Category Archives: Nanticoke Indians

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

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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

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List of Nanticoke leaders, 1668-1759


The following is an incomplete and imperfect list of Nanticoke leaders in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although relatively little of the tribal hierarchy is known, there seems to have been a hereditary emperor who exercised some degree of authority over the entire Nanticoke territory and those who lived there, including not only the Nanticokes, but also members of other tribes who were somehow his or the tribe’s subjects (e.g., the Wicomisses in 1668). Note that the Maryland authorities negotiated a treaty with the first emperor mentioned, Unnacokasimon, but eventually appointed or removed emperors as they saw fit. Lesser leaders, termed chiefs by the English, exercised authority at each town.

It is assumed that John Smith met an emperor in June of 1608, for his impressive map of the Chesapeake region published in 1612 shows a king’s house or town labeled Kuskarawaok about halfway up the river, but his account of the voyage does not mention an emperor, or any leader for that matter.

Between the 1640s and 1660s, official Maryland records usually describe the Nanticokes as hostile enemies of the province, but offer few details on the tribe.

Unnacokasimon (or Unnacokasinnon, Unnacokasimmon, etc.) was an emperor of the Nanticokes, and is assumed to have lived at Chicacoan Town. His subjects included the Wicomisses (not to be confused with the Wicomicos or Wicomicons). He signed an important peace treaty in 1668. By July 1687, he had died and been succeeded by his brother, Opeter, also known as Ohopperoon. Someone told the English that Unnacokasimon had been poisoned by members of the tribe who opposed the English (and, presumably, Unnacokasimon’s policy towards them), and that the new emperor was a usurper.

Opeter or Ohopperoon was Unnacokasimon’s brother, and became emperor when he died. It’s unclear when this occurred, but official documents penned in the summer of 1687 seem to imply that the transition had occurred recently. Someone told the Maryland authorities that Unnacokasimon had been poisoned by members of the tribe who opposed the English, and that Opeter was a usurper. However, he renewed his brother’s peace treaty shortly thereafter.

Ashquash was a son of Unnacokasimon. He was declared an enemy of the province in 1692, but remained emperor (or was later reinstated). In 1705, Panquash and “Annotoughk” signed a peace treaty on his behalf. In 1713, he left Maryland to live with the Susquehanna Indians.

Panquash was one of the leaders of the Nanticoke in 1698, when the General Assembly established the reservation on Chicacoan Creek. The legislation also mentioned Annatoughquan. Panquash was mentioned as one of the chiefs of the Nanticokes in 1719, and again in 1742. Alternate spellings include Panquas and Pantikas.

Annatoughquan or Anatocom was one of the leaders of the Nanticoke in 1698, when the General Assembly established the reservation on Chicacoan Creek. He was mentioned after Panquas. He and Panquash were still leaders in 1719.

Felton was briefly mentioned in 1698, when the English warned Panquash and “Armaulauquan” (possibly an alternate spelling of Annatoughquan) that they did not recognize his claim to be “Emperor of Nanticoke.”

Tom Coursey was one of three Nanticoke leaders who, in 1713, claimed that the tribe had never received “satisfaction” for the vandalism of a quiacason house six years earlier. He was joined by Panquash and Rossakatum.

Rossakatum or Rassekettham was joined Tom Coursey and Panquash  It is assumed that Laurel’s Rossakatum Branch, a tributary of Broad Creek, was named after him. He might have been associated with the Broad Creek reservation.

Henry Coursey was described as “the Emperor” in the early 1720s. His relationship to Dixon (or John) Coursey, who was a chief of the Nanticokes by 1742, is unclear.

William Asquash, son of Ashquash, was described as “the late Emperor’s son” in 1725. He lived in Chicacoan Town. It’s unclear whether he was also a chief. He may have been related to Abraham and Jemmey Ashquash, who were living in Chicacoan Town in 1742.

King Toby is assumed to have been a leader of the Nanticokes of Broad Creek Town. In 1725, he was one of the “certain Indians belonging to the Town of Broad Creek” who traveled to Dividing Creek and accused John Caldwell, Jr., Patrick Caldwell, and Thomas Caldwell of some kind of abuse. The record identifies the Indians as “King Toby Lolloway and whist,” making it unclear whether Lolloway was the second of three names, or King Toby Lolloway was one name. Previously, an Indian named Lolloway had been assaulted and badly injured. In 1742, the Shawnees took a Nanticoke named Toby up to Conoy Town. Additionally, a Nanticoke named Tom Tobe signed a petition in support of future emperor George Pocatehouse in the late 1750s. It’s unclear whether these men were related to King Toby.

Simon Alsechqueck was one of the chiefs of the Broad Creek Indians. He was involved in the Winnasoccum event in 1742, and was held by the English authorities until he and Captain John, another chief of the Broad Creek Indians, signed a peace treaty. In 1744, Simon and three other Nanticoke leaders requested permission for the tribe to leave Maryland.

Captain John was one of the chiefs of the Broad Creek Indians. He was involved in the Winnasoccum event in 1742, and was held by the English authorities until he and Simon Alsechqueck signed a peace treaty.

John Coursey, also known as Dixon Coursey, was one of the chiefs of the Nanticokes at Chicacoan Creek. He was involved in the Winnasoccum event in 1742, and was held by the English authorities until he and John Chinehopper, another chief, signed a peace treaty.

John Chinehopper was one of the chiefs of the Nanticokes at Chicacoan Creek. He was involved in the Winnasoccum event in 1742, and was held by the English authorities until he and John Coursey signed a peace treaty.

Note: Four Nanticoke leaders approached the authorities in 1744. Although Simon Alsechqueck was the only one mentioned by name, it seems reasonable to assume that the other three were Captain John, John Coursey, and John Chinehopper. It was at this time that most of the Nanticokes abandoned their reservations and migrated to Pennsylvania. The peace treaty signed in 1742 stipulated that the tribe could no longer elect an emperor.

Peter Prince seems to have been a leader of the Nanticokes who remained in Dorchester County after the majority left in 1744. He died before June 1758.

Peter Monk was identified as a Nanticoke in 1742, and testified against the Nanticokes and Broad Creek Indians. He was appointed to be the “Emperor of the Nanticoke Indians” by Governor Horatio Sharpe on June 3, 1758, following the death of Peter Prince. He was said by some to be a direct descendant of “Annotoughcan” (see above), but the following year Mary M. Cratcher testified that Monk was “a Descendent from the Indian River Indians in Worcester County, and no ways allied to the Nanticoke Indians as I have been Informed by the old Nanticoke Indians…” Apparently, Monk was replaced by George Pocatehouse.

George Pocatehouse or Pocatous was said to have been “a Descendant from the family of old Panquash,” and seems to have been appointed Emperor of the Nanticoke Indians in 1759 due to a controversy concerning the eligibility of his predecessor, Peter Monk.

– Chris Slavens

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

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

Screenshot_2015-09-07-12-05-05-1

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

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

– Chris Slavens

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Road research, part 1: Broad Creek to Indian River

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

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

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

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

Beers, edited

– Chris Slavens

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The Nanticokes’ Last Stand

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

The Nanticokes’ Last Stand
by Chris Slavens

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

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

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

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

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

Nanticoke territory, 1742

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Map of the Nanticoke Indians’ territory, 1742

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

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

Nanticoke territory, 1742

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Indian River Indians, Laurel, Maps, Nanticoke Indians, Sussex County