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Early Visitors to Assateague Island

By Wilma Young

About the writer:

Wilma Young served as a senior volunteer at several national parks, coming to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge three times.

Her last stay at the Chincoteague refuge was just before her 80th birthday in 1997-98. On this third stay she served as an environmental education teacher for the Chincoteague Natural History Association. As a volunteer in her first two summers, along with the various duties she was given, Wilma found time to write. She spent hours reading about Chincoteague history and conducting research in the libraries. Some of her articles later found their way onto the Refuge web site, some were published in our local newspapers and some were used as trail guides for other volunteers. Today, at the age of 89, Wilma is as intensely interested in protecting our planet as she ever was. She can talk non-stop about the ways we humans have found to cause harm to our environment. She is passionate about things most people never take the time to learn. Years ago she wrote a story for her granddaughter, explaining why she often wasn't home. "Every living thing depends on other living things and although we know a lot of the connections, we don't know them all." In explaining her work with the Refuge to her granddaughter, Wilma wrote, "...I help report the numbers on the goose collars...I answer questions our visitors have about all the wild creatures...I notify the biologists of any reports of unusual sightings of sick animal or creatures caught in nets...sometimes I pick up trash on the beach...I wander the trails, answering more questions...and best of all I look up a lot of stuff then write about it to help people understand how much we all need each other." It is hard to find the words to describe this caring, kind and concerned grandmother. But her precise and accurate writing speaks for itself. We are pleased to publish her work in Wild Pony Tales. -- Robert Boswell, publisher.

“Heaven and earth seemed never to have agreed better to have formed a place for man’s commodious and delightful habitation.” This was the observation of Captain John Smith as he reported on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Verrazano saw this shoreline in 1524 as he sought a northwest passage for the French Icing he served. He wrote to Francis the First that it was “very beautiful and full of large trees.” The vines that he saw twining around the trees “would doubtless produce excellent wine if they were properly cultivated and attended to, as we have often seen the grapes which they produce are very sweet and pleasant and not unlike our own”.

Verrazano attempted to capture a beautiful young woman and a young boy but the young woman “shrieked so loudly” that the crew released her.

They found the food “a kind of pulse which there abounds different in color and size from ours, and of a very delicious flavor”. He found that the Indians took birds and fish for food and noted that the animals were wilder than in Europe. “The land” he wrote, “in situation, fertility and beauty is like the other” (referring to his travels up the coast from a little north of what is now called Cape Fear) “abounding also in forests filled with various kinds of trees, but not of such fragrance, as it is more northern and colder”.

Much of the information on the land of the Eastern Shore and on the customs of 17th century Native Americans who lived in the area is based on the writings of Captain John Smith, John Pory (secretary of the Virginia Colony), Robert Beverley (early historian), Percy, Hariot, Strachy, Spelman and Archer as well as John White’s drawings of Virginia Indians. We have to assume that early explorers such as’ Verrazano, may also have been writing to impress their sponsors.

Helen Rountree in her book “Pocahontas’s People” mentions that none of the early colonists left as comprehensive a description of the way of life of the Native Americans as one could have wished for. She points out that there was no such thing as social science in those days and that no one even conceived of an objective description of an alien culture. In addition, colonists who wrote on the subject hadn’t come to observe Indians but to “explore the territory and to make their fortunes”.

C.S.Weslager (President of the Archeological Society of Delaware and of the Eastern States Archeological Foundation) adds that historic records left by the colonists have an advantage because they were written by people who actually knew the Indians; although he adds that these men were “not trained as ethnologists”.

Archeological evidence on Assateague Island is sparse, as the shoreline of a barrier island is constantly migrating. Land on the ocean side is eroding while land on the bay side is buried by dune migration. It is possible that relics may have been buried in sand or claimed by the sea long ago.

Based on all of these negatives, we find ourselves examining the life style of Native Americans on the mainland and extrapolating the information which may apply to the early inhabitants of Assateague.

