Tag Archives: Maryland

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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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Maryland history, Sussex County

Nanticoke Indian Surnames

Every word in the title of this post is inappropriate, to an extent. The following names are not all Nanticoke names, necessarily. They may or may not technically be surnames. And, of course, we all know that Native Americans shouldn’t have been called Indians. A more accurate title might be: “Family names associated with native peoples of the Delmarva Peninsula in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

Note that the following names are not associated with the modern Nanticoke Indian Association. Surnames like Clark and Harmon are certainly deserving of attention, but they’re also of European origin. I wish to briefly comment on a few surnames or family names that appear in historical records, definitely linked to local Indians, and definitely rooted in their language.

Asquash (or Ashquash)

Ashquash was a son of the Nanticoke emperor Unnacokasimon, who probably died in the 1680s. Unnacokasimon’s brother, Opeter or Ohopperoon, succeeded him following his death, but the English authorities believed the old emperor had been poisoned and viewed the brother as a usurper. His fate is unclear. Ashquash was emperor in 1705, but left the Eastern Shore in 1713 to live among the Susquehanna Indians.

In 1725, a William Asquash living in Chicacoan Town was described as “the late Emperor’s son.” In other records, the name was sometimes spelled Ashquash. The combination of an English first name and his father’s name is interesting; perhaps he wanted a surname to be more like his white neighbors. However, his relationship to others who apparently used the name Asquash as a surname is unclear. In 1742, Abraham and Jemmey Asquash were living in Chicacoan Town, while in 1757, a petition asking the provincial government to recognize George Pocatehouse as the emperor was signed by John Asquash, Nancy Ashquash, Molley Ashquash, Moses Ashquash, and William Ashquash.

The name is a fairly common word in Algonquian languages, referring to similar plants such as pumpkins, cucumbers, melons, etc., and is the basis for the English word squash. A much earlier example of its use as a name comes from Connecticut, where, in 1644, an Indian named Ashquash murdered an English servant.

Unfortunately, the name seems to have left the peninsula, and/or died out. I’ve searched in vain for records of later Asquashes or Ashquashes.

Cohonk

Cohonk, like Asquash, is an Algonquian term found beyond the Delmarva Peninsula. It referred to the honking of Canadian geese, and was also associated with the coming of winter or the passage of a year. In 1742, a James or Jamey Cohonk testified about the Wimbesoccom event; apparently he was from Chicacoan Town, making him a Nanticoke. He and other Cohonks were involved in the dispute about whether the provincial government should recognize Peter Monk or George Pocatehouse as the emperor in the late 1750s. Like Asquash, the name Cohonk seems to disappear from the records after that period.

Puckham or Puckum

The surname Puckham or Puckum is a bit problematic, because it could be a variation of the English surname Peckham, and is rather common. (A search of Ancestry.com for “puckham” yields nearly two million records, including spelling variations.) However, in the 1670s, there was a 1,500-acre Indian settlement on the east side of the Nanticoke River and on the north side of Barren Creek known as Puckamee. Furthermore, in 1682, an Indian named John Puckham married Jone Johnson, a free “negro” woman, in Stepney Parish, Somerset County. Stepney Parish covered the area between the Nanticoke and Wicomico Rivers. An excellent article at Native American Roots explains the view that Puckham may have been derived from Puckamee, which meant “a place to source red ochre.” Whatever its origins, the surname Puckham or Puckum has generally been associated with blacks since the colonial era.

Hop

Hop is not a name, per se, but it seems to have been part of many names. Unnacokasimon’s brother was Ohopperoon; John Chinehopper was a leader of the Nanticokes in 1742; Tom Hoppington was a Nanticoke from Chicacoan Town in 1742, and Hopping Sam was a chief of the Locust Neck Indians (or Choptanks) in 1742. It seems safe to assume that these names shared a common root.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware history, Maryland history, Nanticoke Indians

The Sockum Family and the Nanticoke Indians: Further Research

In March of 2014 I wrote an article entitled “Sockum and the Nanticokes of Broad Creek,” which summarized genealogical and historical data connecting the Sockum family to the Nanticoke Indians who lived around Broad Creek in the 18th century. The information raised more questions than it answered; although many Sockums appeared in early records — even as early as 1756 — it’s difficult to connect them to each other.

Although I haven’t uncovered any major new information (i.e., indisputable evidence of a Sockum-Nanticoke connection), with the annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow coming up in a few weeks, now is a perfect time to offer a somewhat tentative interpretation of some of the early Sockum information which might help us to better understand this family’s history. I want to make it clear that I’m engaging in speculation here — very informed speculation, based on primary sources like census and tax records — but speculation nonetheless.

