Thursday, February 15, 2018

Armstrong Family Homestead Tracts at Mt. Cuba -- Part I

Armstrong properties of the 18th & 19th Centuries
I want to introduce here the first of several guest posts researched and written by Donald Prather, a descendant of several MCH families (because, of course, no one comes from just one). As you'll see, this sojourn into a prominent MCH family and their holdings all started with a simple photograph found in a grandparent's attic, and the even simpler question, "Where the heck is this?" Great thanks to Don for all his hard work, and I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Researched and Written by Donald Prather --

In his posts on the Mill Creek Hundred (New Castle County, Delaware) History Blog, Scott Palmer provides excellent insight into an area of northern New Castle County which came to be dominated by two groups of Armstrong family members from the late 18th century up through the early 20th century. The proliferation of properties owned by Armstrong families just north of Price’s Corner, along both Centre Road and Centerville Road, started with Robert Armstrong [(b) 1743 (d) 1821] and his purchase of the Hedgeland property, acquired some time prior to 1782. Opposite Hedgeland just across Centre Road, William Armstrong purchased and farmed a property known as Woodside, a property occupied today by the Ferris School. Just south of Woodside, across Faulkland Road, the Woodland and Brookland farms were owned and worked by generations of Armstrong families for over two centuries. And just to the northwest of these properties, down Faulkland Road and north on Centerville Road, was John Paulsen Armstrong’s Oakland farm.

Another early concentration of Armstrong family members in northern Delaware was located along today’s Barley Mill Road just south of Ashland in the immediate vicinity of the Mt. Cuba Center. This particular concentration of Armstrongs began in 1817 with a purchase of a 98 acre tract of land by Archibald Armstrong [(b) 1759 (d) 1826]. A later purchase of an adjoining property by Archibald’s son John more than doubled the size of the Armstrong presence in the area in 1842. The two adjoining properties that made up the “old homestead” consisted of 200 acres of some of the most scenic and bucolic piedmont in all of Delaware. At its peak, the combined properties contained at least three houses (one of which still exists today), barns, carriage houses, spring houses, and all the buildings necessary to maintain two working farms.

An Unidentified Photograph
This research effort started with a single unidentified photograph and the simple goal of attaching a location and a timeframe to it. Going in, I had no intention of researching or documenting this area. At the time, in fact, I didn’t even know the properties existed. But like many explorations of local history, the journey took me to new places, introduced me to new people, and taught me things about subjects I never intended to learn about. I never knew that a “looking glass” was mirror, or that a pump existed in the mid-1800’s that could deliver water hundreds of feet uphill without electricity or (nearly zero) manual effort [see note 1]!

The photograph in question, pictured below, had been sitting in a Delaware attic inside a wooden trunk which was handed down from Madolene Armstrong to family members when she passed away in 1976. Born in 1896, Madolene was one of four daughters of Joseph Woodward Armstrong and Mary Guest Armstrong of New Castle County, Delaware. She is also my father’s maternal grandmother.

The original, unretouched photograph. A lovely farm property
 but where was it located, who lived there,when was the
photograph taken, and do any of the buildings still exist?

Weathered and spotted from the decades of temperature and humidity extremes of northern Delaware’s seasons, the old photograph shows an extensive farm property with a stone house, a bank barn, a workshop, a carriage house, and other farm buildings set on a rolling property. As with many of the old photographs I’ve come across, this one was not captioned and it contained no written information or evidence pertaining to the location. Because of this lack of identifying information, my father and I were initially at a loss as to the identity of the property. The terrain certainly reminded us of the foothills of northern New Castle County but it could have been Pennsylvania, western Maryland, or any number of other location in the piedmont region, an extensive region of rolling topography that runs all the way from New Jersey to Alabama and crosses Delaware at its extreme north. We thought that if the property was in northern Delaware, which was quite possible given the fact that Madolene spent her entire life there, it might be the Archibald Armstrong farm near Centreville, now open to the public as the Coverdale Farms Preserve. Upon a deeper investigation of the image and a visit to Coverdale by Hugh Horning (thanks, Hugh!) we concluded that the layout of the house, its position and orientation relative to the barn, and other mismatches between the photo and the property indicated that the image is not of Coverdale.