Rountree suggests that “human occupation in Virginia goes back at least ten thousand years” although nothing is really known of the history of these Native Americans prior to 1608. It is generally agreed that the early people of the Eastern Shore were part of the Woodland Indian tradition. (Woodland period dates from 1000 BC to AD 1650) This period was typified by the use of seasonal camp sites in good shell gathering and fishing areas with farming being practiced at their more stable base sites.

It is possible that this area as well as other portions of the Virginia coast may have been occupied when sea levels were lower. Evidence of this would not be available.

CUSTOMS

We can’t assume that all aspects of life on the Eastern Shore were like those of mainland Indians, but it is reasonable to suppose that tools, weapons, clothing and housing were probably similar. It is also likely that ornamentation was similar as well as the use of the sweat bath and division of labor between men and women.

It was common practice for the descent of power to be matrilineal among the chieftains and there is some evidence that such inheritance may have been practiced among the rank and file.

Wampum was the common currency: purple portions of the quahog clam and white portions of the whelk shells were used. Sand dollars were sometimes used as decoration as well as a medium of exchange.

Robert Beverley (1673-1722) wrote in “The History and Present State of Virginia” that wampum had considerable ceremonial significance. “Roanoke referred to small disk shaped beads, whereas peake or wampum peake were cylindrical beads made from both white and purple shell, with the purple valued more highly than the white.” He adds that they made disks about four inches in diameter which they polished and “sometimes they etch or grave thereon, Circles, Stars, a Half Moon or any other figure to suit their fancy”. These disks were worn as medals and “the Peake and Pipes for Coronets, Bracelets, Belts, or long strings hanging down before the Breast”. They used these beads to lace their clothing or adorn their tomahawks.

Beverley writes “When Sir Thomas Dale sought the hand of a sister of Pocahontas for one of his colonists in 1614, it will be remembered that Powhatan informed him that she had been sold a few days before to a great Werowance (chieftain) for two bushels of Roanoke”.

John Smith described the fishing techniques of mainland Indians “They use long arrows tied to a line where with they shoot fish in rivers.” They also would “dart” fish with a javelin—like stave headed with bone.

C.S. Weslager who has written a number of papers on the history of Native Americans on the Eastern Shore describes what he considers “one of the most interesting archeological traits on the peninsula”. This was a burial custom •involving disarticulation, bone scraping and burial in ossuaries”.

NORWOOD JOURNAL

Colonel Norwood, an English cavalier traveling with a small group who intended to go to a mainland colony, was set ashore by the captain of the “Virginia Merchant” during a vicious storm in the winter of 1650. It is thought by some historians that he probably spent time on Assateague Island. He recorded his observations in a journal, “A Voyage to Virginia”.

Norwood and his party of nineteen men and women suffered severely during their abandonment. Some members of the group died and the others reluctantly practiced cannibalism.

Local Indians who came from the mainland by canoe, discovered the group and rescued them, giving them food and shelter.

Norwood commented on “a sort of spoon meat” that was similar to almond milk. The corn was boiled “to make Homini but the milk portion was dry pokickery (hickory) seeds beaten to a powder, beaten in a mortar, put in a tray, hollowed in the middle to make place for fair water, no sooner is the water poured into the powder but it rises again white and creamish and after a little ferment it does partake so much of the delicate taste of the kernel of that nut that it becomes a rarity to a miracle”. John Smith mentioned a similar dish using walnuts, acorns and chinquapins.

Norwood found that the moss on the oak trees served as “linen” doing the duty of napkins.

The staples included corn, the staff of life to these early people, as well as beans and pumpkins. Game included bears, squirrels, partridges, turkeys and deer. Norwood reported eating “boiled swan, a doe cut in pieces and stewed and wild turkey boiled with oysters”.

He reports that clay vessels were commonly used in food preparation. Women, he said, painted their faces just as men did. Eastern Shore Indians were considered the best farmers in the area although the English thought that the Indian men were lazy as the Indian women and children did all the farming. In reality the Indian men were doing their share by hunting and fishing.

