How legend says Delaware’s Whorekill, Murderkill, and Slaughter Beach got their names

Did the demise of horseshoe crabs like these help give Delaware's Slaughter Beach its peculiar name?

Did the demise of horseshoe crabs like these help give Delaware’s Slaughter Beach its peculiar name?

The bloody history behind the names

by David Healey

There’s nothing like a day at the beach. Pack the sunscreen and some sandwiches, load the kids in the car, and head down Route 1 for the Delaware shore. For visitors from points north, the closest beach can be found in the quaint town of Lewes and especially the state park at Cape Henlopen.

At first glance, these are picture-perfect beach destinations straight out of a tourism brochure. What the brochure surely fails to mention is the resort town’s violent and bloody origins, and its rather unsavory original name Whorekill.

Your first clue to some unsettling business from the past might very well have been some other place names you noticed on the trip down Route 1. In the vicinity of Killens Pond State Park south of Dover, you might have seen that you were crossing the Murderkill River … just up the road from Slaughter Beach.

Whorekill, Muderkill, Slaughter Beach?   Yes, the legends behind these Delaware place names are pretty much the ones that your imagination just provided. Maybe even worse.

The origins of place names sometimes present a puzzle. Names get passed down generation after generation, but not always the reasons for them. But do a little digging, and the origins usually come to light, although there is sometimes a bit of guesswork and deduction mixed in when trying to figure out what was on the minds of European settlers from the 1600s.

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One of the most sinister names —Slaughter Beach—is hardly appropriate for the friendly community there. That is, unless you happen to be a horseshoe crab. Local legend says the name may stem from the annual springtime appearance of hordes of horseshoe crabs that emerge from the waters of Delaware Bay to lay their eggs on the beach. Changing tides leave many crabs stranded, so that they fall victim to the beating sun or marauding foxes and raccoons. Hence the name “Slaughter Beach.” (There is a less gruesome theory behind this interesting place name, which is that it comes from William Slaughter, a local postmaster who lived at the beach in the mid 1800s.)

The legends behind the Murderkill River and Whorekill are far bloodier. Don’t be entirely reassured by the fact that “kill” is a Dutch word for “river” or “creek.” The Dutch were the original settlers of much of what is now Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York, so that it’s not that unusual to find rivers bearing the name “kill.” The Schuylkill near Philadelphia is probably one the best known examples, although it roughly translates from the original Dutch as “Hidden River,” probably due to the dense vegetation along its banks when it was first mapped in the 1600s.

The origins of the name Whorekill are murkier. Dutch explorers first arrived at what is now Lewes in 1629 and purchased land from the Siconese Indians who lived there. Long before it was dredged to create the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal, the river there was named Hoerekill in Dutch. The Dutch word “hoere” means whore (hoeren in the plural). In other words, Harlot’s River.

Considering that a Dutchman’s hoere was an Englishman’s whore, how did the river get this rather X-rated name? Historians say it apparently has to do something with the tradition of Siconese men sharing their women as a gesture of friendship to the Dutch. Your average Dutchan probably thought this was a fine way to celebrate their purchase of the Indians’ land and a memorable place name, but the hoeren in question soon led to a cultural misunderstanding and massacre.

In 1631, the Dutch left behind settlers to establish a whaling colony on the Hoerekill. Sometime that year, perhaps in a dispute over the Dutch treatment of the women they had shared, Siconese warriors descended on the settlers and killed them all. Considering that the Siconese were considered to be very peaceful, it does seem likely that they were provoked.

The Dutch were appalled at the massacre, and it would be many years before the settlement on the Hoerekill was reestablished. And when the Dutch returned, they would have their revenge, an incident that would lead to another brutal place name.

According to “Names on the Land A Historical Account of Place names in the United States,” here is how the Murderkill got its name … remembering how they had been served at the Whore-Kill, they went some ten or twelve miles higher, where they landed again and traded with the Indians, trusting the Indians to come onto their stores ashore, and likewise aboard their sloop drinking and debauching with the Indians until there were at last barbarously murdered, and so that place was christened with their blood and to this day is called the Murder-Kill, that is, Murderer’s Creek.”

As for Whorekill, the village there continued to be called by that name until 1682, when William Penn assumed ownership of the region and redesignated it with the more puritan name of Lewes, after the English town in East Sussex. All these years later, the name Lewes still sounds better in the tourism brochures, but its bloody past hasn’t been entirely forgotten.

—From Delmarva Legends & Lore, The History Press, 2010



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12 Responses to How legend says Delaware’s Whorekill, Murderkill, and Slaughter Beach got their names

  1. Pingback: The strangest town names in every state - News in Arkansas

  2. Jody parrott Bailey says:

    Great story of history. Thanks for keeping it alive and available to readers to learn the past.

  3. When I did a Babelfish translation of “Whore” from Dutch to English, the translation was “wale”. If you take that as “whale”, and the establishment of a whaling station on the river, “Whale River” seems more logical.

