Delaware by Day Series: John Dickinson Plantation 

An Interesting Update 

Here are excepts from an article previous written in our series of drivable day trips of interest in Delaware. Much has happened at the Dickinson Plantation since my husband and I visited in 2020. Some of what was written is followed by more information. 

Standing majestically in the center of vast emerald fields of wheat and barley in Kit’s Hummock, the John Dickinson Plantation is the historic homestead of one of America’s most important – and controversial founding fathers. It is about 50 minutes north of Lewes, just off the Coastal Highway. 

Dickinson, popularly coined as “the Penman of the Revolution” was a statesman, lawyer and prolific political writer. His life (1732 to 1808) was a fascinating journey during a tumultuous and formative era in American history.  

Dickinson was known for his eloquent writing, especially the influential  Letters From a Pennsylvania Farmer, a successful attempt to draw colonists’ attention to potential British tyranny. As a dual resident of Delaware and Pennsylvania, he (separately) served as both states’ president (equivalent to today’s governor).  

Two colleges in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Dickinson College and Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law were established in honor of John Dickinson, proponent of education. 

Many historians also credit Dickinson with influencing Delaware to ratify the Constitution in 1787 to become the first state in the union. 

The Dickinson Plantation was his boyhood home. Eventually inheriting the plantation from his father Samuel, Dickinson continued to operate the enormous and thriving operation for years. Meticulously detailed journals tell the story of the plantation’s slaves and indentured servants, tenant farmers and free Negroes.  

Compelling stories about the plantation’s enslaved workers draw hundreds of visitors to the Dickinson estate each year – now owned by the state and operated by Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs office (DCA).  

Curious visitors inevitably ask many questions about how a founding father, framer and signer of the Constitution could write about freedom and liberty, yet own slaves against their will for so long? Our very knowledgeable tour guide, site supervisor Gloria Henry fielded every question we had, but added that not much about the identity of these people may ever be known. Most slaves in the bookkeeping records are only referred to by their first names. 

Eventually, in 1777,  John Dickinson manumitted (freed) his slaves unconditionally. A strong Quaker abolitionist movement was most certainly a factor. 

Update: 

Since our visit, which happened to coincide within days of the discovery of the elusive burial site of the plantation’s slaves and servants, a team of archaeologists finally took great steps of care and respect to protect the site, which took dozens of years to locate on the vast property. 

The team of archaeologists meticulously searched over 150 acres of land. Using modern digital technology as well as special metal detectors, at last what they believed was the burial site was confirmed. 

Infrared technology finally detected metal, leading them to guess that nails from the coffins were beneath them. They were no markers. Carefully digging, more than 30 graves – also unmarked where unearthed. 

The process of covering and protecting the coffins took several weeks, but none were removed out of respect for this sacred site. 

The exact site location is not yet being revealed to the public, but the state will be making efforts to protect it in the future. 

“We remain committed to telling inclusive history.  This includes restoring dignity to those who have been forgotten.  This important discovery presents a powerful moment for every Delawarean,” said Delaware Secretary of State Jeff Bullock in a statement. 

The plantation is now a museum open to the public for tours. There are also periodic reenactments in period costume to portray what colonial life in Delaware would have been like. 

The discovery of the burial site was quite a big stir within the Department of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Although Dickinson did eventually free every one of his slaves and servants, it is difficult to fathom the more than 100 years as a working plantation that brought him great wealth and renown. 

It is worth a day trip to see for yourself this historic site and dive into the plantation’s story. 

If You Go: The plantation museum and visitors center hours are 10 am to 4 pm, Thursday through Sunday. Guided tours are conducted every half hour beginning at 10:30. The plantation is located just off Route 1, and is clearly marked at the Kitts Hummock exit. 


Pictures from Delaware.gov public sites: delawarepublic.org | news.delaware.gov

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