The Name of Whorekill
by Hazel D. Brittingham
An early name for the creek that became the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal was the Hoerekill (Dutch). Later it was anglicized as the Whorekill. The settlement that began to form by the late l650s was called Whorekill. The county that extended much farther north than today's Sussex County was Whorekill County. When the smaller county was carved out in l680, it retained the name of Whorekill. The court, the prime governmental authority for many years, was Whorekill Court.
What about the name that has been referred to as "X-rated" in modern times and "indelicate" in earlier days? The name of Whorekill has been called an early American name puzzle--an incident name such as given to places by explorers and fur traders. In Dutch, the first part of the word would have been "hoere," meaning harlot (singular); "hoeren" (plural). The Dutch rendition of Hoerekill would have translated as Harlot's River (Hoerenkill - Harlots' River). When English became the prevailing language, the word became Whorekill.
The late historian C. A. Weslager spoke and wrote at length about this name puzzle. He noted in a speech in Lewes several years ago that following a lifetime of studying the Indians of the area he felt that the l63l massacre was out of character for the Siconese and that possibly the Europeans had mistreated the Indians, particularly their women. Such incident or incidents, he related, could have been the real story behind the early slaughter.
The historian told that documentary evidence gave rise to the fact that the name was a byproduct of loose relations between the Dutch men and the Indian women. By proffering their women to the foreigners, the Siconese were extending hospitality that was understood by the visitors as harlotry. One writer, in an account dated l679, when speaking of the early settlers, wrote: "The Indians killed many of them because they did not live well with them, especially with their women, from which circumstances this kil derives its name."
At any rate, the name of Whorekill was not one that instilled pride. Although steps were taken in l680 by the powers in force to substitute the name of Deale for the town and county, the new designation did not gain a foothold before William Penn appeared in l682. It was then that he bestowed new names of Lewes for the village and Sussex for the county, both from Lewes, East Sussex, England.
And what about the use of Hoornkill that appears often as an early name for Lewes? Weslager has written that in all of his research, some of it conducted in Holland examining original documents, he never saw the area referred to as "Hoornkill." The earliest renditions were either Hoerekill or Hoerenkill. He felt that if it had been an early intention to name the creek or settlement in honor of the place from which the l63l expedition originated, the nameHoornwould have been spelled specifically for that city. Rather than Whorekill emerging as a corruption of Hoornkill, he believed that the opposite was the case.
It is the supposition by this writer that the very sound of Hoerenkill gave way to the use of Hoornkill as an early Dutch name for Lewes, since it lent itself so conveniently to a means of disguising the name of Whorekill. If an admission is allowed: It is a comfort to see the street sign announcing Hoornkill Avenue off of Pilottown Road rather than Whorekill Avenue.
Note: Historian Weslager wrote a monograph, published in l99l by Lewes Historical Society, entitled The Siconese Indians of Lewes, Delaware. It is still available for purchase.
©copyright 1997 Hazel D. Brittingham