Category Archives: Indian River Indians

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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Askeksy and the “Indian River Indians”

By the beginning of the 18th century, the dwindling peninsula Indian tribes had been herded, through a series of wars and peace treaties, into several settlements, some of which were officially recognized and reserved for them by the colonial governments, and some of which were simply located on unclaimed land. One of the latter was the last refuge of a band of Indians – probably Assateagues – who had been forced to move several times, leaving the Buckingham area in eastern Somerset (now Worcester, near Berlin) at an unknown date, and migrating north in search of a new home. They settled at a place called Assawamen, which was probably a tributary of the Sound known as Indian Town Branch (now Dirickson Creek), but moved north again to the south side of Indian River, which was the de facto boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania at the time. The subject of this article, their final recognized settlement, was in existence by 1705, and was known by several similar names, including Askeksy, Askekesky, Askeckeky, Askekson, Acksquessance, and Askquessence. The Indians themselves, because they had settled near the Indian River (also known as the Baltimore River) , became known as the Indian River Indians. It should be noted that this name referred to this specific band of Indians, although others lived on both sides of the river. Their name for themselves does not appear in any records from the period.

The so-called Indian River Indians first appear in official records dated May 1705, when their chief Robin appeared in Annapolis and signed a peace treaty on behalf of “Queen Wyransconmickonous.” Representatives of the Nanticokes and Choptanks also signed the treaty. Robin went on to tell Governor John Seymour that his people had “Extremly Suffered of Late Years by being disturbed & Expulsed from their several Settlements in Towns,” and were living in a town at the head of Indian River, but were “Continually Threaten’d to be Driven from thence…” He requested that the land on which their settlement was located, as well as one thousand adjacent acres, be reserved for the tribe’s use. The request was approved.

Askecksky

In modern terms, Askeksy was located south of Millsboro between Irons Branch and Route 24. The branch was known as Indian Town Branch or Indian Branch during the 18th century, and clearly matches the southern boundary of the tract. This boundary more or less survives as Indian Town Road (which was known as Injun Town Road for decades and as recently as a few years ago) and a portion of Hickory Hill Road. The location of the northwestern boundary is a bit less clear, but it seems like Route 24 follows it roughly, or was at least laid out in relation to portions of it. The following map shows how modern roads roughly outline the old reservation over three hundred years after it was established.

Approximate location of Askeksy; compare to above survey

Based on descriptions of nearby tracts surveyed for William Burton, as well as modern estimates of the extent of the Pocomoke or Cypress Swamp prior to drainage and timbering efforts, the reservation was probably somewhat swampy, or at least very close to the swamp’s northern edge. The description of a tract named Panter Swamp mentioned a waterhole on or near the west prong of Indian Town Branch. There were still black bears and timber rattlesnakes in the area at the time.

At about the same time that Askeksy was established, most of the Nanticokes moved from their reservation known as Chicacoan Town, near Vienna, to a site on Broad Creek which came to be known as Broad Creek Town. Aside from the fact that their leaders and Robin appeared in Annapolis at the same time, there is little information about their dealings with their new neighbors, just fourteen miles away. Recently I wrote about a so-called horse road which was in existence in 1748, connecting Broad Creek and the head of Indian River; this road may have begun as a trail between the two Indian settlements.

Nanticoke territory, 1742

Though the Indian River Indians aren’t mentioned in official records nearly as often as the Nanticokes, if the Nanticokes’ experiences during this period are any indication, they struggled to preserve their property and way of life as more and more land was cleared and farmed by the English. Sometimes the white farmers interfered with Indian hunters. Perhaps that’s why they joined the Nanticokes, Choptanks, Pocomokes, and visiting Shawnees at a place called Winnasoccum or Wimbesoccom for a secret powwow in June 1742. The tribes planned to massacre the local English settlers and retake the peninsula with the help of the French, who supposedly promised to land on the coast. The plot was discovered and thwarted, several Indians were arrested and interrogated, and in August the leaders of the Nanticokes, Choptanks, Indian River Indians, Pocomokes, and Assateagues signed a new, highly restrictive peace treaty. Tom Hill and Robin (probably the first Robin’s son) were identified as chiefs of the Indian River Indians.

