Category Archives: Nanticoke Indians
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.
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
The Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance invites the public to its annual Chicone Village Day, which will be held on Saturday, April 29th, at its Handsell property in Dorchester County.
From their site:
The NHPA was formed in 2005 to purchase and restore one of Dorchester County, Maryland’s most interesting and intriguing historic structures, an old ivy-covered brick building located in the middle of what is known as “the Indiantown”. After just a little bit of research, we knew we were on to something BIG. As the layers of the story unfolded, through research in archives, deeds, Wills and historic family letters, a better yet not fully complete story emerged of native people, licensed Indian traders, English settlers, British attacks, merchant activity and structural devastation.
The location is notable for its connection to all three of the major groups to call the neighborhood home during the colonial era: Nanticoke Indians, free and enslaved blacks, and English settlers. Since purchasing the property, the NHPA has worked to restore the brick house, and has erected authentic native structures.
For more information, visit restorehandsell.org.
– Chris Slavens
During the last couple of years I’ve written several articles about the Sockum family, notable for their unique surname and probable connection to the Nanticoke Indians. It’s a bit easier to research an unusual name like Sockum than others that are associated with the Nanticokes and Moors, such as Clark and Johnson.
The name Ridgeway might seem, at first glance, to be similarly mainstream, but a closer look at the Ridgeway family reveals that their name wasn’t originally Ridgeway, and they can be traced to a specific neighborhood in Sussex County. Considering their association with one of the oldest legends about the Moors’ origins, they are certainly deserving of more attention than they’ve received.
Notable Ridgeways include Eunice Ridgeway (1813 – 1896), the wife of Levin Sockum; and Cornelius Ridgeway, who was described as the “patriarch” of the Cheswold Moors in 1895, and who related a version of the legend in question.
Though there are a number of versions of what C. A. Weslager later dubbed the Romantic Legend, dating back to the 1850s but primarily recorded in the 1890s, many of the details are consistent. Rather than quote or summarize each version individually, I’ll list the core points:
- A white woman settled in or near Angola Neck, southwest of Lewes and in Indian River Hundred, roughly fifteen to twenty years before the American Revolution (i.e., 1756 – 1761).
- She was either Irish or Spanish, or, in one version, Irish with a claim to an estate in Spain.
- Her name was Regua, Señorita Requa, or Miss Reegan.
- She purchased some newly arrived slaves in Lewes, one of whom was very handsome. According to most versions, he could speak Spanish, and told her he was a Spanish and/or Moorish prince who had been sold into slavery. In one version, his name was Requa.
- The two married and produced mixed descendants who were scorned by the local whites, yet did not wish to marry the local blacks, so they either intermarried amongst themselves or married Indians. Their descendants in Indian River Hundred were numerous. Red hair is often mentioned.
- The name Regua (or Requa, etc.) evolved into the surname Ridgeway.
The facts are less dramatic, though they don’t disprove any of the plot points listed above, and are remarkably compatible with them.
John Regua, Indian River Hundred, 1740s – 1790s?
A mulatto whose name was recorded as John Rigway, John Regua, John Rigwaugh, John Rigwaw, and John Rigware, among other similar spellings, was living in Indian River Hundred as early as the 1740s. His daughters were baptized at St. George’s in 1748, and he purchased nearly 300 acres of land near Swan Creek from Cord Hazzard between 1753 and 1754. Variations of his name appear on tax lists throughout the following decades, and in my opinion, most of these creative spellings suggest that the name was not pronounced like the English surname Ridgeway. It seems more likely that the writers were struggling to spell a name which was unfamiliar, and probably foreign.
Although Regua is a rather obscure term, it could very well be Portuguese. Peso de Régua (or Pezo de Regoa) is a city in northern Portugal, and similar names can be found in Spain and in the Pacific. It should perhaps be noted here that another surname suspected to be of Portuguese or Spanish origin, Driggas or Driggers (possibly derived from Rodrigues or Rodriguez), appears in Indian River Hundred as early as 1770.
