A project to explore the cultural, historical and natural surroundings of Jolley’s Neck Farm is underway with the collection of stories, art forms, photos and legends about the families who once lived, worked, and worshiped in the historic village of Fork Branch.
Little is left today of the once-thriving community except the Little Union Church and adjacent Fork Branch Cemetery on West Denney’s Road. Interred there are the direct descendants of the Lenape, Delaware’s “Original People,” whose heirs today take great pride in their interconnected ancestries and who still carefully tend the graves.
A casual walk-through reveals names like Carney, Coker, Durham, Johnson, Loatman, Miller, Mosely, Pritchett, Ridgeway and Sammons. Generations of intermarriage between their sister communities in Bridgeton, N.J. and Millsboro, led to these people being known as Delaware Moors, a state approved ethnic designation still seen on birth certificates and early driver’s licenses.
Honoring the ancestors
Open to all direct descendants of those buried in the Fork Branch Cemetery, the Jolley’s Neck Cultural Mapping Project is partially funded by the Delaware Humanities Forum (http://www.dehumanities.org/grants/), said Ruth Ann Purchase James.
Purchase James’ grandmother, a midwife among the Bridgeton clan, shared with her stories of ancestors which sparked a lifelong pursuit for her heritage and connections across the Delaware Bay. Purchase James studies North Eastern Woodland cultures, seeking linguistic evidence still found in the three Lenape clans.
“The more I learn, the more intrigue swirls around inside me,” Purchase James said. She found cemeteries around the Delaware Bay, many with the exact surnames of those interred at Fork Branch, providing evidence of a kinship, both culturally and genetically, with many other Lenape, from Oklahoma to Ontario.
“When I met my counterparts here in Kent County, we started working together to explore how we could honor our common ancestors,” she said.
Cultural mapping is a tool to plot tangible features, such as buildings like the Little Union Church, as well as intangible assets such as stories, art forms, beliefs, remedies, traditions and folklore.
But it’s more than that, said Maribel Beas, cultural landscape preservationist and Winterthur doctoral student.
“This process of bringing the community together is even more important than the actual map we create,” Beas said.
Beas is gaining experience in Delaware in preparation for a similar mapping project with the Esa Eja’ people of her native Peru.
She shared news of the project Friday evening with a group of residents, elected officials and direct descendants of the Fork Branch community gathered at Cheswold’s Immanuel Union Church.
Community artists also showed their handiwork, from intricate wood turning to blacksmithing, modern cartooning and nature sketching, beadwork, leather work and even clothing design.
“We’re working as a team to identify and collect information on a culture,” Beas said, displaying digital maps that identified where cultural resources lie.
“You have a very rich history and we are trying to capture and pass that wealth on to your descendants.”
Everyone in the extended community can contribute to the project, which in turn will bring everyone even closer together, she said.
A vital part of the effort is collecting the stories and memories of the elders, noted Bonita “Laughing Heart” McNatt. Her great-great-great grandfather, Civil War veteran William Carney, is buried in the Fork Branch cemetery.
Trustee and church historian Richard “Dickie” Durham, along with other community artists and elders, demonstrated the power of those stories by regaling the group with complicated interconnected ancestries, time spent fishing, trapping, hunting, and finding long-buried arrowheads following each spring plowing.
In addition to keeping the group entertained, it was a tour-de-force demonstration of intangible cultural assets so important to community identity, the main purpose of cultural mapping.
“Some of us remember things that others don’t, so together we get a more complete picture,” McNatt told the group. “It’s important to know where you came from. We all have roots.”