Category Archives: Maryland history

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Delmarva Geography, Maps, Maryland, Maryland history, Wicomico County, Worcester County

Quiacason House Sites of the Eastern Shore

In a recent article for the Laurel Historical Society, I noted the possibly coincidental links between local roofed graves, the family of John C. West (1814-1858), and a site in northeastern Wicomico County known as Quaacosan Ridge. This is one of several sites on the Delmarva Peninsula named after Native American mortuary houses and used as landmarks by surveyors from the 17th century into the 19th.

“Quiacason” — as I will spell the term throughout this post — is one of those Native American terms that the English colonists struggled to spell, resulting in creative spellings including quacasun, chiocason, quiocosin, quiocosine, quoioccason, quioccasin, quioccosin, quiakeson, quiankeson, quankosine, and even cuiackason or cuiaskason. It refers to a wooden mortuary or charnel house, described by some sources as crib-like, in which bodies of the deceased were placed. This custom was encountered in the mid-Atlantic and parts of the South, with some variations; for example, it seems that some quiacason houses served as permanent resting places, while others were intended to be temporary protective enclosures while a corpse decomposed, after which the bones were removed and buried in an ossuary.

The best-known account of a quiacason house on the Delmarva Peninsula is one of the latest. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated September 18, 1797, Cambridge resident Dr. William Vans Murray reported that a remnant of Choptank Indians (who he called Nanticokes) living at Locust Neck in Dorchester County, Maryland, preserved the remains of a chief named Wynicaco in a “Quacasun-house” or “chio-ca-son house.” Wynicaco died circa 1715, and is mentioned in many records of the period.

"Indian Charnal House" by John White, 1580s.

“Indian Charnal House” by John White, 1580s.

But references to local quiacason houses date back to the 17th century. Possibly the earliest is found in the description of a 500-acre tract named Quiakeson Neck or Quiankeson Neck, which was surveyed for James Weatherly in 1668 and described as lying on the “south side of Nanticoke River, beginning at a marked pine by a swamp near Indian Quiankeson houses.” (Marye, 1936). Other records place this site near Barren Creek in what is now western Wicomico County.

In May of 1686, the “King of Assateague,” whose people were living at “Askiminokonson” at the time, complained to the Maryland authorities “against Edward Hamond for that whereas it is a custom among them upon the death of an Indian king to save his bones and make a case with skinns wherein they inclose the bones and fill it up with Ronoke, and other their riches, he the said Hamond about a month since had upon the like occasion of one of their kings dyeing stolen away the skinns and roanoke from the place where he was layd…” Although the English took the complaint seriously enough to investigate, they eventually dismissed it.

A similar incident occurred in Nanticoke territory in 1707, when Samuel Marke, Isaac Mallett, and Joseph Tompson robbed a “Quiacosan house.” Although their guilt seems to have been taken for granted, six years later, Nanticoke leaders “Tom Coursey, Pantikas, and Rassekettham” complained that “they had not the satisfaction proposed for the robbery done by the Malletts on their Quankosine house…” It’s unclear where this happened. At the time, most of the Nanticokes were living in settlements along Chicacoan Creek and Broad Creek; “Pantikas” is surely an alternate spelling of Panquash, whose leadership among the Nanticokes spanned several decades, while “Rassekettham” would seem to be the same leader for which Rossakatum Branch, which flows through Laurel, was named. It’s unclear whether the issue was ever resolved.

Another tract named Quiakeson Neck, this one of 50 acres, was surveyed for Henry Dorman in 1734, and described as being “near the heads of the branches of Wiccomoco River bounded as follows Begining at a marked white oak standing on the North side of the Main Branch of the said Neck about sixty yards from the side of the afsd Branch & near the fork of the afsd neck where a Quiakeson house formerly stood…” The exact location of this tract is unclear, but in today’s terms it is probably located northeast of Salisbury.

A brief reference comes from a land commission held in Dorchester County in 1761, which noted that one of the original Choptank reservation’s bounders had been a tree standing in Cuiackason Swamp.

