Delmarva’s Whispering Giants

by Dana Kester-McCabe

In two of Delmarva’s Beach towns there are large statues honoring the native peoples of this region One is in Bethany Beach and the other is in Ocean City. These are part of a series of statues called the Trail of Whispering Giants.

There are very few first source materials about the pre-European tribes who lived along Delmarva’s Coast and were known as the Assateagues. Not many artifacts remain to help us really understand their culture, though people have found their arrowheads in this region ever since they were lost to us as a tribe.

Much of what we know about them is based on a few early accounts from explorers like Giovanni de Verazzano and Captain John Smith. The most complete account comes from Henry Norwood who was stranded on our beaches in 1649. His story tells a little bit about their culture but not very much as most of his communication with them was done through rudimentary hand signals. What we do know is that the Assateague people lived mostly inland near the coastal bays and only traveled to the barrier island to hunt and fish. And eventually they were forced to leave our area and join tribes further North.

#21 Nanticoke
Ocean City, Maryland
In the late 20th century an immigrant artist built the most lasting tribute to their memory in two of Delmarva’s Beach towns. In 1976 Peter Toth carved a large statue in Ocean City and one in Bethany Beach as part of a series of statues called the Trail of Whispering Giants. The Ocean City statue, #21 in the series, is called Nanticoke, paying tribute to the Nanticoke Tribe who the Assateagues eventually joined up with in the Oak Orchard area of Delaware. The statue was carved from a 100-year-old oak. Completed in September of that year, it stands 20 feet tall at the southern end of Philadelphia Avenue facing west across the waters of the Ocean City inlet.

I have heard some folks question why the statue does not face in a direction that makes it easier for people to see it. Some speculate that perhaps the artist was making a statement about the Indian looking wistfully back on their lost homeland across the inland bay. When you make the turn, driving from Philadelphia Avenue toward the inlet parking lot, you come face to face with the noble gaze of a native man wearing a single feather in his headband. If you take the time to walk out to it along the observation path you can see it up close.

The visionary artist who created the statue, Peter Wolf Toth, was in born Hungary. He and his family escaped the Soviet takeover of his homeland in 1956 when he was a just a small child. They came to the United Sates after two years of living as refugees in Europe. Peter grew up in Ohio and began his career as an artist after some courses at the University of Akron, following in the footsteps of his father who also was an artist.

Peter had developed a fascination for the native peoples of America, in part because he identified with their experience of invasion and forced migration which was so close to his own. In 1972 at the age of only 24, he carved his first tribute to them. It was a large face carved from a cliff in La Jolla, California. His next “Indian” head was carved from wood.

These two pieces inspired him to create similar sculptures in all fifty US states. He became an itinerant artist traveling from state to state to carve and donate his tributes to indigenous people to their local communities. That’s right, donate. He does not ask to be paid. Some admirers have donated free lodging and supplies for his efforts, but Peter sees this work as a calling to honor the country that gave his family a permanent refuge from war and poverty and to displaced indigenous people everywhere.

#69 Chief Little Owl
Bethany Beach, Delaware
Further north in Bethany Beach is #22 in the series which Peter Toth completed in December of 1976. It was carved from a 25-foot poplar log donated by Jones Lumber of Snow Hill, Maryland. It faces west at the intersection of Coastal Highway (Route 1) and Garfield Parkway.

The Bethany Beach sculpture is done more in the tradition of a totem pole with an eagle or hawk as the Indian’s headdress. And, it is a tribute to a specific person: Nanticoke Chief Little Owl. This statue did not hold up as well as its counterpart further down the peninsula. Termites and high winds forced the town to take it down and donate what was left of it to the Nanticoke Indian Museum in Oak Orchard in 1992. Another artist named Dennis Beach created a replacement out of white oak which unfortunately also succumbed to harsh environmental conditions. In 2002 Peter Toth was asked to create another statue. He returned to Delaware bringing #69, a new 24-foot version made from Pacific red cedar in hopes of it lasting a long time. At the new sculpture’s dedication ceremony, a descendent of the statue’s namesake, Charlie “Little Owl” Clark, performed a traditional Nanticoke tribal blessing.

Peter Toth’s Trail of Whispering Giants now has sculptures in all 50 states and 15 in Canada. He has written a book about his life’s work called “Indian Giver”. He lives in Florida where he creates smaller sculptures to raise money for the upkeep and creation of his statue series and new tributes to indigenous peoples in countries around the world.

Peter Toth Restoring Nanticoke
Ocean City, Maryland
In 2006 Peter Toth came back to Ocean City to do some restoration work on #21, which has for the most part endured decades of storms and summer heat. In 2013 after super storm Sandy the town of Ocean City found that additional restoration work would be needed to repair a spit in the wood. This remains an unresolved concern for the Town of Ocean City.

The Assateagues may be gone, their identity melted into that of the Nanticoke Tribe. But the Nanticokes are very much alive and well. Their tribe has an active association which advocates for the rights and welfare of their members. They hold an annual pow-wow celebration with traditional dances. And they have a lovely museum on Route 24 in Oak Orchard, Delaware which is open year round showcasing artifacts dating back to 8,000 B.C., educational heritage displays, and contemporary locally produced crafts.

References: (The story of the Trail of Whispering Giants)