Their histories intertwined, two families reunite at storied Cooch House
Four generations of Jameses worked for Cooch family in the 1800s
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Denise Hayman (right) talks to Merritt Cooch and archivist Mark Walters.
Merritt Cooch, archivist Mark Walters and Cooch’s husband, Shawn McDonnell, talk about the Cooch property on Saturday.
Denise Hayman and family members check out the old ice house on the Cooch property.