mostly (if not completely) out of the family.

Interestingly, if the chimney inscription is accurate, it was within this timeframe that the log house across Limestone Road was constructed. By and for whom it was built is anyone's guess. James' 1726 will gives the house in which he was living to his wife. The HABS report lists the next change in ownership (after James' 1702 purchase) of the house property as being 1750, when it went to William and Priscilla (Robinson) Graham. It seems obvious that Priscilla and her husband got the house after the death of her mother that year. That would imply that Catherine had been living in it. If it was built in 1741, perhaps this was a replacement for their original home at the site. Other possibilities are that the house was older, and the chimney was replaced in 1741; or that the house was built by one of the children and their mother moved into it.

Whatever the case, William and Priscilla sold the house within a few years of Catherine's death, which is not surprising considering that they may already have been living in Virginia at the time. It apparently went to a James McAferson (maybe, MacPherson?), who in turn sold it in 1753 to William Johnson. The lot at that time included 71-1/2 acres. There's nothing written specifically about who William Johnson was, but I have what I think is a pretty good guess. There is only one William Johnson in the area at the time who I can find any mention of, and I believe he's also related to another historic site already covered on this blog.

My hypothesis is that this William Johnson is the older brother of Robert Johnson, whose son Joshua built the original section of the Johnson-Morris House. Like them, William is as often listed as "Johnston" as "Johnson". What is deserving of further research is the distinct possibility that he may also be the same person as the William Johnston documented as being a cabinetmaker and joiner in the area at the time. The Winterthur Library has a portion of Johnston's diary, and as this page shows, many of the names referenced are prominent in this part of MCH. We see names like Ball, Crossan, Hersey, McKennan, Montgomery, Robinson, Springer, and Walker. He wasn't living in the house when the diary was written in 1785-86, but he couldn't have moved very far away.

Johnson must have been fairly successful at whatever he was doing, because before selling the property in 1781, he added the stone section that about doubled the size of the house. We know he was the one responsible for this addition, because the deed transfering the property in 1781 to Thomas Montgomery specifically states as much. Montgomery -- who I assume was related to Alexander Montgomery (co-owner of the mill) and William Montgomery (soon to build his house just north of the mill) -- sold it again two years later to a Thomas Wallace. In 1790, the property was siezed from Wallace and sold to Joseph Ball in order to pay Wallace's debts.

Over the next 13 years the property changed hands another 4 or five times, until being purchased in 1803 by James Ball (the Ball family is a tangled web to be straightened out another time, but it seems James was Joseph's son). On the 1849 Rea & Price map, the house is shown by the name J. McNight. This was almost certainly John McKnight, who was the brother of James Ball's wife, Isabella. The Balls lived just north of Milltown, and probably leased the property to McKnight, who died in 1851. In 1862, the property, which had since passed to James and Isabella's son James W. Ball, was sold at auction to satisfy his debts, but it still remained in the family. It was purchased by Samuel D. Newlin, whose wife Hannah was James W. Ball's sister. "S.D. Newlin" is how the house is shown on the 1868 Beers map.

After Samuel's death, the house passed to his son Alonzo, who sold it around 1910 to the Murray family. They would own the house until its razing in 1958, presumably for the construction of the Limestone Gardens housing development behind it. Even though the Robinson-Murray House has been nothing but a memory for more than half a century, its history serves as a convenient gateway into several of the families important to the early history of the area. And thanks to the HABS report about, we have at least a slightly better grasp on what was happening in the Milltown area two and three centuries ago.

*Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • I haven't been able to nail down exactly when Mill Creek first began to be referred to by that name. It was originally called either Fresh or Rum Creek, but obviously got its new name from a mill, or several mills, along it. The references I've seen to Robinson's 1702 patent mention Mill Creek, but I haven't seen the original (or a direct transcription), so I'm not sure what it was called then. If it was still Rum Creek in 1702, perhaps Robinson's mill helped name the creek.
  • The HABS report notes that in 1768, William Johnson leased two acres from James Guthrie for use as a "starch yard". The only thing I've found about this is that a starch yard is used for drying starch out of some kind of liquified corn. I know starch can be used in glue, so was Johnson the cabinetmaker maybe making his own glue?


  1. It is a shame these older structures had to be torn down. At least photos remain for some. Good Job Scott.

  2. Do you have suggestions for learning more about the people mentioned in this article? William and Priscilla Robinson Graham were my gggggg-grandparents so your article is not only interesting from a historic perspective, but from a personal one as well.