Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Simon Cranston

One phenomenon that has interested me since I began researching Mill Creek Hundred history is how certain families came to dominate particular areas, at least as far as owning property. It would usually begin with one settler on a homestead, who then would buy adjacent or nearby farms either directly for his sons or to increase his own holdings. Later on, the original properties would be divided and end up in the hands of multiple members of the family. This has happened over and over again, whether it was the Eastburns, Whitemans, Mitchells, Springers or numerous others. In the Marshallton and Stanton area, the dominant family for most of the 19th Century and well into the 20th was undoubtedly the Cranstons.

The Cranston name is of course still well known to area residents today, but their story, for the most part, is not. Besides in the name of a fire company, a neighborhood, and an apartment complex, the Cranston legacy also lives on in many of the houses they owned. Unfortunately, though, at least two have been (relatively) recently lost. Any telling of the Cranston story, however, has to begin with the first of the clan to settle in this area -- Simon Cranston.

Simon Cranston was born in 1768, the son of William and Ann (Johnson) Cranston, near Marcus Hook, Delaware County, PA. His father was a ship-carpenter who served his apprenticeship under Simon Sherlock, for whom he named one of his sons. William's father was Benjamin Cranston, who was born into one of the most prominent families in Rhode Island. Benjamin's grandfather was John Cranston, a colonial Governor of Rhode Island. His Uncle Samuel Cranston was also a Governor, the longest-tenured in the history of the colony or the state.

Benjamin Cranston left Rhode Island for Philadelphia sometime before 1735, later settling in Marcus Hook, Lower Chichester Township. My guess is that it was Benjamin who was the first Quaker in his line. Simon Cranston spent his first thirty years or so in Marcus Hook, and early on had an experience that he talked about for the rest of his life. During the Revolutionary War (probably in 1777, when he was 9), Simon witnessed British warships firing on his home area from the Delaware. After the barrage, he and some others went around gathering up all the bullets they could find on the ground or embedded in the trees. This history of Delaware County has an even more in-depth account of the Cranston family's adventures and travails during the Revolution.

As Simon approached manhood, he entered into the same trade as his father and became a shipwright. The young Quaker stayed in Marcus Hook until about the age of thirty, when he moved to Stanton. We can narrow down the date of his move a bit, as he was still listed in the tax records of Lower Chichester Township in 1795. He must have moved very soon after that, because Simon married Mary Marshall of Stanton and the couple's first child was born in July 1797. Mary was the daughter of William Marshall, a Wilmington miller who also owned a mill in Stanton.

It's not clear where Cranston originally settled, but in 1802 he purchased what later came to be known as the "Church Lot" in Stanton, on the northwest corner of Limestone Road and Main Street. The 1802 deed lists him as a "Ship carpenter of Mill Creek Hundred", so he was obviously living and working here by then.

I don't believe anyone has definitively located exactly where Simon Cranston's shipyard was, but it was somewhere on White Clay Creek behind Stanton, near Bread and Cheese Island. One history states that he operated there until being driven out by the British in 1812, at which time he relocated to Jones Creek in Kent County. If that's true, I don't think he stayed down there very long. In 1814 Cranston sold his lot in Stanton, which he no longer needed since he had since purchased a larger property just east of the village.

On the north side of Route 4 near Stanton Road, set back from the roadway and currently behind a liquor store (not sure what the Quaker would have thought of that), stands the five-bay fieldstone house built by Simon Cranston in 1812. Called "Ten Maples" for the five trees that once lined each side of the lane up to the house, this home seems to mark a transition point in Simon's life. The evidence indicates that around this time he gave up his shipwright's tools for farm implements. Instead of the small village lot of a craftsman, Cranston now owned a substantial farm. I think it's likely that one of the main reasons for this change was his growing family, and his thoughts towards their future.

Between 1797 and 1814, Simon and Mary had eight children, five of them boys. All the boys would go on to become farmers, most on land acquired by their father in the surrounding area. A subsequent post will go into more depth about William, Joseph, Samuel, James, Benjamin and their families. Suffice it to say that much of the land between Stanton and Marshallton -- and much of Marshallton itself -- was once held by the heirs of Simon and Mary Cranston. Mary, however, would not live to see what her children would accomplish. She died in 1820, leaving Simon with six minor children, the youngest of whom (Benjamin) was only 6. As was the custom of the time, this meant that Simon needed another wife, and soon.

This is where we get to what I can't decide is either the saddest or most amusing part of Simon Cranston's story. Not long after Mary's passing, Simon met a woman named Hannah Cope. She was apparently a beautiful woman, but only on the outside. We don't have any record of how Simon or the rest of the family felt about Hannah, but I get the feeling that she was not highly thought of in the community. It seems she was a bit, um, hard to deal with. So much so, in fact, that nearly 50 years after their deaths a poem was written about Simon and Hannah, by a Wilmington native named Howell Stroud England. The poem "Simon Cranston" appears in his 1899 book of poetry Shots at Random. You can read it in its entirety, but the gist of it is summed up in the verse supposedly carved into a bench at the Stanton Friends Meeting House by "a wayward youth": "The children of Israel wanted bread, and the Lord gave them manna; Simon Cranston wanted a wife, and Devil sent him Hannah."

Whatever the real Hannah Cranston was like, she and Simon remained married for something like 30 years. She passed in August 1855, Simon five months later. They were laid to rest in the small cemetery behind the Stanton Meeting House, where several other members of the Cranston family also lie. We may never know exactly what Simon Cranston's second marriage was really like, but we do know that by the time of his death his children were all firmly set up in their own lives with their own families. In the next post, we'll take a closer look at some of those next generation Cranston clans.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Howell Stroud England, author of the poem "Simon Cranston", was quite a piece of work. Born a Quaker, he eventually became a lawyer and high-profile Atheist. He later moved to Detroit and became involved with the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. In the 1920's, England got mixed up in a Soviet scientist's experiments trying to breed humans and apes. Not at all relevant to Simon Cranston, but fascinating.


  1. I should point out that the etching of Simon Cranston and his plow, from England's "Shots at Random", was drawn by noted Wilmington artist Robert Shaw. Shaw also made the etching of the Brandywine Springs Chalybeate Hotel included in that site's post. And for anyone interested in the entire poem about Simon and Hannah, I've put the whole thing up over on the Facebook page.

  2. Good job Scott. The shipyard at Bread and Cheese Island is something you never hear much about. It would interesting to know where that was and what he built.

  3. The England/Stapler/Stroud Quaker family was respected in that area.

    This is more information on Howell Stroud England, a respected and distinguished attorney, author family man.