When did Europeans discover the Nanticoke Nation?

First contact with the Nanticoke Tribe was recorded by Captain John Smith in 1608. While exploring the Chesapeake Bay, Smith and his crew sailed onto the Kuskarawaok River. The Kuskarawaoks, later known as the Nanticoke Indians, cautiously watched Smith’s ship from the shore, climbing into the trees for a better look. When Smith approached the shore in a boat, the Nanticoke answered with arrows. Smith prudently put down anchor for the night in the middle of the river.

The next morning, the Nanticoke appeared on the shore with baskets of food. Still cautious, Captain Smith had his men fire muskets over the heads of the Nanticoke. Later that afternoon, Smith noticed the Indians were gone, and he and his men came to shore. He found fires still burning, but no Indians were seen. Smith discovered glass beads, shells, and copper pieces left as gifts of friendship.

The following day, four Indians who had been fishing approached Smith’s ship in a canoe. Smith convinced them he came in friendship, and they returned with twenty villagers. Food, water, and furs were exchanged for gifts the English brought. Several Nanticokes agreed to serve as guides for Smith to continue his exploration of the Kuskarawaok, now known as the Nanticoke River. Smith described the Nanticoke as “the best merchants of all.”

What does the name Nanticoke mean?

In Algonquian, the common Indian language of Northeastern tribes, the word Nanticoke is translated from the original Nantaquak meaning the tidewater people or people of the tidewaters.

How large was the tribe?

Smith recorded that nearly 200 warriors lived with their families on the Nanticoke River, making their tribe more significant in population than many other tribes on the Eastern Shore at that time. However, the Nanticoke were allied with the Powhatan Confederacy in what is now Virginia. Such alliances allowed smaller bands of Indians to have protection from enemy tribes.

How did the Nanticoke live before European contact?

The Nanticoke enjoyed the best of native lifestyles. They were proficient farmers who planted corn and beans, and dried them for later use. The women and children cared for lush gardens of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tobacco. They gathered nuts, berries, birds’ eggs, and edible plants in season. As they lived close to the rivers, in warmer months, they dined on delicious seafood, including clams, oysters, mussels, crabs, eels, and fish. Nets, snares, baskets, and spears were fashioned by the men to harvest the water’s bounty. The men hunted the forests and meadows of the Eastern Shore for squirrels, turkeys, deer, opossums, rabbits, bear, partridges, ducks and geese. Food was roasted over open fires or boiled in clay pots as a stew. Bows, arrows, and spears were used for larger game and snares or traps were set for smaller animals. All parts of the animals and sea creatures were utilized. Shells were used for spoons, bowls, wampum, and ornate decorations. Porcupine quills, furs, skins, sinew, and bones were used for clothing and tool implements.

What type of homes did they build?

The Nanticoke people lived in domed shaped homes called wigwams. These homes were made from the framework of branches and saplings driven into the ground and tied down with vines and hide strips. The outside frames were covered with sheets of tree bark, such as cedar, or woven bulrush mats. In the center of the earthen floor, fire hearths were built to provide warmth. A hole in the roof allowed smoke to escape. Tribes lived in seasonal villages, where groups of wigwams were built. Larger dwellings for council meetings and tribal gatherings were called longhouses. Sweat lodges were made for physical and spiritual cleansing, but in warmer months baths were taken in the clear rivers. Villages were sometimes surrounded by log fences for protection from enemy tribes.

What kind of clothing did the Nanticoke wear?

Native American women of the Eastern woodland regions fashioned clothing from animal skins and furs for warmth. Decorations and jewelry were made from shells and quills. Some tribes tattooed or painted their skin using berries. Later, after European contact, eastern tribes traded furs for cooler cotton fabrics called “trade cloth” and decorated them with ribbon strips of fabric, making ribbon shirts and dresses. Moccasins, made of deerskin, served as traditional native footwear, because they were soft and comfortable.

When did the Nanticoke begin to be negatively affected by European colonization?

At the end of the 17th Century, the Nanticoke and the Choptank were the only native tribes still living on the Eastern Shore of what is now Maryland, thereby surviving 70 years of conflict and contact with European settlers. As the numbers of settlers increased, the Nanticoke’s traditional hunting and farming was disrupted. Records show that colonists complained that the Nanticoke and other tribes tried to add to their diet by stealing a few hogs and cattle from the settlers. However, the increase of colonists and the decrease in forests had severely depleted game. Although colonial authorities tried at first to protect the Indians traditional existence, both the settlers and traders ignored the local government’s suggestions for co-existence with the native people. Unfairly treated, and their way of life severely restricted, Nanticoke and other Indians tried to protect themselves through raids and threats of war. Unfortunately, in 1642 and again in 1647, Maryland Governor Thomas Greene ordered Capt. John Pike of the militia, to attack and destroy the Nanticoke village and gardens to force them out of the area.

