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A Brief History of Broad Creek Town

This article was first published in the Laurel Historical Society‘s newsletter.

The Nanticoke Indians who moved to Broad Creek in or around 1705 were, in many ways, a defeated people. In the nearly one hundred years since their ancestors had welcomed Captain John Smith’s barge with a barrage of arrows, their numbers, power, and wealth had diminished due to a series of wars and treaties. Even their reservation at the junction of the Nanticoke River and Chicacoan Creek was threatened by aggressive, trespassing English newcomers. This story would require many pages to tell. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that they were desperate and discouraged—but perhaps hopeful that they would be able to preserve their culture in their new home, farther inland with only a handful of English neighbors.

The refugees settled near a site known as the Wading Place, which was one of the easier points at which to cross Broad Creek. It is possible that there was already a village or camp there, although the records seem to imply that the location was a new one for the tribe.  Whether there was an existing Nanticoke settlement at the site or not, the land on both sides of the creek had been granted to Englishmen in the 1680s. The Nanticokes might not have been aware of this—or they might not have cared. Evidently the English did care, and told the Nanticokes that they might have to relocate yet again, for in October of 1711, the Maryland legislature was informed that “the Nanticoke Indians are much dissatisfied they may not be permitted to continue at Broad Creek where they are set down…” Perhaps indicating that the dwindling tribe was still a force to be reckoned with, the provincial government decided it would be unwise to evict them, and instead empowered commissioners to purchase and reserve three thousand acres on Broad Creek for their use.

In a matter of weeks, surveyor William Whittington, Jr., laid out two tracts, one on each side of the creek. The northern tract consisted of the entire 2,500-acre tract known as Greenland, originally granted to William Green. The southern tract consisted of 500 acres on the east side of Little Creek, and included 133 acres of a tract known as Batchelor’s Delight, originally surveyed for Col. William Stevens, but subsequently transferred to James Wythe and Marmaduke Master.

A jury of twelve local freeholders determined that Greenland was worth 50,000 pounds of tobacco; the portion of Batchelor’s Delight, 2,666 pounds of tobacco; and the remainder of the southern tract, 7,334 pounds of tobacco. Additionally, they awarded Henry Freaks 3,000 pounds of tobacco “for his Damages in building Clearing and fencing on the said Land…” and William Denton, Jr., 500 pounds of tobacco “for his damages for work and repareing to build and setle on the Land…”

Note: The exact location of each tract, particularly that of the northern tract, is not entirely clear. The placement of the northern tract on the map below is largely based on shaky assertions about its western boundary made in deeds dated 1816. Personally, I am bothered by the fact that records from 1711 state that the southwestern bounder of the northern tract was on the east side of a small creek which does not seem to appear on modern maps or satellite imagery. I am also bothered by the fact that, according to this placement, the eastern boundary of the northern tract follows today’s Route 13, rather than the much older Alternate 13. It is possible that the entire northern tract should be shifted to the west or to the east. However, its approximate location is known, and the placement of the southern tract is much more precise, although I’ve deliberately matched its western boundary with today’s Little Creek, rather than its slightly different location three centuries ago.

Since the English had a habit of unimaginatively (and often misleadingly) naming any band of Indians after the waterway on which they lived, the Nanticokes on Broad Creek became known as the Broad Creek Indians, and their settlement was called Broad Creek Town. If they gave it a name of their own, it was never recorded.

The approximate boundaries of Broad Creek Town based on the original 1711 surveys.

Little is known of Broad Creek Town, other than its location. Was there a central village, or were the residents spread out? Did they live in traditional wigwams, or European-style cabins? We can’t be sure, but the best guess is probably “all of the above.” The historian J. Thomas Scharf later reported that they “cultivated the land to some extent” and built a “harbor.” Additionally, they probably interacted with the residents of Askecksy, a nearby Indian River Indian reservation established at about the same time.

A little more is known of the leadership of the Broad Creek Indians, but not much. The records of the time mention a number of Nanticoke leaders—notably Panquash, whose leadership stretched from the 1690s into the 1740s—but rarely specify whether they were from Chicacoan or Broad Creek. One such leader was Rassekettham, who accompanied Panquash and Tom Coursey in 1713 to inform the English that the tribe no longer recognized its former emperor, Asquash, who had moved to Pennsylvania. They also inquired as to whether the English had conspired with Asquash to kill Panquash and Rassekettham, and were assured that they had not and would not. Though Rassekettham was not explicitly identified as a Broad Creek Indian, the tributary known as Rossakatum Creek or Rossakatum Branch is assumed to have been named after him. It is likely that he was the chief of the Broad Creek band in 1713.

