(Jan. 22, 2018) Delaware is a charming state, easily driven across in just a few hours. It was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, thereby earning it the self-chose nickname of “The First State.”
Delaware was one of the 13 states that rebelled against Great Britain, but, contrary to common vernacular, Delaware was not one of the “original 13 colonies.” To be strictly accurate, there were twelve original colonies…plus Delaware. Delaware began life as the “lower three counties” of William Penn’s Pennsylvania. A Transpennisular Line mapped out from 1750 – 1751 established the southern boundary of Penn’s “Lower Three”, and from 1763-1767, this line was used as a base line by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as they surveyed the famous Mason-Dixon Line. The Mason-Dixon Line established the western boundary of the Lower Three and the line separating northern Maryland from southern Pennsylvania.
These surveys created the map we still use today. However, as the northern states abolished slavery, the Mason-Dixon Line became better known as the boundary between the free and slave states, instead of being the end of a minor colonial civil war in the mid-18th century.
Now, this is where it gets interesting! You see, the Lower Three were part of Pennsylvania until they did a double declaration of independence—separating themselves from both Great Britain and Pennsylvania, setting up as the independent state of Delaware on June 15, 1776. Therefore, the “original 13 colonies” is a misnomer because Delaware was never a separate colony! However when we speak of the “original 13 states,” we describe the political situation accurately.
I discovered this small pocket of historical wealth through the fortunate happenstance of my penchant for traveling off-season. I walked into the Old State House in Dover, Delaware, and, being that it was a snowy Jan. 17th, I was the only tourist there. Thus I had the good fortune to spend a very enlightening hour with Mr. Tom Welch, historian and interpreter at the Old State House.
Tom is a spry man who’s shock of ice-white hair will easily peg him as being in his early 60s. However, the joke’s on you because this bundle of nuclear power is actually in his mid-80s! His energy is boundless and he needs no urging to rhapsodize about obscure parts of Delaware history. He’ll go off on tangent after tangent in a wonderful verbal roller coaster and, in the end, artfully ties it all back to the Old State House you’re standing in.
Delaware moved the state capital from New Castle to Dover early in the Revolutionary War to better protect the nascent state government, and it’s been there ever since. The Old State House was completed in 1792 and served as both the seat of the state government until finally being supplanted by Legislative Hall in the 1930s. During its political life, the Old State House was gutted, transformed, enlarged, and rearranged multiple times. At one point it was a glitteringly splendid example of the darkly Gothic magnificence that was Victorian architecture. By the 1960s, thirty years after it was no longer a government seat, it was on the verge of being torn down. Delaware’s citizens rallied around the aged building and, by 1976, restored it to its 1792 appearance.
I mentioned Tom’s penchant for tangents, and his unique talent for tying them back to the Old State House, right? If you really want to go for a ride, ask Tom about Allan McLane, then sit back, buckle up, and hold on!
The American Revolution produced many heroes that history neglected to give their proper due. Such is the inevitable outcome of any major historical event, actually. There are always players who shine so bright (like a Washington and a Jefferson) that many of their equally-worthy contemporaries are missed in the dazzling glow of these incandescent luminaries (like a John Adams).
Allan McLane is one such character, and Tom Welch has made it a personal mission to bring some of the fame McLane so richly earned to his name.
McLane was one of General Washington’s officers, and was one of the first to suspect the disloyalty of a certain Benedict Arnold. His warnings to Washington came a fully year before Arnold fully turned traitor, earning a rebuke from Washington. However, there is anecdotal evidence that, following Arnold’s betrayal, McLane’s stock went back up as the commanding general realized McLane’s early suspicions were obviously correct and well-placed. During the awful and infamous winter of 1778, McLane was key to the successfully supplying food to the Continental Army at Valley Forge by leading raiding parties that had a nasty habit of capturing supplies headed to the British forces! His men earned the nickname “Market Stoppers”
McLane’s legend is not merely based on his logistical tenacity or skill leading raiding parties. He frequently operated as one of Washington’s spies, gathering intelligence that was vital to the Continental Army. He screwed his courage and his cleverness to the sticking point many times, making forays into British-held Philadelphia in disguise. Walking about the city, play-acting his various characters, he interacted with some of the highest leadership of the British army. He thrived in the dangerous atmosphere and always brought General Washington critical information.
Like many Patriots, he used up his entire fortune during the war. Following the successful conclusion of hostilities, he returned to Delaware politics and was active in the state government under the old Articles of Confederation government, and, of course, under the new Constitution (in other words, in the Old State House!). President Washington finally appointed him Collector of the Port of Wilmington in 1797, partly as a reward for his long service during the war. This office is the memorial to McLane’s legacy of loyalty to the Patriot cause. Collectors at international ports used to be highly sought-after jobs because they secured the greatest source of revenue for the federal government in the days before the national income tax. New presidents were always eager to place their own men in these politically powerful positions. McLane held his office through the shifting political winds of seven vastly different presidents (Washington through Jackson) until his own death in 1829 at the age of 83.
Back in the 21st century, Tom Welch will take a breath and ask if you have any questions. If you do, get a coffee first because you’ll be off on another amazing ride. It’s worth every minute, though. Tom’s research is peerless, and he frequently quotes letters, government documents, and other primary sources while recounting the adventures of the “Patriot of Duck Creek,” as McLane styled himself.
Admission to the Old State House is free, but be careful where you park. The closest public parking is at the Delaware Public Archives, but most spaces near the Old State House are reserved for state workers. Don’t get yourself towed! The Old State House is easily within walking distance from most other sites in Dover’s historic section, so make sure you get a map and plan to enjoy a delightful stroll.
The Old State House and Tom Welch’s amazing loquacious skills as a raconteur are not the only hidden gems Dover possesses. There are others, and one in particular that’s uniquely suited to lift the music in your soul. But that, as they say, is another story…
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