DELMARVA NATIVE AMERICANS & THE EARLIEST UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Contributed by Bill Gould
From a National Park Service publication
26 Oct 2007
As a societal dynamic, African slavery impacted every aspect of the American social fabric. Native Americans, too, were not exempt from experiencing the flaws of that fabric. Slaves and slave-masters and Indians also played a significant role in the earliest Underground Railroad. Indians, especially those living near swamps, often to their detriment, harbored runaway black slaves. One such tribe, Delmarva's Nanticokes, originally living along the Nanticoke River in Dorchester Co. Maryland, provided refuge to runaways.
The principal hiding place for runaways was the swamp. Certain locales became renowned for what was known as maroon communities. Dense vegetation and marshy terrain made the swamps a difficult place for masters and bounty hunters to search for the runaways. David Hunter Strother, an artist for Harper's Magazine, in 1856, captured the fear and determination of the runaway Osman in the Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and Virginia. Also in 1856, Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous for her Uncle Tom's Cabin, wrote in Dred; Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp:
Away to the Dismal Swamp he speeds,
His path was rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
Through many a fen, where the serpent feeds,
And man never trod before.
Encountering a fugitive in the swamp, Dred, modeled after Nat Turner of the 1831 Southampton, Virginia Slave Rebellion, harbors him. The Virginia Slave Code of the 1700's attests to the frequency of such escapes: "Whereas, many times slaves run away and lie out, hid and lurking in swamps, woods, and other obscure places, killing cattle and hogs, and committing other injuries to the inhabitants of this state;" Anyone who harbored a fugitive took a great risk. At the very least, the law provided that anyone who did so would pay the owner of the slave ten shillings for each 24 hours. In 1795, runaway slaves who hid in swamps, plundered plantations outside Wilmington, North Carolina.
George Alfred Townsend's Entailed Hat described similar circumstances of "Virgie's Flight" in Delaware's great Cypress Swamp, "counterpart of the Dismal Swamp in Virginia." "The cedar swamps of Delaware were noted refugesfor runaways." Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania newspapers were filled with advertisements specifically mentioning the cedar swamps of Delaware as a runaway destination. It's in these areas that current mixed race communities now exist." (See Ned Heite's scholarship on "tri-racial isolates").
Runaways found support and refuge in Native American communities, such as the Nanticokes. The "Tidewater People" lived in small villages along the streams and rivers, including the Pocomoke River, that flowed into the Chesapeake Bay. The region's swamp lands became significant sites on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves. By the early 18th Century, mixed-blooded communities had formed in Kent and Sussex Counties, near Cheswold and Indian River respectively. Members of the Indian-descended Puckham, Norwood, Ridgeway and Cambridge families from Eastern Shore Maryland and Sussex intermarried with the Kent County community in the early 19th Century. The census term "mulatto" became a catch-all for any non-white person.
According to Scharf's History (1888), surrounding communities recognized the Moors, "a tri-racial isolate," as a distinct ethnic group. In 1895, Judge George Purnell Fisher wrote an article for the Smyrna Times titled "The So-Called Moors of Delaware." Forty years before, Fisher had prosecuted Levin Sockum and his son-in-law Harmon in a famous Delaware case concerning the question of racial identity. Based upon Nanticoke Lydia Clark's testimony, the defendants were found to be of a tri-racial origin and thus guilty of selling gunpowder to a Negro or mulatto. Both Harmon and Sockum denied any Negro ancestry.
C. A. Weslager's Delaware's Forgotten Folk, The Story of the Moors & Nanticokes presents a different perspective on the issue of racial identity. Writing in 1943, Weslager stated: "The cabins occupied by the remaining Indians [Nanticokes], concealed in he woods some distance from towns, were excellent hideouts for runaway slaves. In the Maryland records of 1722, there is a reference to 'several of our own Negroes and slaves having already run away to the said Indians and living now among them'. This was not only true of Negro slaves. Mulattoes and indentured white servants, upon breaking their shackles, took to the woods and found foodand shelter in the scattered native huts. Hospitality was and is rated high among the Eastern Indians ."(pp. 66-67)
On the question of mulattoes, Weslager concluded The Delaware Gazette advertisements gave insight into their existence. For instance, in the April 22, 1796 issue, p.3, an advertisement tellingly spoke of Eastern Shore runaways. James Lynch's advertisement read: [Reward for Runaways]--"a Negro Woman with a child, she is a low thick woman, very black, her child is a bright mulatto ."