Another probable leader was King Toby, who, with fellow Broad Creek Indians Lolloway and Whist, traveled to the county court held at Dividing Creek in 1725 to complain that some of the Caldwells had mistreated them in some way. Lolloway might have been the same Indian named Lolloway who had been assaulted so badly in Somerset Parish the previous year that he nearly died. Other incidents reported in and around the various Indian reservations indicate that tensions continued to escalate during this time.

In the spring of 1742, the Nanticokes, Choptanks, Indian River Indians, Pocomokes, and some visiting Shawnees met in Wimbesoccom Neck to discuss a plot to massacre the local settlers and reclaim the Eastern Shore, supposedly with the help of the Iroquois Confederacy and the French. The tale of “the plot in the swamp” has been told elsewhere, but a few details are worth noting. Wimbesoccom Neck consisted of the land east of Wimbesoccom Creek (today’s Gray’s Branch) and north of the main branch of Broad Creek, which flows through today’s Trap Pond. The neck stretched into the outskirts of what would later be called Gumborough Hundred, and was probably heavily wooded and sparsely settled—an ideal location for a secret powwow. Interestingly, some of the Broad Creek Indians spoke of a “logged house” stocked with weapons, located a few miles into the swamp. Their leaders at this time were known as Simon Alsechqueck and Captain John.

But the plot was discovered and foiled, and numerous Indians arrested, and the tribal leaders were forced to sign an extremely restrictive treaty. Henceforth, the Nanticokes could no longer elect an emperor, and every member of the tribe was forbidden to own a gun without obtaining a license from the governor. It was the last straw. Just two years later, Simon Alsechqueck requested and received permission for the tribe to migrate north and live among the Iroquois, and by the 1750s, Broad Creek Town was said to be deserted.

In 1768, the provincial government authorized commissioners to sell what had become known as the Indian Lands, and according to later deeds, Joseph Forman purchased 518 acres at the western end of the northern tract, and John Mitchell purchased 2,236 acres. Barkley Townsend acquired part of the southern tract prior to 1776. Following Mitchell’s death in 1787, his portion was sold to a number of buyers including George Mitchell, George Corbin, and John Creighton. Decades later, Forman’s heirs divided his parcel into two lots and sold one to Dr. James Derickson, and the other to Benjamin Fooks and Kendall M. Lewis.

Today, the town of Laurel occupies much of the site of Broad Creek Town, and continues to grow, making archaeological investigation difficult. Even so, the stone artifacts that frequently turn up in nearby fields, and local names like Rossakatum and Sockum, survive to remind us of the first people to call Broad Creek home.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Maps, Maryland, Maryland history, Nanticoke Indians, Sussex County

Finding Quaacoson Ridge in Northeastern Wicomico

Recently I’ve mentioned a tract named Quaacoson (or Quaacosan) Ridge in a couple of articles, one about roofed graves, and one about local quiacason house sites. This particular tract consisted of 39 acres, and was surveyed for Isaac Mitchell on May 20, 1758, and patented to him on the same day. Previously he had acquired the 170-acre tract Hogg Yard, and would later acquire a 100-acre tract named Beach Ridge; all three were located in Worcester County.

The tract was described as follows:

…all that Tract or parcell of land called Quaacoson Ridge scituate lying & being in Worcester County back in the Forrest bounded as follows Beginning at a marked scaley barkt white oak standing near the south end of a ridge known by the name of Quaacoson Ridge & a few miles back in the woods from Pocomake River on the West side thereof thence running South twenty poles thence West sixty six poles thence North thirty poles thence East fifty six poles thence North East forty poles thence East one hundred poles thence South thirty eight poles thence with a right line to the first bounder containing & now laid out for thirty nine acres of land more or less to be holden of the Manor of Worcester

Quaacoson Ridge, 1758

This admittedly vague description tells us a couple of important things:

  1. The tract was named after a geographical feature known as Quaacoson Ridge, and its first bounder stood near the southern end of the ridge.
  2. The tract and the ridge are located a few miles west of the Pocomoke River, placing them in today’s Wicomico County. Hogg Yard and Beach Ridge are located in the same neighborhood. (Of course, initially I couldn’t ignore out the possibility that they were located north of the Transpeninsular Line, in today’s Sussex County, Delaware, but that turned out not to be the case.)