Another Wicomico reference — though the land was part of Worcester County at the time — is found in the description of a tract named Boald Cyprus (Bald Cypress), which was described in 1762 as “Beginning at a marked chestnut white oak standing on ye west side of Nassaongo Creek and on a point called the Quaacotion House Point on the south side of the afsd Point near the head of Nassaongo Creek…”

Yet another Wicomico reference — again, from old Worcester records — is found in the name and description of a 39-acre tract named Quaacosan Ridge, which was surveyed for Isaac Mitchell in 1758. This tract was fairly close to the Transpeninsular Line, or today’s state line, in or near the Pocomoke Swamp. The name seems to have survived in some form, for when the 14th election district was created in 1906, the “Quackinson School House” was used as a landmark.

The probable neighborhood of Quaacosan Ridge, from the 1877 Lake, Griffing, and Stevenson Atlas.

The probable neighborhood of Quaacosan Ridge, from the 1877 Lake, Griffing, and Stevenson Atlas.

Some thoughts:

  1. We shouldn’t necessarily assume that the local quiacason houses looked like the one John White painted in North Carolina. Even without a visual, we can make some educated guesses about their design based on their purpose and the materials available. Since a house had to protect decomposing corpses from scavengers — including black bears — for an extended period of time, it had to be strong. These were not flimsy structures. One can imagine a sort of elevated wigwam built with sturdy posts and enclosed with bark. Such a structure could withstand hurricanes if built well.
  2. It is apparent, despite the various spellings, that the English colonists (surveyors in particular) were familiar with quiacason houses and knew the Indian word for them. In an era when most landmarks consisted of natural features such as creeks and trees, and the occasional village or plantation, quiacason house sites were noteworthy. Between the stench of the rotting dead and European superstitions concerning graveyards, the colonists probably tried to avoid the sites (assuming they weren’t robbing them), but were certainly aware of their locations. Eventually, however, the demand for arable land prevailed. “Ridges” — in reality, points of high elevation compared to surrounding swamps — became ideal sites for homes and farm buildings.
  3. It is unclear whether quiacason house sites doubled as ossuary burial sites. Since relatively few of each have been documented, it’s not surprising that they don’t seem to overlap. Personally, I think that a dry, secluded ridge would have been a practical site for the burial of bones following their cleaning. From an archaeological point of view, it would probably be easier to locate quiacason house sites and search for evidence of ossuaries, than to search known ossuary sits for evidence of wooden posts — though either approach could work.

– Chris Slavens

1 Comment

Filed under Delmarva Geography, Maryland, Maryland history, Nanticoke Indians

The Roofed Graves of Delmarva

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

In the 1930s – 1940s, several sources reported the presence of old, roof-like, wooden grave covers or shelters in cemeteries in lower Sussex, notably at Bethel M.E. Church on the east side of Gumboro, the John C. West family cemetery near Raccoon Pond, and King’s M.E. Church near Trussum Pond. Their age, origins, and purpose were a matter of speculation. Additional sources published in the 1960s – 1970s indicate that the shelters were also used across the state line in eastern Wicomico County.

However, the mysterious shingled structures were documented only sparingly, and never seriously investigated. None are known to have survived to the present, making a handful of 20th-century sources and photographs the only evidence that such a custom ever existed.

Although the earliest known description is found in Delaware: A Guide to the First State (1938), compiled by members of the Federal Writers Project, Frank R. Zebley’s The Churches of Delaware (1947) is more helpful in that he mentions three specific sites, as well as two specific graves, those of John C. West (1814-1858) and his first wife, Mahala B. Truitt (1822-1852). Zebley also photographed some of the structures. Other sources include Graveyards and Gravestones of Wicomico by John E. Jacob, Jr. (1971) and Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware by Dorothy Pepper (1976). Usually called “roofed-over graves” or “A-frames,” the structures featured cypress or cedar shingles and gabled ends. Most were in poor condition even in the 1930s.

At this time, there are five known sites in Sussex County:

  1. Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church in Gumboro.
  2. King’s Methodist Episcopal Church near Laurel.
  3. The John C. West family cemetery on Wootten Road, near Raccoon Pond.
  4. The Daisey family cemetery on Wilgus Cemetery Road, between Roxana and Bayard.
  5. A cemetery associated with the Timmons family near Lowe’s Crossroads.