Why didn’t the Nanticoke negotiate a peace treaty for protection?

Actually, the first of five treaties were signed in 1668 by Chief Unnacokasimmon to establish peace between Maryland and the Nanticoke. Yet, the treaties were unfair to the Nanticoke. Settlers continued to illegally seize the lands of the Nanticoke and other tidewater tribes. Eventually, the Nanticoke and the Choptank asked Maryland authorities to grant them specific tracts of land.

Did the Nanticoke ever live on a reservation? What was typical reservation life?

In the early 18th Century, the Maryland Assembly set aside land for three reservations. Three thousand acres were set aside for the Nanticoke on Broad Creek along the river and creek areas. This helped at first, but it disrupted the seasonal hunting of the Nanticoke who needed to travel between their traditional winter hunting grounds and their spring and summer farming & fishing sites. Remaining year round on the reservation severely restricted food and shelter. Traditionally, Indians moved away from the shores and went inland before the cold of winter came. Furthermore, Maryland authorities included a stipulation that the only way the Nanticoke could legally retain reservation lands was if they agreed not to leave. Again, the Nanticoke leaders petitioned the authorities for temporary permission to leave during winter months to hunt. Finally, Maryland authorities agreed, but when the Nanticoke returned the following spring, they found homesteads on their land by squatters who assumed ownership by “right of occupancy.” Trespassers also destroyed reservation land by harvesting large amounts of timber. While visiting the reservations, traders brought liquor to exchange for furs. The Indians, who had never had alcoholic beverages, often awoke to find they had traded valuable furs for more liquor, instead of tools, clothing, and goods.

What were the results of these conflicts?

Nanticoke leaders tried to have Maryland authorities restrict alcohol sale on the reservation by punishing traders who had tricked them, but it was nearly impossible to enforce. In 1742, the Nanticoke were tired of nearly 100 years of conflict. Their leaders met in Winnasoccum Swamp, near the Pocomoke River to plan for war. The plan, however, came to an end when a Choptank Indian informed Maryland colonists and leaders. They threatened to take the Nanticoke land. As the Powhatan Tribes had all faced similar conflicts, some of the Nanticoke, tired and disgusted, chose to accept an offer from the Six Nations of the Iroquois in the New York, Pennsylvania, and Canadian areas. Once their enemies, the Iroquois promised the Nanticoke both land and protection. The offer was also extended to other tribes, including the Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Tuscarora. Other tidewater tribes in the Delaware – Maryland area chose to move west to the Oklahoma Territories. In fact, all of the Nanticoke did not leave the Eastern Shore. Starting in 1744, some individual families left in dug out canoes and traveled north up the Susquehanna River. Others walked westward. But, a significant number of Nanticoke moved eastward into Delaware and settled in Indian River Hundred, near the Indian River. By the 1800’s, the Nanticoke who remained had purchased land and assimilated into the predominant culture.

How did the Nanticoke survive in a predominantly European culture?

The Nanticoke worked hard, saved money, and bought land. They also supported their family and friends. Theirs was a small, close-knit community within the community-at-large. Eventually, the Nanticoke decided to form a legal organization. By 1881, the Nanticoke Tribe was recognized by the state of Delaware as a legal entity. In 1921, the Nanticoke formed the Nanticoke Indian Association, which was granted non-profit status. Tribally owned lands include four properties, the Nanticoke Indian Center, the Nanticoke Indian Museum a 16 acre tract donated by Hudson and Schell,LLC and a 31 acre tract donated by The Conservation Fund, a land-preservation nonprofit. Our Center houses the tribal office, is a location for tribal meetings, and serves as a community resource center. The Nanticoke Museum was opened in 1984 so that we could collect and display items from our Native American heritage. The tribe holds an annual powwow the weekend after Labor Day. Our two day powwow attracts tribes from up and down the east coast, as well as nearly 30,000 non-Indian friends. The Nanticoke Tribe survived by adapting to changes, supporting one another, and befriending non-native people who lived nearby. There are over 700 Nanticoke living today in Sussex County and many tribal members who live in other states. We are proud of our ancestors, we appreciate traditions, and we are enthusiastic about the future.

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