Tag Archives: Sussex County
This week I’ve been looking at an interesting early settler in the Trap Pond area named Matthew Hosea (pronounced Hozey). I don’t know when he came here or where he came from, but he received a patent for a 100-acre tract named New Dublin in 1716, and was a head of household in 1723, according to the earliest tax list. That’s very early for the neighborhood in question.
Hosea probably lived closer to Trussum Pond and James Branch than to Trap Pond. His “neck of the woods” was called both Hosea’s Neck and the Great Neck, and as early as 1730, surveyors noted a path leading from Matthew Hosea’s to Indian River. I suspect this path crossed either Trap Pond or Raccoon Pond, and parts of it probably survive today. In 1734, a 50-acre tract named Snow Hill (not to be confused with other tracts named Snow Hill) was patented to Hosea; its first bounder was “a Marked White oake standing one the north side of a branch of Broad Creek called the bald Syprus Branch a Littell Distance from the side Of the sd branch and a bout two hundred pole [1,100 yards] above wheere Matthew Hosey Now Lives in a Neck called the Great Neck…”
Hosea’s descendants held onto his land for a long time, possibly even into the 20th century, and a local schoolhouse was labeled Hosey School on maps as recently as 1945.
It would be irresponsible to try to guess what kind of man Hosea was. Why did he settle in what was then an untamed wilderness, far from neighbors and even churches? Was he a sort of free spirit who craved independence in isolation? Or was he a sterner sort of fellow who simply settled where he could afford to?
We can only be sure of one thing: He had to work very, very hard just to survive, build a farm, and provide for his family, out here on the outskirts of civilization.
– Chris Slavens
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.
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
A few days ago I was reading the will of Cord Hazzard, made in 1766, in the hopes of learning more about a piece of land he sold to John Regua in 1754, and noticed that he had given his son, David, “…one negro boy named Sambo and one negro boy named Paris and one negro boy named Ceasor…” Slaves, in other words.
I’ve been looking at a number of records pertaining to free blacks lately, and have always been interested in connecting free blacks to slave ancestors, so I did a few quick searches to see if I could learn any more about Sambo, Paris, and Ceasor. Surprisingly, potential matches for all three appear in census records from 1800 through 1830.
First, a bit of background information. Cord Hazzard was one of several men with that name; I can think of four off the top of my head. The unusual name was most likely inspired by a member of the local Cord family. He is most likely the same Cord Hazzard who had a 100-acre tract named Flat Land surveyed for him in 1727. Though located in Somerset County, Maryland, at the time, a reference to a path from Cedar Neck points to today’s Baltimore Hundred in Sussex, perhaps near Ocean View. It seems the peninsular boundary dispute didn’t faze Cord, for he also acquired lands on the north side of Indian River, then controlled by Pennsylvania. Other members of the Hazzard family owned a great deal of land in what is now eastern Sussex.
Although I don’t know exactly where Cord was living when he made his will, it mentions Swan Creek Branch and Long Neck, both in Indian River Hundred. The probate date is January 11, 1771, meaning Cord died in late 1770 or early 1771.
When David Hazzard made his will in 1790, he mentioned sons Cord, David, James, and John, but not Sambo, Paris, or Ceasor. It’s possible that they were simply considered part of his estate, and divided among the sons, or it’s possible that they were no longer in the elder David’s possession at the time. Strictly speaking — and without digging through manumission records and the like at the Delaware Public Archives — their fate is unknown.
But speculatively speaking, which is more fun, a handful of 19th-century census records suggest that they might have been freed and might have kept/taken the Hazzard surname.
In 1800, there was a free colored head of household in Broadkiln Hundred named Parris Hazzard, and a free colored head of household in Mispillion Hundred named Caesar Hazzard.
Interestingly, there is also an 1810 record for a man named Paris Coard who was living in Broadkiln Hundred. There is no reason to assume that Paris Hazzard changed his surname to Coard, and this might be a coincidence, but it’s worth noting. It’s also worth noting that there were Mispillion heads of household listed as “Ceasar F. N.” and “Sambo F. N.” (free Negro) in 1810, but these are probably not our guys. Sambo is probably the man named Sambo Bounds in the 1820 census. There were also a number of other free black men named Caesar and Sambo living in Kent and Sussex Counties during the early 19th century.
In 1820, Casar Hazzard was a head of household in Murderkill Hundred, aged 45 or older, with a son aged 14-25, and a wife. That son might be the Ceesar Hazzard who appears in Cedar Creek Hundred in 1830, aged 36-54. The Casar Hazzard living in Murderkill Hundred in 1820 was born before 1776, so it’s possible that he was the Ceasor mentioned in Cord’s will in 1766. If there’s any truth to this scenario, then he was probably born in the 1750s and probably died in the 1820s at, say, age 60-75, leaving behind at least one adult son. His migration from Indian River Hundred to Kent County over the course of several decades is consistent with the trends of the time (for example, some members of the mulatto Rigware/Ridgeway family followed a similar path to the Cheswold area).