Jacob did not specify any sites in eastern Wicomico, but they were most likely located in the area between Pittsville and the state line. No sites are known to have been reported in Worcester County.

The grave of Elijah Daisey (1888-1891) near Bayard, Delaware, photographed in 1947. Courtesy of Joan Howard.

The grave of Elijah Daisey (1888-1891) near Bayard, Delaware, photographed in 1947. Courtesy of Joan Howard.

The available evidence suggests that the custom dates back to the 1840s, but it is unclear whether it developed locally, or was inspired by similar traditions in the South. Stone, peaked grave shelters known as combs are found throughout the Upland South, and have been dated to the 1810s, while shelters made of metal roofing have been erected even in the 21st century. (Dr. Richard C. Finch’s extensive studies of comb graves can be found at graterutabaga.com). All of the styles of shelters seem to be intended to protect graves, whether from animals, weather, or both. Different materials might simply reflect what was available; though stone slabs were rare and expensive on the peninsula during the early 19th century, durable cypress shingles were readily available, especially in the neighborhood of the Pocomoke Swamp. Cypress slabs were also used as grave markers, some of which still survive.

Locally, the custom’s association with John C. West and his family might prove to be important. Some of his descendants are buried at the King’s Church site, while some of his relatives and ancestors lived in eastern Wicomico County, relatively close to the Bethel Church site (but closer to Line Church, where, disappointingly, no roofed graves were ever reported). Interestingly—perhaps importantly, perhaps coincidentally—there is an area of high elevation in this neighborhood which was known as Quaacosan Ridge as early as 1758. Native American quacason houses were crib-like wooden structures which protected human corpses while the flesh decayed, after which the bones were removed. Although there is no obvious link between quacason houses and roofed graves, it is certainly fascinating to consider that the early English settlers encountered Native American “cemeteries” featuring above-ground wooden structures all over the peninsula, and used them as landmarks for decades.

Although the origins and purpose of the roofed graves of Delmarva are still unclear, it might be possible for us to learn more. They disappeared between the 1940s and 1970s; surely there are living locals who remember them. I am especially interested in learning about any additional sites, specific graves, or photographs, and hope to publish a much more detailed article about this mysterious custom in the future.

– Chris Slavens

2 Comments

Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Maryland, Maryland history, Sussex County

A Brief History of Trap Pond

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

Trap Pond has long been a favorite destination in the Laurel area. With a large campground, shady picnic areas, a network of trails, boating, public hunting areas, and—in simpler times when water quality wasn’t a concern—swimming areas, our local state park has served as a tranquil oasis of sorts, offering generations of families a respite from an increasingly busy world, and a taste of nature.

Yet Trap Pond wasn’t always associated with recreation. It wasn’t always named Trap Pond. In fact, it wasn’t always a pond. The early history of the site is, like its waters, a bit murky, but scattered clues in old records tell its story.

When English surveyors began laying out tracts of land for aspiring tobacco planters along the branches of Broad Creek in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the area was part of a wild frontier. The land was swampy, black bears roamed the woods, and Nanticoke Indians outnumbered the white newcomers. In 1730, a 100-acre tract named Forest Chance was surveyed on the southwest side of what is now Trap Pond, but the site was simply described as “the main branch of broad creek.” It’s unclear who dammed the creek near the northern boundary of Forest Chance or exactly when they did it (possibly a Collins or Stevens in the mid-1700s), but by 1791, Newbold Vinson, Sr., owned a sawmill and a gristmill there. The mills stayed in the Vinson family for the next couple of decades, and during that time the pond that powered them was known as Vinson’s Pond. However, by 1816, the mills were owned by Joseph Betts, and the pond was named after him.

Forest Chance, 1730

Forest Chance, 1730

In the following years, deeds referred to the millpond by both names. In 1836, for example, William Hitch purchased a share of “a certain saw mill and grist mill called and known by the name of the Vinson or Betts mill” from John Betts. However, just four years later, Hitch and Philip Short sold Ebenezer Gray “one third part of…a certain saw and grist mill house & lot adjoining said mills known by the name of Vinsons Mills (now called the Trap Mills)…” The origin of this new name — which, as we know, stuck — is uncertain, and has inspired creative yet unlikely theories involving a trapiche distillery, a tract of land named Turkey Trap (which was actually located elsewhere), or even French Trappist monks, but one possible explanation is that the pond became known as a trap because it collected unwanted runoff from an extensive network of drainage ditches. Now that the mills were co-owned by multiple investors, naming them after a particular individual or family may have been impractical. Henceforth they were known as the Trap Mills.