I. James and Rachel Sockam, 1756 – 1757, near Rewastico Creek

The story begins with James Sockam and his wife, Rachel, who were living in the household of James Weatherly in Nanticoke Hundred, Somerset County, Maryland, in 1756. The following year, they had their own household in the same hundred. Lest today’s reader wrongly assume that this location was in today’s Somerset County, a word of explanation is in order. At that time, there was no Wicomico County, and Somerset and Worcester Counties included more than half of today’s Sussex County, Delaware. Nanticoke Hundred was the area between the Nanticoke and Wicomico Rivers, roughly. Somerset stretched northward along the west side of Stage Road to the site of present-day Laurel on Broad Creek.

Although the fairly large Nanticoke Hundred included (in today’s terms) Quantico, Hebron, parts of Salisbury, Delmar, and half of Laurel, land records pertaining to James Weatherly and other members of the Weatherly family help us to narrow it down. In 1716, a 136-acre tract of land named Weatherles Marshes was described as “lying and being in Somerset County on the southernmost side of Nanticoak River and on ye north side of Rowasticoe Creek…” The tract was patented to James and William Weatherly in 1728. In 1755, a 75-acre tract named Weatherly’s Lot was surveyed for James Weatherly, and was described as “Begining at a Marked Read Oak standing on the North side of Rewastico Creek back in the woods and on the East side of the main Road that leads from Rewastico Mill to Barren Creek Mill…” Other surveys pertaining to the Weatherly family point at the same general area: East of the Nanticoke, north of Rewastico Creek, and south of Barren Creek, roughly in the neighborhood of Hebron.

The record for 1757 tells us little more. James “Scokem” was now a head of household, but hadn’t moved far; James Weatherly’s household number was 163, while Sockam’s was 167. No household members other than Rachel are listed, but they wouldn’t have been unless they were at least 15 years old, so the couple may have had children.

The will of James Weatherly, Sr., dated 1761, mentions several slaves by their first names, as well as oddly referring to Joseph Weatherly as his “friend,” but does not mention the Sockams or offer any clues as to why they were dependents in his household just five years earlier. The place name Cedar Landing appears in the will a couple of times.

So it seems that I was wrong two years ago when I stated that James and Rachel Sockam probably lived in what is now Little Creek Hundred, Sussex County, Delaware. Between 1756 and 1757, at least, they lived near Rewastico Creek. The difference isn’t major — the two neighborhoods are only separated by a few miles, maybe a dozen, probably fewer than twenty — and doesn’t affect the theory that James Sockam might have been a Nanticoke Indian, since the territory in question was still Nanticoke territory, and wasn’t far from Chicacoan Town. However, it was a bit far from Wimbesoccom Creek, later known as Sockum Creek. I still believe that there must be a connection between this Nanticoke Indian place-name and the Sockum surname, but obviously the connection is a mystery at this point, and the fact that the earliest known Sockum didn’t live near Wimbesoccom raises even more questions.

II. Sockums in Dagsborough Hundred, 1770s – 1800

James — or possibly a son named James — next appears in “Dagsberry” Hundred in 1777, along with an Isaac Sockom. Both were considered colored. James appears in records throughout the 1780s and 1790s, always in Dagsborough Hundred. In 1784, a “widow Sockam” is mentioned. In 1795-1796, a Lowder or Loweder Sockum was taxed, also in Dagsborough Hundred. At that time, the hundred included the area east of Broad Creek, south of Indian River, and west of Vine Creek, including part of the future Gumborough Hundred. Interestingly, it also included the site of the old “Indian River Indian” reservation known as Askesky. The reservation lands were no longer owned by Indians in 1777, but it’s certainly possible that remnants of the local Indian tribes still lived nearby — and the Sockums in question may have been some of them.

These Indians (or part Indians) had consciously chosen to stay behind when most of the Nanticokes migrated north a few decades earlier. Why? We can only speculate. Maybe they had already mixed with whites and/or blacks and weren’t really considered part of the tribe. Maybe they preferred to adopt European culture, even if that meant forsaking much of their heritage and living as mulattoes. Maybe they just couldn’t bear to leave their homeland.

There is no proof that James Sockam was a Nanticoke Indian, or even part Indian. However, he certainly wasn’t white. My personal theory at this time is that he was at least part Nanticoke, probably with white and/or black blood, making him “colored” in the eyes of his white neighbors. His colored descendants — whether considered mulattoes or Negroes — would have naturally been more likely to marry blacks than whites due to the attitude of the times. Yet they also would have been likely to preserve stories of Indian ancestry if, in fact, they had any. If this was the case, then we should expect later Sockums to remember that heritage — which is exactly what happened in at least two branches of the family (see Section III).

