This article about the native population of Delmarva, and its colonization, appeared in a special magazine-style publication called "Delmarva Millennium, Volume I," published in October 1999 by Thomson-Chesapeake.

See below for a sidebar on the Delmarva Indians' language.

By Terry Plowman
Capt. John Smith was not the first person to observe the charms of the Delmarva Peninsula when he wrote in the early 1600s that "Heaven and earth seemed never to have agreed better, to have framed a place for man's delightful habitation."
Although colonial-era explorers such as Smith were the first to write down their observations about the delights of what we today call Delmarva, they certainly were not the first to notice those delights -- for indigenous people had made a home in the region between the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean for thousands of years.


Early inhabitants of Delmarva make a dugout canoe.

Life before the Europeans
The tribal groups that flourished on the Delmarva Peninsula for hundreds of years before European colonists arrived evolved from bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers that had inhabited the region since the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago.
Though the native people of Delmarva shared common ancestral roots and mother tongue -- Algonquian -- they were not culturally identical. Various groups evolved into the many distinct tribes that warily greeted the European explorers in the 17th century -- the Accomacks and Accohannocks in the south, the Nanticokes (and their "brother-sister" tribes such as the Choptanks, Assateagues and Wicomicos) in what is today Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the Lenapes in the northern reaches of the peninsula, to name just a few.
Despite whatever unique characteristics that set them apart, the native tribes did share at least one common trait: they lived in harmony with nature, reaping the abundant natural resources of Delmarva.
Although the introduction of maize agriculture about 3,000 years ago improved the subsistence lifestyle of the native people of Delmarva, it did not transform them into a strictly farming society -- they continued hunting and foraging to supplement their crops of corn, beans and squash.
The natives of Delmarva remained semi-nomadic, their travels revolving around the seasons, their settlements relocated as natural conditions dictated. They set up villages -- actually just a scattered group of thatch houses and cultivated gardens -- where conditions favored farming. In the spring they planted crops, which the women and children tended while the men hunted and fished. In the fall they harvested crops, storing food in baskets or underground pits. During the harsh winter, whole communities would move to hunting areas, seeking the deer, rabbit and other game that kept them alive until the spring fishing season. When the farmland around their villages became less productive -- crop rotation was not practiced -- the native people would abandon the site and move to another location.
(This habit of abandoning sites later led to transactions with the colonists that may have been misunderstood -- the native people, who didn't embrace the European concept of land ownership, were more than willing to sell land that they no longer wanted, or to sell the resources found there. But these transactions that seemed harmless to the Indians would lead to more sales and land grabs that eventually forced them off most of the peninsula's land. For example, by 1641, Virginia's once-pervasive Accomack tribe had been forced into an enclave of only 690 acres.)
The indigenous Delmarvans' lifestyle in harmony with nature may seem somewhat idyllic, but it was rustic, even survivalist, by today's standards. It was into this natural existence that strange visitors sailed in the 1500s.
The Europeans arrive
"As soon as the inhabitants of this island caught sight of us, they set up a loud and terrible outcry, as if they had never before seen men dressed as we were, and they ran off screaming like beasts and yelling like madmen." -- Thomas Hariot, English visitor to Virginia, 1585.
The first explorers to visit the Delmarva Peninsula were so different from the people they encountered that it would be akin to aliens from another planet landing on Earth today. They arrived in vessels a hundred times larger than any dugout canoe built by the native people, their skin color, facial features and dress were radically different, their language was unintelligible and they had weapons whose power was frightening.
The first encounter between Europeans and native people of Delmarva was probably in 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into Chincoteague Bay and sent a landing party ashore. Those explorers, foreshadowing the many aggressive actions that would follow, attempted to capture two of the native children they encountered, but were driven off.
And so began visits to the Delmarva Peninsula by European explorers, in relatively rapid succession after many centuries of isolation.
The southern portion was visited around 1570 by Spanish missionaries, in 1603 by English Capt. Barthlomew Gilbert, in 1608 by Capt. John Smith, sailing out of the established colony at Jamestown, Va. In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon past the northern part of Delmarva, into the Delaware Bay, and in 1631 the Dutch established the colony called Zwaanendael (or Swanendael), near what is today Lewes, Del. That same year, a fur-trading post was established on Kent Island on the western side of Delmarva.
Some of these missions and colonies were disrupted or destroyed by native warriors, but that did not deter the relentless colonization of the peninsula -- and the inevitable disintegration of the native societies. According to Helen C. Rountree and Thomas E. Davidson, authors of "Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland," Virginia tribes lost land "at an alarming rate" by sale or English claims. The Accomacks lost their land to English farmers by the 1640s, and references to Accohannock land disappear by 1672. By 1668, one-sided treaties had brought what remained of the Nanticokes under the control of Maryland authorities. This, and further encroachments by colonists, caused many members of that tribe to emigrate to Pennsylvania and other states over the next century. A 1756 estimate placed the number of Nanticokes in Maryland -- once the largest tribe on Delmarva -- at about 140.
Meanwhile, the number of European settlers grew rapidly throughout the 1700s, as large, fruitful plantations, profitable trading centers and shipping networks were developed. By the first United States census in 1790, there were about 60,000 people in Delaware, and probably about the same number on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland.
After centuries as an undisturbed "place for delightful habitation," the Delmarva Peninsula was on its way to becoming a favorite destination for millions of visitors.

Remnants of Indian language still evident on Delmarva

By Terry Plowman
In the tiny waterfront town of Riverdale near Millsboro, Del., a memorial stands to Lydia E. Clark, the last Nanticoke Indian who spoke the tribe's native language. Clark, whose Indian name was Nau-Gwa-Ok-Wa, died in 1859, taking with her the knowledge of the tribe's original tongue, which was rooted in the same mother tongue as that of all tribes on the Delmarva Peninsula: Algonquian.
Although the native dialects of the various tribes of Delmarva have faded away, they left their indelible mark on many of the place names throughout the peninsula.
From Chincoteague to the Choptank, from Assateague to the Chesapeake, numerous places retain the names taken from white man's pronunciation of Indian words, garbled as it sometimes was. A descendant of Lydia Clark, Charles Clark IV, who is today assistant chief of the Nanticoke tribe, says that Europeans thought native peoples' place names were their tribal names because of the Indians' habit of identifying themselves by their location.
The 1911 book "Ye Kingdome of Accamacke" lists translations of several place names, and some of the native words from which they may have been derived. Here's a partial list:
Accomack: "the other-side place" or "the other shore."
Chesapeake: from K'tchisupiak," "people of the great salt water."
Chincoteague: from Chingua-tegwe, "large stream" or "inlet."
Choptank: possibly from the Nanticoke tshapetank, "a stream that separates."
Nanticoke: from Nentego, variant of Unechtgo, "tidewater people."
Oanancock: a corruption of auwannaku, "foggy."
Pocomoke: Pocqueumoke, "place of shellfish," also "knobby place."
Pungoteague: from pungotekw, "sand-fly river."
Wikomoco: "place where the houses are."

Back to writing samples page