    • David Healey says:

      Interesting, John. Perhaps it did have its origins in Whale River. One of these days, I’d like to delve into some other place names across the peninsula. Our place names today seem far more deliberate compared to a place name that evolved out of a hodgepodge of Dutch and English. Thanks for your comment!

    • Troy Waway says:

      First of all, you’d be translating Whore from English to Dutch, whereupon, using Babelfish, you get no translation. Asking it to translate Hoere from Dutch to English, gives you a translation that makes no sense. So, I don’t think Babelfish does such a hot job of translating in this case. Try it with Google translate, and you get results consistent with John’s theory.

  4. Pingback: 15 U.S. Town and City Names With Unusual Backstories – depolreablesunite

  5. There is yet even more violence in the background of Whorekill *Horenkill”. By 1667 Horenkill was a thriving Dutch town not only making a living from the ocean but also from lucrative tobacco farms and a few plantations. The Dutch ceded all of their North American colonies to the English at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in exchange for the English settlements and forts in Suriname and two islands in the Banda/Molluccas Spice island chain to complete a Dutch monopoly of the Spice trade.

    However, when the Third Anglo Dutch War broke out, the Dutch came back and retook all of their northern colonies and forced all colonists – even English folks to swear an oath. This included the people of Hoerenkill. The English were very angry with the Dutch as they had raided Chesapeake Bay, burned plantations, destroyed forts, and destroyed or captured the entire Virginia and Maryland tobacco fleet. They also destroyed over 300 English colonial vessels in Newfoundland involved with the fishing industry as well as burned the fisheries. They occupied New York and renamed it New Orange.

    Dutch ships were preying on English vessels in the local coastal waters and so the English governors decided something must be done to punish the Dutch. The Marylanders had always disputed the boundaries of where Horenkill was and the governors had sent surveyors there to claim it. This time they sent armed mounted militia into the western Dutch towns to destroy them.

    The governor told them to burn everything and leave no building standing. It was the dead of winter and when they arrived, the towns people pleaded with them. There were Englishmen among them and there were women ready to give birth. The cavalry commander relented and left one barn standing which the people huddled in nearly starving for the remainder of the winter.

    If he hadn’t have shown that single mercy that might well have been the end of the line for Lewes and Cape Henlopen. At the end of that war the Treaty of Westminster stated that all lands would revert back to original ownerships from before the war and the land grant of Pennsylvania to one of the great naval war heroes of those wars – Admiral Sir William Penn – caused the town to fall within its’ boundaries thereafter.

    • David Healey says:

      Thank you so much for sharing that information! Our peaceful beach towns seem so easygoing today, but that wasn’t always the case!

  6. Mike Richards says:

    In Delaware we do not say we are going to “the shore” – or that we are driving to “the Shore.” That is a term used in New Jersey. Here we are going to “the Beach.” Just a slight difference in wording. The surname Slaughter is not uncommon here in Delaware – and my guess is that Slaughter Beach likely got its name from the Post Master . Regarding “Murderkill” – there are several versions of how that name came about. The Quakers did not like the name – so to make it better they used “Motherkill” (boy that makes it lots better – LOL!!) and also used the word MURTHERKILL. Sometimes the double “L” at the end would be changed to “kiln.” There is a belief that some early European settlers were killed by the native Americans (Indians) and hence the name Murderkill – but this not a verified fact. I believe the German word for mother is another corruption that was frequently used for the river. Just a few little tidbits from an old Delawarean – and former employee of the State Archives.

    Mike Richards

  7. Julie Howell says:

    I always wondered what Kill meant in a surname and River makes perfect sense. As far as the word Murder, it means a flock of Crows. So, Muderkill would have meant Crow River. In fact, there is a river in Delaware called the Crow River. For example, the surname Killgore, Gore, or Gala means triangle piece of land, usually a landlord, (The Land Lord who owns the land lives by the River).
    Another example is the word Bury, which means town or village in German, For example, John Hockenbury, John meant the first or new, Hocken meant Squat, House, Base, or Landing, and Bury meant Town or Village. John Hockenbury arrived in Hunterton, New Jersey in 1760 from Germany. He became known as the first to build a home in their new homeland. Hence the name, John Hockenbury. The name gave him seniority and leadership in his community and that would explain why he was entrusted to be Notary for Hunterton, New Jersey.
    Finally, the word WhoreKill could have been Hoern meaning to hear in German. [2] This could mean Loud River. Other possibilities, the surname Horn in German would have referred to someone who plays the horn, who crafts horns, or a person that lives by a river that bends in a horn shape. [3] Then again, the river could have been named after D. B. Hoar, who had 160 acres in 1858, and somehow the letter W was added, naming the river Whorekill. [4]

  8. Craig O'Donnell says:

    Errrr, Modder in Dutch is Muddy. And the Murderkill is pretty damned muddy. O’Cams Razor (famed Irish logician, him) says don’t look for crows and such when a physical description will do. As far as I have been able to determine I’m the first to suggest this simpler source for the derivative Anglicization.

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