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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Finding the Nichols House, Part II -- Where were the British and how did they go?

This is Part II of Finding the Nichols House, my short-version presentation of Walt Chiquoine's research into the subject. His original works can be accessed and downloaded via this link. You must create an account on the site, but it's very easy. As I said in Part I, do yourself a favor and read his work directly. Walt tells the story much clearer and in far greater detail than I do here.

The Andre Map
In Part I of Finding the Nichols House, we traced the British Army's movements from their landing at the Head of Elk, across Pencader Hundred, and through a two-pronged approach into Mill Creek Hundred. Friend-of-the-Blog Walt Chiquoine has spent years, and thousands of hours of research, meticulously piecing together the details of the British Army's movements through MCH on September 8-10, 1777. It was always known that they came through, and that they camped here the night of the 8th before moving on to the Battle of Brandywine three days later. There are some primary sources that give tantalizing clues as to exactly where the troops settled down for the night, but enough uncertainty remained that no one was sure just where anyone was. The key to it all, as Walt soon discovered, lay in nailing down the exact location of British General Sir William Howe's headquarters for the night -- the Nichols House.

Through his research, Walt found several letters and diaries written by eyewitnesses to the events of that week. But since none were authored by natives of the area, no one wrote anything obvious and helpful like, "We were camped on the Dixon farm." Instead, the most indispensable guide was a map, drawn by an aide to Gen. Howe, Major John Andre (technically, he was a captain in 1777). If the name sounds familiar, this is the same Major Andre who would later be hung by the Americans for his part in Benedict Arnold's plot. The hand-drawn map shows "The Position of the Army at New Garden the 8th Sept 1777", and depicts the position of various encampments and headquarters along a road. Aside from unit and commander names, there are no other keys to aid in placing the map in the real world. Plus, being hand-drawn by a foreigner to these parts, it's about as geographically inaccurate as you'd expect.

But it does clearly show (Howe's) Head Quarters, which on other maps and in various correspondence is referred to as the Nichols House. So if the Nichols House could be decisively located, the rest of the map would fall into place. And surprisingly, at least in recent memory (and anywhere in print), this had never been done. In the end, all it took was some patient research by Walt and his vast knowledge of land holdings in the area in the 1770's. As he discovered, there was only one adult male Nichols in MCH at the time -- Daniel Nichols.

On May 17, 1741 (exactly 200 years to the day before my grandparents were married, not that that's relevant), Daniel Nichols bought two adjacent tracts of land, totaling 140 acres, from the sons of Casparus Garretson, who had purchased the land from Letitia Penn in 1721. The way that these deeds are written, it's not always easy to figure out exactly where they are (it's not like they're using GPS coordinates). What you need to use are the references to neighboring tracts to place your piece into the larger puzzle, and that's where Walt's vast land ownership research comes into play. By knowing who else owned property at the time and where, he was able to figure out just where Daniel Nichols' tracts were. The figures below are the result of his work.

As you can see, the Nichols property straddled Limestone Road between Valley Road and Brackenville Road. It encompassed what's now Lantana Square Shopping Center, the development of Hockessin Greene, and part of Hockessin Hunt. In 1743, Nichols married another Quaker, Sarah Hollingsworth Dixon. Sarah was the widow of John Dixon, builder of the Dixon-Wilson House on Valley Road. Sarah's children were all grown, and she and Daniel didn't have kids of their own. However, Sarah's oldest son, Isaac, would marry Daniel's younger sister Ann. Isaac and Ann lived in the Dixon-Wilson House, but their son Jehu would build the Samuel P. Dixon House near Red Clay Creek. This isn't just an interesting side note, because another of Isaac and Ann's sons would be the next owner of the Nichols House.

After Daniel Nichols died in 1798, the house went to his nephew/step-grandson Thomas Dixon, Senior. In 1822 it was sold to Thomas Dixon, Jr., then in 1842 to a cousin, Wistar T. Dixon. This is the final link verifying the house's location, as Wistar is shown as the owner on the 1849 map. In early tax documents and sale ads, the Nichols House is described as being brick. As best as Walt can determine (for now), this house may have been lost sometime in the mid 19th Century. Another old house of stone construction existed on the property until about 1970. The age of this house, as well as its relationship to the Nichols House, is yet to be satisfactorily determined.

Nichols property owned by Wistar Dixon, 1849
But to return now to the late summer of 1777, on the night of September 8 General William Howe made his headquarters in the home of Daniel Nichols. Now that we know where that was (and to reiterate, it seems no one had ever done that before Walt came along), we can look again at the Andre Map, shown at the top of the page. For easier reference, the figure below shows the map rotated to place north at the top. The two roads going off to the west are Paper Mill Road and a now-defunct road that ran straight across from Corner Ketch. The next steps in Walt's research are to try to determine exactly where the different units were camped and to figure out in what other houses the other officers may have stayed.