Forest Chance and Betts Pond, 1816

Forest Chance and Betts Pond, 1816

In his History of Delaware, published in 1888, J. Thomas Scharf (or an anonymous contributor) reported that the sawmill was no longer used, but the gristmill was owned and operated by M. G. Truitt. The gristmill continued to operate until 1920.

It should be noted that during this era, Trap Pond was an industrial site, valued for its milling power, location, and resources rather than its beauty. In the early years, the pond had been full of trees, which were eventually harvested along with most of the surrounding timber, leaving behind acres of unsightly, slowly rotting stumps. Such was the scene in 1933, when a devastating flood washed out the old mill dam. Subsequently the federal government bought the pond and surrounding land, and set about creating a recreation area. Between 1936 and 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps removed the old stumps, rebuild the dam, created small beaches, and built bath houses, park benches, and pavilions, which attracted thousands of visitors in the following years. In 1951, the State of Delaware acquired the pond from the federal government and established the state’s first active state park.

Pavilion at Trap Pond, 1937

Pavilion at Trap Pond, 1937

Photo: Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress

Picnic area at Trap Pond, 1937

Today Trap Pond State Park is larger than ever, consisting of 3,653 acres, including nearby Trussum Pond (another early millpond), the historic Bethesda M. E. Church and cemetery, smaller cemeteries created by the Wingate and Warrington families, and old public roads that survive as trails, all of which have their own stories and are important parts of the history of our community.

– Chris Slavens

1 Comment

Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Maryland history, Sussex County

Nanticoke Indian Surnames

Every word in the title of this post is inappropriate, to an extent. The following names are not all Nanticoke names, necessarily. They may or may not technically be surnames. And, of course, we all know that Native Americans shouldn’t have been called Indians. A more accurate title might be: “Family names associated with native peoples of the Delmarva Peninsula in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

Note that the following names are not associated with the modern Nanticoke Indian Association. Surnames like Clark and Harmon are certainly deserving of attention, but they’re also of European origin. I wish to briefly comment on a few surnames or family names that appear in historical records, definitely linked to local Indians, and definitely rooted in their language.

Asquash (or Ashquash)

Ashquash was a son of the Nanticoke emperor Unnacokasimon, who probably died in the 1680s. Unnacokasimon’s brother, Opeter or Ohopperoon, succeeded him following his death, but the English authorities believed the old emperor had been poisoned and viewed the brother as a usurper. His fate is unclear. Ashquash was emperor in 1705, but left the Eastern Shore in 1713 to live among the Susquehanna Indians.

In 1725, a William Asquash living in Chicacoan Town was described as “the late Emperor’s son.” In other records, the name was sometimes spelled Ashquash. The combination of an English first name and his father’s name is interesting; perhaps he wanted a surname to be more like his white neighbors. However, his relationship to others who apparently used the name Asquash as a surname is unclear. In 1742, Abraham and Jemmey Asquash were living in Chicacoan Town, while in 1757, a petition asking the provincial government to recognize George Pocatehouse as the emperor was signed by John Asquash, Nancy Ashquash, Molley Ashquash, Moses Ashquash, and William Ashquash.

The name is a fairly common word in Algonquian languages, referring to similar plants such as pumpkins, cucumbers, melons, etc., and is the basis for the English word squash. A much earlier example of its use as a name comes from Connecticut, where, in 1644, an Indian named Ashquash murdered an English servant.

Unfortunately, the name seems to have left the peninsula, and/or died out. I’ve searched in vain for records of later Asquashes or Ashquashes.