Women also prepared the food. Corn was pounded into meal and used to make bread or boiled to make hominy. The king’s mansion was described by Norwood as being made of the same materials as other houses...”mainly of Mat and reed.

Locust posts sunk in the ground at corners and partitions was the strength of the whole fabric the breadth of this palace was about 18 or 20 foot, the length of about 20 yards. The only furniture was several platforms for lodging, each about two yards long and more, placed on both sides of the house distant from each other about five feet.” These banks were used for beds or chairs. Animal skins served as blankets.

The king arranged for Norwood and his remaining company to be escorted to Accomack.

VIEWPOINTS

Eastern Shore Indians seem to have been of a peaceful nature although the mainland Indians had a reputation for being warlike. There were no major conflicts between the two groups largely because the frail canoes were not suited to crossing the Chesapeake with its sometimes rough waters.

John Smith in his travels to the Eastern Shore found the tribes there “untroubled by the warlike attitudes of their brothers across the bay”. The villages seemed to be relatively permanent and the “inhabitants neither intruding upon the domains of others nor by their isolation were they intruded upon”.

Robert Beverley wrote “This ought to be observed of the Eastern Shore Indians, that they never gave the English any trouble, but courted and befriended them from first to last.”

Norwood also found the Indians he met to be peaceful and friendly, extending “unsurpassed hospitality” to Norwood and his party. Not only were the chieftains and their families friendly “but even the lowly fisherman shared wigwam and food”.

Hospitality to strangers seemed to be a trait of all coastal Algonkian people. The hospitality extended to Norwood included the offering of the king’s daughter as a bed companion.

THE LAUGHING KING

References appear throughout the literature concerning Debedeavon, “The Laughing King of the Accomacks”. When John Pory first visited the king he found that the old man had relinquished most of his duties to his brother Kicktopeake. One writer suggests that the king may have been more lazy than humorous and just befriended the newcomers because it was easier than fighting with them.

Whatever the nature of his humor, it flagged when Captain Edmund Scarburgh, Justice of the Peace in Accomack, began to show his animosity. He was reported to hate Quakers as much as he hated Indians and was equally unreasonable with and cruel to both groups.

Nevertheless in 1644 when there was an uprising on the part of Indians on the Western Shore it was only due to the devotion of Eastern Shore Indians to the Laughing King, that they too did not join in the bloody battles. Sir William Berkeley, in 1650 addressed the commissioners of Northampton County and gave a testimonial to the Laughing King.

His statement follows: “Having been frequently informed by testimony of undeniable credit, that the Indians commonly called by the name of the Laughing King Indians, have been most faithful to the English, and especially neither they nor their King in the last bloody massacre could be induced to engage with our enemies against us and so by consequence kept the remote Indians, at least none broke in at a time when a general combination against us, had been ruinous, at least of insupportable expense to us, and considering that we cannot reasonably ask for the like effect of their friendship, in case we should again need it (which God knows how soon it may be) unless we correspond with them in acts of charity and amity, Especially unless we abstain from acts of rapine and violence, which they say we begin to do, by taking away their land from them, by pretence of the sale of a patent. My desire therefore to you is and I make it in the name of the peace and safety of the Colony, that you suffer no land to be taken from them but what shall be allowed both in justice and convenience by the full court.”

Although we have all of these positive reports on the peaceful nature of the native inhabitants, troubles did occur. The Indians resisted capture and of course fought back when their traditions were not respected.

TRIBAL IDENTIFICATION

Identification of the Eastern Shore inhabitants by tribe presents numerous problems. Weslager states that although we have called them Nanticokes, we should really be ascribing that tribal name only to those tribes living on the Nanticoke River. “It is apparent however that after about 1740, the word Nanticoke became generic and was used to include all Eastern Shore Indians no matter where they had originally lived”.