A casual reading of other surveys associated with Isaac Mitchell, and then other families in the general neighborhood, including Wests and Whaleys, told me that the site is located in northeastern Wicomico County, relatively close to the state line. But there are quite a few points of high elevation in this area, and however well the name Quaacoson Ridge might have been known at one time, it doesn’t seem to have made it onto any maps.

Fortunately, a great deal of land in the neighborhood was patented to James Whaley in February 1850, and Quaacoson Ridge (the tract) turns up in these records. Even more fortunately, one tract in particular — West Level, which included land formerly surveyed for Henry Spears in 1770 — bordered the state line, making it relatively easy to place it and the adjoining tracts, including Quaacoson Ridge, on a modern map.

West Level, patented to James Whaley in 1850, incorporated elder tracts Spears Venture, Addition to Spears Venture, and portions of Quaacoson Ridge and Beach Ridge.

West Level, patented to James Whaley in 1850, incorporated elder tracts Spears Venture, Addition to Spears Venture, and portions of Quaacoson Ridge and Beach Ridge.

The following map was created with Plat Plotter, a free, fun, and very useful app that anyone can use to plot property boundaries. This is by no means exact, but it’s accurate enough for our purposes, i.e., locating the ridge for which the tract was named.

Approximate location of West Level and Quaacoson Ridge, plotted with Plat Plotter.

Approximate location of West Level and Quaacoson Ridge, plotted with Plat Plotter.

It would seem that the white oak which served as the first bounder of the tract stood on the northeast side of the waterway known as the South Fork Green Run (a curious name; South Fork of Green Run might be more accurate), but considering the likely margin of error, it’s not especially important which side of the branch the tree stood on. It’s obvious that it stood quite close to it, probably at the water’s edge. Although this point might not seem to be at the south end of a ridge, it does lie to the southwest of an area of slightly higher elevation, which would have been much more significant during the 1750s, when the land would have been much swampier. This feature, encompassing the intersection of Tingle Road and New Hope Road, is the most obvious candidate for the ridge due to its proximity and the fact that the tract includes a significant portion of it. Let’s call this feature Candidate A.

Candidate A. U.S. Geological Survey, 1992.

Candidate A. U.S. Geological Survey, 1992.

However, we must consider the possibility that the ridge is actually located a bit further away. After all, “near” is a very subjective term, and “near” in the context of a swampy forest in the 1750s might allow for a greater distance between the tree and the south end of the ridge than a modern researcher might assume. As it happens, the first bounder is, indeed, “near” — roughly 2,500 feet from — the south end of a much more prominent geographical feature which certainly seems very ridge-like. If this feature, which we’ll call Candidate B, was known as Quaacoson Ridge in the 1750s, one can see how a surveyor, lacking other landmarks, might reasonably have described the first bounder as lying near it (though why a tract would have been named after a ridge it didn’t actually touch is a mystery to me). One problem with this possibility is that other tracts associated with the feature in question, such as West’s Luck (which overlaps it), make no mention of Quaacoson Ridge. But they don’t mention any other ridge, either. Since West’s Luck bordered the state line and was surveyed in 1817, the surveyor might have felt that there was no reason to mention any other landmarks. Older tracts might include helpful references; further research is needed.

Candidate B, spanning the state line. U.S. Geological Survey, 1992.

Candidate B, spanning the state line. U.S. Geological Survey, 1992.

Wherever Quaacoson Ridge was, it’s clear that the name survived in some form into the early 20th century. When the new 14th election district was erected out of the 4th election district in 1906, its boundaries were described as follows:

Commencing at the Delaware and Maryland line at a point on the county road leading from Bethel Church to Whitesville, Delaware, about two hundred yars west of the residence where Enoch Truitt now resides; by and with the centre of said county road to interesect county road leading from Cobb’s Hill to James H. West road at or near Quackinson School House; by and with the centre of said road to intersect the county road known as the Radcliff Farlow road; by and with the center of said county road to old Burnt Mill known also as New Mill…

“Quackinson” is almost certainly a corruption of Quaacoson; Quackinson isn’t a local surname, and I can’t think of any other reason for such a name to appear in the neighborhood in question. The location of this school is a bit unclear. Two nearby schools appear on the 1877 Lake, Griffing, and Stephenson Atlas, unhelpfully labeled School No. 1 and School No. 2, but neither is especially close to the possible Quaacoson Ridge sites, and it’s unclear which, if either, was called Quackinson. A similar name, Quackison, appears in land records pertaining to Benton H. Whaley, dated 1899; a plat of lands known as Whaley’s Quarter depicts a road from Quackison to Pittsville intersecting with a road from Quackison to Cobb’s Hill.

