The Lewes Lighthouse Legend Re-examined and Re-interpreted

“A view of the lighthouse on Cape Henlopen, taken at sea, August 1780,” Columbian Magazine, 2, no. 2 [February 1788]. (Library of Congress)

Those who write “local history” without documenting or citing their sources may as well be writing historical fiction. There may be some truth in what they write, but it is hard to sort out fact from fiction in local and family stories. Even experienced historians who ordinarily provide citations to primary sources—documents, letters and first hand statements—or rely on the prior work of reputable experts in their principal works, often fall into that trap when relating local history. John Thomas Scharf, author of a two-volume history of Delaware, was one such historian.[1] Anyone who writes about Delaware history owes a great debt to Scharf. He collected, assembled, and cogently presented a mass of information revealing the rich history of the state. In his first volume on the general history of Delaware he provided extracts of documents, copies of letters, and information from reliable sources. In the second volume, however, on the local history of the cities, counties, towns, individuals and families, he must have relied on newspaper accounts, second hand sources, and interviews, thereby passing along local lore and family stories, establishing the basis for what grew into local legends. The historians working on the WPA Writer’s Project history of Delaware cited Scharf’s work as “The first written general history of Delaware and a compilation of Great value, notwithstanding its numerous errors.”[2]

During the Revolutionary War, Lewes, Delaware, at the mouth of Delaware Bay, the approach to Philadelphia, the colonies’ largest city and the seat of government, was on the front lines. The bay was blockaded by a force of British ships commanded by Capt. Andrew Snape-Hamond in the forty-four-gun ship Roebuck. The presence of Roebuck and her activities gave rise to a number of local legends.

Who Burned the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse?
During the Revolution, a resident of Lewes named William Adair kept a diary of “Meteorological Observations” and “comments about events in Sussex County and in Delaware Bay.” His diary is most complete for 1777 and 1778. The diary records that on “Nov. 17 [1777] Light House Burning.”[3] That is all that we know from contemporary records. Henry Fisher, the representative of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety on the cape, did not report the fire. The reason was that, in September 1777, the British had occupied Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Committee and the Continental Congress had left. He had no one to whom to report, nor the means.

In 1788, the Columbian Magazine had carried a “Description of the Lighthouse of Cape Henlopen.” The article made no mention of anyone burning the lighthouse. It did say, however, “that any attempt to burn or destroy it, [the Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia] rendered highly penal by the act of the general assembly passed in the year 1773.”[4] Henry Fisher would have known of that act. He helped select the location of the lighthouse.[5] The following month the magazine published the well-known picture,“A view of the lighthouse on Cape Henlopen, taken at sea, August 1780.”[6]

One hundred years later Scharf stated, “Later in the Revolution, a British man-of-war, the “Roebuck,” lay opposite Lewes for some time, but did not injure the town. But a party from the ship landed and burned out the interior of Cape Henlopen Light-house. They also captured some cattle feeding on the marshes, but did no damage to life.”[7] Since Scharf gave no date, nor any source, and given the local history context in which this statement appears, it cannot be verified and can only be assessed as hearsay or local lore.[8]

Scharf published his account in 1888. Fifteen years later, a nearby lighthouse keeper in “a brief history” of the lighthouse told a more detailed story with no attribution.

The first keeper was named Hedgecock, who was in charge from 1765 until 1780. Officers from the British Fleet came ashore and visited the lighthouse and demanded that keeper give them some of his fine bullocks, as they were short of provisions. The keeper told them if they didn’t get away, he would give them some “bullets.” That made them mad and they told him to wait until “this time tomorrow” and they would help him. The next day they landed, ran Hedgecock off, and burned the wooden dwelling and lighthouse steps. The light was discontinued from 1780 until 1792.[9]

The story now had some details and color but no citations and some apparent errors. While the first keeper is often referred to as “Hedgecock” without attribution, one reliable source gives the keepers name as “John Hitchcock” and states that upon his death in 1776 he was replaced by his wife “Elizabeth.”[10] The origin of the story of the encounter with British officers is not known and the detailed elaboration may have been by the individual involved or from repetition of a tall tale told among lighthouse men. It would take quite a brave woman to sass the British naval officers like that. Perhaps she felt she could because Henry Fisher still had a warning lookout stationed there. The militia had been stationed there and could be called out if the British landed the next day.[11] Further, the author seems to place the alleged British burning in 1780 when he says “the light was discontinued from 1780.” That fits with Scharf’s “later in the war,” but not with Adair’s 1777 observation. Further, he is in error when he says the light was out until 1792. It is known that a new lightkeeper was appointed in 1783 and the light was relit in 1784.[12]

A writer in 1909 was cautious about the story. He said only that “The lantern on top is said to have been burned by the British in the Revolution.[13]In 1926, a New York Times Magazine article embellished the 1903 story even further.