Little is known of John’s immediate family, and it’s difficult to connect the dots between him and later generations with certainty, but it’s likely that he had sons named William and Isaac, who, like him, appear in early tax lists for Indian River Hundred, as well as the records of St. George’s. In July 1785, William and Jane Riguway baptized a child who had been born nearly a year earlier, and just a few weeks later, Isaac and Lydia Riguway baptized a daughter named Allender. Isaac’s fate is unknown, but William appears in a number of records including the 1820 census (which vaguely described him as being 45 or older), and died before November 1826.
The Rigware family in Indian River Hundred, 1810 – 1840s
Census records allow us to identify several Rigware households in Indian River Hundred between 1810 and 1840, headed by:
- William Rigware, Sr., enumerated in 1820 and most likely the same man who was a taxable as early as 1774, and who is assumed to be John Regua’s eldest son. Interestingly, William’s household included one female slave who was 45 or older in 1820.
- Peter Rigware, age unknown, enumerated in 1810.
- John Rigware, enumerated in 1810 and 1820 with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1794. He is most likely the same man who appears in the 1830 census as John Rigway, aged 55-99, with a birthdate range of 1731 – 1775, and again in the 1850 census as 73-year-old John Ridgeway, living in the household of Nathaniel Clark in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred. Comparison of these slightly conflicting records suggests that he was born circa 1776.
- Simon Rigware, enumerated in 1820 and 1840, with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1785. In 1840, his name was given as “Simon Rigware alias Jack.”
- Jacob Rigware, enumerated in 1820 with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1794. In 1850, a 60-year-old Jacob Ridgway was living in the household of John and Hetty Harmon in Broadkill Hundred. If they are the same man, then Jacob was born circa 1790.
With the exception of the enigmatic female slave living in William Rigware’s household in 1820 (who may very well have been a family member), all of these men and their family members were described as free colored persons or mulattoes. Although researchers using resources like Ancestry.com will find transcribed spellings like Rigwars and Rigwan, a closer look at the handwritten records suggested that the correct spelling is, indeed, Rigware. It should be noted that during this period, the family remained concentrated in Indian River Hundred.
Rigware, Ridgway, and Ridgeway in 1850
The 1850 U.S. Federal Census is notable for the amount of information it provides. Previously, only heads of household were named, and the members of the household were vaguely listed by gender and age ranges. In 1850 (and in every census since), each member of the household was identified by name and age. When it comes to the Rigware family, the 1850 census provides evidence for two important trends. First, they had begun to migrate northward, appearing in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred, Broadkill Hundred, and Cedar Creek Hundred. Second, the name had been changed to Ridgway in certain instances.
Confusingly, the 1850 census also includes a number of Ridgeways who might or might not be related to the Rigwares. Connections to both New Jersey and Indiana are noted, which ought to interest anyone researching Nanticoke genealogy. However, I’ll ignore these households for the moment and focus on those which can reasonably be assumed to be related to the Rigwares of Indian River Hundred.
As was mentioned previously, John Ridgway, a 73-year-old mulatto, was living in the household of Nathaniel Clark in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred. The name Clark, of course, has been associated with the Nanticoke Indian Association since its beginnings, and it was Lydia Clark who first recited a version of the Romantic Legend in 1855. Nathaniel’s wife was named Unicey, and they also had a daughter named Unicey, which might suggest some connection to Eunice Ridgeway, who was living with her husband, Levin Sockum, in Indian River Hundred at the time. It’s possible that the elder Unicey was John’s daughter, in which case her maiden name would have been Rigware or Ridgway. Some relationship between all of these individuals seems likely.
Another John Ridgway was living in Broadkill Hundred at the time, though this one was 35. His wife, Sophia, was 20, while a third member of the household, 18-year-old Matilda Ridgway, may have been a younger sister.
Also in Broadkill Hundred was the household of John Harmon, who was 25. The only other members were his wife, Hetty, who was 20, and Jacob Ridgway, 60.
Moving northward, we come to the household of William Rigware, age 46, in Cedar Creek Hundred. He is assumed to have been the son of William Rigware, Sr., who lived in Indian River Hundred. William is notable for three reasons:
- He was the father of Cornelius Ridgeway, who was later described as the patriarch of the Cheswold Moors, and who remembered a version of the Romantic Legend.
