Owning Fenwick Island

By Michael Morgan, Delaware Wave

William Fassett, according to historian Frederick Robertson Jones, "...was a bold, seafaring man" who had the misfortune of being captured by pirates while sailing off the southern Delaware coast. After the pirates stripped Fassett of whatever valuables he had, they unceremoniously tossed him overboard. Fortunately, Fassett was a good swimmer; and a short time later, he dragged himself onto the beach of Fenwick Island.

In the early 18th century, Fenwick was more of an island than it is today. At one time, a number of inlets cut across the beach along the Delaware and Maryland coast; but from time to time, storm-driven sand filled these waterways. At the time, Assawoman Inlet connected the coastal bay with the ocean about three-quarters of a mile south of the Delaware border. Old Inlet Point at the end of North Schulz Road in the town of Fenwick Island is a reminder of the existence of this ancient waterway. In addition, there was another inlet just north of the border with Maryland; and these inlets, plus the marshy ground to the west that was often underwater, made Fenwick an island.

Legend has it that Fassett was so thankful for reaching the beach that he vowed that one day he would own this stretch of the southern Delaware coast. To fulfill this promise, however, Fassett would have to contend with the owner of the island, Thomas Fenwick, a restless, adventurous man who arrived in Delaware in the 17th century. Fenwick was a practical man who was more interested in living a secure life than carving a settlement out of the wilderness. He had little interest in living on the windswept island at the south end of the Delaware coast where the border between Maryland and Delaware was not clearly defined. Instead, Fenwick settled in Lewes, the most secure settlement in southern Delaware, where he was prominent in local affairs. At that time, Lord Baltimore, the Proprietor of Maryland, claimed ownership of the coast as far north as Cape Henlopen; and in 1681, Lord Baltimore gave to William Stevens, "All that tract or parcel of land called Fishing Harbor lying on the seaboard side, an island to the northeast of the mouth of the St. Martins River, and little to the eastward of a narrow passage of marshes between the heads of two inlets of water."

Stevens passed away a few years after he acquired Fishing Harbor; and in 1692, his estate sold the island to Thomas Fenwick for 30 sterling. Fenwick was not about to leave the comfortable confines of Lewes, and he spent little, if any, time on his newly-acquired slice of the Delaware beach. Nonetheless, the land along the coast became known as Fenwick Island.

After Thomas Fenwick died in 1708, ownership of the island passed to his daughter Mary; and it was about this time that Fassett was tossed overboard by the pirates. Through circumstances that are not now known, Fassett met Mary Fenwick, married her, and thus fulfilled his vow to become the owner of Fenwick Island.

Fassett's ownership of the island failed to lead to a permanent settlement; and the island remained essentially uninhabited until the construction of the Fenwick Island lighthouse in 1859. When houses for the lighthouse keeper and his assistant were built next to the beacon, the island became the permanent home for two families. It would be over three decades later before the island's population was given another small boost, when a life-saving station was built a short distance north of the lighthouse. In the 20th Century, vacationers discovered Fenwick Island; and after World War II, it blossomed into a thriving summer resort. Today, visitors are so captivated by this section of Delaware beach that they, like William Fassett, vow to make Thomas Fenwick's Island their permanent home.

Michael Morgan taught high school history for 32 years and holds a master's degree in history from Morgan State University. He may be reached at spinway@aol.com.

Sources
  • Frederick Robertson Jones, The History of North America, Vol. 4, The Colonization of the Middle State and Maryland, 1904, pp. 436-438.
  • Edwin Jaquett Sellers, Allied Families of Delaware, Stretcher, Fenwick, Davis, Draper, Kipshaven..., 1901, p. 42-43, 59-61.
  • William B. Marye, "The Sea Coast of Maryland," Maryland Historical Society Magazine, Vol. 40, No. 2, June, 1945, pp. 102-106.
  • Mary Pat Kyle, Fenwick Island, Ice Age to Jet Age, 1995, p. 33