The Quaacoson Ridge neighborhood, 1877,

The Quaacoson Ridge neighborhood, 1877.

Identifying Quaacoson Ridge would be a valuable contribution to local historical knowledge for several reasons:

  1. Place-names and specific sites associated with the local Indian tribes are relatively rare. Aside from a handful of settlements (mostly reservations) mentioned in late 17th to mid-18th-century sources, we don’t know of all that many specific places that were important to them.
  2. We know even less about Indian activities in this particular neighborhood, or in the neighborhood of the Pocomoke Swamp in general.
  3. Like us, Indians used relatively permanent routes to travel from one place to another. Locating such sites can help us to identify the routes used to get to them. Was there a path leading to Quaacoson Ridge? Could it be the basis of a modern road? Or — perhaps more likely — was the ridge reached by water?
  4. Determining the approximate location of Quaacoson Ridge contributes to our understanding of local Indian mortuary customs (or at least it raises more questions for us to attempt to answer). The site is far from any known Indian settlement, in one of the last neighborhoods to be developed by Europeans. Why? Did the local tribes always build quiacason houses on the outskirts of their societies, unlike others who are known to have built them in or near their villages? Or did the choice of location reflect a desire to conceal quiacason houses from the colonists, who had been known to damage or rob them on more than one occasion?
  5. The location of the ridge could also shed light on the origins of the local roofed grave custom. If Candidate B is Quaacoson Ridge, then it’s very likely that the ancestors or close relatives of John C. West (1814 – 1858), who was buried under a roofed grave near Trap Pond, lived on a ridge associated with Indian mortuary houses. That wouldn’t prove anything, but it would be very interesting. Even if Candidate A is the correct feature, it’s still close enough to the Bethel Church cemetery, as well as some of the oldest local West lands, to be related to the roofed grave custom.

– Chris Slavens

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Using Maryland’s Plats.net to research colonial Sussex

A couple of weeks ago a fellow from the lower Eastern Shore contacted me and casually mentioned that I live in what was once Old Somerset before William Penn stole it, and went on to call the Pennsylvania founder a “thieving bastard.” He was alluding to the ancient boundary dispute which resulted in the running of the Transpeninsular Line and the Mason-Dixon Line, giving a substantial portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Pennsylvania — wrongly, in the opinion of some. I tend to share this opinion.

The fact that western and lower Sussex County, Delaware, used to be part of Somerset or Worcester County, Maryland, depending on the time period, is a source of confusion for many researchers, particularly those who are searching for the locations of early settlements. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, Maryland land records are arguably easier to access than those of Delaware.

Plats.net, hosted by the State of Maryland, is an incredibly useful resource for anyone researching the early history of, say, Seaford, Laurel, Gumboro, Selbyville, etc. You can find a Beginners Guide here, which covers the basics, but I’ve learned a couple of tricks to get the most out of the site.

Typically, after selecting a county (either Somerset or Worcester for the Broad Creek area, for example) I do an Advanced Search and enter part of a name — of an individual or a tract of land — in the Description box, then change the the sort order from the default setting, Date Descending, to Date Ascending, so that the oldest records will be listed first. There’s a reason I enter part of a name rather than the entire name. Spellings of even simple names vary — i.e., Stephens vs. Stevens — so it can be helpful to search for the part of the name that is most likely to be spelled consistently. For example, “dolb” rather than Dolby or Dolbee will yield results for both. Or “collin” will pull up records for Collins as well as Collings, an early spelling of the name. Sometimes the old spellings are nearly unrecognizable; for example, Brazier rather than Brasure — yet a search for “bra” would cover both.

Tract names are also subject to spelling variations, i.e., Forrest vs. Forest, Hogg vs. Hog, Lott vs. Lot, etc. Sometimes you have to be creative.

Once you’ve pulled up a particular record, there is usually no need to struggle to read the entire text. All have the same basic format. You can usually skip down to the description of the tract, which will read, “Beginning at a markd white oke on ye south side of Broad Creek…” or something similar. Typically, the only place-names to appear in the descriptions are those of waterways — and more often than not, the names of smaller waterways are obsolete and don’t appear on any map — but sometimes specific neighbors, roads, and even towns will be referenced. There will also be a diagram of the tract, but — frustratingly — this will almost never include any landmarks other than the trees used as markers.