- He continued to migrate northward between 1850 and 1860; when one considers his assumed residence in Indian River Hundred between his birth around 1804 and his father’s death in 1826, he is practically a direct link between the Indian River and Cheswold communities.
- By 1860, he, too, had changed his surname to Ridgeway.
Another person of interest in the 1850 census is a mulatto named Tilman (or Tilghman) Jack, who was living in Dover Hundred with his wife and six children. By 1870, he had become Tilghman Ridway and was living in Northwest Fork Hundred, near Seaford; by 1880, Tilghman Ridgeway and family were back in Dover. It should be remembered that Simon Rigware of Indian River Hundred was called “Simon Rigware alias Jack” in 1840. The significance of the Jack name is unclear.
The Ridgeway family in Kent County, 1850s – 1890s
By 1860, William Rigware had become William Ridgeway, and had moved his family to Duck Creek Hundred. Personally, I believe the change from Rigware to Ridgeway was deliberate. The former spelling, which followed older spellings like Rigwaugh and Regua, was used consistently for decades. I find it hard to believe that multiple individuals previously known as Rigwares suddenly became Ridgways or Ridgeways in 1850 without having decided to. It was not long after this that Levin Sockum’s family changed both the spelling and pronunciation of their surname to Sockume (sock-yoom). It’s possible that some of the multiracial families who claimed Indian ancestry changed their names during this period in a subtle attempt to improve their social status. Rigware was a mulatto name, Ridgeway was a white name — or so they may have reasoned. This is not to say that they were attempting to claim to be white; they continued to be described as mulattoes, and sometimes as blacks. Yet Weslager wrote of some of the Cheswold Moors successfully “passing” for white and moving away.
Cornelius Ridgeway — who was probably the great-grandson of John Regua — was talking about his own family’s history when he told a journalist about the legend of Señorita Requa in 1895, and had himself been a Rigware as a young boy.
Although there is no evidence that the Ridgeway family associated with the Nanticokes and Moors is descended from a white woman who married a handsome slave on her plantation in the Angola area in the 1750s, it’s a matter of fact that a free mulatto named John Regua bought a considerable amount of land in the right area during the right time period, and his descendants lived in Indian River Hundred for nearly a century before they began to migrate northward, and his surname evolved into Rigware by the late 18th century and Ridgeway by the mid-19th century. These facts are delightfully compatible with the core points of the Romantic Legend.
I should note at this point that there is no obvious connection to the historical Nanticoke Indians who lived along the Nanticoke River. I’ve called Ridgeway a Nanticoke surname in the sense that it is associated with the modern Nanticoke Indian Association and related groups in Kent County and New Jersey.
This article might have raised more questions than it has answered. Who was John Regua? Where did he come from? Where did he come by what seems to be a Portuguese name? Is it a coincidence that men named Driggas were among his neighbors, and Angola Neck was named after a major Portuguese colony?
Other surnames with a possible Portuguese or Spanish connection are found throughout the colonial records of the peninsula, such as Gonsolvos (Gonçalves), Francisco, and Dias. Some of them were associated with the Cheswold Moors.
When one considers these curious facts, the legends of the Nanticokes and Moors — including not only the Romantic Legend, but also tales involving shipwrecked pirates — begin to sound surprisingly plausible.
– Chris Slavens
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
I was a teenager when I first heard someone use the term Moor to refer to a member of central Sussex County’s multiracial community, which claims and celebrates Native American ancestry. “Moor?” I asked, confused, thinking of northern Africa. “What’s that mean?” The response was quipped like a punchline: “More nigger than anything.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but C. A. Weslager had mentioned a similar tongue-in-cheek explanation of the odd label in his book Delaware’s Forgotten Folk: The Story of the Moors and Nanticokes, published in 1943. During that era of segregation, such a remark was not only a crude joke, but relegated the target to the second-class colored community. Since before the Civil War, Delawareans who claimed Indian ancestry had been accused, by both whites and blacks, of being nothing more than blacks seeking special treatment.
But the local term Moor, as an ethnic label, doesn’t seem to have originated as a racial slur. In fact, the so-called Delaware Moors identified themselves as Moors as early as the 19th century, if not earlier. But what’s the story behind the name?
