March 17, 2016

Daniel and Mary Wilson Corbit: Delaware Abolitionists

Daniel Corbit lost his wife Eliza Naudain Corbit in 1844 after twelve years of marriage and six children.  One of Eliza's quilts, a holding of the Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library, was the topic of our last post.  The timing of this quilt and the verses inscribed upon it signified the end of Eliza's life with Daniel.  He now faced a new life with his cousin, Mary Corbit Wilson, who became his wife three years later.

The Eliza Naudain Corbit Quilt.  Collection of the Winterthur Museum, Gardens
and Library.  Photograph courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library,
Winterthur, Delaware.
 
Daniel Corbit was born on October 2, 1796 to William Corbit (1746-1818) and Mary Cowgill (1761-1845), a couple who had been married in Duck Creek Monthly Meeting, Kent, Delaware, on May 20, 1791.  Daniel's father owned a tannery at Cantwell's Bridge (a town renamed Odessa in 1855) and also built what is now known as the Corbit-Sharp house at Main and Second Streets in Odessa.  The house was built during the period 1772-1774 and it remained in the family until 1938 when it was purchased by Rodney Sharp and restored.  Daniel Corbit was raised in this house and became its owner after his father's death.
 
Corbit-Sharp House, Odessa, Delaware.  Source of image:  Wikipedia.
 
Daniel was fifty years old when, in 1847, he married thirty-six year old Mary Corbit Wilson (1811-1880), a cousin and neighbor, and brought her to this house as his wife.  A letter to Daniel from Mary dated 8th mo 8th, 1846, expresses her pleasure and reservations about his proposal that she become his wife, voicing concerns that she might be unable to replace his former wife in both his heart and home.  In this letter, Mary also mentions the schism that occurred in the Quaker community in 1827 that split the Religious Society of Friends into two factions, the Orthodox and the Hicksite.  Daniel was an Orthodox members affiliated with Philadelphia Quakers while Mary and her family appear to have become Hicksites.  (See letter citation below.)  This turned out not to be an impediment to their marriage as Mary indicated in her letter that she was flexible on the issue.
 
Daniel eventually took over his father's tannery but, when sources of bark became difficult to obtain, he abandoned the business and turned his full attention to farming.  He took up the peach business when farmers along the Delaware-Chesapeake Canal gave it up and developed orchards that produced plentiful fruit and a sizable income.
 
Peach orchard.  Source of image: publicdomainpictures.net.
 
The peach orchards along with his other farming activities, his financial lending at legal interest rates, time as a member of the state Legislature and member of the Constitutional Convention of 1852, and his position as a Director of the Bank of Smyrna combined to make Daniel a wealthy and much-respected citizen of Delaware.  As such, he was asked to run for gubernatorial office but turned down the opportunity because, if elected, he'd have to serve as commander in chief for the state.  His Quaker faith and anti-war beliefs prevented him from doing this.  His faith, however, did not prevent him and Mary from waging an on-going battle to liberate those held as slaves in Delaware and elsewhere.
 
Odessa's central location gave it a pivotal role in the movement of blacks fleeing the south through Delaware on one of the routes of the Underground Railroad.  This route passed through or near the towns of Camden, Dover, Blackbird, Middletown, Odessa, and New Castle, all of which provided "stations" on the railroad where escaping slaves could be briefly housed before being passed on to railroad "conductors" who transported them to the next station north or showed them the way to proceed on their own.
 
The Underground Railroad by Charles T. Webber, 1893.  Source of image:
Wikimedia Commons.
 
Daniel and Mary Corbit's house was one of the "stations" in Odessa that assisted slaves moving north.  Mary Corbit Warner, the daughter of Daniel and Mary Wilson Corbit, speaking at a gathering of the Delaware Chapter of the Colonial Dames of America in 1914, recounted an incident in which her mother received a slave named Sam at the backdoor of the Corbit-Sharp house.  He was fleeing from a sheriff's posse and sought her help.  Daniel was away at the time but Mary took Sam in and hid him in a tiny attic closet with a miniscule door.  When the sheriff and two others knocked at Mary's door, she let them in and gave them permission to search the house.  Although they saw the small closet door in the attic, they remarked that it was too small for a man to pass through so did not explore it.  They eventually left the house without discovering Sam.  When they were gone, Mary was said to have taken Sam a quilt and some food so that he could be as comfortable as possible until nightfall when it would be safe for him to move on.  Sam safely made it to Pennsylvania and wrote to Mary from there thanking her for her help.
 
Stairwayin the Corbit-Sharp house leading to the upper floor
and the attic.  Source of image:  Library of Congress, Prints
and Photographs Online Catalog.
 
Another Corbit property, Clearfield Farm, also served as a "station" on the Underground Railroad.  The farm was originally owned by Captain David Clark whose daughter, Mary, married Daniel Corbit's half-brother, Pennell Corbit.  Both Pennell and Mary died early, leaving two young daughters behind.  Daniel became their guardian and inherited from David Clark their property at Clearfield Farm.  The farm was one of the Smyrna "stations" on the Underground Railroad located in Blackbird Hundred.  A description of Clearfield Farm notes that it had a number of places for hiding fugitives.  These included an attic crawl space, space behind a false fireplace, and two hidden inner rooms without doors that could be entered through sliding wooden wall panels.
 
Clearfield Farm.  Photograph by William Pflingsten, August, 2008.  Source of image:
Historical Marker Data Base at HMdb.org.
 
One more building that served as a "station" on the Underground Railroad was the Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House in Odessa.  This tiny brick building was built in 1785 by Mary Wilson Corbit's parents, David and Mary Corbit Wilson.  When Harriet Tubman, the famous female operator on the Underground Railroad, was interviewed for her 1800 biography, author Earl Conrad quoted her as saying that, on some occasions, she had hidden in the Appoquinimink Meeting House.  The meeting house has a second-story removable panel that leads to spaces under the eaves.  It originally also had a cellar with a ground level doorway.
 
Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House (1785) taken in 1938 prior to restoration. 
Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
 
Harriet Tubman, circa 1885.  National Portrait
Gallery.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
 
Daniel and Mary Wilson Corbit were not the only abolitionists in and around Odessa, Delaware, who assisted fugitives fleeing to the north.  They were members of a group of dedicated men and women, including John Hunn, a member of the Appoquinimink Meeting, who did just that at a time when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a dangerous business.  John Hunn, for example, was turned in to the authorities for assisting slaves and had to pay a penalty which cost him his farm and his livelihood.
 
Daniel Corbit passed away in 1877 in Odessa at the age of eighty years.  His wife Mary Wilson Corbit followed three year later in 1880.
 
 
Sources:
 
Ancestry.com Public Member Family Trees, census records and Quaker meeting records.
 
"Appoquinimink Meeting in Odessa, Delaware" accessed 2/11/2016 at http://www.wilmingtondefriendsmeeting.org/odessa.htm.
 
 
Conrad, Henry C.  History of the State of Delaware, Vol. III.  Wilmington, DE: Published by the author, 1908.
 
Corbit-Sharp House (William Corbit House), Written Historical and Descriptive Data, Historic American Landscapes Survey.  Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, no date.
 
Hoffman, Steve.  "Riding Along the Underground Railroad".  In Middleton Life Magazine, (summer 2008).  Accessed 2/11/2016 at http://www.bluetoad.com/display_article.php?id=40660.
 
Letter Mary Corbit Wilson to Daniel Corbit, Hopewell 8th mo 8th, 1846.  The Winterthur Library, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Folder 4, Daniel Corbit Papers, .308.
 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2016.