50-acre tract "Priveledge" surveyed for George "Tomson" in 1743, probably in today's Gumboro

50-acre tract “Priveledge” surveyed for George “Tomson” in 1743, probably in today’s Gumboro

Despite the vague descriptions, these records can be used to determine which neighborhood a particular plantation was located in. Later records, even Delaware deeds, might refer to the tract by name and provide more details. For example, a large tract along Broad Creek, patented to Joseph Collins in 1762 and named Collins Industry, was referred to in dozens of deeds in the following decades as the tract was gradually divided into many smaller parcels.

I’ve identified a couple of the old creek names in the Broad Creek area, like Wimbesoccom Creek (today’s Gray’s Branch), and only recently decided that the frequently referenced Bald Cypress Branch probably ran through Trussum Pond rather than Trap Pond (neither of which was known as such during the colonial era). This is a sort of ongoing back-burner project.

– Chris Slavens

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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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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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The Nanticokes’ Last Stand

The following article and map were first published in the Laurel Star in May 2015.

The Nanticokes’ Last Stand
by Chris Slavens

With about 800 houses on the National Register of Historic Places and more than a dozen historic churches in and around the town, Laurel is the kind of place where the past is not only remembered, but celebrated. Many local families can trace their roots back to the 18th century, and some still live on land cleared by their distant ancestors when the Delmarva Peninsula was a wild frontier. Yet one of the most significant and fascinating events in the area’s history is also one of the least known, possibly because it took place when the area was claimed by Maryland.

Long before Barkley Townsend founded a town on the south side of Broad Creek and named it after the beautiful laurel bushes growing along the creek’s banks, the Nanticokes thrived here. Their territory stretched from the Chesapeake Bay to the vast cypress swamp in the center of the peninsula, and was home to at least ten villages. Captain John Smith visited the tribe in June of 1608, and noted that they were rich in furs and shell money, and were “the best Marchants of all other Salvages.”

In the following decades, the tribe listened to reports of European expansion, as the Dutch and Swedes settled in the northeast, and the English spread out from the western shore into Accomack and Choptank territory, and beyond. Attempts to resist ended badly. It was with this in mind, perhaps, that Unnacokasinnon, “Emperor of Nantecoke,” signed a peace treaty in 1668. The treaty laid out several rules for the Nanticokes; among them, that they would be required to lay down their weapons if they crossed paths with Englishmen in the woods. Unnacokasinnon also promised to “deliver up” the neighboring Wicomisses, who were his subjects. A Wicomiss man had recently killed an English captain, possibly to avenge the death of his wife. The Wicomisses were subsequently destroyed.

In 1698, the Maryland legislature established a large reservation on Chicacoan Creek, but a few years later, at about the time that the town of Vienna was established nearby, most of the Nanticokes moved up the river to Broad Creek. Whether they reclaimed an old village, moved into an existing one, or established a new one is unclear. It seems that the move was prompted by a combination of English harassment and depleted resources. The legislature, reluctant to provoke the tribe, decided to create a second reservation rather than force them to leave. The Nanticoke village on Broad Creek became known as Broad Creek Town, and its residents were sometimes called the Broad Creek Indians. At that time, the area was part of Somerset County (Worcester and Wicomico Counties did not yet exist), and would not be ceded to Sussex County for nearly seventy years.

During the next three decades, many English settlers were granted land in the surrounding area. Most of them were tobacco planters from Maryland and Virginia, drawn to northern Somerset by affordable land. At that time, the territory east of Broad Creek Town was part of the immense Pocomoke Swamp. In addition to clearing the land of trees, the settlers had to drain it, which was accomplished with a network of ditches.

Nanticoke territory, 1742

As more and more land was cleared and cultivated, the Nanticokes began to feel cornered. For generations they had lived in long-term villages along the coast, rivers, and creeks for most of the year, and periodically moved inland to hunt. Now they were more or less confined to their two reservations. Dishonest traders’ use of alcohol to intoxicate them and trick them into unfair business transactions also fueled rising tensions between the peninsula Indians and their English neighbors. In 1721, some of the tribes even asked the English authorities to prevent traders from selling or giving them rum.

By the spring of 1742, the situation was nearing its breaking point, and when a party of twenty-some Shawnee visited Chicacoan Town to share news of a French and Iroquois plot to drive the English from the Eastern Shore, the Nanticoke leaders were receptive to the idea. Colonel John Ennals noticed the visitors, but thought nothing of it at the time. The Shawnee stayed for about eleven days, then returned to the north.