The gap between 1757 and 1777 might have something to do with the resolution of the boundary dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania. A resident of the Dagsborough Hundred area prior to 1775 or thereabouts wouldn’t have appeared in any Sussex County records, since the territory was still claimed by Worcester County, Maryland.

III. Sockums in Sussex County, 1800 – 1820s

The name James Sockum (with spelling variations) appears in census records for 1800, 1810, and 1820:

1800: James Socom, Dagsborough Hundred, 4 free persons in household

1810: James Sockem, Little Creek Hundred, 8 free persons in household

1820: James Soccomm (or Soccaum; spelling unclear), Dagsborough Hundred, 2 foreigners not naturalized

These records raise more questions than they answer. Although each record indicates that the entire household was non-white, the connection to Little Creek Hundred is a bit confusing. It’s also unclear whether we’re dealing with one man named James Sockum, or more. With records spanning 1756 through 1820 — a period of 64 years — it seems certain that there were at least two. But was the James Sockam living in Dagsborough Hundred in 1820 the same man who was living there in 1777? Probably, but we can’t be certain.

The Little Creek Hundred record might be explained by the will of Levin Thompson, dated 1804 (with additions as late as 1810). Thompson was a free black who settled in Little Creek Hundred in the 1790s. He became rather wealthy and is an important figure in the history of the Laurel area, and may also be important in the history of the Sockum family. In 1801, Thompson was taxed in Dagsborough Hundred (where he also owned land), and apparently he had purchased 80 acres from James Sockam, though I’ve yet to find the deed. In his will, he left “the place where James Sockam formerly lived” to his son, “Clemmon.” It’s not entirely clear whether he was referring to land in Little Creek Hundred or Dagsborough Hundred. However, in 1817, Clement Thompson sold Levi Hopkins an 89-acre parcel of land in Dagsborough Hundred, which was described as “Beginning at a marked white oak standing on the north side of Shelah’s Branch between James Sockums and Ezekiel [Mearres?]…” Perhaps this parcel included the 80 acres his father had purchased from James Sockum years earlier. Assuming that Shelah’s Branch was an early name for Shoals or Shields Branch, the location was tantalizingly close to the site of the old Indian reservation, as well as Wimbesoccom Neck.

My personal theory at this time is that the records from 1777 through 1820 all referred to the same man, who may have been the son of the James Sockam who lived near Rewastico Creek in the 1750s. This second James Sockam/Sockum was considered colored, probably had at least six children, and probably died in the 1820s.

IV. Sockums in Sussex County, 1820s – 1880s

Between 1821 and 1850, four Sockum households were established in Sussex County, headed by men close enough in age to have been brothers, although there is no proof of that. In fact, their relationship to each other is unknown. But, since I’m speculating, let’s consider the possibility that all four were James Sockam’s sons.

  1. William Sockum was born between 1795 and 1806. In 1830, he was a “Negro” head of household in Broad Creek Hundred (which included the future Gumborough Hundred at that time) with a wife and a daughter under the age of 10. He might have moved away and died in Philadelphia in 1846; further research is needed.
  2. Levin Sockum was born in 1807, and was a head of household in Indian River Hundred by 1840. He had many children, and is the best-known Sockum for being convicted of selling ammunition and gunpowder to a mulatto in the 1850s, despite the buyer’s claim to be an Indian rather than a mulatto. The story of the trial has been told in many sources, notably Delaware’s Forgotten Folk by C. A. Weslager, so I won’t go into further detail here. His neighborhood was nicknamed Sockum or Down Sockum. Levin moved to New Jersey in the early 1860s, changed the family name to Sockume, and died in 1864. Levin’s branch of the family insisted that they were Indians, not mulattoes or Negroes.
  3. Elisha Sockom was born between 1805 and 1816, and was a head of household in Dagsborough Hundred in 1840. He was described as colored, and had three or four children at the time. He appears to have moved to Camden County, New Jersey, where records suggest that he may have been a few years older. An 1880 census record and his death certificate state that he was born in 1794.
  4. Isaac Sockum was born circa 1811, and was a head of household in Broadkill Hundred by 1850. He was described as a mulatto. He and his wife, Louise or Louisa Sammons, had several children. Interestingly, one son was named James. Another, Stephen, is mentioned in Delaware’s Forgotten Folk, and reported that Isaac had claimed that the family was descended from a white man who married an Indian chief’s daughter. Isaac died in Milton in 1894 at the age of 83. At one time, the site of his farm was known as Sockumtown.
Levin Sockum(e), 1807 - 1864

Levin Sockum(e), 1807 – 1864

Another Sockum of unknown origin from this period is a 41-year-old Stephen Sockum who died in 1850 and was buried in the Bethel Colored Burial Ground in Philadelphia, indicating that the Sockum family’s connection to Philadelphia and/or Camden County, New Jersey, existed before Levin moved there in the 1860s.

