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Regua, Rigware, Ridgeway: The Evolution of a Nanticoke Surname

During the last couple of years I’ve written several articles about the Sockum family, notable for their unique surname and probable connection to the Nanticoke Indians. It’s a bit easier to research an unusual name like Sockum than others that are associated with the Nanticokes and Moors, such as Clark and Johnson.

The name Ridgeway might seem, at first glance, to be similarly mainstream, but a closer look at the Ridgeway family reveals that their name wasn’t originally Ridgeway, and they can be traced to a specific neighborhood in Sussex County. Considering their association with one of the oldest legends about the Moors’ origins, they are certainly deserving of more attention than they’ve received.

Notable Ridgeways include Eunice Ridgeway (1813 – 1896), the wife of Levin Sockum; and Cornelius Ridgeway, who was described as the “patriarch” of the Cheswold Moors in 1895, and who related a version of the legend in question.

Though there are a number of versions of what C. A. Weslager later dubbed the Romantic Legend, dating back to the 1850s but primarily recorded in the 1890s, many of the details are consistent. Rather than quote or summarize each version individually, I’ll list the core points:

  1. A white woman settled in or near Angola Neck, southwest of Lewes and in Indian River Hundred, roughly fifteen to twenty years before the American Revolution (i.e., 1756 – 1761).
  2. She was either Irish or Spanish, or, in one version, Irish with a claim to an estate in Spain.
  3. Her name was Regua, Señorita Requa, or Miss Reegan.
  4. She purchased some newly arrived slaves in Lewes, one of whom was very handsome. According to most versions, he could speak Spanish, and told her he was a Spanish and/or Moorish prince who had been sold into slavery. In one version, his name was Requa.
  5. The two married and produced mixed descendants who were scorned by the local whites, yet did not wish to marry the local blacks, so they either intermarried amongst themselves or married Indians. Their descendants in Indian River Hundred were numerous. Red hair is often mentioned.
  6. The name Regua (or Requa, etc.) evolved into the surname Ridgeway.

The facts are less dramatic, though they don’t disprove any of the plot points listed above, and are remarkably compatible with them.

John Regua, Indian River Hundred, 1740s – 1790s?

A mulatto whose name was recorded as John Rigway, John Regua, John Rigwaugh, John Rigwaw, and John Rigware, among other similar spellings, was living in Indian River Hundred as early as the 1740s. His daughters were baptized at St. George’s in 1748, and he purchased nearly 300 acres of land near Swan Creek from Cord Hazzard between 1753 and 1754. Variations of his name appear on tax lists throughout the following decades, and in my opinion, most of these creative spellings suggest that the name was not pronounced like the English surname Ridgeway. It seems more likely that the writers were struggling to spell a name which was unfamiliar, and probably foreign.

Although Regua is a rather obscure term, it could very well be Portuguese. Peso de Régua (or Pezo de Regoa) is a city in northern Portugal, and similar names can be found in Spain and in the Pacific. It should perhaps be noted here that another surname suspected to be of Portuguese or Spanish origin, Driggas or Driggers (possibly derived from Rodrigues or Rodriguez), appears in Indian River Hundred as early as 1770.

Little is known of John’s immediate family, and it’s difficult to connect the dots between him and later generations with certainty, but it’s likely that he had sons named William and Isaac, who, like him, appear in early tax lists for Indian River Hundred, as well as the records of St. George’s. In July 1785, William and Jane Riguway baptized a child who had been born nearly a year earlier, and just a few weeks later, Isaac and Lydia Riguway baptized a daughter named Allender. Isaac’s fate is unknown, but William appears in a number of records including the 1820 census (which vaguely described him as being 45 or older), and died before November 1826.

The Rigware family in Indian River Hundred, 1810 – 1840s

Census records allow us to identify several Rigware households in Indian River Hundred between 1810 and 1840, headed by:

  1. William Rigware, Sr., enumerated in 1820 and most likely the same man who was a taxable as early as 1774, and who is assumed to be John Regua’s eldest son. Interestingly, William’s household included one female slave who was 45 or older in 1820.
  2. Peter Rigware, age unknown, enumerated in 1810.
  3. John Rigware, enumerated in 1810 and 1820 with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1794. He is most likely the same man who appears in the 1830 census as John Rigway, aged 55-99, with a birthdate range of 1731 – 1775, and again in the 1850 census as 73-year-old John Ridgeway, living in the household of Nathaniel Clark in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred. Comparison of these slightly conflicting records suggests that he was born circa 1776.
  4. Simon Rigware, enumerated in 1820 and 1840, with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1785. In 1840, his name was given as “Simon Rigware alias Jack.”
  5. Jacob Rigware, enumerated in 1820 with a birthdate range of 1776 – 1794. In 1850, a 60-year-old Jacob Ridgway was living in the household of John and Hetty Harmon in Broadkill Hundred. If they are the same man, then Jacob was born circa 1790.

With the exception of the enigmatic female slave living in William Rigware’s household in 1820 (who may very well have been a family member), all of these men and their family members were described as free colored persons or mulattoes. Although researchers using resources like Ancestry.com will find transcribed spellings like Rigwars and Rigwan, a closer look at the handwritten records suggested that the correct spelling is, indeed, Rigware. It should be noted that during this period, the family remained concentrated in Indian River Hundred.

