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Caesar Rodney's ride for independence - Hollywood style

Once Upon A Time In Delaware was written for Delaware children by Katharine Pyle, sister of writer and artist Howard Pyle. It was first published in 1911.

The foreword by the Delaware Society of the Colonial Dames of America begins, "Dear Girls and Boys, these true stories are written just for you." In such books, I doubt too many people worry overmuch about a little apocrypha sneaking in here and there.

(Well, I know someone like Hendrik Van Loon, who got America enthused about world history in the 1920s with his book The Story Of Man, also aimed at young readers, would argue adamantly that truth is far more amazing and entertaining than fiction. And since I brought it up, let me invite you to track down a copy of Van Loon's book so you might see what the stir was about and why it had gone through 32 printings between 1921 and 1926; imagine the buzz created by his tie-in radio show; and mourn the lack of any such figure in our time to get Americans excited about knowledge.)

Katharine Pyle's detailed account of Caesar Rodney's ride had me wondering more than any of her other chapters about the dividing line between the bare facts and the brushed-in color. After all, every version you hear is at least a little different. In fact, whenever Caesar Rodney comes up, the writer or speaker is obliged to point out how sketchy our knowledge is of, not only his ride, but also of the man, himself.

So maybe Katharine Pyle really had her sources for the following account?

               by Katharine Pyle

Chapter V. How Once Upon A Time Caesar Rodney 
           Rode For Freedom

                 YEARS passed, and the Counties
                       on the Delaware(1), under
                       the wise laws of William
                 Penn(2) grew and prospered. Dover was
laid out and settled; New Castle flourished; Lewes
became a town. Instead of the rough buildings of the
early settlers, handsome country houses and comfortable
farms were to be seen.

  The manners and customs of the people were still
very plain and simple. Very few foreign articles were
used in this part of the country. Clothes were woven,
cut and sewed at home. Beef, pork, poultry, milk, butter,
cheese, wheat and Indian corn were raised on the
farms; the fruit trees yielded freely, and there was a
great deal of wild game; the people lived not only
comfortably but luxuriously(3).  

  The Counties on the Delaware were very fertile,

and very little labor was needed to make the land yield
all that was required. The people had a great deal of
leisure time for visiting and pleasure. They were always
gathering together at one house or another, the
younger people to dance or frolic, and the older men
to amuse themselves with wrestling, running races,
jumping, throwing the disc and other rustic and manly 

  On Christmas Eve there was a universal firing of
guns, and all through the holidays the people traveled
from house to house, feasting and eating Twelfth cake,
and playing games(4).  

  So for years, life slipped pleasantly by in these
southern Counties, and then suddenly there came a
change. There began to be talk of war with England.
News was eagerly watched for. There was no mail at
that time. Letters were carried by stage-coach, or by
messengers riding on horseback from town to town.
In the old days, the people had been content to send
their servants for letters. Now, when a messenger, hot
and dusty, came galloping into the town, a crowd
would be waiting, and would gather round him.

  And it was thrilling news that the dusty messengers
carried in those days, the days of 1775. England was
determined to tax her colonies, and the colonies were
rising in rebellion. Boston had thrown whole cargoes
of tea into her harbor rather than pay the tax on it.

  Then the first shots of the Revolution were fired at
Concord and Lexington. At the sound of those shots
the Counties on Delaware awoke. Drums were beat,
muskets were cleaned, ladies sewed flags for the troops

to carry; men enlisted, and the militia drilled. But still
it was hoped by many that things would settle back

  But worse and worse news came from the north.
Boston harbor had been shut up by the English. The
people were starving. Warships from England had
brought over more troops (many of them hired Germans),
and had quartered them on the town. All the
country was hot with anger over these things. Food
and clothing were sent to Boston. General Washington
raised troops of a thousand men, at his own expense,
and marched north to her relief.

  General Caesar Rodney was one of the important
men of Dover at that time. He was a tall, pale, strange
looking man, with flashing eyes, and a face, as we are
told, "no larger than a good sized apple." He was a
general in the militia, and was heart and soul for independence.
He rode about the country, calling meetings,
speaking to the people, and urging them to enlist, and
urging them, too, to raise money to give to the government.
He was at this time suffering from a painful
disease, but he spared neither strength nor comfort in
the cause of freedom.

