The Significance of Forest Landing

The meaty and longish report, matter-of-factly named, “Archaeological and Historical Survey of Lebanon and Forest Landing, Road 356a, North Murderkill Hundred, Kent County, Delaware” (1989, by Louise and Ned Heite), is an oyster in the gray literature of Delaware archaeology. Not quite hidden, but enfolded within it, is a pearl.

To quote from the authors’ Abstract: “This is a report of a cultural resource survey along the proposed route of Road 356a… Much of the roadway consists of a causeway built over the 1793 Hunn mill dam, which had been abandoned by 1813.” (What would be affected by the road construction? That was their question.)

At the south end of the causeway is the now small village of Lebanon. At the north end is Route 10 and what had once been a farm called Wildcat. Even though the early industries of Lebanon and its maritime landing comprise the bulk of the Heite/DelDOT investigation, this much-abridged version of their report focuses on Forest Landing at Wildcat, revealing its past significance.


The property historically called Wildcat also near Dover and Camden, is just west of the St. Jones River, and on the north bank of Tidbury Creek across from Lebanon. The place is a prime example of the transition from waterways to roadways as the main arteries of travel and commerce.

In the past, Old Forest Landing Road had extended from Camden and points west, straight to the landing. It did not cross the St. Jones. Today, State Route 10 curves away to a bridge upstream, connecting Camden with the Dover Air Force Base.

In addition to that, “Road 356a” – now a portion of Sorghum Mill Road – turns south to cross the marsh and creek, and then go through Lebanon. Before, the road to the old landing was the main road; now, the road over the old dam is the main road. The least developed remnant of Forest Landing Road may be easily missed where it lies behind a padlocked gate. This is a gravel driveway leading south-east, a few hundred yards more, to the house at Wildcat.

The lonely manor house is not all that impressive, but closer inspection reveals that it is quite old. It stands on a rise about 20 feet above sea level and overlooks the water. Before the fields became overgrown, an observer could likely see a long way down the broad and marshy St. Jones, towards the Delaware Bay. One can imagine the canoes, sailing ships, and steamboats of the past, but in this woods and meadow today there are no obvious signs of the landing.

From the Heites’ Introduction: “The project area is rich in historic and prehistoric sites. Great Geneva, near the north end of the causeway on Route 10, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. High ground at both ends of the bridge approach has long been known to contain prehistoric sites that may be potentially eligible for the Register.”

“Road 356a connects Route 10 at Wildcat with Road 357 at Lebanon. Its northern half consists of a bridge and causeway over Tidbury Branch and adjoining tidal marsh. The bridge and causeway originally were built in about 1793 as a mill dam.”

“Remains of the documented sawmill were not discovered, but are presumed to lie under the causeway… It was possible… to establish the heights of the two dams that existed. A timber-framed, earth-filled, causeway structure, probably an extension of the landing road built during the eighteenth century, was identified and measured.”

Lebanon Forest Landing Map

The introduction continues with an explanation of the proposed bridge widening project (completed over 20 years ago, by the way), then adds this geological detail:

“At both ends, the road crosses well-drained Sassafras soils, but much of the right-of-way is built on tidal marsh and associated sandy beaches. Sassafras soils adjacent to tidal waterways have been favorite locations for Delaware townsites and landings since earliest Colonial times. Since the underlying sand and gravel deposits are commercially valuable, much of the project area has been dug away for borrow pits. The river here has always been navigable, especially below the mouth of Tidbury Branch, which adds a strong perennial flow.

“South of the causeway, the road follows the high ground at the base of a steep hill, much of which has been dug away to provide fill for the ever-sinking causeways over the Tidbury and St. Jones marshes…”

Following this is information on research methods and objectives:  “The [site locations] of mills built after a 1793 legislative act, were determined by reference to… several extremely accurate surveys recorded in 1809, 1813, and 1822, which were overlain on modern maps…”

“Because the site has played a major role in Delaware civil and industrial history, the authors’ approach was primarily historical. [Eventually] a Phase II study was conducted in selected areas to determine if the identified resources are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places…”

Next is a section on known cultural resources, including these tidbits:  “The project area is represented by several entries in the state Cultural Resource Survey files. Well drained fields around Lebanon have [yielded many] prehistoric artifacts. [S]ome small houses facing Route 10 have been surveyed but not nominated to the Register.

“Wildcat Manor was considered by the State Review Board for nomination to the National Register in 1972. The other Hunn family seat, now known as Great Geneva, was listed in the Register with one acre of surrounding ground on May 26, 1973. Residents of these two houses have controlled much of the project area since early settlement times.

“The present Tidbury Branch bridge has been inserted into the eighteenth-century Hunn dam, now known as the causeway. A short distance downstream from the bridge, a substantial timber and earth fill structure, eighteen feet wide, is exposed at low tide. This structure lies on the alignment of the eighteenth-century causeway to the “new” landing that later became Lebanon. Local tradition describes this structure as the Hunn nail factory of circa 1793.”