Rigware, Ridgway, and Ridgeway in 1850

The 1850 U.S. Federal Census is notable for the amount of information it provides. Previously, only heads of household were named, and the members of the household were vaguely listed by gender and age ranges. In 1850 (and in every census since), each member of the household was identified by name and age. When it comes to the Rigware family, the 1850 census provides evidence for two important trends. First, they had begun to migrate northward, appearing in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred, Broadkill Hundred, and Cedar Creek Hundred. Second, the name had been changed to Ridgway in certain instances.

Confusingly, the 1850 census also includes a number of Ridgeways who might or might not be related to the Rigwares. Connections to both New Jersey and Indiana are noted, which ought to interest anyone researching Nanticoke genealogy. However, I’ll ignore these households for the moment and focus on those which can reasonably be assumed to be related to the Rigwares of Indian River Hundred.

As was mentioned previously, John Ridgway, a 73-year-old mulatto, was living in the household of Nathaniel Clark in Lewis and Rehoboth Hundred. The name Clark, of course, has been associated with the Nanticoke Indian Association since its beginnings, and it was Lydia Clark who first recited a version of the Romantic Legend in 1855. Nathaniel’s wife was named Unicey, and they also had a daughter named Unicey, which might suggest some connection to Eunice Ridgeway, who was living with her husband, Levin Sockum, in Indian River Hundred at the time. It’s possible that the elder Unicey was John’s daughter, in which case her maiden name would have been Rigware or Ridgway. Some relationship between all of these individuals seems likely.

Eunice White Ridgeway, wife of Levin Sockum, 1813-1896.

Another John Ridgway was living in Broadkill Hundred at the time, though this one was 35. His wife, Sophia, was 20, while a third member of the household, 18-year-old Matilda Ridgway, may have been a younger sister.

Also in Broadkill Hundred was the household of John Harmon, who was 25. The only other members were his wife, Hetty, who was 20, and Jacob Ridgway, 60.

Moving northward, we come to the household of William Rigware, age 46, in Cedar Creek Hundred. He is assumed to have been the son of William Rigware, Sr., who lived in Indian River Hundred. William is notable for three reasons:

  1. He was the father of Cornelius Ridgeway, who was later described as the patriarch of the Cheswold Moors, and who remembered a version of the Romantic Legend.
  2. He continued to migrate northward between 1850 and 1860; when one considers his assumed residence in Indian River Hundred between his birth around 1804 and his father’s death in 1826, he is practically a direct link between the Indian River and Cheswold communities.
  3. By 1860, he, too, had changed his surname to Ridgeway.

Another person of interest in the 1850 census is a mulatto named Tilman (or Tilghman) Jack, who was living in Dover Hundred with his wife and six children. By 1870, he had become Tilghman Ridway and was living in Northwest Fork Hundred, near Seaford; by 1880, Tilghman Ridgeway and family were back in Dover. It should be remembered that Simon Rigware of Indian River Hundred was called “Simon Rigware alias Jack” in 1840. The significance of the Jack name is unclear.

The Ridgeway family in Kent County, 1850s – 1890s

By 1860, William Rigware had become William Ridgeway, and had moved his family to Duck Creek Hundred. Personally, I believe the change from Rigware to Ridgeway was deliberate. The former spelling, which followed older spellings like Rigwaugh and Regua, was used consistently for decades. I find it hard to believe that multiple individuals previously known as Rigwares suddenly became Ridgways or Ridgeways in 1850 without having decided to. It was not long after this that Levin Sockum’s family changed both the spelling and pronunciation of their surname to Sockume (sock-yoom). It’s possible that some of the multiracial families who claimed Indian ancestry changed their names during this period in a subtle attempt to improve their social status. Rigware was a mulatto name, Ridgeway was a white name — or so they may have reasoned. This is not to say that they were attempting to claim to be white; they continued to be described as mulattoes, and sometimes as blacks. Yet Weslager wrote of some of the Cheswold Moors successfully “passing” for white and moving away.

Cornelius Ridgeway — who was probably the great-grandson of John Regua — was talking about his own family’s history when he told a journalist about the legend of Señorita Requa in 1895, and had himself been a Rigware as a young boy.

Conclusion

Although there is no evidence that the Ridgeway family associated with the Nanticokes and Moors is descended from a white woman who married a handsome slave on her plantation in the Angola area in the 1750s, it’s a matter of fact that a free mulatto named John Regua bought a considerable amount of land in the right area during the right time period, and his descendants lived in Indian River Hundred for nearly a century before they began to migrate northward, and his surname evolved into Rigware by the late 18th century and Ridgeway by the mid-19th century. These facts are delightfully compatible with the core points of the Romantic Legend.

I should note at this point that there is no obvious connection to the historical Nanticoke Indians who lived along the Nanticoke River. I’ve called Ridgeway a Nanticoke surname in the sense that it is associated with the modern Nanticoke Indian Association and related groups in Kent County and New Jersey.

This article might have raised more questions than it has answered. Who was John Regua? Where did he come from? Where did he come by what seems to be a Portuguese name? Is it a coincidence that men named Driggas were among his neighbors, and Angola Neck was named after a major Portuguese colony?

Other surnames with a possible Portuguese or Spanish connection are found throughout the colonial records of the peninsula, such as Gonsolvos (Gonçalves), Francisco, and Dias. Some of them were associated with the Cheswold Moors.

When one considers these curious facts, the legends of the Nanticokes and Moors — including not only the Romantic Legend, but also tales involving shipwrecked pirates — begin to sound surprisingly plausible.

– Chris Slavens

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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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