Category Archives: Laurel

Will of Teague Matthews, Jr., of Sussex County, 1790

The following is a possibly imperfect transcription of the last will and testament of Teague Matthews, Jr., a native of Somerset County who seems to have moved to the Broad Creek area in the 1770s. He and his wife, Mary Truitt, had several children, from whom many of the Matthews of Sussex County are descended; their descendants also include members of the Vinson, Hitchens, Cannon, Messick, and Lewis families, among others. Teague lived on the outskirts of what was then known as the Pocomoke Swamp, on the east side of Wimbesoccom Creek (Gray’s Branch), and attended the recently completed Broad Creek Chapel (Old Christ Church). He died in the spring of 1790. It’s unclear whether he was buried at Broad Creek Chapel or on his own land; wooden grave markers have been found at both locations.

I’m working on a longer article about the Matthews family and their fascinating, overgrown family cemetery several miles east of Laurel, but in the meantime, here’s the text of the will for genealogists or anyone else who might be interested:

Will of Teague Matthews

In the Name of God Amen
I Teague Matthews of the County of Sussex and State of Delaware [planter?] being low and weak of body but of sound and perfect mind and memory, thanks be to God for it, and calling to mind the uncertainty of all human events, and that it is appointed unto all Men once to die I have thought proper to make and ordain this my Last Will and Testament, hereby disannulling and making void all other Will and Wills by me heretofore made in manner and form following. I give and bequeath unto Almighty God that gave it, my Immortal Soul, as for my body I desire it may be decently buried at the discretion of my Executors hereafter named; as for the Worldly Goods wherewith it have pleased God to endow me I give and bequeath in manner and form following…

I give unto my beloved Wife Mary Matthews the place I bought of John Jones, with all the Improvements thereunto belonging during her natural life of Widowhood, and I order that she shall not be in anywise disturbed in the use of my present dwelling houses untill she either dies, marries or my Son Phillip builds her a House, on the said place called Jones’s place, the House to be framed, eighteen feet by twenty a Brick Chimney and reasonable furnished: also I give unto my said Wife One yoke of Oxen, one black Colt, one Bed and furniture, one Ewe and Lamb, one Cow and Calf.

I give unto my Son Phillip my home plantation together with all the Improvements, thereunto belonging to him and his Heirs for ever, but my desire is that if he dispossesses of the said Lands and without lawful Heirs that he should leave it to my Son David. I also give unto my Son Phillip One Bay Mare, also one Bed and furniture also two Bull yearlings…

I give unto my Son James all the Lands that I bought of John Jones, together with all the Improvements thereunto belonging after the death or Marriage of my Wife, to him and his Heirs for ever…

I give my daughter Betty Vinson One Cow and Calf and one Ewe and Lamb more than she has already had from me…
I give unto my daughter Sally, One Cow and Calf, one Spinning Wheel, one pine Chest that she calls hers, one Bed and furniture, and One Ewe and Lamb…

I give unto my daughter Rebecca, One Bed and furniture, one Cow and Calf, one Chest that I formerly called mine and one Ewe and Lamb…

As for all the remainder of my moveable Estate I order that it may be equally divided between my Son James, my Son David, my Son Levi, my daughter Catharine and my daughter Prissa, and my desire is that the whole may be done in a quiet and peaceable manner. And I hereby leave my beloved Wife Mary Matthews and my Son Phillip Matthews, joint Executors of this my Last Will and Testament, In Witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and Seal this twenty third day of March. One thousand Seven hundred and Ninety.

Signed Sealed and delivered as the Testators Last Will and Testament being first duly published and pronounced in the presence of us Thos Conner. Molly Roach. Rebecca Conner.