Scharf’s History of Delaware, published in 1888, offers the following description of the group in question in Sussex County:
In the hundreds of Indian River, Lewes and Rehoboth and Dagsborough are a numerous class of colored people, commonly called yellow men, and by many believed to be descendants of the Indians, which formerly inhabited this country. Others regard them as mulattoes and still others claim that they are of Moorish descent. From the fact that so many of them bear the name of Sockum, that term has also been applied to the entire class of people. Of their genealogy, Judge George P. Fisher said:
“About one hundred and fifty years ago a cargo of slaves from Congo River was landed at Lewes, and sold to purchasers at that place. Among them was a tall, fine-looking young man about five and twenty years. This man was called Requa, and was remarkable for his manly proportions and regular features, being more Caucasian than African. Requa was purchased by a young Irish widow, having red hair, blue eyes and fair complexion. She afterwards married him. At that time the Nanticoke Indians were still quite numerous at and near Indian River. The offspring of Requa and his Irish wife were not recognized in the white society, and they would not associate with the negroes, and they did associate and intermarry with the Indians.
“This statement was made on oath of Lydia Clark, at Georgetown, in 1856, in the trial of the case of the State against Levin Sockum for selling, contrary to law, powder and shot to one Isaiah Harman, alleged to be a free mulatto. The question upon which the case turned was whether Harman really was a free mulatto, and the genealogy of that race of people was traced by Lydia Clark, then about eighty-seven years of age, who was of the same race of people.
“The court was so well convinced of the truth of Lydia’s testimony that Sockum was convicted of the charge preferred against him.
“This race of people are noted as peaceable, law-abiding citizens, good farmers, and are known as Moors, but without any foundation. The name Requa or Regua is now handed down as Ridgeway.”
The exclusiveness spoken of continues to the present time. This class of people maintains its separate social life (so far as it is possible to do so) seldom intermarrying with the negroes or mulattoes, and support separate churches. The number in the county is diminishing, owning to removals and natural causes but enough remain to make it a distinctive element.
Interestingly, Fisher wrote an article for the Milford Herald in 1895 which offers a somewhat different version of the story (which was picked up by numerous newspapers across the country around that time). In this slightly later version, it is the Irish lady who was named Regua, and she purchased a slave of “dark ginger-bread color, who claimed to be a prince or chief of one of the tribes of the Congo River…” Though most of the details are the same, the few differences raise questions about Fisher’s reliability, as in each case he is supposedly recounting Lydia Clark’s testimony.
The article from 1895 might be more valuable for Fisher’s recollections from his own childhood, particularly of Noke Norwood, said to be Lydia Clark’s brother:
When I was a boy and young man, the general impression prevailing in the several parts of this State where this race of people had settled was that they had sprung from some Spanish Moors who, by chance, had drifted from the southern coast of Spain prior to the Revolutionary War and settled at various points on the Atlantic Coast of the British colonies; but exactly where and when, nobody could tell.
This story of their genesis seemed to have originated with, or at any rate, was adopted by the last Chief Justice, Thomas Clayton, whose great learning and research gave semblance of authority to it, and, like almost everybody else, I accepted it as the true one for many years, although my father, who was born and reared in that portion of Sussex County where these people were more numerous than in any other part of the State, always insisted that they were an admixture of Indian, negro and white man, and gave his reason therefore–that he had always so understood from Noke Norwood, whom I knew when I was a small boy. Noke lived, away back in the 20’s, in a small shanty long since removed, situated near what has been known for more than a century as Sand Tavern Lane, on the West side of the Public Road and nearly in front of the farmhouse now owned by Hon. Jonathan S. Willis, our able and popular Representative in Congress.
I well remember with what awe I contemplated his gigantic form when I first beheld him. My father had known him as a boy, and I never passed his cabin without stopping. He was a dark, copper-colored man, about six feet and half in height, of splendid proportions, perfectly straight, coal black hair (though at least 75 years old), black eyes and high cheek bones.
