The Rodney Sisters / Col. Samuel Boyer Davis / Gilbert Byron
The Rodney Sisters
From Sea to Shining Sea
by Hazel D. Brittingham
Activities in the spring of 1869 at the two-building complex at the corner of South Street (now Savannah Road) and Second Street in coastal Lewes, Delaware, must have been awesome. The realities and traditions of residence, store, and Miss Lydia Rodney's private school, long lodged there, were being laid to rest. The occupantsthe Misses Mary, Lydia, and Clementine Rodneywere preparing to move from their native east coast to the great Pacific northwest. Their father, Henry Fisher Rodney, had died the previous year, and his unmarried daughters were joining another sister, Hannah, and her husband, the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Wistar Morris, to embark upon a sea of change and challenge. The embarkation was more than figurative, for it was on April 21 that Bishop Morris and his congregation of family members departed from New York via ship, destined for Portland, Oregon. (It would be several years yet before any railroad from the east would reach that location.) Bishop Morris, in accepting the assignment of Episcopal Missionary Bishop of Oregon and Washington, envisioned the establishment of a girls' school in his territory.
The departing Rodney gentlewomen carried with them not only Miss Lydia's brass school bell but a heritage rich in Delaware history and Lewes residency. Their Rodney line included the illustrious Caesar Rodney; their grandfatherDaniel of Leweshad served the state as governor from 1814 to 1817. Dead since 1852, their mother, the former Mary Burton, was a member of the family of Governor William Burton (served from 1859 - 1863). The sisters father had been named for his grandfather, Henry Fisher, whose efforts for the patriot cause in Sussex county are recalled to this day.
After proceeding down the east coast and crossing the Isthmus of Panama by train, the sea voyage continued to San Francisco where they were hospitably received by the Episcopal bishop and clergy of California. After a brief stay, the party boarded the ship, Continental, for the last leg of their trek which proved to be exceedingly rough. Notes from a journal maintained by Miss Mary afford a glimpse of their experiences. She noted that it was on June 2 (almost six weeks after leaving New York), that they crossed the dreaded Columbia bar.
By this time, these natives of Delaware's flat land were enchanted by the visions of mountains and the abundance of fir trees. Having used the time afloat in the planning of a school, the thrilling sight of Mount St. Helens suggested the name for their institution. When arriving in Portland, Miss Mary wrote that they were met at the wharf "by all the world and his wife."
Recent literature received from today's Oregon Episcopal School includes this information regarding its history:
Founded in 1869 as St. Helen's Hall by Bishop Wistar Morris, Oregon Episcopal School is one of the oldest independent schools on the west coast and the oldest Episcopal School west of the Rockies. Originally a boarding school for girls, it has endured and prospered for over 100 years because of its progressive attitude toward education and its ability to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society.
The initial faculty for the Hall, overseen by Bishop Morris as rector, was headed by Miss Mary Burton Rodney as principal. Born in Lewes and educated in Philadelphia schools, she had resigned a teaching position in St. Marys School, Burlington, New Jersey, to trek west. Serving as her first assistant was her sister, Miss Lydia Rodney. Sister Clementine was the music teacher.
One record indicates that after two decades of existence, paying tribute to the successful management of the rector and principal, it was estimated that at least two thousand girls had received instruction during the school's history, with 62 young ladies having the distinction of being graduates.
An era drew to a close when, suddenly, on April 15, 1896, Miss Mary Rodney died at age 62. She was praised highly for her accomplishments, one account noting that she had given all the capabilities of her cultured mind and energetic character to the lofty purpose to which she had dedicated the last 27 years of her life. There is found today at Oregon Episcopal School a Rodney House (dormitory), a Mary Rodney Room, and in the alumni room, one of the original chairs brought to the school in 1869 by the Rodney sisters.
Bishop Morris remained in an official capacity until his death in 1906. In addition to his missionary duties and his rectorship of St. Mary's Hall, this gentleman is credited with the establishment of Portland's Good Samaritan Hospital and is recalled riding through the city on horseback, coattails flying, as he conducted errands of mercy.