Yet another person of interest is Ann Sockam, who married Josiah Miller in Kent County, Delaware, in 1849. Although I haven’t done any research on this couple, it’s worth noting that Cheswold, Kent County, was (and is, to an extent) the home of a multiracial community of so-called Moors, which is known to have been connected to the similar community in Sussex County which founded the Nanticoke Indian Association. Additionally, there was a neighborhood named Sockum near Felton in the mid-19th century.

Of course, we can’t be certain that any of these individuals were siblings, but it seems likely that they were closely related. Names like James (for example, Levin’s son Levin James Sockum), Isaac, and Stephen appear often enough for a blood connection to be logical. So why did they all live so far apart? This is a mystery, especially since my theory holds that all had roots in Dagsborough Hundred, and in the original Nanticoke territory prior to that. One possibility which would require quite a bit of research to investigate is that the men married into other multiracial families living in smaller “Moor” communities which preceded the larger and better-known communities in Indian River Hundred and Cheswold. Isaac’s settlement in Broadkill Hundred may have had more to do with job opportunities; as a ship’s carpenter (in 1880), there were only so many places to work.

V. Thoughts on the Sockum Family’s Indian Heritage

The fact that both Levin and Isaac Sockum — who may or may not have been brothers — told their children stories about Indian heritage suggests that there was truth behind those stories. If they were brothers, and if their father was James Sockam of Dagsborough Hundred, and if his father was James Sockam of Rewastico Creek, then they were separated from the Nanticoke era — i.e., the reservations at Chicacoan and Broad Creek, and the Wimbesoccom event, and the exodus beginning in the late 1740s — by only a couple of generations. They thought of their Indian heritage the way that today’s millennials think of the Great Depression; they hadn’t experienced it directly, but it was much more than some distant myth.

The specific details of that heritage, of course, are very unclear. One problem with Isaac Sockum’s claim that a white man married the daughter of an Indian chief is that it doesn’t explain the surname; if Sockum is a Nanticoke name, then it’s highly unlikely that an Englishman would have adopted it or passed it on to his heirs. It’s more likely that an Englishman fathered illegitimate children with an Indian woman, and they wound up with an Indian surname. Or, a freed black slave with no surname married an Indian woman, and adopted an Indian name.

Another problem, though it’s a very minor one, is that the name Sockum isn’t connected to any known Indian individual in any historical sources. Maryland records include a number of 18th-century Nanticoke surnames, such as Asquash, Coursey, and Puckum, but neither Sockum nor any similar term appears in those records (of course, Sockum and Puckum are somewhat similar, but no link between the two has been found). However, since Wimbesoccom Creek was certainly a Nanticoke name, and it was later shortened to Sockum Creek, I think it’s safe to assume that the surname was also of Nanticoke origin.

Lower Sussex County, 1796.

Lower Sussex County, 1796

It’s interesting — but possibly a meaningless coincidence — that Sockum sounds similar to the Algonquin term sachem, which means chief or emperor, and that when the Nanticokes and other tribes held their famous powwow at Wimbesoccom in 1742, they claimed that they had gone there to elect an emperor. Could it be that the site was traditionally used by the tribe to meet and choose emperors? I tend to doubt it (I think the tribes met there in 1742 because it was conveniently located between the reservations at Broad Creek and Askesky, and was on the outskirts of the swamp), but I mention the possibility for the sake of thoroughness.

VI. Avenues for Further Research

The subject of the roots of the Sockum family is far from closed, and there are a number points which deserve further research, such as:

  1. The exact location of James Weatherly’s plantation near Rewastico Creek, and an explanation for why James and Rachel Sockam were living in his household in 1756. There is at least one reference to a tract of land named Sockum located in this general area; finding more information about it could be helpful.
  2. The meaning of Wimbesoccom and Sockum in the Nanticoke language. Although Nanticoke is considered a dead language, clues might be found in other Algonquin languages. These names were not just random combinations of sounds; they meant something to the people who used them in and prior to the 1750s.
  3. The presence of Sockums in New Jersey and/or Philadelphia in the early to mid-19th century. It seems clear that they moved there from Sussex County, but when? And why?
  4. The presence of Sockums in Kent County, Delaware, as well as the fact that there was a neighborhood named Sockum near Felton. When did the name begin to appear in records?
  5. More information on William Sockum and Elisha Sockom, who may have been part of the early migration to New Jersey and/or Philadelphia.
  6. More information on the spouses of the Sockums, and their ancestry.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware history, Maryland history, Nanticoke Indians, Sussex County

Using Maryland’s Plats.net to research colonial Sussex

A couple of weeks ago a fellow from the lower Eastern Shore contacted me and casually mentioned that I live in what was once Old Somerset before William Penn stole it, and went on to call the Pennsylvania founder a “thieving bastard.” He was alluding to the ancient boundary dispute which resulted in the running of the Transpeninsular Line and the Mason-Dixon Line, giving a substantial portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Pennsylvania — wrongly, in the opinion of some. I tend to share this opinion.

