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Visit Handsell’s Chicone Village

April 27

The United States Naval Academy’s (USNA) Native American Heritage Club (NAHC) will visit Handsell, a National Register Historic Site, this spring for an overnight camping trip at the Chicone Village. NAHC is open to all Midshipmen, regardless of ethnicity. In addition to creating a supportive community for Native American Midshipmen, the club aims to help educate the Brigade about the diversity across Native American cultures and the long, storied history of Native American service to the U.S. Military. Native Americans have served and continue to serve in the U.S. Military at a higher percentage rate than any other ethnicity.

Some of the NAHC’s activities have included: hosting Peter MacDonald, the President of the Navajo Code Talkers’ Association, for a lecture at USNA; engaging in an annual tri-academy visit with cadets from other military academy’s Native American Heritage Clubs; and volunteering at the Baltimore American Indian Community Center.

For the last two years, the NAHC has visited Handsell for the annual Chicone Village Day. It was during last year’s trip that the NAHC and Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance (NHPA) President Midge Ingersoll began to plan the upcoming camping trip, certain to be the highlight of the USNA-NAHC’s 2019 schedule. A kayaking trip of the Chicone Creek is being arranged by Blackwater Adventures during this visit.

The next public event at Handsell is Chicone Village Day on April 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Chicone Village Day is held every year at Handsell in honor of the Eastern Woodland People who once occupied the ancient Chicawan (Chicacone, Chicone) Village located in the area, including Vienna and north up the Nanticoke River. For more information, visit www.restorehandsell.org.

The History of Handsell

During John Smith’s 1607-08 circumnavigation of the Chesapeake Bay, he wrote in his journals that the area, which he called Emperor’s Landing (near present day Vienna-Chicone Creek-Nanticoke River), was the largest village occupied by Native Inhabitants that he had encountered during this time.

In 1678, the Lord Proprietor of Maryland formally acknowledged by proclamation, the existence of the Eastern Shore Indian towns, including Chicone on the Nanticoke River. “Chicone, one of the largest Indian villages, already contained some land patented by the English. The patents were held by men who had no interest in displacing the native people who lived there. At Chicone, the patent was held by Thomas Taylor, formerly a licensed Indian trader and then a high-ranking military officer who was usually the person sent by the proprietor to deal with the Nanticoke ‘emperor’ during this era. Taylor had acquired rights to a tract of land in the heart of the Chicone Indiantown, called Handsell. The patent encompassed the main Indian residential sites within the town lands and it is likely that these were friendly patents held by Thomas to protect the Indian towns from other Englishmen.” (Ref: Eastern Shore Indians of Maryland and Virginia, by Helen C. Rountree and Thomas E. Davidson, p. 108, 113)

In 1721 a serious conflict arose between the Indians and the English, after the heirs of Christopher Nutter sold their land grant for the Handsell tract to a Dorchester County planter named John Ryder (Rider). John Ryder almost immediately tried to seize the 700 acres of Handsell, including the site of the former Nanticoke Fort among whose inhabitants was William Ashquash, son of Ashquash, the Nanticoke emperor. John burned down William Ashquah’s cabin and destroyed his fences, claiming that the Indians had abandoned the land, even though they were known to leave for short periods of time for seasonal hunting. The Maryland government sided with the Indians and ordered John Ryder off the reservation. (Ref: Eastern Shore Indians of Maryland and Virginia, by Helen C. Rountree and Thomas E. Davidson, p. 149).

By 1742 continued English encroachment caused the Nanticokes to all but abandon Chicacone town. In 1768-69 the Reservation was dissolved by the Maryland Colony after a request from the heirs of John Ryder, including granddaughter Ann Billings Steele, wife of newly immigrated Englishman Henry Steele. The Steeles acquired a 484-acre tract of Handsell and it is believed that they began the large brick plantation house on the site at this time. Some of the Native People of Chicone immigrated north to Pennsylvania, New York and Canada, while others simply assimilated into either black or white communities in lower Dorchester and Wicomico. For more Handsell history, visit www.restorehandsell.org.