A wealth of background history was compiled by the Heites:  “The village of Lebanon stands on land which was part of a larger tract called Tidbury. This 400-acre holding was laid out by the Kent County Court in 1683 for Thomas Williams. Tidbury lay on the south side of Tidbury branch or creek and on the west side of the Dover (now Saint Jones) River, at their confluence. Across the branch lay the tract that eventually became today’s Wildcat Manor, home of the Hunn family. On the Wildcat tract, near the mansion house, was an important shipping point called Forest Landing, which served the areas now known as Dover, Camden, and North Murderkill Hundred.”

“Before European settlement, Native Americans occupied Delaware for ten millennia. During their earlier, more mobile, historical periods, the Indians were hunter-gatherers, following game and fruits in seasonal migration patterns.

“As they gradually became more sedentary during the later part of the Archaic period and during the Woodland period (after c. 3000 BC), they established more permanent settlements… A favored situation for settlements during this period was the well-drained woodlands in the middle of stream drainage, between the tidal marshes to the east and the high wetlands of the interior. [Several] prehistoric sites are located within the project area. On the north bank of Tidbury Branch is [a site] which was occupied during the Woodland period and at earlier times as well.”

image (2)

“During the colonial period, the lower King’s Road ran from the Dover area to the Frederica area skirting the meadows on one side and the unsettled forest on the other. It crossed Tidbury Branch near the present State Street bridge. The old crossing was a planked ford through the marsh and a footbridge for pedestrians. The upper road, through the present site of Camden, followed higher ground. The road westward from the mouth of Tidbury, called the Forest Landing Road connected at Camden with the Choptank Road to Maryland.

“This area was an early nexus of Quakerism in Delaware. Even before the establishment of Penn’s colony in 1682, the Delaware had begun to attract Quaker settlers. Some of these settlers came directly from England, while others came from the sugar islands of the West Indies, where Quakers had settled in the middle of the seventeenth century. Some came from neighboring colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, where their radical religious and political ideas and their missionary zeal had made them unwelcome. Priscilla Kitchen was one of these refugees, arriving in the middle 1680s after encountering hardship and (perhaps not entirely unsolicited) persecution in New England. She had married Nathaniel Hunn, a local Quaker landowner, and bore him children. After his death, she married another Quaker landowner, George Bowers.

“To serve the growing Quaker community along the Dover River, a meeting is said to have been briefly established at Tidbury. This meeting was subsumed into the Motherkill Monthly Meeting at Magnolia by 1760. The Motherkill meeting was, in turn, predecessor of the present Camden meeting.

“Tidbury’s meeting house, if one existed, may well have stood on the high ground in the Tidbury tract at the mouth of Tidbury Creek. It was customary at that time for churches and meeting houses alike to be placed on high ground at or near landings where they would be accessible and visible to waterborne traffic; one such meeting house still stands at Greenwich, New Jersey. A short distance upstream, the Anglicans of Kent County at about the same time built their first church on a similar promontory opposite the mouth of Puncheon Run.

“Thomas Williams [already mentioned, whose deed dated from 1683] sold the Tidbury tract to William Coe in 1717… [The land changed hands several more times before 1783 when s]ubdivision of the Lebanon townsite appears to have begun… Daniel Mifflin bought approximately four acres at the confluence of Tidbury and Saint Jones in 1783. At the same time, Mifflin bought the present Camden townsite from his brother and began selling lots. Since Forest Landing was the port for Camden, the two purchases may have been related.”

“The Hunn family became landowners in the new village soon after development began. Jonathan Hunn bought [a] parcel, which he left to his son Nathaniel. The Hunns had ambitions for the land at the mouth of Tidbury. Jonathan also mentioned in his will the land, formerly part of the Daniel Mifflin lot, that he had given his sons, Nathaniel and Jonathan, for a mill or forge seat. In 1793 the Delaware General Assembly passed an act entitled, ‘An Act to enable Nathaniel Hunn and Jonathan Hunn, their heirs and assigns, or either one of them, to erect a Forge and Sawmill at the Forest Landing, near the mouth of Tidbury Branch in Kent County.’ The law gave them the right to condemn land for the pond, and to take earthen fill to build the dam. It also required them to be drawing bars at their forge and sawing timber on their sawmill within three years. The works were built, but by 1818 the site was described as ‘Hunn’s Mill Pond gone down.’

“The Hunn brothers were obliged to relocate the main road from Dover to Frederica, which would be flooded by their dam. In 1794 they petitioned for the road to be relocated below the new dam. A survey in 1809 shows such a causeway between the dam and the creek, but there is no evidence of a connection to the southward. In later years, the main state road followed the route now known as Old Mill Road, through Rising Sun from Dover to Frederica; it was superseded in the [20th] century by the duPont highway, now South State Street Extended, near the route of the long-abandoned lower Kings Road.

“The forge was built on the Lebanon (south) side of the branch, while a sawmill was built on the north. The dam, located along the line of the present causeway, washed out and was rebuilt. According to local folklore, the rebuilt dam was high enough to run the sawmill, but the forge was abandoned. The documentary and archaeological evidence appear to bear out this story. The mill race on the south side of Tidbury, part of which still stands open, is about nine or ten feet above sea level. The 1813 survey, made after the dam was rebuilt, describes a mill pond edge along a contour that is four or five feet above sea level.