In the years following the suppression of the Winnasoccum Uprising, as the event has been labeled by some, many of the peninsula Indian tribes abandoned their lands and migrated to Pennsylvania. The Indian River Indians had already sold hundreds of acres to local English settlers prior to 1742, and sold the remainder of their reservation to William Burton in 1743. There is no known record of their existence as an organized tribe or band following this sale, and strictly speaking, their fate is unknown. They may have joined the Nanticokes at Broad Creek Town, many of whom moved north in 1744. Perhaps they moved north, too, or perhaps, like some of the Nanticokes, they lingered in the area, intermarrying with whites and/or blacks and producing new generations of mulattoes who gradually adopted English ways and preserved vague traditions about Indian ancestry. If so, it seems likely that some would have joined the multiracial community on the north shore of the Indian River which was in existence as early as the 1840s, and which eventually spawned the Nanticoke Indian Association.

– Chris Slavens

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38th Annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow, Sept. 12-13

One of the most interesting annual events on Delmarva will be held this weekend, as the Nanticoke Indian Association welcomes members of of more than forty tribes, as well as the general public, to Oak Orchard for the 30th Annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow, a two-day event featuring dancing, drumming, singing, food, and crafts.

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Prior to the current succession of annual powwows, a number of similar events were held on and off throughout the 20th century, beginning in the 1920s. The association itself was organized in 1921 and incorporated the following year in an effort to preserve the identity and heritage of the multiracial descendants of several peninsula Indian tribes who had settled on the north side of Indian River at an unknown date (but prior to the 1850s), during an era when they were legally and socially classified as Negros and mulattoes, and discriminated against. Although the organization took the name Nanticoke, its members are believed to be descended primarily from a band of Assateague refugees which settled south of present-day Millsboro around 1700, as well as the dwindling remnants of other local tribes, which intermingled with each other as well as white settlers following the tribes’ decline in the 1740s. The degree to which they intermingled with blacks is somewhat controversial, and is complicated by the fact that generations of local Indians were called black whether they had black ancestors or not.

I plan to post a couple of short pieces about the historical Nanticokes and so-called Indian River Indians this week. Previous articles which may be of interest include The Nanticokes’ Last Stand, which tells the fascinating story of an unsuccessful intertribal plot to attack and expel the English, as well as this somewhat technical, speculative piece about the Indian River surname Sockum and its probable connection to the Nanticokes of Broad Creek.

– Chris Slavens

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Road research, part 1: Broad Creek to Indian River

18th-century maps of the Delmarva Peninsula are frustratingly short on details when it comes to roads. The major routes are depicted, of course, like the well-known stage road from Salisbury to Laurel Town, but when it comes to some of the minor routes alluded to in land surveys from the first half of the century, researchers are left guessing. Waterways are usually the best geographical features to use as reference points, being more or less stationary and often (but not always) retaining their colonial-era names, but many of those ancient footpaths and roads still exist under the paved surfaces of modern highways. It’s just a matter of figuring out which ones.

