In several past blog entries here on theoldfathergroup.com, we’ve mentioned the first European settlement in Sussex County, founded in 1631. It was in Lewes and it was a whaling colony begun by explorers from the Netherlands.

But one thing we haven’t discussed yet is the people who were here long before men from Europe arrived on the scene, and that’s what we’re going to address here today in our latest historical blog post.

If you were born and raised in southern Delaware, or if you’ve been here for even a few years, you’ve no doubt heard the name of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe. With Delmarva’s longest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, one of the area’s most prominent medical centers and a well-attended local museum all named after the tribe, it would be hard not to.

But today, we’re going to share some of the tribe’s history with you, a history we think you’ll find very interesting and informative.

So, let’s get right to it, shall we?

This video, featuring many members of Sussex County's Nanticoke Indian Tribe, is a four-part series that is part of the Delaware Public Archives' Motion Picture Collection.

Years ago, there were young performers from the Nanticoke Indian Tribe who built their public appearances around a simple message – “we are still here.”

Indeed, Delaware’s only legally recognized Native American tribe still exists in Sussex County, and it’s still as strong as it ever was.

After years of mingling with other cultures, however, many Nanticoke Indian children don’t look as they once did. But they are still here in big numbers, and they go to great lengths to make sure their voices are still heard.

Dating back to well before the “white man” arrived in North America, the Nanticoke Indians have a rich history in the lands of both Maryland and Delaware, a history that's filled with colorful stories, proud traditions and larger than life characters.

At many of today’s well known events in Sussex County – from the Apple Scrapple festival in Bridgeville to the Nanticoke Riverfest in Seaford and many more – you'll see members of the Nanticoke Tribe performing Native American dances, dressed in colorful regalia uniquely their own. 

In fact, they welcome the opportunity to introduce their customs to residents of and visitors to southern Delaware.

The first known contact the Kuskarawaoks ― the early name of the tribe ― had with men from Europe came in 1608 while English Captain John Smith was exploring the Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries. 

Translated to “people of the tidewater,” the Nanticokes were excellent farmers and hunters who lived off the land. They had five growing seasons, which included, in Native American terms:

  • the budding of spring
  • the earring of corn
  • the highest sun
  • the corn gathering or falling of the leaf
  • “cohonk,” or winter

Corn cribs adorn the farm of Nanticoke member Isaac Harmon, in the photo below. Nanticoke Indian Association photograph.

During the planting seasons, members of the tribe focused on crops of corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, sunflowers and tobacco. Even the children got involved in the cultivation of crops, often weeding the gardens and acting as “live scarecrows,” sitting on high platforms and making noises to scare birds away.

Nanticoke boy Albert Leon Johnson works a corn sheller in this Nanticoke Indian Association photograph.

Captain Smith reported that as many as 200 Nanticokes lived along the shores of what is now the Nanticoke River in 1608, making the tribe larger than many on the Delmarva Peninsula at the time.

At times, they got along with their new neighbors; other times, it was anything but an amicable relationship. At one point in the early 1740s, for example, the Nanticokes became so frustrated with the current group of settlers that they began preparing for war.

But a member of a neighboring tribe informed the colonists that an attack was coming and the Nanticokes were forced to scratch their plans for fear of having their land taken away. Many members of the tribe soon moved out of the area, later settling in parts of the Oklahoma Territory. Some traveled north and others stayed put.

But many of the Nanticokes instead moved eastward, finally settling near the Indian River in what is today the municipality of Oak Orchard. They bought land and essentially found a new home, away from the colonists in present-day Maryland who had made it clear that they were not wanted there.

Tribal members who had relocated to Delaware formed a small, close-knit community and worked hard to provide for their families in what was quickly becoming a culture very foreign to them.

In 1881, members of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe successfully petitioned the Delaware Legislature to recognize them as a legal entity. Forty years later, they formed the Nanticoke Indian Association, which now boasts more than 1,000 members.

William Russell Clark, pictured below, was the chief of the Nanticoke Tribe in 1922, when Delaware finally recognized the organization as a legal entity. Nanticoke Indian Association photograph.

The tribe owns three pieces of property in southern Delaware; the Nanticoke Indian Center, once a school for Nanticoke children, the Nanticoke Indian Museum, a former black school which today houses most of the tribe’s artifacts, and a 16 acre tract of land donated to the tribe by local businessmen.

But what most people associate the Nanticokes with today is their popular powwow, held every year on the weekend after Labor Day.

Though the gatherings date back many decades, the Nanticoke Indian Powwow, in its current form, has become a major festival in southern Delaware since its rebirth in the late 1970s. Today, thousands of people come to enjoy two days of music, dancing, fellowship and culture.

It's also the major fundraiser for the Nanticoke Indian Association. Money raised at the event goes to support the tribe in many ways, including maintenance of their museum.

We hope you enjoyed this latest installment in our historical blog series, and maybe learned a thing or two in the process.

Check back soon for another look back at our local history. Have a great day!