Cohonk

Cohonk, like Asquash, is an Algonquian term found beyond the Delmarva Peninsula. It referred to the honking of Canadian geese, and was also associated with the coming of winter or the passage of a year. In 1742, a James or Jamey Cohonk testified about the Wimbesoccom event; apparently he was from Chicacoan Town, making him a Nanticoke. He and other Cohonks were involved in the dispute about whether the provincial government should recognize Peter Monk or George Pocatehouse as the emperor in the late 1750s. Like Asquash, the name Cohonk seems to disappear from the records after that period.

Puckham or Puckum

The surname Puckham or Puckum is a bit problematic, because it could be a variation of the English surname Peckham, and is rather common. (A search of Ancestry.com for “puckham” yields nearly two million records, including spelling variations.) However, in the 1670s, there was a 1,500-acre Indian settlement on the east side of the Nanticoke River and on the north side of Barren Creek known as Puckamee. Furthermore, in 1682, an Indian named John Puckham married Jone Johnson, a free “negro” woman, in Stepney Parish, Somerset County. Stepney Parish covered the area between the Nanticoke and Wicomico Rivers. An excellent article at Native American Roots explains the view that Puckham may have been derived from Puckamee, which meant “a place to source red ochre.” Whatever its origins, the surname Puckham or Puckum has generally been associated with blacks since the colonial era.

Hop

Hop is not a name, per se, but it seems to have been part of many names. Unnacokasimon’s brother was Ohopperoon; John Chinehopper was a leader of the Nanticokes in 1742; Tom Hoppington was a Nanticoke from Chicacoan Town in 1742, and Hopping Sam was a chief of the Locust Neck Indians (or Choptanks) in 1742. It seems safe to assume that these names shared a common root.

– Chris Slavens

Leave a comment

Filed under Delaware history, Maryland history, Nanticoke Indians

The Sockum Family and the Nanticoke Indians: Further Research

In March of 2014 I wrote an article entitled “Sockum and the Nanticokes of Broad Creek,” which summarized genealogical and historical data connecting the Sockum family to the Nanticoke Indians who lived around Broad Creek in the 18th century. The information raised more questions than it answered; although many Sockums appeared in early records — even as early as 1756 — it’s difficult to connect them to each other.

Although I haven’t uncovered any major new information (i.e., indisputable evidence of a Sockum-Nanticoke connection), with the annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow coming up in a few weeks, now is a perfect time to offer a somewhat tentative interpretation of some of the early Sockum information which might help us to better understand this family’s history. I want to make it clear that I’m engaging in speculation here — very informed speculation, based on primary sources like census and tax records — but speculation nonetheless.

I. James and Rachel Sockam, 1756 – 1757, near Rewastico Creek

The story begins with James Sockam and his wife, Rachel, who were living in the household of James Weatherly in Nanticoke Hundred, Somerset County, Maryland, in 1756. The following year, they had their own household in the same hundred. Lest today’s reader wrongly assume that this location was in today’s Somerset County, a word of explanation is in order. At that time, there was no Wicomico County, and Somerset and Worcester Counties included more than half of today’s Sussex County, Delaware. Nanticoke Hundred was the area between the Nanticoke and Wicomico Rivers, roughly. Although I’ve read that the area south of Broad Creek (today’s Little Creek Hundred) was considered part of Somerset County at the time, many land records identify tracts in this area as belonging to Worcester County.

Although the fairly large Nanticoke Hundred included (in today’s terms) Quantico, Hebron, parts of Salisbury, Delmar, and half of Laurel, land records pertaining to James Weatherly and other members of the Weatherly family help us to narrow it down. In 1716, a 136-acre tract of land named Weatherles Marshes was described as “lying and being in Somerset County on the southernmost side of Nanticoak River and on ye north side of Rowasticoe Creek…” The tract was patented to James and William Weatherly in 1728. In 1755, a 75-acre tract named Weatherly’s Lot was surveyed for James Weatherly, and was described as “Begining at a Marked Read Oak standing on the North side of Rewastico Creek back in the woods and on the East side of the main Road that leads from Rewastico Mill to Barren Creek Mill…” Other surveys pertaining to the Weatherly family point at the same general area: East of the Nanticoke, north of Rewastico Creek, and south of Barren Creek, roughly in the neighborhood of Hebron.

The record for 1757 tells us little more. James “Scokem” was now a head of household, but hadn’t moved far; James Weatherly’s household number was 163, while Sockam’s was 167. No household members other than Rachel are listed, but they wouldn’t have been unless they were at least 15 years old, so the couple may have had children.

