Tag Archives: Nanticoke River

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

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. Although I’ve read that the area south of Broad Creek (today’s Little Creek Hundred) was considered part of Somerset County at the time, many land records identify tracts in this area as belonging to Worcester County.

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