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Purgatory Swamp

Purgatory Swamp William Ditto Lewis, who served the University of Delaware as librarian and archivist for 31 years, described one of the main roads leading south from Newark as follows: “From time out of mind the southern continuation of this street [Chapel Street] had led into the Purgatory Swamp and had been known as the Purgatory Road.”

“From time out of mind” folklore has given credit for the naming of the swamp at the foot of Iron Hill to the soldiers fighting under General Howe at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge on September 3, 1777. The diary of Friedrich von Muenchhausen, General Howe’s Aide de Camp, provides a lively account of the engagement:

“About this time we heard firing from somewhere on our left, but directed forward. This was from one of the dispatched light infantry battalions, which had gone too far to the left and encountered a small party of rebels instead of coming to the aid of our Hessian jaegers. The other dispatched light infantry battalion also was prevented from supporting the jaegers because they ran into a deep morass, which forced them to retrace their steps.”

The same swamp was described by Captain Johann Ewald of the Field Jäger Corps in his diary: “During our fight the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, under Colonel Abercrombie, tried to take the enemy in the rear, but was prevented from doing so by a marsh, whereby the jägers alone enjoyed the honor of driving the enemy out of his advantageous position.”

According to legend, the British named the swamp that had prevented them from cutting the Americans off from General Washington’s main army Purgatory Swamp. That the swamp played an important part in the unfolding of a crucial delaying action by Washington is pointed out in Captain John Montresor’s diary. Montresor was chief of engineers in Howe’s army: “…only the other battalion of Light Infantry, which was sent to surround the rebels, through some mistake was led so far to our right as to find an impassable swamp between them and the army, which prevented this little spirited affair becoming so decisive.”

The Americans must have enjoyed seeing the British floundering in the swamp for they stopped at a second creek and “made music with half-moon and other wind instruments.”

The swamp known as Purgatory once covered a large area with a creek and a section of woods. Although much smaller in size today it plays an important role as part of the watershed for the town of Newark. During the summer months, when the wells supplying the town are being pumped the swamp dries out completely. As the site is home to many wetland dwelling creatures, birds, insects and mammals, this disruption of habitat is undesirable. Dredging to remove years of silt has been proposed which will increase the water table and stabilize the wetland environment. The swamp is also part of the mill race system supplying water to historic Dayett Mill, now being restored as part of the Pencader Historic Area.

As to who first compared the swamp to Purgatory - we'll never know!

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