Indian Town Creek(s) in colonial Sussex

Even the most experienced historians and genealogists consider the land records of colonial Sussex County to be unusually challenging. Much of the territory was once claimed by both Pennsylvania and Maryland, and although Pennsylvania eventually came out ahead in that dispute, more than half of the county was patented to Marylanders who paid Maryland’s taxes and obeyed Maryland’s laws into the 1770s. To further complicate the situation, the Maryland portion was originally part of Old Somerset County, but most of it was included in the new Worcester County in 1742. The shifting boundary lines can make it seem like a particular family relocated several times, when, in fact, their (quite stationary) farm may have been located in Somerset County, Maryland; Worcester County, Maryland; and Sussex County, Delaware, in a period of just over thirty years.

However, the shifting boundaries aren’t nearly as confusing as the ever-changing and -evolving of the hundreds of tiny creeks and branches which are often the only geographical references found in early land records. Typically, surveyors referred to the nearest river and the nearest of its tributaries, the neighboring farmer if there was one, and occasionally a county road. It seems that many of these tributaries had numerous names over the years, few of which appear on surviving maps. Pinpointing the location of a particular location can become frustrating, and possibly even futile, when its description includes a place-name that doesn’t seem to appear in any other records. Or, worse, when the same name was given to entirely separate waterways or other places in the same region.

For example, at one point, more than one local river or creek had a Great Branch, which was, of course, accompanied by a Great Neck. In the Broad Creek area, there was a Bald Cypress Branch which does not appear labeled as such on any map, yet just a few miles away, a tributary of the Pocomoke River is known as Bald Cypress Branch to this day.

An especially confusing, yet important, example is the name Indian Town Creek or Indian Town Branch. The name doesn’t appear on any map that I’m aware of. Even the most seasoned researcher could be forgiven for coming across the name in colonial Worcester land records and not realizing that it belonged to two different creeks; one in Baltimore Hundred, now known as Dirickson Creek; and the other less than a day’s journey away near the head of Indian River, now known as Irons Branch, which was a boundary of the so-called Indian River Indians’ reservation known as Askeksy. As both are on the south side of Indian River, surveys which mention the creeks can sound as if they’re describing the same neighborhood.

The first, but perhaps lesser-known Indian Town Creek, is a tributary of the body of water known as the Sound, or Little Assawoman Bay. It’s labeled Herring Creek on the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868 (itself a cause of confusion, since there is a Herring Branch just a few miles northwest), but has been known as Dirickson Creek since at least 1901.

The origin of this name is rather mysterious, and surely deserving of further research. Obviously, English settlers named the creek after a nearby Indian settlement — but where was it? When was it established? Who lived there? And when did they leave?

It’s possible that the band of migrating refugees who would become known as the Indian River Indians lived near the creek in the late 1600s. In 1705, their chief Robin stated that they had been forced to move from the Buckingham area to “Assawamen” before migrating northward yet again. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t have joined an existing Indian settlement. Chief Robin’s brief statement allows for many possibilities, and the name Assawamen shouldn’t necessarily be associated with the Little Assawoman Bay (a later name for the Sound), anyway. In the absence of additional written information, archaeology might be able to shed light on the Indian presence at this location. What is certain is that the English continued to call the creek Indian Town Creek or Branch long after the town in question had been abandoned; the name appears in Worcester County land records in the mid-1700s, and was still in use when the original Sound Methodist Church was built on the southeast side of the creek in 1784.

Since the second and better-known Indian Town Branch was the home of the Indian River Indians from at least 1705 into the 1740s, I’ll briefly comment on their journey from Assawamen to that final settlement. According to Robin, the band had lived at another site near Indian River after their (presumably involuntary) departure from Assawamen. We can only speculate as to where this settlement, perhaps occupied during the 1690s or even later, was located, but I think it’s worth noting that there is a persistent, albeit controversial, local legend associating Blackfoot Town (Dagsboro) with Indians. Without getting into all of the arguments for and against this alleged connection, I’d like to point out that Blackfoot Town was conveniently located between the head of the Sound and Askeksy, on one of the tributaries of Indian River. And although I’m not arguing that Blackfoot was an Indian name (for one thing, the name doesn’t appear in English records until the 1740s), I am suggesting that if the English village of Blackfoot developed on or near the site of an Indian settlement — possibly even the Indian River settlement alluded to by Robin — it might explain why local folklore vaguely hints at a Blackfoot Town – Indian connection. This is simply speculation on my part.

Wherever the band’s first Indian River settlement was located, their next stop is well-documented. By 1705 they were living along a tributary near the head of Indian River, in the sparsely inhabited, swampy, northern outskirts of Somerset County, but were fearful of being forced to move yet again. In response to Robin’s request, the colonial Maryland government created a 1,000-acre reservation which apparently included the land the group was already living on. It was known as Askeksy or Askekecky (among other spellings), but the English unimaginatively called the residents of the reservation the “Indian River Indians,” and the creek that formed much of the reservation’s southern boundary was called Indian Town Branch, or sometimes Indian Branch. But, like its relative in Baltimore Hundred, it, too, was renamed. By the late 1800s, it was known as Yellow Branch (which is itself an interesting name; is it a coincidence that the local multiracial descendants of the various Indian tribes were called “yellow men,” as opposed to white, black, or red men, at that time?). During the first half of the 20th century, the branch’s eastern prong continued to be labeled Yellow Branch on U. S. Geological Survey maps, but the northern portion was known as Irons Branch, and eventually the name Yellow Branch fell out of use.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Delmarva Geography, Indian River Indians, Maps, Sussex County

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