Cheney Clow’s Last Stand

by Dana Kester-McCabe

During the Revolutionary War, there was one particular loyalist, or Tory, named Cheney Clow who was credited with sparking the only armed skirmishes of the war to take place in Kent County, Delaware.

There is a lot of legend and missing information about this fellow. He was born in England and came with his family to land they purchased in 1747 along what is now the Maryland and Delaware border. Some records show his first name with various spellings of China or Cheney. He is described in some accounts as a local eccentric. He was not popular with a lot of his neighbors, that we can be sure of.

For a good part of the war loyalists in regions that were not active battle grounds, organized their own community militias and led raids to sabotage their enemy or steal provisions for the British. Here on Delmarva Tories were a distinct minority but they definitely made trouble for everyone else. The marauders came to be despised for their disruption of local commerce, and especially for the hardships that their thieving caused.

It is believed that Clow received a commission as a British army officer perhaps as early as the French & Indian Wars, and that he was one of the organizers of a Tory militia that operated near his home. He and his cohorts had built a fort in the swamps of Gravely Branch a stream that feeds into the head waters of the Chester River. Their raids caused so many problems that his unhappy neighbors finally asked the Continental Army to step in. In 1778 Colonel Charles Pope commanding militias from Grogtown, Delaware, and Chestertown, Maryland, attacked the outpost. Though Clow and his band escaped remaining uncaught for the next four years, the fort was burned beyond usefulness.

In 1782 Delaware and other states passed laws requiring all white men over the age of twenty-one to swear allegiance to the new American government. Loyalist combatants would be given immunity on past acts as long as they took the oath. Clow refused. He was charged with treason and burglary. A warrant was issued for his arrest.

The local sheriff’s deputy, John Clayton, gathered a posse to bring him in. They got to Clow's house after dark and found him and his wife Elizabeth barricaded inside. When the deputy demanded their surrender Clow started shooting. In the melee a posse member named Moore was fatally shot. Just like in old movie westerns, Elizabeth kept her husband supplied with freshly loaded guns. They were melting led for more musket balls in their fireplace when the posse charged in. The couple's standoff finally came to an end and Clow was taken into custody. He asked to change from his civilian clothes into his British army uniform and was allowed to do so. The ride to Dover was fraught with crowds who gathered along the way to jeer at him and demand that he be hung from the nearest tree.

During his treason trial Clow gave the court documentation of his commission in the British Army. Under the law he was considered an enemy combatant and therefore could not be charged with treason. So he was acquitted of that charge. That should have also applied to the thefts which were conducted as part of military actions. He should have been made a prisoner of war and turned over to the Continental Army.

But the community wanted to exact their own justice on him. Perhaps certain officials wanted to make an example of him. And then there was the outstanding question about what had happened to all the treasure that he and his militia had stolen. Speculative rumors swirled around the region about its value and location. It is also interesting to note that none of the accounts I read of this incident mention the rest of his militia. Were any of them caught and charged? Did they take the loyalty oath or keep fighting? Historians don’t seem to have found out.

No sooner had Clow been found not guilty of treason the judges imposed bail for the other charges and fines totaling £20,000 making him pay for the costs of the raid and the trial. Since he could not come up with that money he was kept in jail while the prosecutors developed the other charges against him. Those were burglary and the murder of the man named Moore who had died in the confusion of the raid. All through the proceedings there was concern that the community would deteriorate into mob violence. Around the clock guards stood watch so the crowds would not break into the jail to lynch Clow.

During the trial the arresting officer deputy Clayton testified on Clow's behalf saying he did not believe Clow was the one who actually shot Moore. The man had been shot in the back and it was probably the result of “friendly fire". Despite a lack of evidence, Clow was convicted. The jury was prejudiced by the fears caused by the loyalist marauders. They had made up their minds before all the facts were even presented. Clow was sentenced to death.

In those days it was up to the Governor, in this case Nicholas Van Dyke, to set the date for an execution. It may have been that he knew there still secretly remained many loyal to the crown and this sham trial could lead to open warfare between insurgents and their neighbors. So he simply procrastinated. There is some evidence that he actually believed in Clow’s innocence and once the war was over he considered pardoning him. But he let his term run out without doing anything despite the fact that there were several petitions demanding to have the punishment take place. In 1786 Thomas Collins was elected governor and he took a similar position leaving Cheney Clow to rot in jail.

Meanwhile Clow’s wife Elizabeth never gave up on him, pleading with the government to show mercy on her husband. Then, in 1787 their only son died and that broke Cheney Clow’s spirit. He wrote a letter to Governor Collins saying that if he was not going to be pardoned that they should get on with the execution and end his misery.

There is some indication that public sentiment had now reversed toward sympathy for Clow by this time. The war had been over for four years and folks wanted to get on with their lives. Unfortunately, it was too late. There is no record of the actual date that Cheney Clow was hung. It seems to have happened outside the view of the public. His wife was reportedly given his body to bury privately so as not to be harassed. It is not known where he was laid to rest. There is also no record of what happened to his estate though his wife and son in law did go to court to try and retrieve what they could. It was not unusual for the state to confiscate the lands of convicted traitors. Historians suppose that like his execution and appeals the government simply did nothing. His family’s petitions were ignored and except for a few personal belongings the property was sold or absorbed by the state.

There are likewise not many public records of what happened to his family. Clow had come from a large clan. While some left the region and some changed the spelling of their last name, there are still family descendants in the area. In 1975 the site of Clow’s last stand was recognized with an historical marker and placed on the National Register of Historic places. Cheney Clow’s Rebellion is remarkable because the homestead and the fort in the swamp are the only places where armed combat took place in Kent County Delaware during the Revolution.

The site of the burned out fort has been lost to time and the swamp. Over the years on nights when the moon is full area residents near the homestead have reported hearing musket fire. This has been attributed to the ghost of Cheney Clow still taking a stand after all these years. From time to time the mystery is revived of what happened to the treasure stolen by Clow’s militia in the name of the King. Did it find its way into the hands of the British Army or is it still buried in the swamps of Delmarva? Only Cheney Clow and his conspirators know and they’re not talking.


Cheyney Clow's Rebellion

Cheney Clow

Cheney Clow's Rebellion
Kent County Markers - Delaware State Archives

Joshua and Sarah Walker Clough 1790s in Vargina and Ohio - By David Clow August 2, 2006

Clow Family History

Other Loyalists, The: Ordinary People, Royalism, and the Revolution in the Middle COlonies, 1763-1787
edited by Joseph S. Tiedemann, Eugene R. Fingerhut, Robert W. Venables

The Delaware Register and Farmers' Magazine, Volume 1
edited by William Huffington 1838

Cheney Clow's Rebellion
By Reve. Joseph Brown Turner, A.M.
Historical and Biographical Papers, Volume 6 - Historical Society of Delaware - 1911

Haunted Delaware: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the First State
By Patricia A. Martinelli - Stackpole Books - 2006