Researching Hagley Powder Mill Workers

The collections at Hagley are valuable resources for researchers seeking information about powder mill employees and their families. While the company did not keep official 'employment records,' the DuPont Company hired hundreds of people at their black powder yards along the Brandywine over 120 years. In addition to powdermen, DuPont employed carpenters, stone masons, machinists, blacksmiths, teamsters, bookkeepers, and boarding house operators. Working at a gunpowder factory was dangerous. Although approximately 100 people died in explosions from 1805 to 1860, the ample income and housing provided by these jobs encouraged employees to risk their lives. Many DuPont employees spent their entire lives in the powderyards, using their accumulated income to purchase land and provide for their families. Others used their savings to pursue opportunities elsewhere, such as mining or farming in the western states. 


The Du Pont company's wage records, called "petit ledgers," offer incredible details about the nature of work and many other aspects of life in the workers' community. For example, this page from 1804 shows wages paid to Richard Dougherty for his labor. An immigrant from County Donegal, Dougherty was among the first Irishmen employed and trained by E.I. du Pont. In 1815, Richard and his brother Patrick were killed along with seven others in the first deadly explosion in the powderyards. A page from the 1818 petit ledger documents pension payments to Richard's widow, Nancy Dougherty. Not all the originals in our collections have been scanned, but on-site researchers can use them. Please visit Researcher Services for information about accessing Hagley's extensive collections.  


E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company actively facilitated immigration in their search for reliable employees. By the 1820s, the company had an organized system whereby it maintained standing accounts with various transportation agents in Philadelphia who would arrange for passage whenever an employee wanted to bring a relative over to join them in Delaware. Many of the nearly fifteen hundred immigrants helped by the company were the wives, children, siblings, and friends of the large group of Irish workers employed at DuPont's powder yards on the Brandywine River in Wilmington, Delaware. 

The E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.'s nineteenth-century records contain correspondence between the company and transportation agents like Robert Taylor, who arranged passage for Irish laborers and their relatives to the United States. Correspondence like this provides rich details about the immigration procedure, along with the names of passengers and sponsors, dates of immigration, and fares. Other known agents include Andrew Catherwood, William Warner, John Welsh, and George McHenry.

In Black Powder, White Lace, Dr. Margaret Mulrooney documents the assisted immigration program and recreates the familial relationships that led individuals to bring their wives, children, parents, and siblings to Delaware in the chain migration process.


Many nineteenth-century maps and plans of the Hagley Power Yards and surrounding areas were used to track the development of the powder mill community, identify areas of workers' housing, like Squirrel Run, and understand spatial relationships to essential places, such as St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church and other communities, like Rockland and Wilmington.  

Local artist Frank Schoonover prepared this illustration for "DuPont: Autobiography of an American Enterprise," which was published in 1952. The map shows the powder mills and surrounding worker communities as they appeared at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In her diaries, Sophie Madeline du Pont, the fifth child of company founder E.I. du Pont, documented her life between 1830 and 1887. She wrote much about the health, family, friendships, religion, social activities, and other aspects of the daily life of the du Pont family and the Irish families of the surrounding communities. Her diaries from the 1830s and 1840s are available online. The remainder are available for research on-site at the Hagley Library. 

The Craven-McDade family had several family members working in the gunpowder and explosives industry for the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company and later the Hercules Powder Company. These papers related to the Craven and McDade family of Henry Clay village in Delaware. 

The Brandywine Manufacturers Sunday School (BMSS) was organized in 1817 as a non-sectarian school for the children of the local factory workers, with instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (1771-1834), founder of the DuPont Company, was one of its chief subscribers, and the school building was located on his property. Primarily generated and maintained by the du Pont women, the BMSS records include the school's constitution and financial documents such as bills, receipts, and accounts. Most records pertain to students with information about premiums, which were given as rewards for attendance and scholarly excellence.

The DuPont Company Brandywine powder yards and neighboring worker communities' photograph collection consists of more than 1200 images depicting the landscape and buildings at or near the DuPont explosives manufacturing plants along Brandywine Creek near Wilmington, Delaware.

Hagley staff compiled this map showing locations and historical photographs of neighborhoods, schools, churches, workplaces, and other noteworthy places that would have been familiar to the Brandywine Irish community. 

The research data supporting Dr. Meg Mulrooney's doctoral dissertation "Labor at Home: The Domestic World of Workers at the du Pont Powder Mills, 1802-1902" is another helpful resource for exploring the powder workers' domestic world--from religious beliefs, family structure, gender relations, and ethnic ties, to houses, furnishings, and yards.

Since 1953, Hagley staff and fellows have produced research reports to develop and elaborate exhibits and interpretations. These reports collect and condense information on selected topics relating to the industrial history of the Brandywine Valley and provide a list of primary and secondary sources. The collection includes scholarly articles that use Hagley's collections or about subjects that pertain to Hagley's mission. Many reports, like Lammot Hulse's "Workers' Communities along the Brandywine," have been digitized.

Another resource for Irish powder yard workers is the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. Their records include birth, marriage, parochial school, and death records. 


Hagley's collections include approximately 200 oral history interviews with 152 individuals between 1954 and 1990. Most of those interviewed had either worked at the DuPont Company powder yards on Brandywine Creek during the yards' final decades of operation or lived in the surrounding communities. However, the collection also includes interviews with those who worked in other local industries. The interviews are mainly biographical, covering a period from about 1900 to 1960, and address a wide range of subjects relating to daily life and work in the Brandywine Valley. These interviews preserve stories, anecdotes, family traditions, perspectives, and songs that would be otherwise lost. ​