Category Archives: Laurel Historical Society

A Brief History of Broad Creek Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Chris Slavens

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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

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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

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