The will of James Weatherly, Sr., dated 1761, mentions several slaves by their first names, as well as oddly referring to Joseph Weatherly as his “friend,” but does not mention the Sockams or offer any clues as to why they were dependents in his household just five years earlier. The place name Cedar Landing appears in the will a couple of times.

So it seems that I was wrong two years ago when I stated that James and Rachel Sockam probably lived in what is now Little Creek Hundred, Sussex County, Delaware. Between 1756 and 1757, at least, they lived near Rewastico Creek. The difference isn’t major — the two neighborhoods are only separated by a few miles, maybe a dozen, probably fewer than twenty — and doesn’t affect the theory that James Sockam might have been a Nanticoke Indian, since the territory in question was still Nanticoke territory, and wasn’t far from Chicacoan Town. However, it was a bit far from Wimbesoccom Creek, later known as Sockum Creek. I still believe that there must be a connection between this Nanticoke Indian place-name and the Sockum surname, but obviously the connection is a mystery at this point, and the fact that the earliest known Sockum didn’t live near Wimbesoccom raises even more questions.

II. Sockums in Dagsborough Hundred, 1770s – 1800

James — or possibly a son named James — next appears in “Dagsberry” Hundred in 1777, along with an Isaac Sockom. Both were considered colored. James appears in records throughout the 1780s and 1790s, always in Dagsborough Hundred. In 1784, a “widow Sockam” is mentioned. In 1795-1796, a Lowder or Loweder Sockum was taxed, also in Dagsborough Hundred. At that time, the hundred included the area east of Broad Creek, south of Indian River, and west of Vine Creek, including part of the future Gumborough Hundred. Interestingly, it also included the site of the old “Indian River Indian” reservation known as Askesky. The reservation lands were no longer owned by Indians in 1777, but it’s certainly possible that remnants of the local Indian tribes still lived nearby — and the Sockums in question may have been some of them.

These Indians (or part Indians) had consciously chosen to stay behind when most of the Nanticokes migrated north a few decades earlier. Why? We can only speculate. Maybe they had already mixed with whites and/or blacks and weren’t really considered part of the tribe. Maybe they preferred to adopt European culture, even if that meant forsaking much of their heritage and living as mulattoes. Maybe they just couldn’t bear to leave their homeland.

There is no proof that James Sockam was a Nanticoke Indian, or even part Indian. However, he certainly wasn’t white. My personal theory at this time is that he was at least part Nanticoke, probably with white and/or black blood, making him “colored” in the eyes of his white neighbors. His colored descendants — whether considered mulattoes or Negroes — would have naturally been more likely to marry blacks than whites due to the attitude of the times. Yet they also would have been likely to preserve stories of Indian ancestry if, in fact, they had any. If this was the case, then we should expect later Sockums to remember that heritage — which is exactly what happened in at least two branches of the family (see Section III).

The gap between 1757 and 1777 might have something to do with the resolution of the boundary dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania. A resident of the Dagsborough Hundred area prior to 1775 or thereabouts wouldn’t have appeared in any Sussex County records, since the territory was still claimed by Worcester County, Maryland.

III. Sockums in Sussex County, 1800 – 1820s

The name James Sockum (with spelling variations) appears in census records for 1800, 1810, and 1820:

1800: James Socom, Dagsborough Hundred, 4 free persons in household

1810: James Sockem, Little Creek Hundred, 8 free persons in household

1820: James Soccomm (or Soccaum; spelling unclear), Dagsborough Hundred, 2 foreigners not naturalized

These records raise more questions than they answer. Although each record indicates that the entire household was non-white, the connection to Little Creek Hundred is a bit confusing. It’s also unclear whether we’re dealing with one man named James Sockum, or more. With records spanning 1756 through 1820 — a period of 64 years — it seems certain that there were at least two. But was the James Sockam living in Dagsborough Hundred in 1820 the same man who was living there in 1777? Probably, but we can’t be certain.

