Their his­to­ries in­ter­twined, two fam­i­lies re­unite at sto­ried Cooch House

Four gen­er­a­tions of Jame­ses worked for Cooch fam­ily in the 1800s

Cecil Whig - - REGIONAL - By JOSH SHAN­NON

Special from the Ne­wark Post

— The Cooches of the 19th cen­tury were a prom­i­nent fam­ily of millers whose name has be­come syn­ony­mous with the only Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War bat­tle fought in Delaware.

The Jame­ses, free AfricanAmer­i­cans, worked for the Cooches for four gen­er­a­tions, serv­ing as wagon driv­ers, nurses and grist mill work­ers.

De­spite their dif­fer­ent back­grounds, the his­to­ries of both fam­i­lies are in­trin­si­cally linked, and over the week­end, de­scen­dants of both fam­i­lies met at the sto­ried Cooch House to re­new their ties and ex­plore their shared her­itage.

“I felt like I was walk­ing on hal­lowed ground be­cause our an­ces­tors were here,” said Crys­tal Hay­man Simms, a de­scen­dent of the James fam­ily who still lives in Ne­wark.

The visit co­in­cided with a large re­union of the JamesHay­man fam­ily, 180 mem­bers of which con­verged on Ne­wark for a week­end of events. On Satur­day morn­ing, a small con­tin­gent vis­ited the Cooch House, where they were greeted by Mer­ritt Cooch, her hus­band, Shawn McDon­nell, and ar­chiv­ist Mark Wal­ters, who is or­ga­niz­ing the his­toric pa­pers stored in the house.

For about an hour, the two fam­i­lies shared sto­ries, dis­cussed the prop­erty’s his­tory and posed for pho­tos.

Simms, who has been help­ing trace her fam­ily’s ge­neal­ogy for three decades, praised the Cooches for wel­com­ing her fam­ily with open arms.

“Some­times when AfricanAmer­i­cans are look­ing for in­for­ma­tion on their his­tory, the peo­ple who knew their fam­ily aren’t re­cep­tive to let­ting them in,” she said.

An­other fam­ily mem­ber, Denise Hay­man, noted that

NE­WARK, DEL.

co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two fam­i­lies is noth­ing new. In 1905, J. Wilkins Cooch gave a pre­sen­ta­tion to a James fam­ily re­union, de­scrib­ing their his­tory as he knew it.

“This brings things full cir­cle,” Hay­man said. “It lets us tie things to­gether.”

The James fam­ily has traced its his­tory with the Cooches back to Ze­bu­lon James, who around 1817 started work as a wagon driver haul­ing freshly milled flour to the Christina and Elk rivers, where it was loaded on boats to be taken to Philadel­phia and Bal­ti­more.

At least four gen­er­a­tions of Jame­ses worked for the Cooches in some ca­pac­ity, be­com­ing some of the fam­ily’s most trusted em­ploy­ees.

In his 1905 pre­sen­ta­tion, later pub­lished as part of a book, J. Wilkins Cooch de­scribed play­ing with, and later work­ing with, the James chil­dren.

“We grew to man­hood to­gether, al­ways be­ing friends,” he wrote. “If at any time I wanted a fa­vor done, day or night, I had but to call on one of them, and he was al­ways ready and will­ing to do it.”

Simms said Ze­bu­lon James and his de­scen­dants were free, even though slav­ery was still le­gal in Delaware at the time, and all owned their own prop­erty.

Cooch records also men­tion a slave named David, who was freed in the late 1700s when he was in his early 20s. Simms be­lieves he might be Ze­bu­lon’s fa­ther but has been un­able to con­firm that.

She was hop­ing to get more in­for­ma­tion Satur­day, but an­swers were hard to come by.

Wal­ters, who in Jan­uary was hired by the Cooches to be­gin the pain­stak­ing process of sift­ing through gen­er­a­tions worth of records, said he found some records re­lat­ing to the James fam­ily but has yet to ex­am­ine them in de­tail.

“It’s like find­ing a nee­dle in a haystack,” he said, not­ing that he will share any in­for­ma­tion he finds with Simms.

The Cooch fam­ily’s his­tory in Ne­wark traces back to 1760 when Thomas Cooch built his house on a hill on the banks of the Christina River, near what is now Old Bal­ti­more Pike.

The house’s brush with his­tory came 17 years later when, in Septem­ber 1777, the Con­ti­nen­tal Army skir­mished with the Bri­tish on the sur­round­ing land. Dur­ing the bat­tle, Bri­tish gen­eral Charles Corn­wal­lis oc­cu­pied the house, us­ing it as his head­quar­ters and, ac­cord­ing to Cooch fam­ily lore, keep­ing his horse in the par­lor.

The house has re­mained in the fam­ily ever since, though Ed­ward “Ned” Cooch Jr., who died in 2010, was the last fam­ily mem­ber who lived there.

Mer­ritt Cooch, Ned Cooch’s grand­daugh­ter, said the fam­ily is wait­ing un­til Wal­ters fin­ishes cat­a­loging the records, a process that could take two years. Then, they will de­ter­mine the house’s next chap­ter.

“We’re learn­ing as much as we can,” she said, not­ing she spent many hol­i­days and sum­mer days at the house with her grand­fa­ther. “We’re re­ally lucky to have this his­tory.”

Cooch said she was pleased to be able to wel- come the James-Hay­man fam­ily into the home.

“It’s so cool to share it with some­one,” she said “It’s our house, but it’s al­most their house, too.”

Before leav­ing, the two fam­i­lies made plans to stay in touch, with Cooch of­fer­ing the prop­erty as the lo­ca­tion for a fu­ture James re­union, and sev­eral of the Jame­ses vol­un­teer­ing to help sift through doc­u­ments.

“A con­nec­tion was made,” Simms said. “It means ev­ery­thing.”

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Ar­chiv­ist Mark Wal­ters (right) gives a tour of the Cooch prop­erty as Mer­ritt Cooch (second from right) and sev­eral mem­bers of the James-Hay­man fam­ily look on. Four gen­er­a­tions of Jame­ses worked for the Cooches in the 1800s.

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Mem­bers of the James-Hay­man fam­ily pose for a photo on the porch of the his­toric Cooch House on Satur­day. Four gen­er­a­tions of Jame­ses worked for the Cooches in the 1800s.

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Chrys­tal Hay­man Simms (second from right) talks to Mer­ritt Cooch, ar­chiv­ist Mark Wal­ters and Cooch’s hus­band, Shawn McDon­nell, about the Cooch prop­erty on Satur­day.

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Denise Hay­man (right) talks to Mer­ritt Cooch and ar­chiv­ist Mark Wal­ters.

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Mer­ritt Cooch, ar­chiv­ist Mark Wal­ters and Cooch’s hus­band, Shawn McDon­nell, talk about the Cooch prop­erty on Satur­day.

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Denise Hay­man and fam­ily mem­bers check out the old ice house on the Cooch prop­erty.

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