Teague (his X mark) Matthews

Memorandum this 27. Day of April 1790 before me Phillips Kollock Register appointed for the probate of Wills and granting Letters of Administration for the County afsd. Appeared Thomas Connor and Rebecca Connor, two of the Witnesses to this foregoing Will, who being duly sworn on the Holy Evangels of Almighty God did severally depose and say that in their sight presence and hearing the Testator Teague Mathews did sign Seal publish and declare the same to be his Last Will and Testament, and that at the doing thereof he was of a sound and perfect mind memory and Judgment and that they and each of them together with Molly Roach subscribed the same as Witnesses in presence of the Testator and at his request. Phillips Kollock Reg.

– 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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Laurel’s forgotten house of worship?

Old Christ Church is probably Laurel’s best-kept secret. The locals know all about it, but the hordes of vacationers traveling up and down Route 13 have no idea that they’re within walking distance of a beautiful wooden chapel that has changed little since it was erected before the American Revolution. Located next to Chipman’s Pond, at a quiet wooded corner a mile or so east of the highway, the church and its ancient graveyard have lingered for generations, virtually untouched by time. And this is not one of those historical sites surrounded by fences and “keep out” signs; the public is invited into the magnificent structure several times a year for special services. I attended one such service this morning, and thoroughly enjoyed the sensation of stepping into the past.

Old Christ Church, 1936

Old Christ Church in 1936. Source: Library of Congress.

The church’s history is well-documented. It was built by Robert Houston, a wealthy shipbuilder and Presbyterian, between 1771 and 1772, and was originally known as Broad Creek Chapel. Houston was also the previous owner of the lot. At that time, the area was claimed by the Province of Maryland, and landowners were required to pay taxes (or tithes) to the established Church of England. The new “chapel of ease” at Broad Creek offered local parishioners a more convenient house of worship than the relatively distant mother church of Stepney Parish, located in what is now Wicomico County. The church’s subsequent history is summarized in many sources (including my incomplete and unpublished history of Laurel), but there’s a bit of a mystery concerning the history of the location prior to 1771.

In Scharf’s (pronounced Scarf’s) History of Delaware, published in 1888, contributing writer Rev. Benjamin Douglass mentioned an intriguing possibility: “We are inclined to believe that [Christ Church] was not the first building erected on this spot. Tradition points to a prior structure, of which none now can give us any exact information.” Some researchers have dismissed the suggestion as just another of the many errors in Scharf’s works, but I’m not so sure. There is no known evidence of an earlier Anglican chapel at Broad Creek, but another denomination was active in the area 25+ years before Broad Creek Chapel was built: the Presbyterians.

Is it possible that Old Christ Church stands on or near the site of a forgotten Presbyterian church?

Lower Sussex County, 1796.

Lower Sussex County, 1796.

Rev. Charles Tennent, a Presbyterian minister, was preaching at “Broad Creek Bridge” as early as 1747, and a Presbyterian church was built on the northern branch of Broad Creek around 1760. This is the same branch that flows through Chipman’s Pond, which was known as Church Creek as early as (and presumably before) the 1790s. I don’t know the exact location of this early Presbyterian church; it burned down during the Revolution, and a new church was built at a new location between 1787 and 1791. It’s interesting that Robert Houston was a prominent Presbyterian as well as the owner of land adjacent to Church Creek. Perhaps the first Presbyterian church was located on his land. I’d like to learn more.

Some possibilities to consider:

  1. It was not unusual for congregations to move churches from one location to another, so it’s possible that the poorly documented Presbyterian church built around 1760 stood on the site of Broad Creek Chapel at one time, but was moved prior to 1771.
  2. Perhaps the Presbyterian church built around 1760 wasn’t the first. Although it’s assumed that Tennent was preaching in private homes or outdoors in 1747, it’s possible that there was an early Presbyterian church which has been forgotten.
  3. More likely, in my opinion, the first Presbyterian church was built near the site of Broad Creek Chapel around 1760. Logically, it wouldn’t have been located very far from Broad Creek Bridge, so in the mid-1770s, the older Presbyterian church and the new Anglican chapel probably stood near each other. More than a century after the Presbyterian church burned, the locals vaguely remembered their parents and grandparents saying that Old Christ Church was not the first house of worship located next to Church Creek, or Chipman’s Pond. This may have been the tradition that Rev. Douglass referred to.