  Mr. George Read of New Castle was a very important
man in the colonies, too. He was a patriot, and
belonged to the militia, but he was very anxious not
to begin a war. He agreed that the time might come
when the colonies would have to be free, but he thought
that time had not yet come. He hoped that when it
did, the colonies might win their freedom peaceably,
and not by battle and bloodshed. He was a calm, quiet,

learned man, rather slow of speech, and different in
many ways from his quick and fiery friend, Rodney.

  A third man who was important in Colonial times
was Mr. Thomas McKean. He was a lawyer in New
Castle, and was a friend of both these men. Like Rodney,
he was for freedom at any cost.

  In 1776, when the Colonial Congress was called to
meet in Philadelphia, these three men, Rodney, Read
and McKean, were sent to it as delegates by the Counties
on the Delaware(5). 

  This meeting of Congress in the summer of 1776
was the most important meeting that had ever been
held. From north and south the delegates came riding
to it, from all the thirteen colonies; and they met in
the Committee Room of the State House in Philadelphia,

  Many serious questions were to be decided by these
delegates this year. But the most serious of all the
questions was whether the Colonies should declare
themselves free and independent states. If they did
this, it would mean war with England.

  While the question was still argued about in the
committee room, Caesar Rodney was sent for to come
back to the Counties on the Delaware. Riots and quarrels
and disturbances had broken out there, and no
one could quiet them as well as Caesar Rodney. He
was very glad to go, for it seemed as though it might
be a long time before the delegates would decide on
anything, and he hoped to be able to raise some money
for the government.

  He started out early one morning on horseback,

cantering easily along through the cool of the day.
It was eighty miles from Philadelphia to Dover, and
he broke it by stopping overnight at New Castle,
which was rather more than half way home. The road
he took was the old King's Highroad, which ran on
down through the Counties on Delaware, through Wilmington
and New Castle and Dover, as far as Lewes.

  General Rodney found a great deal to do down in
the Counties. The Whigs and Tories had come to
blows. One Tory gentleman only just escaped being
tarred and feathered, and carried on a rail. Caesar
Rodney was the one who had to quiet all the troubles.
Beside this he made speeches, raised moneys and
helped get together fresh troops of militia.

  But busy though he was, he managed to find some
time for visiting about among his friends. Especially
he found time to visit at the house of a young Quaker
widow named Sarah Rowland. Mistress Rowland
lived in Lewes. She was a Tory, but she was very
beautiful and witty, and Caesar Rodney was said to
be in love with her. He might often have been seen,
between his busy times, cantering along the road that
led to Lewes and to her house. Mistress Rowland, as
a Quaker, believed all fighting to be wrong, but she
was always friendly with the General. Perhaps she
hoped in some way to be able to help the Tories by
things the General told her, or by having him at her
house. At any rate she always made him welcome.

  Now, while General Rodney was still busy down in
the Counties on the Delaware, with his work and
pleasure, great things were happening in Philadelphia.

The Declaration of Independence was finally drawn
up and written out.

  It was laid on the table before the Colonial Congress,
and the delegates were given five days to make
up their minds to agree, whether they would sign it
or not. They considered and discussed it in secret behind
closed doors.

  One after another, the delegates from various colonies
agreed to sign. At last, only the Counties on the
Delaware were needed to carry the agreement. They
could not sign the Declaration, for they had now only
two delegates present at Congress. Of these, one
(McKean) was for it, and one (Mr. Read) was
against it, so it was a tie between them, and Rodney,
whose vote could have decided the matter, was down
in the Counties on Delaware, eighty miles away.

  McKean was in despair. He sent message after message
down to Delaware, begging the General to return 
to Philadelphia and give his deciding vote, but no
answer came. The fact was that General Rodney did
not receive any of these messages McKean sent. He
was visiting Mistress Rowland in Lewes at the time,
and she managed to keep the letters back from him.
She hoped that he might know nothing about the
Declaration until it had been voted on and the whole
matter decided. Even if all the other Colonies decided
to sign, it would weaken the union very much if the
Colonies on the Delaware did not sign.