As enlightening as the runaway advertisements are, Indian Treaties provide conclusive evidence of the complexity of African and Native American interaction. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Indian Treaties reflect a slaveholding colonial society struggling with the institution of slavery. Treaty clauses for Delmarva addressed the fugitive slave problem. Between 1663 and 1666, Maryland commissioners negotiated with the Indians of "Piscattaway, Anascostanck, Maltawomans, Chingwanateick, Maugemaick, Port Tobackes, and Pangayo." (Scharf, p. 290)
The 12th Article of the 1666 Treaty stated: "In case any servants or slaves run away from their masters and come to any of the Indian Towns aforesaid that the said Indians shall apprehend them and bring them to the next English plantation to be conveyed to their masters; and if any Indians assist or convey any such fugitive out of the Province that he shall make the respective master or masters of such servant or [slave] such satisfaction as an Englishman ought to do in the like case. (quoted in Scharf, p. 291)
In 1678, Maryland's Philip Calvert made a Treaty of "peace and amity" with Vnnacokassimon, Emperor of the Nanticokes. Article 6 essentially reiterated the earlier treaty: "In case any Servant or Slaves run away from their master & come to any of Indian towns within the Territories of Vnnacokassimmon and his subjects they be bound to apprehend the said fugitives & bring them to the next English plantation to be conveyed to their Master " (Proceedings of the Council of Maryland, 1676-1678, volume15, p. 174 at Maryland State Archives)
The autumn of 1722 saw major treaties. On September 11, 1722, the Governorof Virginia made certain propositions to the Five Nations of Indians. The Governor maintained: "You sent me last year a Belt of Wampum as a Testimony of your Promise, that you would seize and carry to Virginia some Runaway Negroes .Now I make a general Proposition that if any such Negro or slave shall hereafter fall into your hands you shall straightway conduct them to George Mason's House on the Potomac River & you shall there receive immediately upon the delivery of every such Runaway one good Gun & two Blankets ." (New York Council Minutes, XIIL in E.B. O'Callaghan, editor, Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of N.Y., 1855, p.674)
Brother Assarigoe's responded: "As to the Proposition you made relating to Negroes We promise that if any Runaway Negroes or slaves shall happen to fall into our hands we will carry them to George Mason 's on the Potomac River for your reward you proposed." (O'Callaghan, p. 676)
Then in October and November 1722, the Province of Maryland drafted its major treatise on the question of Indians and the runaway slave. On October 22, 1722, the treatise was read in the Upper House of Assembly. It stated: "Another proposition I have to make to you Indians with respect to Runaway Negroes and Slaves it being a Matter of Importance which must greatly Affect the properties of People in these parts. If Indians be allowed to Harbor our Slaves as the Shawnees at this time do and protect them under the pretense of their having set such Slaves free. This Gentlemen we look upon as a Matter of Great Importance to this Province several of our Own Negroes and Slaves having already run away to the Indians and living among them, which if not in time prevented, may be an encouragement to greater numbers of them to do so." (Proceedings of Acts of General Assembly, October 1720-1723, volume 34, page 431, Maryland State Archives)
On November 1st, 1722, the above message was read again on the floor of the General Assembly and was passed as proposed.
After the passage of this legislation, census takers in the late 18th Century visited Indian communities east of the Mississippi River, identifying, categorizing, and counting. When the census takers discovered Native American communities harboring runaways, the tribes were threatened with the loss of their tribal status, the nullification of treaties, landclaims, and trade agreements. Despite these sanctions, Native Americans and Africans remained allied.
In addition to Delmarva's refuge safe havens, other recognized runaway camps included the Shawnee Oldfield Village on the Potomac River; an area 20 miles north of the mouth of the Savannah River; a vicinity between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River; next to Combahee and Ashepoo Rivers in South Carolina; Tuscarora, North Carolina; and an encampment near the Pamunky River in Virginia.
Colonial laws and state statutes concerning the harboring of fugitive slaves reflect society's values and attitudes toward what it deemed to be property. The laws listed here are representative of the various jurisdictions.
1640: New Netherlands Law forbids residents from harboring or feeding runaway slaves.
1640: Punitive fugitive laws applying to both indentured servants and slaves were enacted in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia.
1751: South Carolina law stated: "The carrying of Negroes among the Indians has all along been thought detrimental, as an intimacy ought to be avoided."
1848: Georgia Slave Code makes it a punishable offence for free Negro, mulatto, and mustizoe to harbor slaves. Constables were authorized to search suspected premises for runaway slaves.
1856: Mississippi law mandated that any Indian, free black, or mulatto found guilty of harboring a runaway was to be fined $50.00 for each black so harbored and imprisoned in the penitentiary for up to one year. The 1856 law had amended a 1839 law, stipulating an Indian found guilty of harboring any enslaved black would pay the owner $50.00 and all court costs and be imprisoned between three and six months.