– Chris Slavens

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A Map in Progress, part 2

A few days ago I posted a draft of a map of the lower Delmarva Peninsula — portions of present-day Sussex, Dorchester, Wicomico, Worcester, and Somerset Counties — featuring villages and place names of the early 18th century. Although the locations of the Indian villages are approximate, and they may have been called by different names over the years, their existence is a matter of fact. Their names appear in colonial records, along with the names of nearby creeks and branches. We know when the reservations were established, who lived there, and about when they left. Some, but not all, appear on 18th-century maps.

The following map, though based on the same digital tracing of an old map of the peninsula, is a bit different. Locust Neck Town, Chicacoan Town, Broad Creek Town, and Askeckeky are still there, but I’ve added several sites that might have been home to Indian villages during or prior to the 17th century. Their names are italicized and I’ve placed question marks next to them. Just to be clear, there were many other villages. For example, in 1696 it was reported that there were at least ten Nanticoke villages, but I’ve shown the possible locations of only six. The text should be clear when viewed at full size.

Peninsula Indian Sites

 

Transquakine, also known as Ababco’s Town, was a Choptank village. I’ve placed it near the head of the Transquaking River, but I’m not at all certain about the location. It could be off by miles. The important thing is that there was such a village located in that general area. There were at least three Choptank villages during the 17th century.

Nause, a Nanticoke village, appears on John Smith’s map of Virginia, published in 1612. So does Nantaquack. I’ve tried to place them about where Smith placed them, but have no firsthand knowledge of either location.

Puckamee was the name of a neck of land on the north side of Barren Creek. In 1678, it was reported that Indians lived there; I assume they were Nanticokes.

I’ve placed possible village sites near present-day Sharptown and Bethel based on C. A. Weslager’s writings, but he was referring to archaeological evidence, not historical records, so there is no Nanticoke or English name for these sites. It’s possible that they were already old and abandoned by 1608. He thought that there was at least one village near Broad Creek when Smith traveled up the Nanticoke River. Based on all of the evidence I’m aware of, I can only guess that the village known as Broad Creek Town existed prior to 1705. Whether the Nanticokes reclaimed an old village, moved into an existing one, or established a new one at that time is unclear. It seems reasonable to assume that there were several villages and camps located along the creek and its branches during different eras prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Weslager also suggested, based on archaeological evidence, unexplained allusions in land records, and/or local folklore, that there were Nanticoke sites along Quantico Creek, Rewastico Creek, and Marshy Hope Creek. I haven’t looked into these locations yet, but might include them on a future draft of this map.

One of the most interesting sites is that of the “Indian Cabbin” mentioned in the 1720s. Indian Cabin Branch was a tributary of Deep Creek. Descriptions of an adjacent tract refer to Peterkin’s Branch and the Great Branch. According to Scharf, it was also known as Green Branch, and extended to Little Neck Branch. Unfortunately, none of these names appear on any map I’m familiar with, so I’ve simply placed the cabin near Deep Creek.

– Chris Slavens

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Bull’s Mills

A few days ago I posted a short piece about Terrapin Hill, a forgotten hamlet between Laurel and Gumboro, and mentioned Bull’s Mills a couple of times.

By the Civil War, the sawmill and gristmill named after Manaen Bull, a former British soldier who married Governor Nathaniel Mitchell’s widow, were already more than one hundred years old, having been built by Joseph Collins before 1760, when the area was still claimed by Maryland. They were built on a branch of Broad Creek known as Wimbesoccom Creek during the colonial era, Sockum Creek during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Gray’s Branch from about the 1850s to the present. In modern terms, they were located on the south side of Laurel Road (Route 24) immediately before the road to Trap Pond, though at that time that road didn’t exist and the Trap Mills were relatively unimportant.