The Little Creek Hundred record might be explained by the will of Levin Thompson, dated 1804 (with additions as late as 1810). Thompson was a free black who settled in Little Creek Hundred in the 1790s. He became rather wealthy and is an important figure in the history of the Laurel area, and may also be important in the history of the Sockum family. In 1801, Thompson was taxed in Dagsborough Hundred (where he also owned land), and apparently he had purchased 80 acres from James Sockam, though I’ve yet to find the deed. In his will, he left “the place where James Sockam formerly lived” to his son, “Clemmon.” It’s not entirely clear whether he was referring to land in Little Creek Hundred or Dagsborough Hundred. However, in 1817, Clement Thompson sold Levi Hopkins an 89-acre parcel of land in Dagsborough Hundred, which was described as “Beginning at a marked white oak standing on the north side of Shelah’s Branch between James Sockums and Ezekiel [Mearres?]…” Perhaps this parcel included the 80 acres his father had purchased from James Sockum years earlier. Assuming that Shelah’s Branch was an early name for Shoals or Shields Branch, the location was tantalizingly close to the site of the old Indian reservation, as well as Wimbesoccom Neck.

My personal theory at this time is that the records from 1777 through 1820 all referred to the same man, who may have been the son of the James Sockam who lived near Rewastico Creek in the 1750s. This second James Sockam/Sockum was considered colored, probably had at least six children, and probably died in the 1820s.

IV. Sockums in Sussex County, 1820s – 1880s

Between 1821 and 1850, four Sockum households were established in Sussex County, headed by men close enough in age to have been brothers, although there is no proof of that. In fact, their relationship to each other is unknown. But, since I’m speculating, let’s consider the possibility that all four were James Sockam’s sons.

  1. William Sockum was born between 1795 and 1806. In 1830, he was a “Negro” head of household in Broad Creek Hundred (which included the future Gumborough Hundred at that time) with a wife and a daughter under the age of 10. He might have moved away and died in Philadelphia in 1846; further research is needed.
  2. Levin Sockum was born in 1807, and was a head of household in Indian River Hundred by 1840. He had many children, and is the best-known Sockum for being convicted of selling ammunition and gunpowder to a mulatto in the 1850s, despite the buyer’s claim to be an Indian rather than a mulatto. The story of the trial has been told in many sources, notably Delaware’s Forgotten Folk by C. A. Weslager, so I won’t go into further detail here. His neighborhood was nicknamed Sockum or Down Sockum. Levin moved to New Jersey in the early 1860s, changed the family name to Sockume, and died in 1864. Levin’s branch of the family insisted that they were Indians, not mulattoes or Negroes.
  3. Elisha Sockom was born between 1805 and 1816, and was a head of household in Dagsborough Hundred in 1840. He was described as colored, and had three or four children at the time. He appears to have moved to Camden County, New Jersey, where records suggest that he may have been a few years older. An 1880 census record and his death certificate state that he was born in 1794.
  4. Isaac Sockum was born circa 1811, and was a head of household in Broadkill Hundred by 1850. He was described as a mulatto. He and his wife, Louise or Louisa Sammons, had several children. Interestingly, one son was named James. Another, Stephen, is mentioned in Delaware’s Forgotten Folk, and reported that Isaac had claimed that the family was descended from a white man who married an Indian chief’s daughter. Isaac died in Milton in 1894 at the age of 83. At one time, the site of his farm was known as Sockumtown.
Levin Sockum(e), 1807 - 1864

Levin Sockum(e), 1807 – 1864

Another Sockum of unknown origin from this period is a 41-year-old Stephen Sockum who died in 1850 and was buried in the Bethel Colored Burial Ground in Philadelphia, indicating that the Sockum family’s connection to Philadelphia and/or Camden County, New Jersey, existed before Levin moved there in the 1860s.

Yet another person of interest is Ann Sockam, who married Josiah Miller in Kent County, Delaware, in 1849. Although I haven’t done any research on this couple, it’s worth noting that Cheswold, Kent County, was (and is, to an extent) the home of a multiracial community of so-called Moors, which is known to have been connected to the similar community in Sussex County which founded the Nanticoke Indian Association. Additionally, there was a neighborhood named Sockum near Felton in the mid-19th century.