The fact that western and lower Sussex County, Delaware, used to be part of Somerset or Worcester County, Maryland, depending on the time period, is a source of confusion for many researchers, particularly those who are searching for the locations of early settlements. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, Maryland land records are arguably easier to access than those of Delaware.

Plats.net, hosted by the State of Maryland, is an incredibly useful resource for anyone researching the early history of, say, Seaford, Laurel, Gumboro, Selbyville, etc. You can find a Beginners Guide here, which covers the basics, but I’ve learned a couple of tricks to get the most out of the site.

Typically, after selecting a county (either Somerset or Worcester for the Broad Creek area, for example) I do an Advanced Search and enter part of a name — of an individual or a tract of land — in the Description box, then change the the sort order from the default setting, Date Descending, to Date Ascending, so that the oldest records will be listed first. There’s a reason I enter part of a name rather than the entire name. Spellings of even simple names vary — i.e., Stephens vs. Stevens — so it can be helpful to search for the part of the name that is most likely to be spelled consistently. For example, “dolb” rather than Dolby or Dolbee will yield results for both. Or “collin” will pull up records for Collins as well as Collings, an early spelling of the name. Sometimes the old spellings are nearly unrecognizable; for example, Brazier rather than Brasure — yet a search for “bra” would cover both.

Tract names are also subject to spelling variations, i.e., Forrest vs. Forest, Hogg vs. Hog, Lott vs. Lot, etc. Sometimes you have to be creative.

Once you’ve pulled up a particular record, there is usually no need to struggle to read the entire text. All have the same basic format. You can usually skip down to the description of the tract, which will read, “Beginning at a markd white oke on ye south side of Broad Creek…” or something similar. Typically, the only place-names to appear in the descriptions are those of waterways — and more often than not, the names of smaller waterways are obsolete and don’t appear on any map — but sometimes specific neighbors, roads, and even towns will be referenced. There will also be a diagram of the tract, but — frustratingly — this will almost never include any landmarks other than the trees used as markers.

50-acre tract "Priveledge" surveyed for George "Tomson" in 1743, probably in today's Gumboro

50-acre tract “Priveledge” surveyed for George “Tomson” in 1743, probably in today’s Gumboro

Despite the vague descriptions, these records can be used to determine which neighborhood a particular plantation was located in. Later records, even Delaware deeds, might refer to the tract by name and provide more details. For example, a large tract along Broad Creek, patented to Joseph Collins in 1762 and named Collins Industry, was referred to in dozens of deeds in the following decades as the tract was gradually divided into many smaller parcels.

I’ve identified a couple of the old creek names in the Broad Creek area, like Wimbesoccom Creek (today’s Gray’s Branch), and only recently decided that the frequently referenced Bald Cypress Branch probably ran through Trussum Pond rather than Trap Pond (neither of which was known as such during the colonial era). This is a sort of ongoing back-burner project.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Delmarva Geography, Maps, Maryland, Maryland history, Resources, Sussex County

Indian Town Creek(s) in colonial Sussex

Even the most experienced historians and genealogists consider the land records of colonial Sussex County to be unusually challenging. Much of the territory was once claimed by both Pennsylvania and Maryland, and although Pennsylvania eventually came out ahead in that dispute, more than half of the county was patented to Marylanders who paid Maryland’s taxes and obeyed Maryland’s laws into the 1770s. To further complicate the situation, the Maryland portion was originally part of Old Somerset County, but most of it was included in the new Worcester County in 1742. The shifting boundary lines can make it seem like a particular family relocated several times, when, in fact, their (quite stationary) farm may have been located in Somerset County, Maryland; Worcester County, Maryland; and Sussex County, Delaware, in a period of just over thirty years.

However, the shifting boundaries aren’t nearly as confusing as the ever-changing and -evolving of the hundreds of tiny creeks and branches which are often the only geographical references found in early land records. Typically, surveyors referred to the nearest river and the nearest of its tributaries, the neighboring farmer if there was one, and occasionally a county road. It seems that many of these tributaries had numerous names over the years, few of which appear on surviving maps. Pinpointing the location of a particular location can become frustrating, and possibly even futile, when its description includes a place-name that doesn’t seem to appear in any other records. Or, worse, when the same name was given to entirely separate waterways or other places in the same region.