“Wooden footings of wharves and the alleged site of the nail factory may still be seen adjacent to the causeway at low water. After the ironworks failed, the landing now known as Lebanon began to develop as a commercial center and shipping point The old Forest Landing had been the port for Dover, but nothing more; there was never any subdivision of ownership that would have marked the old Forest Landing as a central place or a village.

“The Hunn mills fell into the hands of many heirs of the two brothers, and were never rebuilt. [They may have fallen] into ruin because the original partners’ many heirs could not agree, [but it is] difficult to say if the Hunn mills or any other industrial venture of the period failed because of a flaw in the physical plant, or because of the capitalization problems inherent in doing business as a partnership.

“Hunn Town and abolitionism:  The Hunn family were among the earliest and most active abolitionists among the Kent County Quakers. John Hunn of Camden suffered fines, confiscation and ultimately financial ruin for his work on behalf of escaping slaves. According to legend, slaves were smuggled into the cellar at Wildcat, whence they travelled by ship to freedom in Philadelphia.

“Along the road to Wildcat were several houses, all but one of which were gone by 1945, known collectively as Hunn Town. Two houses in this area are shown on the 1822 division of Ezekiel Hunn’s estate, allocated to his daughter Guliema together with two warehouses and wharf; she later sold the property to her brother Ezekiel, who owned the rest of the present Wildcat property. The residents of these houses were originally freed slaves who worked on Hunn properties. The last Hunn Town resident, housekeeper Martha Patton, was left as a baby on the Hunn doorstep before the Civil War. The houses are shown in Beers’ Atlas of 1868, plate 53.

“The Hunns were well known for their philanthropies. The Camden Friends Meeting House stands on land given by the family, who also funded schools for both blacks and whites. The extent of their philanthropies may never be known; John Hunn’s son, later a governor of Delaware, burned the records of the Underground Railroad in obedience to his father’s deathbed request.”

Shipping by sail and steam:  “Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bulky and heavy goods were moved almost exclusively by water. Lebanon served as the landing for the St. Jones drainage, including Camden, Hazlettville, Dover, Rising Sun… Businessmen in the inland towns ordinarily kept wharves and warehouses at their landings, and commonly invested in ships.

“Forest Landing lay at the eastern end of the portage between the Choptank and the Delaware, now State Route 10, then known as the Choptank Road. This portage was a major overland route from the beginning of the eighteenth century, and probably earlier.

“Transpeninsular portage was important to the commerce of Delaware, and to the prosperity of the entire Middle Atlantic region. North-south transportation consisted of water routes, such as the Delaware and Chesapeake bays… [East-west] portages across land barriers, including Delmarva [were essential connections]. Delaware’s first railroad was a portage from New Castle, Delaware to Frenchtown, Maryland. When the [later] Delaware Railroad was begun, it was intended to connect Delaware Bay traffic at Dona’s Landing, east of Dover, with the Nanticoke at Seaford. In preparation for the coming of [this] railroad, Kent County’s first scheduled steamboat traffic was established at Dona, rather than at Forest Landing, which had long been the traditional port for Dover. After the Delaware Railroad reoriented its plans to an all-land route, Lebanon regained its position as the port for Dover, and Dona became a ghost town.”

By the twentieth century, Forest Landing was little more than an adjunct to neighboring Lebanon Landing. Hunn family members picnicking at Wildcat could view the steamboats on the St. Jones from their lawn, while automobiles rumbled across the causeway on the Tidbury marsh. Small boats one could row out and fish in may have been pulled up on the bank, but any other evidence of the older commercially important landing was buried under the family’s landscaping efforts.

When Heite Consulting, Inc. did their research in 1989, they were not required to test for Forest Landing’s remains because the site was outside the area affected by the road improvements.

In January, 2016, after ten years of intermittent testing, the Archaeological Society of Delaware hit a brick wall 36” deep in a shovel test pit. Today we are excavating what was probably a warehouse two hundred years ago. The ultimate objective now (to quote the report one more time) is “to determine if the identified resources are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.”

Edited July 11, 2016, by Steve Cox.  The complete original publication that I quoted from, and an online version of the report are available from the Delaware Department of Transportation. (See lebanon/toc.shtml.)



2 thoughts on “The Significance of Forest Landing

  1. Mike Richards December 17, 2016 / 2:33 pm

    Most interesting – and well researched.

    Liked by 1 person

    • stcrossroads1 December 19, 2016 / 6:05 pm

      Mr. Richards: Thank you for your kind comments. I enjoyed combing through the original research (probably 75% of what is in the story above quotes the Heite report) in order to extract the information specifically on Forest Landing. Now, I’m working on a few more articles about Forest Landing and Wildcat. Did you see “Walking Wildcat: Invasions”? The articles may become chapters in a book about the old landing. Half of it might be contributed by ASD archaeologists detailing the latest work there. The current articles and the end result (book?) is intended to be a layperson oriented history of this all but forgotten place. I welcome your feedback.


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