“I’ll give you no cows, but if you don’t get out of here, I’ll give you some bullets!,” spoke old Keeper Hedgecock, who tended Henlopen light in the colonial era of 1780, to the British Admiral’s envoy, who wished to buy meat for his majesty’s frigates at anchor off the Delaware Capes. The keeper had ears attuned to the Liberty Bell drifting down the Delaware from Philadelphia.
The gold laced British official was angry. He retorted that he could send a few bullets himself and retreated to his longboat. Old Hedgcock smoking his pipe in the doorway of his eight-sided tower contemplated the seven-foot thick stone walls thereof without excitement.
They could well defy the “Big Bertha” of 1780.
A landing party rather than the expected bombardment surprised the keeper and his assistants. It was well for them that fully a mile separated the lighthouse from the sea in those days, instead of the scant fifteen yards or so that now alone protect it from the waves. There was time for them to seek shelter for themselves and very likely for the disputed cows, in the deep pine woods behind the lighthouse These were the same woods in which, a few years earlier the famous pirate “Bluebeard” buried the gold he had looted from ships along the Atlantic Coast.
The British finding nothing at hand to confront the landing party took out their spite on the lighthouse. They set its interior wood work and wooden stairs merrily ablaze. Down from the top hurtled the old hand lamp which was the Henlopen light of that period, together on the circular table on which it rested, and the tiny reflector.
But the British made no impression on the sturdy stone walls which have held up to this day as when they were brought up Lewes Creek and first built into a tower 100 years ago.”[14]

Several weeks later, that same article was published in the Wilmington Sunday Star.[15] Thus, any interested Lewes resident at the time would have learned that the lighthouse was burned by a British landing party in 1780 because a stubborn old man lightkeeper defied their request to provide some cattle. Since it had appeared in the New York Times and “everybody” knew of it from the Wilmington paper, it was now Lewes “history.”

Soon the story had a new twist from the historians of the 1930s WPA writer’s project. They wrote: “During the Revolution the light was extinguished by patriots in the hope of wrecking British vessels, but the British themselves landed and burned out the inside.”[16] In 1956, Dr. David Budlong Tyler, a maritime historian who at the time was a visiting professor of history at the University of Delaware, repeated that same version.[17] In 1979, Harold Hancock, who eleven years earlier had edited the William Adair Diary, which provides the only first–hand report of the burning, told Lewes listeners, that:

In April 1777, the Cape Henlopen lighthouse had its interior burned by some sailors from the Roebuck. Angered by the reply of the lighthouse keeper when he was asked to supply them with cattle grazing nearby on the shore who said, “I’ll give you no cows, but if you don’t get out of here I’ll give you some bullets the sailors returned with several longboats and landing party, which set on fire the wooden steps inside.[18]

Now the story had a date, but the date does not agree with the November date from the Adair Diary.

Those elements of a story, being told, retold and elaborated over the years grew into a Lewes legend. Lewes resident and author John Beach summed it up:

It has been retold often, and generally accepted that sometime during the second week in April 1777, the Roebuck anchored off the cape and sent a longboat ashore. The British crewmen walked to the lighthouse and asked the keeper to supply their ship with fresh cattle which were grazing on the cape. The lighthouse keeper, whose name was Hedgecock did not fear the Roebuck’s cannon because she was over a half mile away and unable to come closer because of shallow water, and the lighthouse walls were over six feet thick. So he is reputed to have said, ‘I’ll give you no cows, but if you don’t get out of here, I’ll give you some bullets.’ The British officer was angry as he returned to his longboat and instead of expected bombardment, he sent back several longboats and a landing party. Over a mile of beach separated the lighthouse from the landing, so after seeing them land, keeper Hedgecock had time to round up the cattle and drive them into the pine forest. Perhaps fearing the arrival of the militia, the British landing party did not follow into the woods but instead took their anger out on the abandoned lighthouse and reportedly set the interior wooden stairway on fire.