In 1830, Sambo Hazzard was a head of household in Indian River Hundred, aged 55-99. The only other member of the household was a female who was 100 or older. This gives Sambo a birthdate range of 1731 – 1775, while the woman (if the record is correct) was born before 1731. Personally, I think it’s likely that this is the same Sambo mentioned in Cord’s will, because the name, age, and location are all consistent. All that’s missing is evidence for his manumission. Sambo was probably born in the 1750s or early 1760s, and probably died before 1840 in his seventies or eighties. Where was he prior to 1830? Perhaps he was still a slave, or perhaps he was free, yet living in another man’s household.
A genealogist could offer any number of objections to this scenario. For example, freed slaves didn’t necessarily go by their former masters’ surnames, though many did. Even so, it’s a matter of fact that Cord Hazzard left slave boys named Sambo, Paris, and Ceasor to his son, and it’s a matter of fact that there were free black men named Parris Hazzard, Caesar Hazzard, and Sambo Hazzard living in the right part of Delaware just a few decades later. Whether these facts are connected in the way I’ve suggested is a matter for further research, discussion, and contemplation.
– Chris Slavens
This article was first published in the Laurel Historical Society‘s latest newsletter.
In the 1930s – 1940s, several sources reported the presence of old, roof-like, wooden grave covers or shelters in cemeteries in lower Sussex, notably at Bethel M.E. Church on the east side of Gumboro, the John C. West family cemetery near Raccoon Pond, and King’s M.E. Church near Trussum Pond. Their age, origins, and purpose were a matter of speculation. Additional sources published in the 1960s – 1970s indicate that the shelters were also used across the state line in eastern Wicomico County.
However, the mysterious shingled structures were documented only sparingly, and never seriously investigated. None are known to have survived to the present, making a handful of 20th-century sources and photographs the only evidence that such a custom ever existed.
Although the earliest known description is found in Delaware: A Guide to the First State (1938), compiled by members of the Federal Writers Project, Frank R. Zebley’s The Churches of Delaware (1947) is more helpful in that he mentions three specific sites, as well as two specific graves, those of John C. West (1814-1858) and his first wife, Mahala B. Truitt (1822-1852). Zebley also photographed some of the structures. Other sources include Graveyards and Gravestones of Wicomico by John E. Jacob, Jr. (1971) and Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware by Dorothy Pepper (1976). Usually called “roofed-over graves” or “A-frames,” the structures featured cypress or cedar shingles and gabled ends. Most were in poor condition even in the 1930s.
At this time, there are five known sites in Sussex County:
- Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church in Gumboro.
- King’s Methodist Episcopal Church near Laurel.
- The John C. West family cemetery on Wootten Road, near Raccoon Pond.
- The Daisey family cemetery on Wilgus Cemetery Road, between Roxana and Bayard.
- A cemetery associated with the Timmons family near Lowe’s Crossroads.
Jacob did not specify any sites in eastern Wicomico, but they were most likely located in the area between Pittsville and the state line. No sites are known to have been reported in Worcester County.
The available evidence suggests that the custom dates back to the 1840s, but it is unclear whether it developed locally, or was inspired by similar traditions in the South. Stone, peaked grave shelters known as combs are found throughout the Upland South, and have been dated to the 1810s, while shelters made of metal roofing have been erected even in the 21st century. (Dr. Richard C. Finch’s extensive studies of comb graves can be found at graterutabaga.com). All of the styles of shelters seem to be intended to protect graves, whether from animals, weather, or both. Different materials might simply reflect what was available; though stone slabs were rare and expensive on the peninsula during the early 19th century, durable cypress shingles were readily available, especially in the neighborhood of the Pocomoke Swamp. Cypress slabs were also used as grave markers, some of which still survive.
Locally, the custom’s association with John C. West and his family might prove to be important. Some of his descendants are buried at the King’s Church site, while some of his relatives and ancestors lived in eastern Wicomico County, relatively close to the Bethel Church site (but closer to Line Church, where, disappointingly, no roofed graves were ever reported). Interestingly—perhaps importantly, perhaps coincidentally—there is an area of high elevation in this neighborhood which was known as Quaacosan Ridge as early as 1758. Native American quacason houses were crib-like wooden structures which protected human corpses while the flesh decayed, after which the bones were removed. Although there is no obvious link between quacason houses and roofed graves, it is certainly fascinating to consider that the early English settlers encountered Native American “cemeteries” featuring above-ground wooden structures all over the peninsula, and used them as landmarks for decades.
Although the origins and purpose of the roofed graves of Delmarva are still unclear, it might be possible for us to learn more. They disappeared between the 1940s and 1970s; surely there are living locals who remember them. I am especially interested in learning about any additional sites, specific graves, or photographs, and hope to publish a much more detailed article about this mysterious custom in the future.
– Chris Slavens
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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