7th Annual Chicone Village Day

The Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance is sponsoring the 7th Annual Chicone Village Day at Handsell on Indiantown Road in Vienna, Dorchester County. All are welcome to come to Handsell on this special day designed to honor the history and culture of the Eastern Woodland Native People.

Eastern Woodland Indians inhabited a wide area in the eastern part of the United States, including the vastly wooded area of the Delmarva Pennisula. These included the Algonquian speaking “Nentego” (Nanticokes), the largest tribe on the Eastern Shore, who were part of a matrilineal culture. They lived off the land, using wood, stone, bone and clay products as the basic raw materials in their lives. This region is noted for ample rainfall, numerous ponds, streams, and rivers and the Woodland Indians tended to establish permanent settlements near water in the forested areas.

Traditionally, Eastern Woodland Indians lived in longhouses built of bent saplings covered with mats and/or bark. Some of these were single-family size while others were quite extensive, housing larger family units.

The Nanticokes were a hunter forager culture. Their primary animal foods were deer, turkey, turtle, fish and shellfish. As experienced farmers, they grew beans, corn, and squash. While the males hunted, the females worked in the gardens raising crops and foraged for nuts, berries and roots like tuckahoe and cattail. Available plant material was used both for food and medicinal purposes.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, there were numerous tribes living on the Delmarva Peninsula.   John Smith’s 1608 voyage around the rim of the Chesapeake Bay described one of the largest villages, that of “the Emperor” which was in this area of Chicone Creek and Vienna.  The site was later a reservation set aside by the Maryland Colonies and a Trading Post called “Handsell” set up by Englishman Thomas Taylor, a designated interpreter for the Maryland Colony.

While many tribes had moved freely up and down the peninsula for centuries, by the mid 1600s, Europeans seeking land forced the tribes to abandon their traditional homes and lifestyles.  Nanticoke Indians who originally lived along the Nanticoke River, found themselves slowly being pushed north away from their ancestral lands, some eventually joining the Iroquois Confederacy.

The story of Eastern Woodland Indian culture reaches thousands of years into the distant past of what is now the state of Maryland. Their heritage is intimately woven into the fabric of our nation, yet it is often misinterpreted and remains largely obscure.

Disease, conflict and assimilation wiped out much of this heritage within one or two generations.  As a result, an awareness of native culture is limited to place names of many of our towns and rivers whose meanings have long since been forgotten.

The Chicone Village Project, begun in 2013 with the ground breaking of an authentic native dwelling lodge, or longhouse, has since expanded to include a Native Garden and Work Shelter and recently a Nature Walk. The Chicone Longhouse is an authentically built replica of a single-family dwelling unit, the first to be built on the Eastern Shore in 200 years. Made of all-natural material, it requires regular maintenance. Chicone Village volunteers have logged in over 3,200 hours creating this single-family complex.

The Chicone Longhouse is made of all natural material and requires regular maintenance. Chicone Village volunteers have logged in over 3,000 hours creating this single family complex. A native garden is also part of Chicone Village.

Chicone Village Day is growing with participation from Native groups increasing yearly.  Returning for his only presentation in Dorchester County in 2019 is Daniel Firehawk Abbott, Coordinator of Native Interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg. The Pocomoke Indian Nation, a long-time supporter of the Chicone Village, will feature Chief Norris Howard in the work shelter.

Other tribal groups invited to attend include: Nause Waiwash Band of Indians, Philip Goldsborough and the Mid-Atlantic Cherokee, as well as artists in basketry and pottery. Unlike other Pow-Wows held by Eastern Shore tribal groups, NHPA has devoted its education programs to early Native life as it was before the arrival of Europeans. Living History demonstrations will include cooking, weaving, chipping of implements and gardening with historic plants. There will be artifact displays by Terry Crannell and archaeologist Ed Otter, PhD who has done excavations at Handsell.

Handsell House will be open for docent tours, including the basement kitchen where visitors can watch native inspired food prepared from the Handsell Native Cookbook and where the African American story is represented. Admission is $4 to help defray costs and for maintenance of the village structures. The event is open to the public. Handsell House is located at 4837 Indiantown Road in Vienna. For more information, visit www.restorehandsell.org.


April 27


4835 Indiantown Road
Vienna, MD 21689 United States
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Allison Rogers



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