To return mentally to the Rodney family's quarters and business establishment at the busy corner in LewesLewistown of oldit was at the spot that Mr. and Mrs. Howard Derrickson for years conducted the Corner Cut Rate. They used both of the ancient Rodney dwellings for their enterprise. Currently, the portion of the structure thought to have accommodated Miss Lydia's School is at 103 Second Street and labeled The Rodney House. Browsers are free to inspect the fireplace and other interesting features of construction in what is considered to be the oldest building in the first block of the business district.
Col. Samuel Boyer Davis
by Hazel D. Brittingham
April showers in the year 1813 descended not in the form of rain in little Lewistown on Delaware Bay, but as cannonballs and Congreve rockets. Lewes took the brunt of a bombardment for a 22-hour period on April 6 and 7 during America's "second war for independence" from England.
The skirmish doubtless left the British red-faced in retreat while boosting the morale of local residents and the rest of the young nation of America. Commanding the defense of the town was a native, Samuel Boyer Davis, who was wounded during the attack. This colorful individual with a fine military bearing had lived a full and exciting life during his 47 years prior to the spring of 1813. Years of activity and civic contributions were to follow. Col. Davis is an example of illustrious personalities too often forgotten.
Between his birth in Lewes in 1766 and his death in Wilmington in 1854, Samuel Boyer Davis sired two families. While bouncing his first three children on his knee, he could have told them of his life since leaving Lewes at about age 16. He had acquired a love of the sea and made many voyages to France where he joined the French Navy. In helping to rescue the family of Baron de Boisfontaine from the island of Santo Domingo during the 1792 slave insurrection, he met and married the baron's daughter Rose, mother of the children. They settled in New Orleans, and Davis became a wealthy landowner.
Receiving a commission in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the War of 1812, Davis was made lieutenant-colonel of the 32nd U.S. Infantry and assigned to head the forces defending the entrance to Delaware Bay. The colonel returned to his birthplace. During his second residency in Lewes, the Davis family resided in a stately house still standing on Pilotown Road and known as Fisher's Paradise. Living with the family and raised as one of their own, was Myra Clark, daughter of a close friend, Daniel Clark of New Orleans. Later married to E.P. Gaines, Myra became the famous litigant of the era whose legal case went 17 times to the Supreme Court of the nation. Therein lies a story of its own.
Col. Daviss war service continued after calm returned to the bay coastal area. He participated in the defense of New York City and concluded his service in 1819 while commanding Fort Philips, below New Orleans. For years the Davises alternated between Pennsylvania and DelawarePhiladelphia and Wilmington. He built an imposing dwelling on a farm outside Wilmington and called it Delamore Place. While living in Philadelphia he served several terms as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, but returned to Delaware after tasting defeat in his 1834 bid for Congress. In 1837 Samuel Davis had reached the age of 71 years as a widower in comfortable circumstances, but his life was far from over. It was then that he married Sally Jones who was more than 50 years his junior. They had five children before he died in 1854. The three sons were named Delaware, Kent and Sussex. Actually, Delaware's name was New Castle, but it seemed cumbersome, so his middle name was used.
If the aging officer had been so inclined, he could have bounced his later brood on his knee as he told them of being "right there" when the Marquis de Lafayette visited Wilmington in 1824. And of his address of welcome to President James Polk in 1847 when the president arrived in Wilmington aboard a special railroad car. Rather belatedly, the Delaware Legislature had presented a sword to the 1813 defender of Lewes as recognition for his distinguished service. Surely he must have removed the sword from its jewel-studded scabbard to show his little ones the blade engraved with a scene of British ships bombarding Lewes.
The colonels irascibility has become legendary. Making lively reading is the account of one Wilmington matron who recalled the time when Col. Davis hurled a roast turkey out the window just as the family was about to dine. The reason? The fowl was placed in front of him to carve with the legs in the wrong direction!
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