Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The (Actual) Walkers of the Mermaid

The Mermaid Tavern
In the previous post, I gave a somewhat (for me, at least) brief overview of one of the Walker families in Mill Creek Hundred. This was a clan that can be traced back at least to James Walker (1744-1796), and possibly to an older James Walker who might have been his father. Members of this family line owned several properties in the Mermaid area north of Milltown, on both sides of Limestone Road. By the end of the 19th Century, they would own the Mermaid itself. However, for most of the century, the Mermaid Tavern was owned by another set of Walkers -- a set whose connection to the James Walker family is not quite clear.

Although there is evidence that a James Walker acquired a liquor license for the Mermaid as far back as 1746, the actual tavern was owned by the Ball family until the late 1820's. In March 1829, the property was purchased by Samuel C. and Sarah Ann Walker of Chester County, PA, and it would stay in their direct family for the next 66 years. The question, though, is who exactly were Samuel and Sarah, and how were they related to the Walkers already in the area? Francis Cooch, writing in the 1930's does imply that these two sets of Walkers were different lines within the same family. With the relatively small population of the region at the time, I think the idea that these Walkers were unrelated is unlikely, at best.

Frustratingly, so far I've been able to find little information about Samuel Clark Walker (besides his middle name), so I can only speculate about his position within the Walker clan. Just about the only mention I can find of him, independent of the Mermaid property, is that he also owned a house farther up Limestone Road (seen here, on page 28 of this PDF), just south of the state line. Assuming this is the same man, and noting that he was buying property in 1793, this would likely put him in the same generation as the Robert and James Walker who owned the farms near the Mermaid. Perhaps he was a cousin, or maybe a slightly more distant relative. But frankly, there are a number of Walkers with similar names, and not enough concrete information to know the exact make-up of these generations of the various Walkers.

Starting at this point, though, we have a little better idea of who owned the tavern afterwards. Much of it comes from this DelDOT report, which contains a nice table of property transactions for the site. Samuel and Sarah only owned the tavern for two years, selling it in 1831 to George Walker, presumably their son. Sometime around 1839, George Walker died, leaving the Mermaid to his wife Rebecca and their five children: Samuel C., Rebecca, Jerome, Josiah, and Elizabeth. Rebecca and several of those children would operate the tavern for the next 56 years.

Thanks to some information from Francis Cooch's "Little Known History of Newark, Delaware and Its Environs", I think I can piece together a bit more of this family's story. First, the transaction table lists that in 1839, Samuel C. Walker gave Rebecca his 1/5 share of the property, to be held in a trust for his five children (Dixon, Jefferson, Julia Ann, William Wilson, and George). Cooch (who was getting his information from descendants of the the other line of Walkers) mentions that, "Aunt Betsy was a widow, and with her lived the children of a ne'er-do-well son, Samuel, who had deserted his wife and left to his mother's care, four sons and a daughter." This explains why Samuel C. (son of George and Rebecca, not the older Samuel C.) transferred his part of the property. But, if his mother was Rebecca, and Rebecca ran the tavern, who was the "Aunt Betsy" named in the story?

I can't yet prove this for sure, but I can't help thinking that Rebecca Walker was "Aunt Betsy".* She was Samuel's mother, and was the head of the household for her children and grandchildren. Also, I can't find a Rebecca Walker buried anywhere. However, at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian (where many other Walkers also lie) there is a George Walker and an Elizabeth Walker, with matching headstones. I can't place these two anywhere else in the family. If Rebecca also went by Elizabeth (Betsy), it would explain it. Some of the dates don't match up exactly (a big one being that Rebecca is in the 1870 census, but Elizabeth's headstone says she died in 1862), but most are close enough to be plausible, at least in my mind, until a better explanation comes along.

There are a few stories about some of the family members, but not much. Josiah was briefly the first postmaster when the Mermaid became a post office in the mid-1840's, until his death in 1849. Cooch relates the story of how Jerome and Jefferson (whom he incorrectly states were sons of the ne'er-do-well Samuel -- Jeff was, but Jerome was his brother) got drunk once at the bar, and how Jerome went for a joyride on a mower. He rode the mower down the hill on the east side of the road, hit a stump, went flying, and broke his neck, killing him. They must have been a wild family, because Jerome was no kid -- this was in 1865 when he was 50. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Mermaid ceased being a tavern just a few years later.

Because of the dearth of information about the family, the next change in ownership is not quite clear (although it may blow a huge hole in my Aunt Betsy = Rebecca theory). The DelDOT report's transaction table shows that a Rebecca J. Brown served as Administratrix for Rebecca and George Brown, deceased. This Rebecca was the daughter of George and Rebecca, and this implies that they had recently died. With neighbor Aquilla Derrickson handling the transaction, Rebecca (Walker) Brown and Elizabeth Walker, her sister, purchased the Mermaid Hotel and surrounding property.

In 1895, Elizabeth and the granddaughter of Rebecca Brown sold the property to James Henry Walker, the son of Robert Walker. The families had been neighbors for over 65 years, and probably were related, although I can't say exactly how just yet. The property remains in the hands of the descendants of James H. Walker today. Hopefully, sometime in the near future the Walker family tree (and the Mermaid ownerships) can be clarified a bit, and a more precise story told. As always, if I come across any more relevant information, I'll be sure to pass it along.




Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Another possible explanation for Aunt Betsy is that it refers to Elizabeth Walker, daughter of Rebecca and later co-owner of the Mermaid. Since Cooch's information was coming from Emma Walker Pennington, daughter of James H. Walker, she might have gotten these older women confused.

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