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.
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