Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ocasson -- The Cox-Mitchell House

Ocasson today
In the recent post about John Mitchell, it was related that in 1868 the venerable Quaker purchased an even-then-historic home near Hockessin, which is still in the possession of his family today. In fact, during its 286 year history, the Cox-Mitchell House has been owned exclusively by members of the Society of Friends. Not only has the house been owned by a number of the most prominent Quaker families in the area, it has a deeper connection to the local Friends community, as we'll see in just a moment. For two different (yet related) reasons, in my opinion the Cox-Mitchell House can rightly be called "The Birthplace of Hockessin".

The story (and the Quaker connection) begins, of course, with the most important Quaker family -- the Penns. In 1701, William Penn granted 15,500 acres in Chester and New Castle Counties to his daughter Letitia, which she would slowly sell off over the subsequent several decades. In 1721, for £86, she sold 300 acres to William and Catherine Cox, fellow Quakers who had been married about five years before. Cox then purchased 50 more acres from Henry Dixon in 1725, giving him a total of 350 acres. His tract was located east of today's "Downtown" Hockessin, bordered roughly by the current Old Wilmington Road, Meeting House Road, and Benge Road.

The family may well have lived in a smaller log or frame house for the first few years, but that changed in 1726 with the erection of new brick house. Cox's new home, which he called "Ocasson" (much, much more about this name in a follow-up post to come), was a 2-1/2 story, three bay house that faced south, out over his property. The brick datestone (seen below) William and Catherine had placed in the wall is still on the house, although it was probably later moved to another location. Now, it can be viewed only from inside a room in one of the additions to the house.


William and Catherine Cox's 1726 Datestone

William Cox was not only a member of the Society of Friends -- he was an active member. By 1730 there was a small community of Quakers in the area, and they petitioned to be allowed to hold meetings nearby. Since there was no meeting house yet, they gathered instead at the home of William Cox. What would become the Hockessin Friends Meeting -- the first community organization in the vicinity -- got its start in the front room of Cox's house. Not only did the house give the meeting its first home, it also likely gave it its name. When in 1737 the meeting grew too large for Cox's front parlor, a new meeting house was erected on land donated by William Cox. The first written reference to a name for this meeting, "Hocesion", was likely a variation of "Ocasson", the name of William Cox's dwelling.

The Coxes lived in their brick home until 1753, when they moved to what must have been like a MCH South -- Orange County, NC and the Cane Creek Meeting. That year they sold their property to John and Rebecca Dixon*, who resided here until John's death in 1766. The property (now about 349-1/2 acres) was next sold at auction for £1235 to another Quaker, a cooper named William Phillips, Sr (1710-1790). William and his wife Mary raised eight children in the house. After purchasing the property, Phillips erected the enormous barn behind the house. This barn, the only remaining example of an 18th Century bank barn in New Castle County, was enlarged over the years, and is still an impressive sight today.

After William, Sr.'s death in 1790, the property passed to one of his sons, William, Jr (1749-1823). In his will, the elder William also made provisions for his widow Mary to have several rooms in the house, as well as uninterrupted access to do her cooking and washing.* Along with his mother, William, Jr. lived in the house along with his wife and seven children. When his son John came of age, probably around 1814, William divided his property and gave part of it to him. William kept 229 acres (including the house) for himself, and gave about 120 acres on the northeast part of the tract to John. There, he built a house and barn for his son on the west side of Meeting House Road (as far as  can tell, that house is no longer standing).

When William Phillips, Jr. died in 1823, there was apparently some disagreement among the heirs as to who should inherit the now almost century-old house. Eventually, it went to William's oldest child, Hannah, and her husband William Wilkinson. They resided in the house for only six years before Wilkinson died in 1829, heavily in debt. The following year, the 229 acre property was sold at auction for $7124.50 to yet another Quaker, Jacob Heald.

Jacob Heald (1800-1887), the older brother of Joshua T. Heald, is a fascinating man in his own right and is probably deserving of his own post someday. His obituary, reprinted here, gives you some idea of the life he led. Specifically regarding this property, there are two things that stand out. First is the statement (possibly a kind exaggeration, but probably not) that when he sold the farm in 1856, "It was considered at that time the finest farm in northern New Castle County."

