top of page

Patty Cannon Island

Tyler, Delaware, USA
August 2006

Many Delaware residents are familiar with the story of Patty Cannon, who lived on the Maryland Delaware line in Reliance, Maryland during the early 1800's.

Patty Cannon was an especially evil woman, who was very active in criminal undertakings at the time she lived in Reliance. That little bit of background history aside, allow me to cast the spotlight on a somewhat lesser character in this macabre play.
Jack Purnell was an associate of Patty Cannon's and was also a free slave at the time. Purnell was responsible for kidnapping dozens of other "Free Slaves" and selling them to plantations in the south, as well as to Patty Cannon to help work her criminal web. Rumor has it that he would kidnap a slave or two and would row his boat out into the Nanticoke river and shackle these free slaves to a few trees on a tiny Island in the middle of one of the many backwater lagoons. This Island was far from regular river travel at the time and was well concealed by bushes, and protected by underwater hazards such as sunken logs. Purnell would then return to town to sell his new captures, and after a day or so would return to the Island with a potential buyer to make the "sale".

One especially hot summer Purnell returned to the Island after two days of absence only to find that two out of the three slaves he had shackled there had died from heat exhaustion, and the third slave, (barely alive at this point) was dangling by his wrists from his chains. Purnell pulled out his lantern as night was encroaching on him, and began the task of removing the dead slaves from their shackles and after a few minutes of checking for other boats in the area, he dumped the bodies into the lagoon (the tiny Island was too full of roots from its dozen or so trees to dig graves). This is where the legend of Shackle Island ends, no one knows exactly where the Island is but, many locals including myself have claimed to have found it. It is no longer an island however as a hundred and eighty-six years of changing environments and seasons have reshaped the outline and path of the river, this shallow lagoon is now a mini swamp, and the Island is just a tiny hill with 3 large trees dominating the top of it.
It was a cold gray day in November and a buddy of mine and I went hunting and camping in the large woods that envelops the river down by a park, and boat dock named Phillip's Landing. After walking most of the day looking for terrain features that would be suitable for hunting deer, we decided it would be best to establish a "camp" and get a small fire going to cook dinner on, and dry out our wet socks, since the days are much shorter than in the summer.
While my friend pitched the tent, and began digging the fire pit I began to look for stones for a "draft wall" to put around the fire pit, and then finally to find some dry firewood. I must have walked further than I thought because suddenly I was lost and darkness was setting in. I began to scan for smoke in the sky or even the faint flicker of fire reflecting off the snow at the bases of the trees. There was no snow on the wet ground under my feet, so I could not retrace my steps back to camp.
My hunting partner had not been able to get a fire started as darkness settled in and he feared suffering the same fate as myself should he venture out for wood also. Luckily we had some 2-way radios, and after 10 minutes of discussing coordinates based on our individual compasses and maps we decided I was only about 30 yards from the river, and if I could find it and follow it back south a ways, I would be within 10 yards of the camp, and my buddy could use his whistle, or flashlight to signal me.
We kept up our communications as I began my trek to the river, when all of the sudden there in my path loomed a fairly large (15 foot) rotten boat. The boat was partially buried in the muddy ground, and was covered with moss, and small patches of snow clung to the moss here and there. An old oar broken in half, dangled over the edge of the boat, paddle half buried in the ground, and the handle buried in the mud in the bottom of the boat looked as if someone rowed this boat inland about 20 yards from the river. "There's a boat in the middle of the woods here," I said into the radio as I passed by it along the river. All I heard in return was static, no one answered my radio calls for the next ten minutes. I wondered if his radio had malfunctioned, or if he maybe had set out on his own to find me. Suddenly I heard a crackle on the radio and stopped to try and get the signal, but to no avail. Wait! Light! My mind raced, finally warm food and a nice warm tent, the only problem was the light was a little northwest of me and looked like it was from one of our coleman lanterns. He did try to find me I said to myself as I hollered to him and ran toward the lantern light. As I did my radio began screeching static at me, so I turned it down a little and as I neared closer to the light, I came across the boat again. Wow, I said you are out here a ways too, huh? And with that the light went out. Looking around I found myself on the side of a mossy hill, and decided to walk to the top to get a better view, maybe my buddy was just on the other side trying to relight the lantern. At the top of the hill stood three massive Cypress trees, and protruding out of one was what looked like an open wrist shackle and two links of chain, (the rest had been grown over by the tree) Suddenly I saw the light again at the boat, and I ran towards it as fast as I could, but as I neared the rotten hulk I saw the light move to the river's edge, and then out on the river itself.
By then I was spooked pretty bad, and suddenly my radio came to life, "Tyler!, where are you? I just saw your flashlight, about 10 minutes ago, and then you took off hollering in the other direction. Whats going on?" My blood ran cold and I raced through the brush and trees along the river south to camp, all the while that light followed me from out in the river.
After I got back and told him about what happened we packed up and left that camp at first light. Never to return there again.
I learned the Patty Cannon, and Jack Purnell History from my local library, and after reading about "Shackle Island" I was convinced I had been there, and that I would never go back.
Deep in the woods around the Nanticoke river, history is still alive and waiting to be found.

Tyler, Delaware, USA
00:00 / 01:04
bottom of page