For example, at one point, more than one local river or creek had a Great Branch, which was, of course, accompanied by a Great Neck. In the Broad Creek area, there was a Bald Cypress Branch which does not appear labeled as such on any map, yet just a few miles away, a tributary of the Pocomoke River is known as Bald Cypress Branch to this day.

An especially confusing, yet important, example is the name Indian Town Creek or Indian Town Branch. The name doesn’t appear on any map that I’m aware of. Even the most seasoned researcher could be forgiven for coming across the name in colonial Worcester land records and not realizing that it belonged to two different creeks; one in Baltimore Hundred, now known as Dirickson Creek; and the other less than a day’s journey away near the head of Indian River, now known as Irons Branch, which was a boundary of the so-called Indian River Indians’ reservation known as Askeksy. As both are on the south side of Indian River, surveys which mention the creeks can sound as if they’re describing the same neighborhood.

The first, but perhaps lesser-known Indian Town Creek, is a tributary of the body of water known as the Sound, or Little Assawoman Bay. It’s labeled Herring Creek on the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868 (itself a cause of confusion, since there is a Herring Branch just a few miles northwest), but has been known as Dirickson Creek since at least 1901.

The origin of this name is rather mysterious, and surely deserving of further research. Obviously, English settlers named the creek after a nearby Indian settlement — but where was it? When was it established? Who lived there? And when did they leave?

It’s possible that the band of migrating refugees who would become known as the Indian River Indians lived near the creek in the late 1600s. In 1705, their chief Robin stated that they had been forced to move from the Buckingham area to “Assawamen” before migrating northward yet again. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t have joined an existing Indian settlement. Chief Robin’s brief statement allows for many possibilities, and the name Assawamen shouldn’t necessarily be associated with the Little Assawoman Bay (a later name for the Sound), anyway. In the absence of additional written information, archaeology might be able to shed light on the Indian presence at this location. What is certain is that the English continued to call the creek Indian Town Creek or Branch long after the town in question had been abandoned; the name appears in Worcester County land records in the mid-1700s, and was still in use when the original Sound Methodist Church was built on the southeast side of the creek in 1784.

Since the second and better-known Indian Town Branch was the home of the Indian River Indians from at least 1705 into the 1740s, I’ll briefly comment on their journey from Assawamen to that final settlement. According to Robin, the band had lived at another site near Indian River after their (presumably involuntary) departure from Assawamen. We can only speculate as to where this settlement, perhaps occupied during the 1690s or even later, was located, but I think it’s worth noting that there is a persistent, albeit controversial, local legend associating Blackfoot Town (Dagsboro) with Indians. Without getting into all of the arguments for and against this alleged connection, I’d like to point out that Blackfoot Town was conveniently located between the head of the Sound and Askeksy, on one of the tributaries of Indian River. And although I’m not arguing that Blackfoot was an Indian name (for one thing, the name doesn’t appear in English records until the 1740s), I am suggesting that if the English village of Blackfoot developed on or near the site of an Indian settlement — possibly even the Indian River settlement alluded to by Robin — it might explain why local folklore vaguely hints at a Blackfoot Town – Indian connection. This is simply speculation on my part.

Wherever the band’s first Indian River settlement was located, their next stop is well-documented. By 1705 they were living along a tributary near the head of Indian River, in the sparsely inhabited, swampy, northern outskirts of Somerset County, but were fearful of being forced to move yet again. In response to Robin’s request, the colonial Maryland government created a 1,000-acre reservation which apparently included the land the group was already living on. It was known as Askeksy or Askekecky (among other spellings), but the English unimaginatively called the residents of the reservation the “Indian River Indians,” and the creek that formed much of the reservation’s southern boundary was called Indian Town Branch, or sometimes Indian Branch. But, like its relative in Baltimore Hundred, it, too, was renamed. By the late 1800s, it was known as Yellow Branch (which is itself an interesting name; is it a coincidence that the local multiracial descendants of the various Indian tribes were called “yellow men,” as opposed to white, black, or red men, at that time?). During the first half of the 20th century, the branch’s eastern prong continued to be labeled Yellow Branch on U. S. Geological Survey maps, but the northern portion was known as Irons Branch, and eventually the name Yellow Branch fell out of use.

– Chris Slavens

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Blackfoot Town (Dagsboro) in colonial primary sources

The early history of the town of Dagsboro, located in lower Sussex County just off Route 113, is a matter of controversy and speculation, as anyone who has ever googled the subject is aware. Scharf’s History of Delaware, published in 1888, states that the town was known as Blackfoot Town before it was renamed Dagsbury in memory of General John Dagworthy, and subsequent sources have repeated the information. However, specifics concerning the origins of the town and its unusual name are frustratingly elusive, inspiring theories about settlers slogging through black mud, or even Blackfoot Indians.