The other interesting fact is Jacob Heald's involvement in the anti-slavery movement. Like many Friends, he and his wives Sarah (he was married twice -- both to a Sarah) were outspoken Abolitionists. In fact, the obituary states that his house was used as a station on the Underground Railroad. To my knowledge, no other specifics are known about whether or how the house was used, or for how long. There are probably several places in the house to hide runaway slaves, including a vaulted root cellar under the basement floor. Alternately, the barn is also plenty large enough to stash someone away for a day. In any case, there's certainly room for more investigation into the Cox-Mitchell House's role in the Underground Railroad.

In 1856, Jacob Heald sold his Hockessin farm and moved to Wilmington. (He would later move to West Chester for a time, then return to Wilmington to live with his son, Dr. Pusey Heald.*) During his 26 year tenure, it's not quite clear if Heald contributed any additions to the old home. There have been several wings added since the days of William Cox, but no conclusive proof, for the most part, for their dates. (There also may have been some early structures removed along the way.) The rear wing, for example, definitely pre-dates the 1860's, and may have been added (in my opinion) by the Phillips family. The addition on the far side was almost certainly built later by John Mitchell (as were the dormers). As the current owners continue their loving restoration of the home, more clues may emerge as to the timeline of the house's construction.

Even if he didn't increase the size of the house, Jacob Heald definitely did decrease the size of the property. Over the years, he sold off 73 of his original 229 acres. When he sold the house and farm in 1856, the tract contained 156 acres, which he conveyed to Howard E. Flinn for $15,672. I don't know too much about Flinn (1833-1898), except that he was part of a family prominent in and around Newport and southwestern Christiana Hundred. (In fact, some of his family's properties were just a stone's throw from MCH, so I may at some point delve deeper into the Flinn's story.) Most of the family is buried at St. James Episcopal Church in Newport, but I think they may have originally been Quaker. Howard Flinn's obituary, like others in his family, uses the traditional Quaker dating terminology (1st Month, 30th Day).

John and Margaret Mitchell, and the Cox-Mitchell House

Aside from the ill-fated Wilkinson, Howard Flinn had the shortest tenure in the Cox-Mitchell House at 12 years. In March 1868, he sold the property to its other namesake, John Mitchell (1818-1897). As described in the post about Mitchell, he had (and would) purchased several properties around MCH, but he chose this one to become his new home. By comparing the picture above (probably taken not long after he bought it) to the current picture at the top of the post, several of the renovations he made become clear. It doesn't appear that the wing on the far side is present, so he probably added that, along with the two dormers. The large side porch spanning the endwall of the original section and the old rear wing, a not-uncommon late 19th Century addition, was likely built by him as well.

John Mitchell would spend the remainder of his life in this historic home, and it remains in the possession of his descendants today. While residing there, probably late in his life, Mitchell did sell off nearly half of the original tract he bought in 1868. 33 acres were sold to his son William, and another 40 went somewhere else. An 1893 map still shows his holdings at 156 acres, but by the time it passed to his son John C. Mitchell (1869-1863), there were only 83 acres remaining. John C., who grew up in the house, worked the land here until well into the 20th Century, with the aid of tenant farmers who lived in part of the house. Eventually the property was leased outright to tenants, but it remained in the ownership John C. Mitchell, until passing to his daughter Gertrude.

Now sitting on only a bit over 8 acres and no longer a working farm, the Cox-Mitchell House -- William Cox's "Ocasson" -- still looks out over the Hockessin valley as it did nearly three centuries ago. Much has changed in region, but the house, built six years before George Washington was born, still remains. Today owned by John Mitchell's granddaughter (at a youthful 99 years of age), it is currently being restored by her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. Just wandering through the house is like embarking on an historical expedition. Because it gave the initial shelter to the Friends Meeting around which the community coalesced, and because it likely gave the village its very name, I think the Cox-Mitchell House can truly be called the Birthplace of Hockessin. And thanks to the family who is as passionate about the house now as John Mitchell surely was in 1868, it will be with us for many years to come.


*Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The Dixon family (like the Phillipses (the Phillipi?)) is one of those that gets a bit tricky to follow at times. However, it's possible that John and Rebecca Dixon may have been William Cox's son-in-law and daughter.
  • William Phillips, Sr. also bequeathed at least two other properties to his sons -- a 295 acre farm in Christiana Hundred and a 150 acre tract in MCH. It's not mentioned where exactly the MCH property was, but an intriguing possibility is that it was the Mendenhall Mill property. William seems to have owned it earlier at least, and I don't think we've actually determined who owned it around this time. Perhaps William Phillips did retain ownership, maybe leasing the farm, and his sons sold it to James A. Mendehall after their father's death.
  • Another of William Phillips, Sr's sons, Robert Phillips, owned the Greenbank Mill on Red Clay Creek.
  • Dr. Pusey Heald, son of Jacob Heald, was one of the leading physicians in Wilmington in the late 1800's. In 1871, he opened Heald's Hygeian Home at Shallcross and Van Buren Streets. This hospital later became the Homeopathic Hospital, and finally Memorial Hospital (later, Memorial Division). Standing next to I-95 and Brandywine Creek, it was demolished in the mid-1980's.
  • The house and farm that William Phillips, Jr. set up for his son John eventually was purchased by Isaac W. Flinn, who certainly had to be related to Howard. If not a brother, I think he may have been a cousin.

13 comments:

  1. Yea! Finally got this (Cox-Mitchell House) post up. Sorry for the delay, and sorry for the length. Frankly, by the time I was done, I just didn't feel like going back and dividing it into two posts.

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    1. VERY NICE AND VERY INFORMATIVE ARTICLE!

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    2. Scott, do you know whether or not the Cox-Mitchell home sustained any damage during the recent hurricane Sandy. I hope not and that all who reside there are safe, but just wondering.

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    3. I did check with the owners, and they came through everything fine. A few branches down, but that was about it. I know they appreciate the interest and concern. Thanks.

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  2. Thanks Scott,
    I really enjoyed this piece. William and Catherine Cox were my fifth great-grandparents and it was nice to see the brick picture with their initials in it!
    Jan Swart

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    1. I'm glad you liked it. I know there are a good number of Cox descendants out there, I think especially in the North Carolina area. The owners of the house mentioned that they've had a few of them stop by a few times.

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  3. Scott-After reading how the house descended from the Cox family to Rebecca Dixon's husband John and then to William Phillips around 1766 (the ones who erected the large barn on the property). I also see that Mary Phillips is his wife. When I pulled out my 1744 Quaker marriage certificate from Hockessin Meeting for William Ferrall and Martha Cox (daughter of William and Catherine Kinkey Cox) I realized it must be the same Mary Philips who witnessed the Wm Ferrall/Martha Cox wedding along with John and Rebecah Dixon. So your article gave me greater insight into them. Thank you again!
    Jan Swart

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    1. I'm glad it helped. I've said it before, but at times it almost seems like historic MCH can be thought of better as just a really spread out small town. It's almost impossible to do any research without coming across various connections between families, especially when dealing with the Quakers. I'd be very surprised if most of the residents (especially the land-owning ones) didn't know each other at any given time. Heck, they were likely to be related to at least a few of the other families.

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  4. Does anyone know how I can visit this house or the Friends Meeting House? I am a descendent of William Cox and would love to visit both homes in June, 2012

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    1. If you would like to email me (mchhistory@verizon.net), I can forward your information to the owners of the house. As for the meeting house, I found a phone number of 302-239-2223.

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  5. You are correct about Rebecca Cox and John Dixon

    http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/c/o/x/Barry-A-Cox/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-1677.html

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  6. Your article says that the barn on the property is the only remaining example of an 18th century stone bank barn in New Castle County but over at Coverdale Farm Preserve on Way Road (owned and operated by the Delaware Nature Society) there is an 18th Century stone bank barn. During the annual harvest festival the property is open to the public and there are some programs that take place on the property. http://www.delawarenaturesociety.org/dns_sites.html

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    1. Maybe the researchers who wrote the Historic American Buildings Survey report were not aware of it.

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