Beach was suspicious enough of the story to make inquiries about Roebuck. He described an authoritative response: “Assistant Director of Naval History F. Kent Loomis, USN (Ret.) has reported after a study of the microfilm log of the Roebuck that no mention was made of the landing or the lighthouse burning . . . It is unlikely that they would burn the same light that helped guide them in and out of the Delaware Bay, or fail to record the event in the ship’s log if they did burn it.”[19] Beyond that, there are many other aspects of the story that don’t hold up to re-examination.

Model of HMS Roebuck, W. M. Brown, ca. 1834. (The Society of the Cincinnati, the Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection)

First of all, the April date does not agree with the November observation of Adair, the only person to make a record of the event when it actually occurred. There was, however, a big event near the lighthouse on April 11 and 12, which everyone, British and American including Adair in his diary, reported.[20] The ship Success (sometimes called Morris), carrying gunpowder and weapons, after being chased and cannonaded for several hours by British frigate Camilla, was run aground by her captain a quarter mile from the lighthouse. Roebuck sent a tender and boats into the shallow waters to try to capture the ship. The ship’s guns and the presence of the Lewes militia held them off.[21] The captain got his French passengers, the dispatches he carried, and the crew off the ship and then blew it up, losing his life. Captain Andrew Snape-Hamond of Roebuck described the explosion.

she blew up with a most terrible explosion, forming a column of liquid Fire to a great height, and then spread into a head of black smoke, showering down burnt pieces of wood &c which covered a space round about for near 1/2 a Mile on the Water that included our ship & the Boats . . . This Explosion was not only heard at Philadelphia (60 Miles off) but many windows were broke in the City by the shock. All the Roebuck’s windows were completely smashed[22]

Cleary, that explosion could have affected the lighthouse. Its windows could have been broken, perhaps even the lens was damaged, and the blast wave could have extinguished the light. Flaming debris could have landed nearby starting a fire. But, Henry Fisher did not report anything to Congress. Nor was Congress informed later when the remains of the cargo were being collected.[23] If the light had been extinguished and the lighthouse disabled in April when it was still a lookout and warning post for Continental navy ships, Henry Fisher would have had to report it to Congress, as it would have affected the ability of Congress to send orders to departing and arriving ships.[24]

As for the lighthouse burning in November, not Roebuck nor any other British ship reported it because they were not in the area at the time. From September 26 until November 16, all British warships in the area were engaged in bombarding the fort on Mud Island which was preventing them from moving supplies up Delaware Bay to support their army and the population remaining in Philadelphia. When not actually involved in operations, the warships were anchored off Fort Billingsworth, New Jersey, which the British army held. Their commander, Admiral Richard Howe aboard Eagle, and many supply ships waiting to go to Philadelphia, were anchored off Chester, Pennsylvania, which the British army also held. Neither the logs of those ships nor the records of Admiral Howe show any such incident involving the lighthouse at the cape.[25] The Mud Island fort was evacuated on November 15 and occupied by the British on November 16.[26] Adair says the lighthouse was burning the next day just as the British were able to make the best use of it as a guide for their supply line to Philadelphia.[27]

The lighthouse was important to masters of British transport ships and any others making landfall at the cape. They could not accurately calculate longitude,[28] so the 125-foot-tall lighthouse was an ideal landmark, visible for about twenty-five miles to a lookout scanning the horizon from a 100-foot ship’s mast. Once inside the cape, sailing directions were stated relative to the lighthouse. The British navy was not foolish enough to burn the lighthouse when it would be of most use to them. In the unlikely event that some lone British naval ship, acting without orders, or aprivateer had sent a boat ashore to get some cattle, it is likely that the militia would respond, but there is no record of any clash between local militia and landing parties. What we know is that the lighthouse burned on November 17, 1777. It was not burned by Roebuck nor by any other British warship. We may never know what happened.

Perhaps Henry Fisher ordered his lookout and militia to abandon the lighthouse and disable it. As a pilot and the one who had removed the channel markers, he knew the importance of it to the British. With Philadelphia lost, he no longer needed it. The watch would have extinguished the light and burned the stairway to prevent British access for relighting. They couldn’t have done so without the cooperation of Mrs. Hitchcock. Having ordered destruction of the warden’s property and knowing they could later take action against him, Fisher kept his actions quiet. Perhaps Mrs. Hitchcock, afraid she would be blamed, created a great cover story. If this is actually the origin of the legend of how the lighthouse burned, it was a successful ruse.

 

[1]John Thomas Scharf, History of Delaware 1609-1888 (Philadelphia, PA: L. J. Richards & Co., 1888) In Two Volumes, Volume I “General History;” Volume II “Local History.”

[2]The WPA Writers Project History of Delaware: The First State (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2014), 423.