  On the third of July, McKean sent a last message
down to ROdney, passionately begging him to come to

Philadelphia. The vote of the delegates was to be
taken July the fourth, and if the General was not
there the vote of the Counties on Delaware could not
be cast for the Declaration of Independence, and it
might be lost. 

  On this same day, July the third, 1776, Caesar Rodney
was chatting with Mistress Rowland in the parlor
of her house at Lewes, so one tradition goes. It had
seemed strange to him that he had not heard from
McKean lately, but he felt sure that if anything important
were happening at Philadelphia he would receive
word at once. So he put his anxieties aside and laughed
and talked with the widow.

  Suddenly, the parlor door was thrown open and a
maid-servant came into the room. She crossed over to
where General Rodney was sitting. "There!" she cried.
"I'm an honest girl and I won't keep those back any
longer!" and she threw a packet of letters into the
General's lap.

  Rodney picked them up and looked at them. They
were in Mr. McKean's hand-writing. Hastily he ran
through them. They were the letters Sarah Rowland
had been keeping back,--the letters begging and imploring
him to hasten north to Philadelphia.

  Without a word, General Rodney started to his feet,
and ran out to where his horse was standing before
the house(6). Sarah Rowland called to him, but he did
not heed her. He sprang to the saddle and gathered
up the reins, and a moment later he was galloping
madly north toward Dover. It was a long ride, but a

longer still was before him. The heat was stifling, and
the dust rose in clouds as he thundered along the
King's Highroad.

  At Dover, he stopped to change his horse, and here
he was met by McKean's last messenger, with a letter,
urging him to haste, haste. Indeed, there was not an
hour to waste. Philadelphia was eighty miles away,
and the vote was to be taken the next morning.

  On went Rodney on his fresh horse. Daylight was
gone. The moon sailed slowly up the sky, and the trees
were clumps of blackness on either hand as he rode.

  At Chester, he again changed horses, but he did not
stop for either rest or food. Soon, he was riding on

  It was in the morning of July fourth, that the rider,
exhausted and white with dust, drew rein before the
State House door in Philadelphia. McKean was there
watching for him.

  "Am I in time?" called Rodney as he swung himself
from. his horse.

  "In time, but no more," answered McKean.

  Side by side he and Rodney entered Independence
Hall. There sat the delegates in a semi-circle. Rodney
and McKean took their places. The Declaration of
Independence lay on the table before them. It was
being voted on. One after the other the colonies were
called on and one after another they gave their votes
for it. The Counties on Delaware were called on. Mr.
McKean rose and voted for it. Mr. Read was, as usual
against it.

  Then Caesar Rodney rose in his place. His face

looked white and worn under its dust, but he spoke
in a clear, firm voice. "I vote for Independence."

  And so the day was won. From the belfry of Independence
Hall, the bells pealed out over the Quaker
City. Bonfires blazed out, people shouted for joy, and
the thirteen American Colonies, strong in union, stood
pledged together for liberty.

Sarah Rowland House. (Click to enlarge.)  

Has to be be true if they even have a picture of Sarah Rowland's house, right?

Then I stumbled on a slim book called "Caesar Rodney - Patriot; Delaware's hero for all times and all seasons" by William P. Frank (1975). It had a chapter called "The Sarah Rowland Myth", which set the record straight.


                      CAESAR RODNEY - PATRIOT
                        by William P. Frank

                  Chapter: The Sarah Rowland Myth

  It is ironic that two native Delawareans were responsible for the
greatest damage to the image of Caesar Rodney. Without any
foundation in fact, George Alfred Townsend and Katharine Pyle
perpetrated a story that Rodney had been frittering away his time in
Lewes with a Tory woman when he should have been in Philadelphia,
debating and getting ready to vote for independence.

  Townsend concocted this yarn in a lengthy poem he wrote and
orated in Georgetown on July 5, 1880. Miss Pyle accepted it as factual.
She interwove it in her story of Rodney in her otherwise delightful
child's history, Once Upon a Time in Delaware, first published in 1911.

  Townsend was born in Georgetown in 1841 and during the Civil
War (1861-1865) became a noted correspondent for Philadelphia and

New York newspapers. After the war, he saw himself as a popular
novelist; he never suffered any feelings of guilt about changing historic
facts. Townsend also imagined himself as a poet laureate of Delaware
and, so inspired, turned out scores of doggerel verses, with themes
dipped from Delaware history.