One such colonial road of uncertain location is mentioned in the description of a tract surveyed for Philip Wingate in 1748: “…Beginning at a markd white oke standing on ye north side of Broad Creek about three miles back in ye woods & on ye north side of a horse Rode leading from ye aforsd Broad Creek to ye Indian River…”

As I don’t know exactly where Wingate’s land was located (“ye north side of Broad Creek” is a rather large area), I’m only speculating, but this so-called horse road may have originally linked the Nanticoke reservation known as Broad Creek Town and the Indian River Indian reservation known as Askecksy (among other, similar names), both of which were settled as early as 1705. The town of Laurel now occupies the site of Broad Creek Town, while Askecksy was located south of present-day Millsboro, near Injun Town Road or Indian Town Road.  It is known that the residents of these Indian towns had settled there to escape English encroachment, and had contact with each other, despite belonging to different tribes; in 1742, they met in the area roughly between the two reservations known as Winnasoccum or Wimbesoccom, and planned to attack the local English settlers, as explained here. Shortly thereafter, the Indian River Indians sold their land, and most of the Nanticokes migrated to Pennsylvania. By 1748, the road in question may have been used almost exclusively by the English, and may have led directly to the mills located near the branches of Indian River, rather than the old Indian lands located a few miles south of them.

I’ve crudely spliced together maps of Broad Creek Hundred and Dagsborough Hundred from the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868, which was the first map of the area to show its extensive network of unpaved roads, and highlighted the route that the horse road of 1748 may have followed. Eventually I’d like to complete a map of the entire area as it looked during the colonial era, but for now, this rough mash-up is better than nothing.

Beers, edited

– Chris Slavens

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Map of the Nanticoke Indians’ territory, 1742

This week the Laurel Star (and presumably the Seaford Star) published an article I wrote about the Nanticoke Indians about a year ago, as well as a rough map of the area showing the approximate locations of the Nanticoke, Choptank, and Indian River reservations in 1742. It was in that year that the surviving tribes gathered near Trap Pond and planned to wipe out the English settlers and reclaim the Eastern Shore with the help of Shawnee warriors and French forces. The plot was discovered and foiled, otherwise the history of the peninsula might have unfolded quite differently.

I’ll post the full article in a week or two, as I’d like for everyone who’s interested in the subject and able to do so to support the newspaper and buy a copy, but in the meantime here’s the map. Click to enlarge.

Nanticoke territory, 1742

– Chris Slavens

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“Sockum” and the Nanticokes of Broad Creek, part 2

A few months ago I posted an article entitled “Sockum” and the Nanticokes of Broad Creek, which explains why I believe the name Sockum, as both a surname and place-name, followed Nanticoke refugees as they drifted across the Eastern Shore between 1744 and 1850.

When researching the subject, I missed at least one fact, which I just noticed yesterday. It might not be all that important, but every little bit of information helps.

Scharf’s History of Delaware features a list of taxables in Dagsborough Hundred in 1785. This list proves that a James Sockam and a Widow Sockam (meaning the widow of a deceased Sockam) were living in the hundred at that time, which included the area later known as Gumborough Hundred. Interestingly, there was a James Sockam living in Nanticoke Hundred, Somerset County (probably in what would become Little Creek Hundred, Sussex County, following the resolution of the boundary dispute) in the 1750s. There was also a James Sockum living in Sussex County in the early 1800s. Without more information, it’s impossible to know how many Jameses we’re dealing with, but it seems likely that there were at least two or three generations of men named James Sockum (or Sockam, Soccom, etc.).

It should be remembered that just as there were Nanticoke reservations along Chicacoan Creek and Broad Creek, there was a thousand-acre “Indian River Indian” reservation located near a tributary of Indian River known today as Irons Branch. Injun Town Road, located in Dagsboro Hundred, south of Millsboro, seems to trace the southern boundary of this tract. The Indian River Indians sold sections of the reservation in the 1730s and early 1740s, with the final tract being sold in late 1743. Presumably some of them migrated north with the Nanticokes, and presumably some of them stayed in the area, eventually moving to the north shore of Indian River. It’s possible that the James Sockam of 1785 was living with or near descendants of the Indian River Indians in the neighborhood of their old reservation.

The Indian River Indian reservation, known as Askeckeky or Acksquessance, was located south of present-day Millsboro.

The Indian River Indian reservation, known as Askeckeky or Acksquessance, was located south of present-day Millsboro.

– Chris Slavens

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