The purpose of this post is not to comment on those theories, but simply to offer some early primary source references to Blackfoot Town. They’re not necessarily the earliest; just the earliest I’ve stumbled upon. Since the name doesn’t appear on any map, the best place to start is colonial land records for Worcester County.

The description of Thomas Dazey’s 62-acre tract named Jacob’s Neglect, surveyed in 1748, states that the boundaries began “at a marked White Oak standing on the North side of the County Road that leads to blackfoot Town…” This tract was patented to Dazey (or Dasey, presumably one of the forerunners of the local Daisey clan) in 1755. According to Scharf, Thomas Dasey lived in Baltimore Hundred. I’m unsure about the location of the county road; possibilities include roads from Blackfoot Town to Cedar Neck, the Sound, or St. Martin’s River and points south.

Survey for Thomas Dazey, 1748

When the surveyor John Watson traveled to Fenwick’s Island in December 1750 to begin surveying and marking the Transpeninsular Line, he mentioned in his journal that the party stopped at Blackfoot Town and”lodged some at one Carters an Inkeeper & one Reads a private House.” He described the territory between “Lewis” and Blackfoot as “Barren Grounds,” and estimated that the towns were about twenty-two miles apart; a very accurate estimate which proves that the town was, in fact, located on or very near the site of Dagsboro.

Work on the line was suspended nearly a month later due to inclement weather. The party made their way from Romley Marsh across the Head of Sound, then crossed Black Foot Creek on a makeshift bridge of two logs while the horses swam across. They reached Blackfoot Town in the early afternoon, and stayed at Joseph Carter’s inn again. Black Foot Creek was probably an early or alternate name for Pepper’s Creek or, less likely, Herring Branch, although both names were already in use at that time. Throughout his brief entries, Watson used the spellings: Blackfoot Town, Black foot Town, Blackfoot, and Black foot. I include them all for the sake of search engines.

When a 265-acre tract named Red Oak Ridge (not to be confused with unrelated tracts sharing the same name) was resurveyed for Uriah Brookfield in 1756, the first boundary marker was described as “standing on a ridge on the southeast side of the Cyprus Swamp Road about five miles above Blackfoot Town back in the woods & about a mile to the eastward of a cyprus swamp called the Green Swamp…”

Another reference appears in the description of a 100-acre tract named Waples Luck, surveyed for Paul Waples in 1757. Although the wording is a bit confusing, “a County Road leading from Snow Hill to Lewis Town” and “a place called blackfoot Town” are mentioned. This tract may have been adjacent to the town, which might explain the number of Waples households in and around Dagsborough in 1868, according to the Pomeroy & Beers Atlas. Other tracts patented to Paul Waples mention Pepper’s Creek. Paul was the son of Peter Waples, who settled on the north Shore of Indian River (Pennsylvania territory) in the 1690s and ran a ferry across the river. The name Ferry Cove still appears on some modern maps.

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Yet another reference can be found in a survey for Joshua Burton, dated 1760. His tract named Trouble Reviewed was described as “lying and being in [Worcester County] above black foot Town…” and “near the lower end of the Indian Land…” This is almost certainly a reference to the old reservation known as Askekecky (among other spellings) bordered by today’s Indian Town Road, south of Millsboro and northwest of Dagsboro.

Survey for Joshua Burton, 1760

Based on these four sources alone, we can be certain that:

  1. Blackfoot Town, whatever its origins, was established by 1748.
  2. A creek to the south of the town was also named Blackfoot or Black Foot, though it’s hard to say which was named first.
  3. Joseph Carter ran an inn there in the early 1750s, and a man named Read lived nearby.
  4. Paul Waples owned a considerable amount of land near, and possibly in, the town by the late 1750s.

We can probably assume that there were also a couple of mills nearby, and although there’s no record of a house of worship prior to the construction of Prince George’s Chapel between 1755 and 1757, there were Presbyterian and Anglican churches within a somewhat reasonable distance.

The colonial history of this part of Sussex County is murkier than others. Blackfoot Town, and settlements near the Sound and Fenwick’s Island — not to mention the branch of the Sound known as Indian Town Creek — are surely deserving of further research.