A couple of weeks later, in early to mid-June, the Nanticokes, Choptanks, Indian River Indians, and Pocomokes quietly left their respective reservations and traveled to a place called Winnasoccum. The exact location of Winnasoccum is unknown, but colonial land records referring to Wimbesoccom (or Wimbasacham, Wimbesacum, etc.) Creek and Neck, and later maps featuring Sockum Creek, suggest that it was about six miles east of Broad Creek Town—or, in today’s terms, in the area between Pepper Pond and Trinity United Methodist Church.

Once numerous Indians had assembled at Winnasoccum, a week-long powwow commenced. The details of the plot were explained: In the near future, the Shawnee would secretly return and help the Nanticokes execute a surprise attack on the English settlers during the night. Men, women, and children would be slaughtered, and the attack would continue for as long and as far as possible. Meanwhile, the French, who had been grappling with the English for control of North America for decades, would land on the coast. For the Nanticokes and other tribes, it was to be a desperate, all-or-nothing, last stand against the invaders who had stolen their lands, forced them onto reservations, and destroyed some of the neighboring tribes. In celebration of the plan, some painted their bodies and danced to the sound of beating drums, brandishing tomahawks and firing guns, and a medicine man from Indian River brewed a poison to be dumped into their enemies’ water supply.

Had the gathering escaped the notice of the English, the history of the peninsula might have unfolded quite differently. But the white residents of both the Broad Creek area and Dorchester County reported their Indian neighbors’ suspicious absence to the authorities in Vienna, and on June 22nd, Colonel Ennals wrote to Colonel Levin Gale, warning that all of the Indians of Dorchester were missing, and that the Broad Creek Indians had left their village to hunt at Winnasoccum. He didn’t believe they were hunting, because the old men, women, and children had gone, too, instead of remaining behind to tend the crops. Gale forwarded the letter to Governor Samuel Ogle in Annapolis.

During the next week, several Indians were questioned. Four Choptanks confirmed that the purpose of the gathering at Winnasoccum had been to discuss the plot against the English. By July 4th, at least twelve Indians had been interrogated. Some claimed that the Broad Creek Indians had told them about a secret log structure on a small island about two or three miles into the swamp, stocked with guns, powder, shot, and many poison-coated, brass-pointed arrows. Meanwhile, the Council of Maryland directed the commander at Vienna to order any Indians in the swamp to surrender their weapons, and to guard the routes out of the swamp to ensure that none escaped to contact the northern tribes.

The Eastern Shore forces succeeded, and on July 12th ten Indians were questioned at a meeting of the Council in Annapolis. The leaders claimed that they had gone to Winnasoccum to hunt and elect an emperor, and denied the existence of any log structure stocked with weapons. Others claimed that they had gone there only because they were told to, and learned of the plot after they arrived.

The Council did not take long to make a decision. On the same day, some of the Indians were warned that they could have been severely punished, and that the English could take all of their lands, but would instead show them mercy. They were released on the condition that they would inform the nearest Justice of the Peace if they saw any “strange Indians.” However, their leaders, including Simon Alsechqueck and Captain John of Broad Creek, remained in custody for another twelve days. On July 24th, they were released after signing the most restrictive treaty in the history of the Nanticokes’ dealings with the English. They could no longer elect an emperor, and every member of the tribe was forbidden to own a gun without obtaining a license from the governor.

The failure of the plot may have been the last straw for the Nanticokes. Shortly thereafter, an exodus began. In 1744, Simon Alsechqueck and other Nanticoke leaders requested and received permission for the tribe to leave the Eastern Shore and live among the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. The refugees made their way north, paddling dugout canoes down the Nanticoke River and up the Chesapeake Bay. They joined other displaced tribes along the Susquehanna River for a time, but eventually traveled farther north and settled in French territory. Others moved east, and lived among the Indian River Indians. Their multiracial descendants would found the Nanticoke Indian Association 180 years later.

By 1754, Broad Creek Town was deserted. Any Nanticokes who didn’t move away probably lived in cabins on undesirable tracts of land, and were gradually absorbed by the white or black populations through intermarriage. Only stone artifacts and ancient names like Rossakatum, Wimbesoccom, and Assacatum remained to remind future generations of the first people to call Broad Creek home.

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Filed under Laurel, Maps, Nanticoke Indians, Sussex County