Tag Archives: American Indians

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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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Maps, Maryland, Maryland history, Nanticoke Indians, Sussex County

Quiacason House Sites of the Eastern Shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts:

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

– Chris Slavens

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Revisiting the Delaware Moors, Part I: The Legends

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 Roanoke Times, July 27, 1895

The Roanoke Times, Virginia; July 27, 1895

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

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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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