Fisher was born in 1817, so according to him, a legend concerning Spanish Moors settling on the coast prior to the Revolution was widely known in Delaware during his youth — say, 1820s – 1840. This is important, because Clark never actually said the word Moor in her testimony, and it’s difficult to determine when Delawareans started using the word as an ethnic label.
In 1898, William H. Babcock visited the Indian River community and wrote an article entitled “The Nanticoke Indians of Indian River, Delaware,” which was published in American Anthropologist the following year.
There are two remnants of Indian population in eastern Delaware, not far from the coast — the so-called Moors of Kent county and the more southerly Nanticokes on Indian river in Sussex county.
Of the former I can speak by report only, not having visited them. According to an old legend they are the offspring of Moors shipwrecked near Lewes; a more romantic version gives them only one Moorish progenitor — a captive prince who escaped from his floating prison and found wife and home among the half-Indian population alongshore. There are said to be two or three hundred of these people, clustering mainly around Chesholm, a hamlet and railroad station a few miles south of Dover. The Philadelphia Press for December 1st, 1895, presents a series of portraits which, if accurate, go far to sustain the contention of the Nanticokes that there is not much in common between the two peoples; but their intercourse is too slight and infrequent for their judgment to be conclusive. They consider the Chesholm people to be a mixture of Delaware Indians with some Moorish or other foreign strain. According to their tradition the Nanticoke and Delaware tribes were often at war in the old time, and even yet there would seem to be a barrier of rather more than indifference between them.
Babcock’s distinction between Moors in Kent County and Nanticokes in Sussex County is interesting, though not strictly accurate. Barrier or not, the communities at Cheswold and Indian River were connected by marriage, and shared many of the same surnames (not to mention the same folklore), before 1898 (and probably before the Civil War). Weslager’s later research among the Cheswold Moors revealed that some claimed Nanticoke, and even Pocomoke, ancestry, remembering the specific creeks in Sussex County and Maryland that their grandparents had lived by. And, of course, the members of the Indian River community were known as Moors, too. However, it’s a matter of fact that the Indian River people legally established a new Indian tribe in the form of the Nanticoke Indian Association, while the people at Cheswold continued to call themselves Moors long afterward (though today there is a “Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware” based in Cheswold). Is this important? Maybe, maybe not.
In his History of the State of Delaware, published in 1908, Henry Clay Conrad made a rather sensational statement in a section about Kent County:
James Green another large owner of land in Duck Creek Hundred owned a large tract in Kenton known as “Brenford,” Philip Lewis took up several large tracts adjoining these and extending from a small settlement known as the “Seven Hickories,” on the road from Dover to where the village of Kenton was eventually built on his land; and one thousand acres adjoining the settlement of “Seven Hickories” were owned by Moors who came to the Hundred direct from Spain in 1710, and who settled in a village known as Moortown on the Dover-Kenton road.
In 1785 these Moors owned large estates and had a prosperous and thriving community. John and Israel Durham were leading members of this settlement. They and their descendants refused to mingle with their white or black neighbors and have maintained to this day their pure Moorish blood. Several families now remain in this section as direct descendants of these Moors.
Conrad’s account seems to be an exaggerated interpretation of a much more reasonable passage in Scharf’s history of Kenton Hundred:
West of the town of Moorton are a class of people who claim that they are original Moors. At one time they owned over a thousand acres between Seven Hickories and Moorton. They claim to have settled here about 1710. In 1785 there were several families owning quite large estates, among whom were John and Israel Durham. They have always lived apart from both white and colored neighbors, and have generally intermarried, and steadily refused to attend the neighboring colored schools. In 1877, Hon. Charles Brown, of Dover, gave them ground and wood for a building near Moore’s Corner, and since that time they have maintained a school there at their own expense. There are about fifteen families remaining.
The information published by Scharf is surprisingly specific. I.e., in the 1880s, the residents of the community west of Moorton claimed Moorish ancestry, and furthermore claimed that their ancestors had settled in the neighborhood circa 1710. These claims are fairly subdued compared to the other legends involving shipwrecks and African princes. This doesn’t make them true, but it does make them difficult to ignore; the researcher feels compelled to take a closer look.
To be continued…
– Chris Slavens