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The Brandywine River or Brandywine Creek is a 60-mile waterway flowing from southeastern Pennsylvania, through northern Delaware, and finally into the Delaware River. It is a very small waterway, but one which is important to the history of the region.


The mouth of the Brandywine is not far from where the Swedes first settled in 1638, at Fort Christina. In fact, the Brandywine and the Christina run parallel to one another through parts of Wilmington. The name of the river appears to have originated in the late seventeenth century, though the exact origin isn't clear (to me, at least). One story says that an early resident named Andrew Brandwin (or Brandwine, or Brainwinde, or Brainwend) owned land near Wilmington, and when later purchased by Englishman Robert Jones, the official deed called the river the Brainwend Kill (kill being an old Dutch word for a waterway). The other story is that the name was given to the river by the Dutch, and was originally brandewijn, Dutch for a sweet wine, referring to the quality of the water. The current name of Brandywine is then just an anglicization of the older dutch one. Prior to this, it was known as Wauwaset to the Lenni-Lenape, and as Fiskiekylen (Fish Creek) to the Swedish settlers.


The Brandywine originates in southeast Pennsylvania, in the Welsh Hills country between the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers. The headwaters are actually two separate spring-fed streams, which originate a short distance from one another but then separate. The West Branch flows south from the Welsh hills through Coatesville, and the East Branch flows south through Downingtown. The two streams run separately for the first thirty or forty miles of the River, but unite near Chadds Ford, a few miles north of the Delaware state line. Most of the land surrounding the two branches is a mix of cultivated farm land and hardwood forests. From Chadds Ford, it flows through the hilly farm country (now mostly parks and estates) of northwestern Delaware, and into a rocky valley, and from there through Wilmington and into the Delaware.

The first inhabitants of the region were the Lenni-Lenape, also (incorrectly) known as the Delawares, whose territory bordered that of the Naticokes and Susquehannas. Then came the founding of Fort Christina, which brought the first European farmers to the region. With the English in control by the end of the seventeenth century, the Quakers settled in the region, followed by other settlers from England, Ireland, and Scotland. They were in turn followed by German immigrants, and finally by the Amish and Mennonite religious communities which still remain and thrive in Lancaster County.


Historically, the Brandywine is noted for several things. First, and probably most famous, is the Battle of the Brandywine, fought in 1777 between the American General George Washington's Army, and the British under Lord William Howe. American forces were taken by surprise by a pincer movement by British forces, and were badly beaten at the Brandywine Battlefield. This loss led to the capture and occupation of both Wilmington and Philadelphia in the winter of 1777.

After the war, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont established his black powder mill on the lower Brandywine in 1802, a few miles north of Wilmington, one of a series of millworks throughout the lower Brandywine. The rocky valley made it possible and convenient to build dams and spill runs for powering millworks throughout the valley, both for industry and for farming. du Pont's mills evolved into the Du Pont corporation, still headquartered near the river today. The du Pont family itself owned many estates comprised of many thousands of acres in the Brandywine River valley and surrounding hill country, including what are now the Hagley and Winterthur Museums.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, Wilmington native Howard Pyle established a studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and an art school in Wilmington, and became the de facto leader of a school of art that included N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. Wyeth also moved to the Chadds Ford area shortly afterwards, and raised his own family of artists. The most famous of these, Andrew, still paints landscapes inspired by the Chadds Ford region and Brandywine River Valley, and the Brandywine River Museum outside Kennett Square houses one of the largest independent collections of his work.


But that is what the Brandywine was. What the Brandywine struggles to remain today is a rural region, encroached by the expanding urban and suburban centers of Philadelphia and Wilmington. In the 1970s, many farmers (including the Amish) struggled to maintain the headwaters region as farmland. There was (and almost certainly still is) tension between farmers and developers. Around 1980, many Amish farmers banded together to buy large parcels of land surrounding Welsh Mountain to protect it from development, though whether they continue to hold most of it, I don't know. I do know that each time I go home and drive out through West Chester and Chadds Ford, I notice more new housing developments on what was once farmland and forest, so I suspect it is only a matter of time before they disappear.

However, some other groups are also organizing to protect the river, particularly the lower reaches from Chadds Ford to Wilmington. The Brandywine Conservancy works to protect the river and surrounding wilderness areas from development. They cooperate in part with the Brandywine Art Museum in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania, which not only maintains one of the largest collections of Andrew Wyeth's work, but also works to maintain the historical properties in the region, particularly the Wyeth studios. South of the state line, the river flows through the Brandywine Creek State Park, and the Hagley Museum, which are both protected by the state. The state park in particular houses a sizable forest for protecting some of the native species, although it is not an old-growth forest -- very little land on the east coast is anymore.

I have a lot of memories of the Brandywine Valley growing up. On weekends, my parents would drive up through Kennett Square, through Chadds Ford, to an old farmhouse in West Chester that houses a book store, and I remember wandering through the stacks that smelled of dust and pine smoke, and playing in the garden around an old millstone left in the grass. The drive up passes by some of the creeks that feed into the river. When I was old enough to drive, I'd go up to Brandywine Creek State Park by myself to enjoy the quiet. I remember walking though the forest, occasionally spotting hawks and eagles overhead, or stumbling into a herd of deer in dense wood. I remember being at peace there. And I miss that.

Sources:
Delaware: A guide to the First State, Federal Writers Project, Hastings House, New York (1955)
The Brandywine Tradition, Henry C. Pitz, Houghton Mifflin Co. (1969)
Brandywine, Elizabeth Humphrey and Michael Kahn, Jared Company, Wilmington, DE (1990)
http://www.brandywinemuseum.org/ and http://www.brandywineconservancy.org/
and memory

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