Culturally the Native Americans of the Eastern Shore appear to have been, according to Weslager: “a basic Algonkian substratum with southern influences and linguistically, a division of the Algonkian family, physically they are of the Northeastern type”.

He adds that “the Delmarva Peninsula should be considered a single geographical unit although it represents the state of Delaware and portions of Virginia and Maryland. The Indians moved about as their needs dictated, oblivious of present day boundaries.”

Jennings Cropper Wise (“Ye Kingdome of Accawmacke or the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century”) wrote “The Indians who inhabited this region (that is, around Chincoteague Sound) were unquestionably related to the Nanticokes and not connected with the Powhatan Confederates of the Lower Peninsula.’

The “Powhatan Confederacy” was powerful, being composed of at least thirty tribes, most of which he had inherited.

John Smith indicated that the Eastern Shore tribes paid tribute to Powhatan. They were not invaded by his men as “They on the west would invade them, but that they want Boats to cross the Bay”.

Christian F. Feest in his article “Nanticoke and Neighboring Tribes” (Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15) suggests that the area “was inhabitated by a number of Algonquian—speaking tribes, some of whom were joined together to form a smaller number of larger political groups”. Local tribes were the Pokomoke, Nanticoke, Gingoteague and Assateague.

All of these tribes may have traveled to Assateague Island at some to time or other. It is unlikely that any tribes actually established residence here because of the lack of fresh water and the fact that the storms on the island tend to be severe.

CONCLUSIONS

R. Christopher Goodwin, Ph.D. was principal investigator on the “Aheo1ogical Reconnaissance of the Chincoteague National Wi1dlife Refuge, Accomack County, Virginia and Worcester County, Maryland”. The document was published on a October 30, 1989 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In this document it is pointed out that Assateague Island has no freshwater lakes or streams. The available surface water results from over wash and rainfall and even these sources tend to be brackish because of over wash.

This report also mentions that the “prehistoric archeological potential of the barrier islands is considered poor”.

Even on the peninsula itself the Woodland settlement is poorly understood. “Gardner postulates base camps at freshwater stream/estuary junctions, with transient camps located upstream”

The conclusion is that “Assateague Island has never been a place of intensive human occupation. It is a sometimes inhospitable environment, comprised more of marshland and dunes than of arable fields. As in prehistoric times however, this barrier island has been exploited almost continuously throughout the historic period for the resources that it offers”.

SOURCES

THE HISTORY AND PRESENT STATE OF VIRGINIA

BY ROBERT BEVERLEY

UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROINA PRESS 1947

 

THE ACCOMAC AND ACCOHANNOCK INDIANS FROM EARLY RELATIONS

BY C.A. WESLAGER PAPER READ NOVEMBER 1,1959

PUBLISHED BY THE EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

 

STUDIES OF THE VIRGINIA EASTERN SHORE IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

BY SUSIE M. AMES

THE DIETZ PRESS 1940

 

YE KINGDOME OF ACCAWMACKE OR THE EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

BY JENNINGS CROPPER WISE

REGIONAL PUBLISHING COMPANY 1967

 

POCAHONTAS’S PEOPLE-THE POWHATAN INDIANS OF VIRGINIA THROUGH FOUR CENTURIES

BY HELEN C. ROUNTREE

UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS 1990

 

A VOYAGE TO VIRGINIA

BY COLONEL HENRY NORWOOD

THIS ACCOUNT WAS REPRINTED IN PETER FORCES HISTORICAL TRACTS, 3, NO. 10.

 

NANTICOKE AND NEIGHBORING TRIBES

CHRISTIAN F. FEEST

HANDBOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS VOLUME 15

 

R. CHRISTOPHER GOODWIN, PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR

ARCHEOLOGICAL RECONNAISSANCE OF THE CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL

WILDLIFE REFUGE, ACCOMACK COUNTY, VIRGINIA AND WORCESTER COUNTY,

MARYLAND

FOR U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE ONE GATEWAY CENTER SUITE 700 NEWTON CORNER, MA 02158 OCTOBER 30, 1989

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