“Sockum” and the Nanticokes of Broad Creek

Beginning in 1744, the Nanticokes left their reservations on Chicacoan Creek and Broad Creek, in Dorchester and Sussex Counties, respectively. Most traveled north, up the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River, and lived among the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy before eventually settling in modern-day Ontario. Some moved east, and joined the Indian River Indians. Within a decade, Broad Creek Town was said to be abandoned, and in 1767 the Nanticokes relinquished their claim to the reservation and requested compensation. White settlers bought the land, and eventually the town of Laurel was founded on the site of the old reservation. But did all of the Nanticokes leave the Broad Creek area? If not, where did they live? What happened to them?

The strongest evidence for a Nanticoke presence near Broad Creek during the late 18th and early 19th centuries is the name Sockum, which was both a place name and a surname. Its meaning is uncertain, though its similarity to sachem, an Algonquian term for chief, is obvious. During the colonial era, the tributary of Broad Creek known today as Gray’s Branch was known as Wimbesoccom Creek, and the surrounding area as Wimbesoccom Neck. Several spelling variations can be found in the early records, including Wimbasacham and Winnasoccum. By the 1790s, the name had been shortened to Sockum, and Sockum Creek appeared on maps of the area for the next several decades.

The Broad Creek area in 1796. "Socum Cr" was previously known as Wimbesoccom Creek, and later known as Sockum Creek.

The Broad Creek area in 1796. “Socum” or Sockum Creek was previously known as Wimbesoccom Creek. It’s been named Gray’s Branch since the Civil War.

As a surname, Sockum first appears (to the best of my knowledge) in the tax lists for Somerset County, Maryland. In 1756, James and Rachell Sockam were dependents in the household of James Weatherly in Nanticoke Hundred. (Just to be clear, Nanticoke Hundred covered present-day western Sussex. The Delaware hundred of the same name covers a small portion of the same territory.) In 1757, James and Rachell “Scokem” were still living in Nanticoke Hundred, but James was the head of household. Although it’s impossible to be certain, I think it’s likely that they lived in what is now Little Creek Hundred, the area south of Broad Creek. At that time, the area north and east of Broad Creek was part of Worcester County, not Somerset.

According to the 1785 list of taxables in Dagsborough Hundred (which included the Gumboro area at that time), a James Sockam and a Widow Sockam (meaning the widow of a deceased Sockam) were living in the hundred.

The name next appears in the 1800s. There was a James Socom living in Dagsborough Hundred in 1800, a James Sockam living in Little Creek Hundred in 1810, and a James Soccum living in Dagsborough Hundred in 1820. Was there one James Sockum who moved around? Or were there two or three men with the same name? And was there a connection to the James Sockum documented in 1756 and 1757?

 In 1830, a free “negro” named William Sockum was living in Broad Creek Hundred with his wife and daughter. However, it’s important to remember that Indians were considered “colored” or “mulattoes” in 19th-century Delaware. Only after a long struggle did the multiracial descendants of the Nanticokes and Indian River Indians win recognition and respect as the Nanticoke Indians. William Sockum could have been 100% black, and I don’t deny that he probably had African ancestors — otherwise he would have been labeled a mulatto — but I suspect he also had Nanticoke ancestors.

In 1840, Elisha Sockom, a free “colored” man, was living in Dagsborough Hundred with his wife and four children. I’m not sure if he was the same Elisha Sockum who died in Philadelphia in 1881; according to his death certificate, he was born about 1794 in Sussex County, Delaware. Another free “colored” man named S. Souckum was living in Philadelphia in 1840; he was the first Sockum outside of Sussex County to be counted in the census, which supports the theory that Sockum was and is a Nanticoke name.

By 1850, there were two distinct Sockum families living in Sussex County. Isaac Sockum, a 40-year-old mulatto, was living in Broadkill Hundred, near Milton, with his wife and two daughters. The area around his farm became known as Sockumtown. One of his sons later reported that he had been told that Sockum was an Indian name, and that the family was descended from a white man and an Indian chief’s daughter. Meanwhile, Levin Sockum, a 40-year-old mulatto whose relationship to Isaac Sockum is unclear, was living in Indian River Hundred with his wife and ten children. Locals called the area on the north shore of Indian River “Sockum” or “Down Sockum,” supposedly because numerous Sockums lived there, but only Levin and his immediate family were counted in the 1850 and 1860 censuses. Levin was a storekeeper. In 1855, he was convicted of illegally selling ammunition to a so-called mulatto of Indian descent. The following year, he was convicted of illegally possessing a firearm, despite the fact that he did not consider himself to be a mulatto and claimed Indian ancestry. Following the humiliating trials, the family left the area. Most of them settled in New Jersey, where they were recognized as Indians, and changed their last name to Sockume. Some moved to San Francisco. There were also Sockums living in Philadelphia and New York in 1860.

In conclusion (for now), census records indicate an eastward migration of the name Sockum between 1756 and 1840. As both a place name and a surname, it first appears in the Broad Creek area. Later it appears near Indian River and the town of Milton. This doesn’t prove that all (or any) of the Sockums were descended from Nanticokes of the Broad Creek reservation, but I think that’s the best explanation. Maybe the story old Isaac Sockum told his children was true. Maybe a white man married the daughter of one of the last local chiefs of the Nanticoke people. Maybe their descendants were wrongly classified as mulattoes and persons of color, but handed down the story of their roots, generation after generation, even as they migrated across Sussex County and eventually moved to other states.

– Chris Slavens

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4 Comments

Filed under Nanticoke Indians, Sussex County

4 responses to ““Sockum” and the Nanticokes of Broad Creek

  1. Nikki Harmon

    Thank you for your research. As a descendant of a Mary Jane Sockum (b. Oct 6, 1929) it has been pretty hard finding anymore information on her. I have not been able to connect her to either Sockum family though I did note in one census report she was recorded as Sockume so maybe she was Levin’s after all. Clearly, I have more work to do but thanks for the help!

  2. Pingback: “Sockum” and the Nanticokes of Broad Creek, part 2 | Peninsula Roots

  3. Pingback: 38th Annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow, Sept. 12-13 | Peninsula Roots

  4. Pingback: The Sockum Family and the Nanticoke Indians: Further Research | Peninsula Roots

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