There were only about a dozen houses clustered around Bull’s Mills, but the surrounding area was populated enough to justify a post office and schoolhouse. The nearest church was Bethesda M.E. Church, about a mile and a half to the southeast, but there was also a new Methodist Protestant (M.P.) congregation meeting in another schoolhouse, only about a mile to the northeast. They would eventually build their own church and name it Trinity.

It seems that there was a sizable black population in the area between Bull’s Mills and Hitchens’ Crossroads, about two miles north. In The Churches of Delaware, Frank R. Zebley briefly mentioned that “Gray’s Church, colored” was “located south of Record’s School near Gray’s Branch,” but offered no additional information. An A.M.E. church was built across from the Ross Point Colored School in 1884, on what is now East Trap Pond Road. I’m not sure how old the schoolhouse (which was replaced in 1922) was; it doesn’t appear on the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868, but the atlas isn’t perfect. Unfortunately, historians have tended to overlook 19th-century black churches, schools, and communities, particularly in rural areas.

Today you will not find the name Bull’s Mills on any map. Or Bull’s anything, for that matter. The community became known as Pepper’s Store or simply Pepper, and the old mill-pond was named Pepper Pond. The mills, store, and schoolhouse are long gone.

– Chris Slavens

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Terrapin Hill

If you were to travel from the thriving town of Laurel to Gumborough during the Civil War, you would not take today’s Route 24 to Lowes Crossroads. You couldn’t. At that time, the main road ran roughly parallel to what was known as the main branch of Broad Creek, veering southeast shortly after Bull’s Mills, about six miles east of town. A mile farther, and you’d be at Terrapin Hill, a low hill that was probably prime real estate during the colonial era, when the surrounding area was part of the Pocomoke or Cypress Swamp and the local landowners were still working to drain it with a network of ditches. There was a community there, smaller than a village, but busier than the typical country crossroads; there were four intersections within a quarter mile, and about thirty houses within a one-mile radius.

Terrapin Hill appears on a map published in 1856. I’m not sure how old the name was at that time. In Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware, Dorothy W. Pepper stated that the name was of Indian origin, but didn’t elaborate. I suspect she meant that terrapin is an Algonquian word, not that the Nanticokes named this specific location after terrapins. Other local Nanticoke place names include Asketum or Assacatum (possibly derived from ah!secque, or crane), Rossakatum, and Wimbesoccom or Winnasoccum (possibly derived from weensquaaquah, or cedar; wineak, or sassafras; and/or sachem, or chief). Nanticoke place names are a fascinating subject for another day.

There was a sawmill at Terrapin Pond, and another at nearby Raccoon Pond, which were owned by various members of the Hudson, Matthews, Wootten, and Cannon families over the years. The nearest gristmill and post office were back at Bull’s Mills. Two stores offered whatever the residents didn’t make or grow themselves. Most attended Bethesda M. E. Church, which had been built in 1823, but the slightly older St. John’s at Little Hill, a small Episcopal chapel, was only about a mile away. Children learned to read and write at the one-room Bethesda schoolhouse. From Terrapin Hill, you could travel south to Whitesville, southeast to Gumborough, or northeast to Lowe’s Crossroads and Millsborough—in the unlikely event that you needed or wanted to.

 A century and a half later, little remains of the community at Terrapin Hill. The stores, mills, and schoolhouse are gone, as are all but one of the old farmhouses. Bethesda M. E. Church, which was replaced in 1879, has been beautifully restored, but St. John’s was converted into a private residence a few years ago. Even the roads have changed; part of the old road to Little Hill has been a driveway for decades, and the road to Lowes Crossroads has vanished completely. Terrapin Hill still shows up on some modern maps, but the name is meaningless to most locals, little more than the fading ghost of a forgotten community.

Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, located near Raccoon Pond, was built in 1879. Photo taken by Brittney Slavens in February 2014.

Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, located near Raccoon Pond, was built in 1879. Photographed in February 2014.

– Chris Slavens

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