  And so, on July 5, 1880, he read a lengthy poem about Rodney's
ride. In it, he portrayed Rodney as staying in Lewes enraptured by the
wiles of one Sarah Rowland, a widow and member of a leading Tory

  Townsend did tell of Rodney's concern over not having heard from
Thomas McKean about what was going on in Philadelphia. But he also
depicted Mistress Rowland as a kind of Sussex County Delilah, feeding
Rodney dishes of terrapin and always filling his glass with the best
Madeira in Lewes.

  But at the crucial time, which Townsend estimates was July 3,
Mistress Rowland's maid upset the plot to keep Delaware from joining
other states in the Declaration of Independence by throwing a packet of
McKean's letters into Rodney's lap, telling him Mistress Rowland had
kept them from him on purpose.

  After scanning the letters, Rodney, horrified and shocked, called
for his horse. Ignoring the pleas of Mistress Rowland, he dashed off for
Philadelphia. Enroute, Townsend noted, Rodney was greeted by
another messenger from McKean, urging him on because time was
running out.

  As Townsend's story went, Rodney arrived in Philadelphia on July
4, just in the nick of time to vote for independence.

  It was a dramatic story, involving the wiles of a charming woman,
and all that.

  But was it true?

  Sussex Countians delighted in the yarn. Many believed it to be
true, some even to this day. Miss Pyle took up the story and
incorporated it in her chapter "Caesar Rodney Rode for Freedom" in
Once Upon a Time in Delaware, published by the Colonial Dames of
Delaware. In a footnote, it was stated:

    "After much thought and trouble, the Colonial Dames
  have decided to choose the most detailed tradition as being
  possibly also the most accurate - the Sarah Rowland story."

  But a Wilmington manufacturer, Samuel Bancroft, Jr., became
interested in the authenticity of the story in 1911. Bancroft, who had

financed the publication of Townsend's poems, persisted in getting
from Townsend the background of the Rodney poem.

  Finally, somewhat begrudgingly, Townsend confessed in a letter
postmarked May 14, 1911. He wrote that he had composed the poem
from notes while staying in the Burton Hotel, Rehoboth Beach.
Townsend also wrote:

    "I would not have started Rodney at Lewes without
  having book authority for that point. I may have got my
  matter from Sanderson's Lives of the Signers but am not

    "I think Sarah Rowland was my creation to account for
  Rodney's absence from Congress such a [long] time. The
  Rodneys appear to think nobody should handle their
  ancient dead, except with scripture evidence."

  Except for Townsend and Miss Pyle, no student or scholar of
Delaware history ever took the Lewes-to-Philadelphia ride seriously.
Townsend, in 1880, apparently was not familiar with Thomas Rodney's
diary in which he tells of Caesar's starting out from his farm near Dover
to vote for Lee's resolution for Independence in Philadelphia.

  Also, in 1889, at the unveiling of the Caesar Rodney monument in
the graveyard of Christ Episcopal Church, Dover, the principal speaker
was Thomas F. Bayard, Sr., former U. S. Senator from Delaware, U. S.
Secretary of State, and later ambassador to Great Britain. Bayard didn't
dignify the Townsend story of Sarah Rowland with even the slightest
reference. Instead, he told the story of Rodney's ride pretty much as we
know it today, except that even Bayard was hazy as to whether Rodney
arrived in Philadelphia July 2 or 4.

  But the Rodney-Sarah Rowland myth cannot be dismissed entirely
out of hand. Had Townsend been a better poet instead of a master of
mediocre doggerel, the story might well have been more widely
accepted. Even the generally-accepted "official" version of the Rodney
ride is based on extremely thin shreds of historical evidence.

  And, had Katharine Pyle's book, Once Upon a Time in Delaware,
written for Delaware schoolchildren, not gone out of print and out of
use in the schools, surviving only as a collector's item, the
Rodney Sarah Rowland story might have persisted with greater
credibility to this day.

  Finally, had it not been for an autograph collector grubbing
through the debris of Samuel Bancroft, Jr.'s letters in the 1940's,
Townsend's letter confessing that he created the Sarah Rowland
romance would never have survived to demolish the myth Townsend

(Reprinted with the permission of the Delaware Heritage Commission.)

