Friday, October 17, 2014

How'd We End Up with a Funny Name Like Hockessin?

Of all the place names in Mill Creek Hundred, the one that invariably gives the most trouble to outsiders is the once-quiet, now upscale village of Hockessin. Any time I see a story relating to there popping up on a Philadelphia newscast, I sit waiting for the out-of-stater to pronounce it something that sounds like "hock a sin". As incorrect as that may be, the ironic thing is that almost all of us are probably actually saying it wrong. The reason hearkens back to the most probable origin of the name, a story that reaches back almost 300 years.

The problem is that this most likely origin of the name Hockessin is not the story most commonly told over the last century and a half. The other problem is that these alternative theories can be made to sound very plausible, giving them deep traction. Since the word "Hockessin" doesn't really sound like a name we're familiar with, or sound like any other English word for that matter, the natural reaction is to look to another language. In this region, that often means Native American languages.

I don't know when the "Indian origins" stories for Hockessin first came about, but by 1888 Scharf was relaying one of the most common ones. The etymology given in his work was that Hockessin " an Indian word, said to mean 'good bark', and was so called on account of the excellent quality of white oak found in this locality." Two paragraphs later he writes that it's "an aboriginal name of uncertain derivation, but said by some to mean 'Good Bark Hill'." Scharf seems to me to be hedging a bit on the second one, but still sounds sure that it's of native origins.

The other commonly recited origin is the one given in the 1930's WPA work, Delaware: A Guide to the First State. In this variation, Hockessin has the Native meaning of "place of many foxes". Both stories have been retold countless times, in countless histories. The problem for them is that there doesn't seem to be any real historical basis for these stories. The problem for us is that they do happen to be at least somewhat plausible.

As it turns out, the local native word for bark was "hokes", and the word for fox was "hockus". Obviously both of these can't be the true origin. I think this is a case of later residents and/or historians starting with the idea that it was an Indian word, and working backwards from there. I believe that this is misguided, and that there is a different and much more tangible explanation for the genesis of the name Hockessin. Local historian and writer C. A. Weslager also held this opinion, and in 1964 he wrote an article for Names, the Journal of the American Name Society. Much of what follows comes from his work.

If the odd-sounding moniker isn't an old Native American word, then where did it come from? I think that facts and logic point to the name having its roots in a nearly 300 year old house that we've already covered here in the blog, and that is pictured at the top of the post -- the Cox-Mitchell House. To refresh your memory, the Cox-Mitchell House stands on Old Wilmington Road, east of the main part of Hockessin. It sits on land purchased in 1721 by William and Catherine Cox and its original section was erected five years later. The Coxes were members of the Society of Friends, and in 1730 they and the small community of Quakers in the area were given permission to hold their own meetings. As there was not yet a meeting house built, the meetings were held at the Cox's home.

So what does that have to do with Hockessin? As it so happens, William Cox, like many landowners at the time, had a name for his home. His was called "Ocasson". We know this from a 1734 deed that references "William Cox of Ocasson, farmer". From the wording, it's implied that Ocasson is Cox's home, and not the area in general. When the Quaker meeting house was built in 1737 (on a corner of Cox's property), it was originally named Hocesion. Numerous variations of these words show up in the historical record throughout the rest of the 18th and well into the 19th Century.

There are lots of different spellings, but you can tell they're all essentially the same word. A 1742 marriage certificate records "Occassion meeting house". A 1787 surveyor's drawing refers to "The publick road leading from Occasian meeting house..." An 1808 deed calls present-day Old Wilmington Road "Ockession Road". A deed from 1810 calls it "the great road leading from Okession to Wilmington". Two years later it's referred to as "Okesan Road". There are undoubtedly more, with even more variations of the spelling, but you get the point.

1816 survey done for Ephraim Yarnall, Jr., noting "Okession Road to Newport"
This was present-day Duncan Road

The spellings of some words, and especially names, were not really formalized until well into the 19th Century -- spelling seems like more of an art than a science before then. The important point is that as of now, as far as I know, the first use of a name anything like "Hockessin" in the area was William Cox's Ocasson. Barring further evidence, it seems likely that this is where Hockessin originated. But "Ocasson" doesn't really seem like an English word either, does it? In the ways that the name was spelled over the years, it's not particularly obvious to us now what it was supposed to mean, or how it was supposed to be pronounced.

There are two tidbits from Weslager's work that give a great insight into the likely original pronunciation and form of the name. The first was an old story he heard from Catherine Ball, widow of Dr. L. Heisler Ball, and it demonstrates why we're all saying the name "incorrectly" now. She told him that the older residents claimed that Hockessin Road (Old Wilmington Road) got it's name when an old Quaker saw a young couple in a carriage, snuggled together, her head on his shoulder. The old Quaker looked at them and said, "Oh kissin'."

Obviously this is a folk etymology, a story concocted after the fact to try to explain a word origin. It's not very helpful in finding the origin of the word, but it does underscore one important point -- pronunciation. In the same way you would say "Oh kissin'", Hockessin used to be pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. If you can find someone who grew up in the area prior to about the 1950's, odds are that's how they'll say it. It was only with the influx of post-war suburbanites that it changed to the first syllable pronunciation that we're familiar with.

That's all interesting in its own right (in my mind, at least), but it's also a vital clue in determining what the true name of William Cox's estate was. Weslager believes, and I agree, that the name was actually "Occasion", as in a special time or happening. Over time, as the word was separated from the home and used as the name of the meeting house and eventually the village near it, it morphed into "Hockessin". It was initially pronounced with the accented second syllable, but in the mid-20th Century became the name we know today.

As Weslager pointed out, if someday a document turns up with a variation of Hockessin being used prior to the arrival of William Cox, this all may have to be revisited. But until then, I think this is the most likely origin of one to the most unique names in Mill Creek Hundred.


  1. This was fascinating...thank so much!

  2. Thank you so much for another interesting tidbit on my ancestor William Cox.