– Chris Slavens

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Askeksy and the “Indian River Indians”

By the beginning of the 18th century, the dwindling peninsula Indian tribes had been herded, through a series of wars and peace treaties, into several settlements, some of which were officially recognized and reserved for them by the colonial governments, and some of which were simply located on unclaimed land. One of the latter was the last refuge of a band of Indians – probably Assateagues – who had been forced to move several times, leaving the Buckingham area in eastern Somerset (now Worcester, near Berlin) at an unknown date, and migrating north in search of a new home. They settled at a place called Assawamen, which was probably a tributary of the Sound known as Indian Town Branch (now Dirickson Creek), but moved north again to the south side of Indian River, which was the de facto boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania at the time. The subject of this article, their final recognized settlement, was in existence by 1705, and was known by several similar names, including Askeksy, Askekesky, Askeckeky, Askekson, Acksquessance, and Askquessence. The Indians themselves, because they had settled near the Indian River (also known as the Baltimore River) , became known as the Indian River Indians. It should be noted that this name referred to this specific band of Indians, although others lived on both sides of the river. Their name for themselves does not appear in any records from the period.

The so-called Indian River Indians first appear in official records dated May 1705, when their chief Robin appeared in Annapolis and signed a peace treaty on behalf of “Queen Wyransconmickonous.” Representatives of the Nanticokes and Choptanks also signed the treaty. Robin went on to tell Governor John Seymour that his people had “Extremly Suffered of Late Years by being disturbed & Expulsed from their several Settlements in Towns,” and were living in a town at the head of Indian River, but were “Continually Threaten’d to be Driven from thence…” He requested that the land on which their settlement was located, as well as one thousand adjacent acres, be reserved for the tribe’s use. The request was approved.

Askecksky

In modern terms, Askeksy was located south of Millsboro between Irons Branch and Route 24. The branch was known as Indian Town Branch or Indian Branch during the 18th century, and clearly matches the southern boundary of the tract. This boundary more or less survives as Indian Town Road (which was known as Injun Town Road for decades and as recently as a few years ago) and a portion of Hickory Hill Road. The location of the northwestern boundary is a bit less clear, but it seems like Route 24 follows it roughly, or was at least laid out in relation to portions of it. The following map shows how modern roads roughly outline the old reservation over three hundred years after it was established.

Approximate location of Askeksy; compare to above survey

Based on descriptions of nearby tracts surveyed for William Burton, as well as modern estimates of the extent of the Pocomoke or Cypress Swamp prior to drainage and timbering efforts, the reservation was probably somewhat swampy, or at least very close to the swamp’s northern edge. The description of a tract named Panter Swamp mentioned a waterhole on or near the west prong of Indian Town Branch. There were still black bears and timber rattlesnakes in the area at the time.

At about the same time that Askeksy was established, most of the Nanticokes moved from their reservation known as Chicacoan Town, near Vienna, to a site on Broad Creek which came to be known as Broad Creek Town. Aside from the fact that their leaders and Robin appeared in Annapolis at the same time, there is little information about their dealings with their new neighbors, just fourteen miles away. Recently I wrote about a so-called horse road which was in existence in 1748, connecting Broad Creek and the head of Indian River; this road may have begun as a trail between the two Indian settlements.

Nanticoke territory, 1742

Though the Indian River Indians aren’t mentioned in official records nearly as often as the Nanticokes, if the Nanticokes’ experiences during this period are any indication, they struggled to preserve their property and way of life as more and more land was cleared and farmed by the English. Sometimes the white farmers interfered with Indian hunters. Perhaps that’s why they joined the Nanticokes, Choptanks, Pocomokes, and visiting Shawnees at a place called Winnasoccum or Wimbesoccom for a secret powwow in June 1742. The tribes planned to massacre the local English settlers and retake the peninsula with the help of the French, who supposedly promised to land on the coast. The plot was discovered and thwarted, several Indians were arrested and interrogated, and in August the leaders of the Nanticokes, Choptanks, Indian River Indians, Pocomokes, and Assateagues signed a new, highly restrictive peace treaty. Tom Hill and Robin (probably the first Robin’s son) were identified as chiefs of the Indian River Indians.

In the years following the suppression of the Winnasoccum Uprising, as the event has been labeled by some, many of the peninsula Indian tribes abandoned their lands and migrated to Pennsylvania. The Indian River Indians had already sold hundreds of acres to local English settlers prior to 1742, and sold the remainder of their reservation to William Burton in 1743. There is no known record of their existence as an organized tribe or band following this sale, and strictly speaking, their fate is unknown. They may have joined the Nanticokes at Broad Creek Town, many of whom moved north in 1744. Perhaps they moved north, too, or perhaps, like some of the Nanticokes, they lingered in the area, intermarrying with whites and/or blacks and producing new generations of mulattoes who gradually adopted English ways and preserved vague traditions about Indian ancestry. If so, it seems likely that some would have joined the multiracial community on the north shore of the Indian River which was in existence as early as the 1840s, and which eventually spawned the Nanticoke Indian Association.

– Chris Slavens

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