Please welcome guest author Diane McFaul Hindman. Diane has been coming to Slaughter Beach, DE where her parents had a cottage since she was a teenager. Now she has retired here and loves her life close to Nature. After a 40 year career in laboratory diagnosis of infectious diseases both in hospitals and Public Health, she has turned her “detective instinct” to researching local History as part of the newly formed Slaughter Beach Historical Society. We are a work in progress, hoping to establish a website and small museum in the near future, and maybe eventually a book.
What’s in a Name?
By Diane McFaul Hindman, Slaughter Beach Historical Society
Everyone always wants to know the origin of the name Slaughter Beach. No one seems to know for sure. There are legends, anecdotes, and speculation about a Delaware Postmaster, Indian massacres, whaling events, and of course about the very large numbers of Horseshoe crabs that come ashore each spring. However, none of these stories have ever been verified.
So, the Historical Society would like to bring some sense into this discussion. The legend of an Indian massacre appears to have been initiated by John Lofland (1788-1849), who was known as the “Milford Bard”. He was a prolific writer of poetry, reportedly was addicted to Laudanum for most of his life. He is not known as a noted historian. This story has been widely circulated in Delaware but has never been verified to have happened in Sussex County.
Dallas Hitchens and David Kenton, well-known historians and writers of books about area history, have both examined first-hand accounts of the people, land transactions, wills and related documents about the early history of the Mispillion River, Cedar Creek, Slaughter Creek and Primehook Creek.
The Lofland “Indian slaughter legend” supposedly happened in the 1600s and includes people and locations associated with New Castle County. If it was a well-known event in Sussex County, it would have been documented. It cannot be verified by any written account with references to people who lived in, or near Cedar Creek Hundred or Milford Hundred in Kent County from 1638-1900. Everyone loves an exciting story about the area, but this story has no basis in any of the histories or biographical accounts that were published by scholars over the past 150 years.
While doing research for this book, the former Postmaster theory seemed to have some merit as a possibility. There was mention of a William Slaughter, Postmaster in 2 references: Scharf’s History of Delaware and A Postal History of Delaware. Both referred to Slaughter, who established a store and post office known as Slaughter Station in 1866. It was located, however, on the Delaware Railroad line in Kent County, near Hartly, DE. The 50-mile trip by horse would have been very problematic, and also, timing is off for a
connection to Slaughter Beach, which only started to build cottages around 1885!
Property records have been examined going back to the 1600s, and there is no early evidence of a person or family named Slaughter having any connection to Sussex County. While the Slaughter name is on early maps, it is not included in any of the early local property records.
Another very apparent fact is that the Slaughter name was given to geographical areas on the earliest maps of now Sussex County going back into the 1600s. This gives rise to speculation that Slaughter Creek (which had an outlet onto Delaware Bay) and Slaughter Neck (the land area bordered by Slaughter Creek and Cedar Creek) were most likely named by early sailors and/or surveyors. These names are frequently mentioned in land and deed descriptions, as boundaries of properties and land grants during the 1600s and early 1700s. In historian C.H.B Turner’s 1909 book Some Records of Sussex County, Delaware, the name is mentioned in early land deeds, court cases and diaries, and is spelled at least 4 different ways: Slater, Slatter, Slawtor and Slaughter.
Since many of the early explorers and map makers were English, a search for English surnames seemed logical, and revealed the following:
Slaughter Name Meaning (from Ancestry.com):
- Occupational name for a slaughterer of animals, from Middle English slahter (an agent derivative of slaht ‘killing’).
- A topographic name from Middle English sloghtre ‘boggy place’.
- Or a habitational name from a place named with this term (Old English slohtre), for example Upper and Lower Slaughter in Gloucestershire, topographic name for someone who lived by a blackthorn or sloe, Old English slahtreow.
- Note how similar the old English words “Sloghtre” and “Slahtreow” sound compared to “Slaughter”.
Continuing the research, the scientific name for the above-mentioned blackthorn bush (Prunus spinosa), and our native beach plum bush (Prunus maritima), shows them to be the same genus, different species! The similarity of the blackthorn fruit called sloes is striking compared to the local beach plums. See pictures above.
The discovery of small plums along the Atlantic coast has been reported by early coastal explorers, including Giovanni da Verrazano, who in 1524 recorded “damson trees” in what today is southern New York State. Then and now, the plums can be found from Maine to Virginia.
The website for Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge states the early name of the area in the 17th century was “Priume Hoek” after the land’s abundance of purple beach plums. This translated from the Dutch words meaning “Plum Point”. Early maps of the area show the outlet of Slater (now Slaughter) Creek into Delaware Bay was in the area of now Prime Hook Refuge.
Given the fact that most other rivers and creeks opening onto the Delaware Bay are not named after people by the early explorers, but on naturally occurring elements of the area, our contention now is that the name Slaughter (sloghtre/slahtreaw) is a happy, positive reflection of the presence of large numbers of beach plums that delighted tired explorers in early times.
Since no other theory can be based on any factual basis, we feel the name of Slaughter Beach has an early association with our local Beach Plums, and designates a lovely, safe place for rest and recreation for both human and natural residents.
- Scharf, J. Thomas 1888: History of Delaware 1609-1888 Vol 1, L. J.
Richards & Co. Philadelphia.
- Bounds, Harvey C. 1938: Postal History of Delaware, Press of Kells,
- Beers, D. G. 1868: Atlas of the State of Delaware, Pomeroy & Beers,
- Hanks, Patrick, Editor 2003: Dictionary of American Family Names,
Oxford University Press.
- Turner, C.H.B. 1909: Some Records of Sussex County, Delaware,
Allen, Lane & Scott, Philadelphia.
- Duke of York Record 1646-1679 (Authorized Transcript from the
Official Archives of the State of Delaware), Sunday Star Print,
- Uva, Richard, PhD. “Taming the Wild Beachplum”, Cornell University,
- Kenton, David: Multiple newsletters and publications, local historian
and past President Milford Historical Society.
- Online credits:
- https://www.fws.gov/ Prime Hook Refuge tab on the Fish and Wildlife