The Andre Map, rotated and annotated
As we noted in the first post, the British Army must be thought of as less of a dot on the map, and more of a large blob. It consisted of about 16,000 soldiers, 2000 support personnel, 275 wagons, 2000 head of livestock, and occupied three to five square miles at any given time. For comparison, the population of Mill Creek Hundred at the time was about 1500. All these 20,000 unwelcome guests had to eat and relieve themselves. Houses and barns were scavenged and ransacked. And bear in mind that this was early September, just as crops were beginning to ripen. Between stores and fields being picked through and maturing fields trampled, as Walt states, "[...] it must have been a tough winter that year in Mill Creek Hundred." This was surely one of the most exciting and traumatic few days in most of the residents' lives.

Even knowing the size British Army, it's still hard to get your head around the fact that on the night of September 8, it stretched from above Southwood Road all the way down almost to Milltown. It's against this background (literally) that the story of Washington coming to Milltown to reconnoiter the enemy takes place. He would have been able to see the pickets and campfires of the enemy's southern end, while the northern end reached into Pennsylvania. They were camped on both sides of the road, as the Andre Map shows, and many of the senior officers spent the night as unwelcome guests in houses along the way.

After spending the night of the 8th and the morning of the 9th in MCH, it was time for the Redcoats to be on their way. Howe learned that Washington had taken his army to the banks of the Brandywine near Chadds Ford. He decided to march out of MCH and regroup near Kennett Square. The British departed in two columns. One column, led by Gen. Knyphausen, would take the baggage and livestock and arrive via New Garden. They began marching up Limestone Road at about 1 PM, with the rear not departing until 6 PM. Also at around 6, the other column headed in a more northerly direction toward Kennett Square.

This column was headed by Generals Cornwallis and Grant, and their march took them across the Hockessin valley towards the Hockessin Friends Meeting House. This turned out to be a bad decision. They generally followed along today's Valley Road (which was no more than a path at the time) and through the farms around it. The land in that area tends to be low and wet, and they marched through a steady downpour. It was taking so long to get everyone organized and moved that Howe ordered the head of his line to pause on the hillside northwest of Hockessin Meeting. Two brigades were dispatched to follow Knyphausen's route to New Garden. By the time these two were reaching Kennett Square on the morning of the 10th, the rear of the main column had only just arrived at Hockessin Meeting. Walt has deduced that this column under Cornwallis must have marched up Old Wilmington Road about 6 AM to Chandler Mill Road, then taken Kaolin Road to Kennett Square. The figures below show the final movements of the British out of Mill Creek Hundred.

Movement towards Kennett Square, September 9
Movement towards Kennett Square overnight, September 9-10

The story of the British march through MCH was a relatively short and militarily uneventful one. That being said, it undoubtedly had a great effect on the area that fall and beyond. The first step to understanding the impact is in determining exactly where the troops were and when. There is still a lot of research to be done, along the lines of figuring out precisely where the soldiers were camped, which houses were used to quarter officers, and what properties may have been adversely affected by the British incursion. However, the work that Walt Chiquoine has done to date has moved the story further than it's ever been. The locating of the Daniel Nichols House was an important step in this process. As a result of his tireless research, a new historical marker was unveiled last month commemorating the site of the Nichols House. And again, if you want to read the entire story in Walt's own words, you can download his papers here.


  1. Amazing work, Walt! This is one of those investigations that takes a number of loose threads in our collective knowledge of history, ties them together, and most interestingly (to me, at least) relates a most important event in U.S. history with an area we're all familiar with. To me, this is what makes history so interesting. It's one thing to read a history textbook full of names and maps of places you have no frame of reference for, but it's another thing entirely to be able to go out for a walk or a drive, point at a place (a house, a field, a stream) and tell your passenger, "guess what happened RIGHT HERE 240 years ago!" It makes history much more "real" and meaningful for the average person. Excellent work!

    1. Could not agree more. Well said. I still have a hard time comprehending what it must have been like for the residents at the time. These weren't "18th Century people", there were people who happened to be living in the 18th Century. No different than us. How would you feel if a foreign army came and camped on your lawn for a day or so? And stole your stuff and damaged more. And like you said, how many people living along the Limestone Road corridor know that British or German soldiers may have camped on their property 240 years ago?

  2. Wow! Great research and a fascinating read. I wonder if anyone in the area of the encampment has ever found any artifacts or relics, given the massive amount of soldiers that were there.

    1. Good question. I don't think I've ever heard of any, but who knows how many times those fields have been plowed over through the years. Now most of them are peoples' yards.