The Native Wicomicos

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Find out a bit about Delmarva's Native American history.

Recently the history of the ground under Salisbury bumped up against our above ground story. The town sits on what is known a vast paleochannel. That is an underground water supply that is the remnant of an ancient river that was covered by sediment during the last ice age. There was a proposal to cut down a portion of a forest growing above it to build more athletic fields. After environmental concerns were raised the idea was eventually dropped.

But this is a reminder of how much change the land has seen over time and how brief our modern human presence has been. Recorded human history here only goes back about four hundred years or so. But, evidence has been found of human activity in the Wicomico County area as far back as 11,000 B.C.

The earliest recorded history for this region comes from explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano who arrived to the nearby Atlantic Coast briefly in 1524. Captain John Smith was next in 1608 who made his way up the Pocomoke River. His overland hikes brought him in contact with the Wighcocomoco or Wicomico, the Nause, the Kusk'arawack, and the Nantaquack or Nanticoke tribes. Smith records that the Wicomico had their own distinct dialect and appeared to be generally shorter than the people he met further south. Their primary village, Tundotank, was located near the present-day Tony Tank neighborhood on Riverside Drive in Salisbury.

The culture and genealogy of most of Delmarva 's tribes made them part of the Algonquin nations. At the lower end of the peninsula, these tribes had an allegiance to the Powhatton Confederacy across the bay in the tidewater area of Virginia. But the Wicomico claimed no allegiance to them.

In his notes, Smith remarked that the Wicomico seemed to be more aggressive than their southern neighbors. This may have been because they were not under the protection of a larger tribe and had to appear threatening in order to fend off potential attackers. Maybe unfriendly rumors about the tourists' had preceded their arrival.

The rapid settlement of European colonists in the next few decades following Smith's visit led the tribes in the area to join together and records of the Wicomico as a distinct group on Delmarva end there, though there is a tribe by that name today in Northumberland County, Virginia. Some historians surmise that our Wicomico joined with the Pocomoke and then joined with Nanticoke bands in the area. By 1678 there was only one Nanticoke village called Puckamee in what is now Wicomico County. This is on Barren Creek which is a tributary of the Nanticoke River. Within two more decades the native people there had also been pushed out.

They and other area tribes faced the choice of leaving the region altogether to join up with other Algonquin or Iroquois tribes. The only other alternative was moving east to the Askimonikonson reservation near Snow Hill, Maryland. This community only lasted until the early 1700's because of hunting restrictions, overcrowding, and unhealthy living conditions. Just about all the tribes in the region eventually moved to a reservation in what is now Oak Orchard, Delaware. They were lumped under the classification of Assateague and then the Nanticoke but they were probably from a variety of the regions tribes.

In the 17th and 18th centuries native people were either attacked outright, or targeted with schemes to cheat them out of their property rights. By 1742 most had left the region altogether. Those who were left hid in plain sight doing their best to assimilate fearing that evidence of their culture would make them vulnerable. Their language and traditions faded away and are now mostly lost. Reservations in Delaware: Cheswold and Millsboro, were the only native communities left on the peninsula.

These were never really set up like those we know of in the west. They were more or less just land that was acknowledged to belong to the tribes and their descendants who still live there today. In the twentieth century they were provided with social services and their own schools which segregated them from both white and African American children. Highschoolers were shipped out to Oklahoma to complete their education. But this had a hidden blessing. Their Algonquin cultural heritage having been mostly lost these young people were able to reconnect by learning about Cherokee art, religion, language, and dance. The Cherokee were part of the southern Iroquois nations so their traditions were somewhat different than the Nanticokes' Algonquin heritage. But from their experiences there a new celebration of native dance and culture blossomed.

More recently, a number of Native American groups have organized annual gatherings or Pow Wows here on the Shore. These events, which are open to the public; have dance performances, food, and crafts for sale and are well worth attending. The direct connection to Wicomico County's first people may be lost but thankfully these events and organizations like the Nanticoke Museum help to rectify that.


Wicomico County History
By George H. Corddry
Salisbury: Peninsula Press, 1981

Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland
By Helen C. Rountree and Thomas E. Davidson
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997

Tony Tank Pond