[3]Harold B. Hancock ed., “The Revolutionary War Diary of William Adair,” Delaware History,XIII, no. 2 (October 1968): 163.

[4]“Description of the lighthouse on Cape Henlopen,” Columbian Magazine, 2, no. 2 (January 1788): unpaged copy from Hazel Brittingham files.

[5]Judith Atkins Roberts, “The Henry Fishers of Lewes,” The Journal of the Lewes Historical Society, 3 (2000): 50.

[6]“A view of the lighthouse on Cape Henlopen, taken at sea, August 1780,” Columbian Magazine,2, no. 2 (February 1788): opposite 108. Published also in Donald H. Cresswell, The American Revolution in drawings and prints; a checklist of 1765-1790 graphics in the Library of Congress (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1975), no. 600. Despite the artist’s suggestion that it was a view from the sea, with trees in the background and a man in a cart on the beach in the foreground, he probably drew his sketch from land. The lighthouse had four windows on the landward side and only three on the seaward side. Hazel Brittingham, Lantern on Lewes (Rehoboth Beach, DE: Elaine Ippolito, 2017) Fourth Edition. The cover picture shows the lighthouse from landward with four windows, the view from seaward with three windows is on page 33.

[7]Scharf, “Sussex County,”History of Delaware,2: 1236.

[8]This is not in Scharf’s Revolutionary War section of volume 1 in which he often provides documentary evidence or cites a source. Rather, it is in the Sussex County section of volume 2 which has no such support. If Scharf meant the two sentences to describe one event, they were provided by someone who did not witness it (if it occurred). There would not have been any cattle on the marsh. When Col. Haslet came to town in May 1776, he noticed the cattle on the marsh and pointed out their vulnerability to capture by the British. Subsequently, the cattle were grazed in the trees behind the lighthouse which was guarded by militia. See “Col. Haslet to Caesar Rodney,” May 1776, Revolutionary War in Three Volumes (Wilmington DE: Public Archives Commission, 1919), 3, “Military Correspondence Continued,” 1386-7. Also See “John McKinley to Caesar Rodney,” April 7, 1777, ibid., 1400. These materials from the archives have been collected into Affidavits and Correspondence Concerning Lewes During the Revolutionary War. The page numbers given are those in the original. Further, the account directly follows a statement, which can be shown to be incorrect and precedes the story of another incident involving Roebuck, which cannot be documented.

[9]Chas. E. Marshall, “A Brief History of Cape Henlopen Lighthouse,” circa 1903, Lewes, Delaware, 4 pages. Courtesy of Delaware Historical Society Library. Charles E. Marshal was the keeper of the Harbor of Refuge Light in 1903. See “Harbor of Refuge Light,” Chesapeake Chapter, United States Lighthouse Society, https://cheslights.org/harbor-of-refuge/.

[10]George Contant, Delaware Beach Life, April 2017, 20-26. He gave no sources but as historian for the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation his sources and research are considered reliable. Sadly, Contant has passed away.

[11]“I must acquaint you that I have placed a very good and trusty hand [John Maul] at the light house to give me the Earliest notice.” “Henry Fisher to Council, Lewis, Oct’r ye 16, 1776,” Affidavits 1366. There is no evidence that the watch at the lighthouse was stopped as it was the first post on of Fisher’s warning system to Philadelphia, and in 1777 it also served as a warning to incoming ships that the British were present by a signal from the lighthouse. See “Congressional Marine Committee to Captain Charles Alexander,” April 8, 1777, in Charles Oscar Paullin, ed., Out-letters of the Continental Marine Committee (New York: The Naval History Society, 1914), 1: 92. “We have a guard of 30 men at the lighthouse.” “Henry Fisher to Council [Pennsylvania Committee of Safety], Lewistown April ye 5, 1776,” Affidavits 1364

[12]“I have kept the Light House nineteen years.” Abraham Hargis to Thomas Jefferson, May 26, 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-37-02-0400, accessed April 11, 2019. See also extensive documentation in John W. Beach, Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and Delaware Breakwater (Dover, DE: Dover Lithograph Printing Co, 1993), 78. Most sources agree that the light was relighted by the wardens of Philadelphia in 1784, although I have failed to find a primary source.

[13]C. H. B. Turner, Some Records of Sussex County Delaware (Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1909), 349.

[14]Thomas Hill, “Sea Conquers Henlopen Light at Last,” New York Times Magazine, March 21, 1926, 15. Courtesy of Lewes Historical Society collection.

