Significance: Delaware City’s location on the Delaware River, the C&D Canal, and the river road offered pathways to freedom seekers and the possibility of assistance, as well as the danger of capture.
The settlement originally called Reybold’s Landing flourished after the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal opened in 1829, cutting hundreds of nautical miles from the trip between Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Tidewater Virginia. In its heyday, Delaware City was known for its peach orchards and tomato canning plants, as well as its role as a commercial center for the Fort Delaware and Fort Dupont populace.
From the early 1800s onward, Delaware City also had a substantial and cohesive free Black community, not only in the area known as Polktown, south of the canal, but also northwest of the canal along Fifth Street (today’s Route 9). 1 Part of this historic coastal road between Odessa and Wilmington was designated in the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway program as one route that freedom seekers followed on their journeys north. The sparsely populated cedar swamps to the south and riverine marshes would have offered refuge, access to food including fish and muskrat, and some measure of security. North of Delaware City, River Road led directly to New Castle and its established free Black population.
Several 19th-century freedom accounts mention Delaware City. According to a legal deposition given to a Philadelphia magistrate in 1832, two young, free Black men were kidnapped and taken on a ship to Delaware City. They broke free when the ship docked and received aid from a local Black family.2 In 1849, one terrified free Black mother and her enslaved infant, fleeing from downstate on a steamer bound for Philadelphia, were discovered and put off the ship at Delaware City. Trying once more for Philadelphia, the two were again discovered and carried back to Dover and jailed.3 With more success, Harriet Tubman booked passage through the C&D Canal on at least one of her rescue missions back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1850s.4
An early history of Delaware City recounts that Captain George Maxwell, a local sea captain whose large home still stands on Adams Street, was an Underground Railroad agent. However, the 1840 U.S. Census and the 1850 Slave Schedule for Red Lion Hundred indicate that he was a slaveholder, complicating this legend.
Voices Long Forgotten
Sometimes history can be hiding in plain sight. This is what happened some 20 years ago when a group of kids went exploring in a marsh just outside of the C&D Canal in Delaware City, Delaware. The marsh was in the area called Polktown, where a thriving community of free African Americans lived from before the Civil War and through the mid 20th century. Hidden among the reeds and overgrowth the children explored were some strange looking rocks–stones that turned out to be the grave markers of African American soldiers, United States Colored troops as they were called, who enlisted and fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. The sacred ground of that cemetery has since been restored as The African Union Church Cemetery, along the Michael N. Castle Recreational Trail.National Endowment for the Humanities and Delaware Humanities; Friends of the African Union Cemetery; www.africanunioncemetery.org
1 Reconstructing Delaware’s Free Black Communities, 1800–1870, University of Delaware Center for Historic Architecture and Design (Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware, 2010). UD report link
2 Peter Dalleo, Researching the Underground Railroad in Delaware: A Select Descriptive Bibliography of African American Fugitive Narratives (Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware and the City of Wilmington, 2008). Dalleo booklet link
3 The North Star, 16 Nov 1849 (ref. Upland Delaware Union), in Kate Clifford Larson & Robin Krawitz, The Underground Railroad in Delaware: A Research Context (Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware, 2007).
4 James Blackwell (Seaford Museum), “The Tilly Escape,” National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Nomination, 2013.