Of course, we can’t be certain that any of these individuals were siblings, but it seems likely that they were closely related. Names like James (for example, Levin’s son Levin James Sockum), Isaac, and Stephen appear often enough for a blood connection to be logical. So why did they all live so far apart? This is a mystery, especially since my theory holds that all had roots in Dagsborough Hundred, and in the original Nanticoke territory prior to that. One possibility which would require quite a bit of research to investigate is that the men married into other multiracial families living in smaller “Moor” communities which preceded the larger and better-known communities in Indian River Hundred and Cheswold. Isaac’s settlement in Broadkill Hundred may have had more to do with job opportunities; as a ship’s carpenter (in 1880), there were only so many places to work.

V. Thoughts on the Sockum Family’s Indian Heritage

The fact that both Levin and Isaac Sockum — who may or may not have been brothers — told their children stories about Indian heritage suggests that there was truth behind those stories. If they were brothers, and if their father was James Sockam of Dagsborough Hundred, and if his father was James Sockam of Rewastico Creek, then they were separated from the Nanticoke era — i.e., the reservations at Chicacoan and Broad Creek, and the Wimbesoccom event, and the exodus beginning in the late 1740s — by only a couple of generations. They thought of their Indian heritage the way that today’s millennials think of the Great Depression; they hadn’t experienced it directly, but it was much more than some distant myth.

The specific details of that heritage, of course, are very unclear. One problem with Isaac Sockum’s claim that a white man married the daughter of an Indian chief is that it doesn’t explain the surname; if Sockum is a Nanticoke name, then it’s highly unlikely that an Englishman would have adopted it or passed it on to his heirs. It’s more likely that an Englishman fathered illegitimate children with an Indian woman, and they wound up with an Indian surname. Or, a freed black slave with no surname married an Indian woman, and adopted an Indian name.

Another problem, though it’s a very minor one, is that the name Sockum isn’t connected to any known Indian individual in any historical sources. Maryland records include a number of 18th-century Nanticoke surnames, such as Asquash, Coursey, and Puckum, but neither Sockum nor any similar term appears in those records (of course, Sockum and Puckum are somewhat similar, but no link between the two has been found). However, since Wimbesoccom Creek was certainly a Nanticoke name, and it was later shortened to Sockum Creek, I think it’s safe to assume that the surname was also of Nanticoke origin.

Lower Sussex County, 1796.

Lower Sussex County, 1796

It’s interesting — but possibly a meaningless coincidence — that Sockum sounds similar to the Algonquin term sachem, which means chief or emperor, and that when the Nanticokes and other tribes held their famous powwow at Wimbesoccom in 1742, they claimed that they had gone there to elect an emperor. Could it be that the site was traditionally used by the tribe to meet and choose emperors? I tend to doubt it (I think the tribes met there in 1742 because it was conveniently located between the reservations at Broad Creek and Askesky, and was on the outskirts of the swamp), but I mention the possibility for the sake of thoroughness.

VI. Avenues for Further Research

The subject of the roots of the Sockum family is far from closed, and there are a number points which deserve further research, such as:

  1. The exact location of James Weatherly’s plantation near Rewastico Creek, and an explanation for why James and Rachel Sockam were living in his household in 1756. There is at least one reference to a tract of land named Sockum located in this general area; finding more information about it could be helpful.
  2. The meaning of Wimbesoccom and Sockum in the Nanticoke language. Although Nanticoke is considered a dead language, clues might be found in other Algonquin languages. These names were not just random combinations of sounds; they meant something to the people who used them in and prior to the 1750s.
  3. The presence of Sockums in New Jersey and/or Philadelphia in the early to mid-19th century. It seems clear that they moved there from Sussex County, but when? And why?
  4. The presence of Sockums in Kent County, Delaware, as well as the fact that there was a neighborhood named Sockum near Felton. When did the name begin to appear in records?
  5. More information on William Sockum and Elisha Sockom, who may have been part of the early migration to New Jersey and/or Philadelphia.
  6. More information on the spouses of the Sockums, and their ancestry.

– Chris Slavens

3 Comments

Filed under Delaware history, Maryland history, Nanticoke Indians, Sussex County

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Delmarva Geography, Maps, Maryland, Maryland history, Resources, Sussex County