[15]Thomas Hill, “Sea Conquers Henlopen Light at Last,” The Sunday Morning Star (Wilmington, DE), April 18, 1926. “Delaware Lighthouses,” https://lighthouses.weebly.com/delaware.html.

[16]The WPA Guide to Delaware, 394.

[17]David B. Tyler, “The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, Estuarine Bulletin 2, no. 1 (August, 1956); 2-3.

[18]Harold Hancock, “Lewes and the American Revolution,” presented at the July 9-10, 1979 Lewes Historical Society’s Cultural and Historical Seminar of Lewes, 39.

[19]John W. Beach, Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and Delaware Breakwater (Dover, DE: Dover Lithograph Printing Co, 1993),36.

[20]Hancock, Adair Diary, 158;“Henry Fisher to State Navy Board,” Lewistown, April 12, 1777, Affidavits 1371-2; “Journal Camilla, April 77 Cape Henlopen,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1980), 8: 321-2; “Autobiography of Captain Andrew Snape-Hamond,” ibid., 8: 321.

[21]Kim Rogers Burdick, Revolutionary Delaware (Charlestown, SC: The History Press, 2016), 68 cites the diary of militia volunteer Samuel Lockwood describing the incident. The militia had been formed to guard the lighthouse among other places. A week before this incident the militia had been formally recognized and authorized at congressional expense. See “John McKinley to Caesar Rodney,” April 7, 1777, Affidavits, 1400-1401.)

[22]“Autobiography of Captain Andrew Snape-Hamond,” Naval Documents, 8: 321.

[23]Henry Fisher to the Continental Congress, Lewes, April 12, 1777, Papers of the Continental Congress,No. 78, 9, folio 79. “Robt. Morris, Richard Henry Lee, & William Whipple to Caesar Rodney,” Philadelphia, April 25, 1777. In Affidavits,1260

[24]“To Captain Charles Alexander from Continental Marine Committee, “April 8, 1777, in Charles Oscar Paullin, ed., Out-letters of the Continental Marine Committee, Vol.1 (New York: The Naval History Society, 1914), 92. Just several days before the event he had been told that Fisher would hang out a white sheet from the lighthouse if orders were there. If that could not now be done, Fisher would have to report. He did not. For example of Barry and Wickes in Lewes to pick up orders, see “Henry Fisher to Committee of Public Safety,” Lewistown, May 11, 1776 in Naval Documents, 5: 276. “Captain Lambert Wickes to the Committee of Secret Correspondence of the Continental Congress.” On Board the Reprisal 16th June 1776. Naval Documents, 5: 571.

[25]See “Journal of HMS Experiment, Captain Sir James Wallace,” November 17, 1777, “Moored off Billingsfort in the River Delaware;” “Journal of HMS Pearl, Captain John Linzee,” November 17, 1777, “At single anchor off Billingsfort,” Naval Documents, 10: 522; and “Vice Admiral Viscount Howe, Public Orders, Eagle Delaware, Nov. the 18 th, 1777;” “Master’s Journal of HMS Roebuck,” November 18, 1777, Naval Documents, 10: 532.

[26]Naval Documents, 10: 1- 569 provides letters from commanders, logs of the ships, diary entries of participants and reports to the Admiralty and Congress re the naval battle for Philadelphia.

[27]At the beginning of the war, the British did not have any reliable charts of the Delaware Bay. That chart by Joshua Fisher was not published in London until after Roebuck and the blockading force were on station. Captain Hamond began developing his own chart which was not published until 1779. See William Manthorpe, “Establishing the Basis for Safe Navigation of Delaware Day: 1756-1856,” Lewes History: The Journal of the Lewes Historical Society, 16 (November 2013): 2-22. The channel markers in Delaware Bay had been removed. See “Instructions to Henry Fisher,” “Minutes of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety,” [Philadelphia], September 16, 1777, Naval Documents, 2: 120-122. In short, the captains of the supply ships would have had informal “Sailing Directions” or “Piloting Guides” based on Hamond’s information to help them feel their way up the river. The information in those guides would all be described relative to the lighthouse and vital for making landfall, in poor weather, or darkness. For that reason, they were obviously grateful when the three pilots defected to them and were able to lead convoys. See Hancock, Adair Diary, 162 and n36.

[28]Chronometers were not generally available until well into the early 1800s. Using accurate measures of latitude from sun or star lines and the standard lunar method for longitude a ship would make landfall in the general area then search for its destination. That is why lighthouses were established in the first place.

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