Think about that - had it not been for an autograph collector grubbing through the debris... Makes you wonder how much of what we accept as "history" snuck through courtesy of a shortage of grubbing autograph collectors.

It would make sense to also reprint here Frank's own chapter on Rodney's ride incorporating the most reliable information available. But that chapter along with the one above make up about a third of his book, and I feel that would be overdoing it. Perhaps the Delaware Heritage Commission will put the whole book on the web? In any case, I hope you can easily find a trustworthy account.

In all fairness, you did learn a lot from Katharine Pyle's version, didn't you?

With all the uncertainty surrounding Rodney's ride, the thing I'm most curious about is Rodney's reason for leaving Philadelphia. The claim he had to tend to the Tory uprising in the lowest of the three "Counties on the Delaware" fits so nicely and sounds so heroic that it's a shame not to believe it. In Frank's chapter on Rodney's ride, he tells (p21) about the serious Tory trouble and Rodney returning home from the convention in the same paragraph - but does not draw a connection between the two.

A couple of final observations: in Frank's chapter quoted above, he gives full authority to Thomas Rodney's diary regarding the starting point of Caesar Rodney's ride. But note that in his chapter on Rodney's ride, Frank doesn't mince words (p21) in calling Thomas Rodney "highly imaginative" regarding his (Thomas Rodney's) account of the part he played in urging brother Caesar to hie on back to Philadelphia to vote for independence.

And I hope someone has double-checked Sanderson's "Lives Of The Signers".

Update (August 2015): Sanderson's book can be found on He discusses Rodney's trip to Sussex County on page 448, and disappointingly, there are no great revelations there; no Rowlands of any sort, or any sort of specifics on his activities there; just that he was successful. I guess it's time for Sarah Rowland fans to throw in the towel at this point. :-(


These are the footnotes to Katharine Pyle's Chapter V, "How Once Upon A Time Caesar Rodney Rode For Freedom".

It looks like footnote 4 is some sort of misfire. Moreover, my sources say that the 200 acres purchased as the site of Dover in 1694/95 came from a larger tract which had been purchased from the Indians in 1683.

70                     NOTES

1. It was not until after the Declaration of Independence that
these "Counties upon the Delaware" received the name of Delaware
State, and not until 1792 that it was called the "State of

2. Edmund Burke spoke of Penn's Charter to his colonies of
Pennsylvania and Delaware as "a noble charter of privileges, by
which he made the people more free than any people on earth,
and which by securing both civil and religious liberty caused the
eyes of the oppressed from all parts of the world to look on his
counties for relief."

3. This account of the life in Delaware before the Revolutionary
War is taken from a letter from Thomas Rodney, a
younger brother of Caesar Rodney. 

4. The land upon which Dover stands was bought from the
Indians in 1697, for two match coats, twelve bottles of drink
and four handfuls of powder.

5. Rodney, Read and McKean were appointed Delegates in
March, 1775.

6. While Caesar Rodney's famous ride is a story of which
Delaware is proud, the exact time when he started, and the place
he started from have been much disputed. One tradition says
that he left Sarah Rowland's house at Lewes, and another tradition
insists that he started from his own house near Dover.
As for the hours of starting and arrival, the archives show how
different the versions are. After much thought and trouble, the
Colonial Dames have decided to choose the most detailed tradition
as being possibly also the most accurate. They do not
claim to decide the matter, which will always, probably, remain 

The following was the Congress express rider's time from
Lewes to Philadelphia: Leave Lewes at noon, reach Wilmington
next day at 4 o'clock, A.M. Or leave Lewes at 7 o'clock,
P.M., Cedar Creek, 10:30; Dover, 4:15; Cantwell's Bridge, 9:05;
Wilmington, 12:55; Chester, 2:37; arrive Philadelphia 4 o'clock
P.M., or 21 hours. (See American Archives.)

Calendar note: 1694/95 above represents old style/new style year reckoning. Up through 1752 in the colonies, March 25 was the start of the new year. So what the colonists called Feb 4 near the end of 1694 (the date the purchase of the land for Dover was authorized), we would call Feb 4 1695, after pushing New Year's Day back to good, old Jan 1.


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