A modern image of Coverdale Farms Preserve shows the 18th century
 bank barn near the top of the hill with the farmhouse just down the hill
 (far left of the photo). The orientation of the house relative to the barn and
 its well-documented renovation history showed that this property is not the same
 as the one in Madolene’s photograph. This image courtesy of

After Hugh helped us confirm that the photograph was not of Coverdale, we were left without any other leads. We sent the image to Scott, hoping he could connect us with someone who could help. He, too, was certain that it was not Coverdale. He mentioned that, considering the amount of care Madolene had put into keeping the photograph in good shape, we should look into possible locations closer to her, both emotionally and physically. The Coverdale property was, in colonial times, an Armstrong property but was out of the hands of the Armstrong family well before 1896 when Madolene was born. Because the Coverdale property would have been little more than a history lesson to Madolene, it likely would have held little sentimental value for her. The care put into the photograph seemed to indicate that this picture was of a place she was familiar with and one she held close to her heart. Perhaps it could even be the place where she spent her childhood.

Scott told us of two additional properties just south of Ashland, Mill Creek Hundred which were owned by Armstrong families starting in the early 19th century. He noted that the 1900 and 1910 census records for Madolene Armstrong and her family indicated that they lived in the general area of these two properties and recommend that we shift our investigation over to this vicinity. I had seen these census records during earlier investigations, but they indicated that the family lived along “Wooddale Rd”.

When I had searched the location of Wooddale Road prior, the mapping services had given me the location of the current Wooddale Road. This particular “Wooddale Road” is a short, partly private road located just past the Wooddale covered bridge. Based on this census entry, I had always assumed that Madolene had been born and raised in one of the houses along this little road, some of which still exist. This immediate area, however, is relatively flat and confined by a curve in the Red Clay Creek and, therefore, did not match the terrain of the photograph. It was also the location of an extensive milling operation up until 1918 and not a logical place for a farming family to live.

Scott and Hugh informed us that the road known as Wooddale Road back in 1900 (and well into the 1980’s, in fact) was actually today’s Barley Mill Road from Ashland south. In looking for possible locations of the house and property, we had been looking in one wrong location and had been neglecting another possible location! As often happens when dealing with these puzzles of family history, one piece of new or revised information can be the clarity needed to help move an investigation forward and to reframe the context in such a way that makes progress possible again. With this new bit of information, the pieces started falling into place.

With this new context in mind, we reexamined the photograph and studied maps of the area along Barley Mill Road just south of Ashland. The rolling terrain in the photograph made it plausible that Scott was right. Given the fact that the picture must have had sentimental value to her, we formed the hypothesis that the farm in the photograph was either the location of Madolene’s birth and childhood or was otherwise a location very close to where she grew up.

The close grouping of the Armstrong farms south of Ashland is best illustrated
on the 1868 Beers map of Mill Creek Hundred. Three homes, all marked
on the map as “J. Armstrong” sat along a quarter-mile stretch of
 Barley Mill Road (then Wooddale Road). At the time this map was published,
the three houses sat on two different tracts, all owned by John Armstrong Sr.

A Bit of Background on the Area
With new information in hand and a fresh hypothesis in place, we shifted our investigation to the area between Ashland and Wooddale, in the vicinity of the Mount Cuba Center. The 1868 Beers map indicates that at least two groups of Armstrongs lived in three houses in the area. The two houses located on the west side of the road are identified by Beers as “J. Armstrong” and the third house, across Barley Mill Road, was also identified on the map, quite inconveniently, as “J. Armstrong”.

Tracing the chains of title for the two properties back through the 1800’s showed that the land was purchased by the Armstrongs in two parts, acquired about twenty five years apart. Both properties were pieces of the earlier, larger farm acquired by William Tate in 1773 and later split into at least four separate tracts (see an illustration of William Tate’s original tract in Walt Chiquoine’s post on nearby Cuba Rock HERE. Direct link to the image HERE). The Armstrongs’ acquisition of the two properties served as a reunification of sorts of part of the Tate property, if more in spirit than in actual boundary lines. The two properties remained separate tracts by the Armstrongs and were never merged into one.

The southernmost of the two properties was the original tract acquired by the Armstrong family in 1817 and contained about 98 acres of land. It was purchased by Archibald Armstrong [(b) 1759 (d) 1826] from John and Esther Nicholson. We should note that our Archibald Armstrong is not the same Archibald who owned the Coverdale Farms property in the 1700’s but, rather, his grandson [see note 2]. In 1842, our Archibald’s son John Armstrong (hereafter known as John Sr.) [(b) 1786 (d) 1869] purchased the adjacent north tract of 106 acres from the children of Henry Wilkins, having acquired it upon the death of their father 1837. The metes and bounds describe two adjoining tracts, pictured below, sharing a central border running southwest to northeast. At their peaks, both tracts extended across Barley Mill / Wooddale Road.

Rough outlines of the locations of both Armstrong tracts, about 204 acres in total, along Barley Mill Road.

In Don's next post, he'll take a closer look at the two Armstrong properties along Barley Mill Road. He'll also attempt to match his Great-Grandmother's photograph to the properties to see if the old picture might be one of the Armstrong farms.

Research Notes:

Note 1: During the 1917 Armstrong family reunion, Ada Armstrong Miller mentions the “ram that sent the water to the house.” She mentions how the Armstrong children were attracted to it and its “thud, thud” sound. This ram is most likely a hydraulic ram pump. This type of pump which became popular in the mid-19th century, used the kinetic energy of moving water at the source to pump water uphill, often hundreds of feet, at a higher pressure but a lower flow rate than at the source. The pump was powered by the water pressure at the source and needed no electricity or other power source. It did, however, have to be started by someone and would often stop cycling and require manual intervention. Ada mentioned this in her passage, “how many times we have lain flat down on the ground and peered down to hear that thud, thud and then when the thud stopped somebody had to fix it, and that was still more interesting [to the children].

More information about hydraulic rams and a brief video showing the thud, thud sound Ada spoke of can be found at Wikipedia.

Note 2: Complicating our research of Armstrong ancestry and history is the fact that the family seemed to have a great affinity for the names “John” and Archibald”. From at least the mid-16th century and continuing on through the early 20th century, every successive generation of Armstrong families in the family lines discussed here contain a John and/or an Archibald. In fact, the list of the names of my direct male progenitors reads as follows:

  • Archibald (b. late 16th century) ->
  • John (b early-mid 17th century) ->
  • Archibald (b ~1695) ->
  • John (b. ~1730) ->
  • Archibald (b. ~ 1759) ->
  • John (b. 1786) ->
  • John (b. 1831.. note that he had a brother named Archibald) ->
  • Joseph (b. 1865)

Further complicating matters is the fact that not every John and Archibald has a documented middle name making it difficult to determine which person is the subject of a given legal document. Considering that it was quite possible for there to be a John Armstrong, an Archibald Armstrong, and another John Armstrong living at the same point in time on the same, or adjoining properties, one can imagine the effort required to determine who was who. Finally, there are instances of three consecutive generations of John Armstrong in which the third, and not the second John Armstrong, was called “junior”.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, My name is Leslie, my grandmother was an Armstrong and I have been digging for information regarding all the John's and Archibald's in Delaware. I am a member of Clan Armstrong and i am trying to gather documentation on the Delaware/Pennsylvania members. I would love to know where you were able to obtain your info. any help would be appreciated. My email is Thanks.