1642: A Virginia law penalized persons sheltering runaways 20 pounds worth of tobacco for each night of refuge granted. Slaves were branded with an"R" on the face after a second escape. (Act XXI, Hening's Statutes, I:253-254) "Be it further also enacted that if any servant running away as aforesaid shall carry either piece, powder and shot, And leave either all or any of them with the Indians, And being thereof lawfully convicted shall suffer death as in case of felony." (Act XXII, Hening's Statutes, I:254-255)
One of the most compelling arguments that Indians harbored fugitive slaves is the existence of multi-racial peoples. Africans and Native Americans intertwined along complex paths, influencing the emergence of a blended culture. Miscegenation was a powerful social behavior, imbued with inherent racism. In April, 1691, the Virginia House of Burgess passed its first anti-miscegenation law, "An Act for Suppressing Outlying Slaves."
Upon arriving in Kansas in 1850, Quaker missionary Wilson Hobbs, noticed the number of mixed-bloods in the Shawnee tribe. A century earlier, M. Viner, a Jesuit missionary to the Louisiana Territory, noted: "We have here Whites, Negroes, and Indians, to say nothing of the cross-breeds ." (Carter Woodson, A Century of Negro Migration, 1918, p.8)
A concrete example demonstrating the existence of multi-racial peoples involves Sally Johnson's (a Cherokee woman residing in Alabama) application to sell a reservation of land in 1831. The reservation of land (640 acres) was made to her husband Peter Johnson . Peter was adjudged to be a runaway slave. The wife's petition was presented to U.S. House's committee on Public Lands. She asked Congress to confirm the reservation to her and her children, and that she "be permitted to sell the fee simple estate." (American State Papers, House of Representatives, 21st Congress, 2nd Session. Public Lands: Volume 6, Page 266, No. 892)
Another specific example of racial mixing can be seen in a 1778 New Jersey advertisement for a runaway. The advertisement read: "Was stolen from her mother, a negro girl, about 9 or 10 years of age, named Dianah, her mother's name is Cash, was married to an Indian named Lewis Wollis Any person who takes up the said negroes and Indian shall have the above reward."
"Tri-racial isolates" describe communities resulting from the mixing of white, black and red peoples. Some of the first black, white, Indian and mixed families intermarried or interbred in the 1600's in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the Carolinas. The offspring became known as"Melungeons." At first, inter-racial marriage was legal in Virginia. North American Indian ancestors of Melungeons came from the Powhatan, Mattaponi, Rappahanock, Pamunkey, Chickahominie, Catawba, Cherokee, and Choctow communities.
The African ancestors of the Melungeons came from northeast Angola and southern Congo. The original ancestors of the Melungeons were free-African-Americans who married whites in Virginia and other colonies.The Moors of Delaware can be traced to this lineage through the linking of identical surnames.
Documented accounts are extremely rare due to the secret nature of "Underground Railroad" activities and unwritten language. Those few extant records are as valuable as they are poignant. Juniper's owner noted in 1814 his slave ran from Kentucky into Tennessee. The master concluded: "It is supposed he has lived with Creek Indians and will endeavor to get to the nation again." (John Hope Franklin & Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves, 1999, p.113) An invaluable source chronicling personal histories of Indians, especially those removed to Oklahoma, is Black Indian Slave Narratives, edited by Patrick Minges (2004). Interviewed by the WPA in 1937, John Harrison recalled: "Mother has told me that before the War [Civil War], the people as a whole were living very comfortably and satisfied. The Indians, Creeks, had intermarried with the white and colored, and [they] became citizens of the tribe, and that they, too, were satisfied with the full-blood in this new land of theirs." (Minges, p.86)
Nellie Johnson was less positive in her recollection of racial mixtures. Nellie stated, "Some of the Negro girls that I knowed of mixed up with the poor Creeks and Seminoles, and some got married to them after the War, but none of my family ever did mix up with them, that I knows of." (Minges,p.133)
Chaney Mack of Mississippi related, "Yes, my father was a full-blooded African" from near Liberia. Mack's story told how his father was put on the block and sold in Dalton, Georgia. One fond memory involved Mack's father making a fiddle out of pine bark and playing for the family to dance. (Minges, p. 152) Of his mother, Mack stated, "My mother was a pure-blood Indian. [Choctaw]. She was born near Lookout Mountain, up in Tennessee, on a river, in a log hut." Of his parents' marriage, Mack described both the African custom of "jumpin' over de broom" and the Indian tradition. The chief would stand before the hand-holding couple and repeat: "He is black; she is yaller; Made out of beeswax, and no taller, Salute your bride, you ugly feller! (or devil)" (Minges, p.156)
Ned Thompson, interviewed by the WPA in Oklahoma in 1937, gives a detailed accountof his family history. His grandfather was an Alabama slave known as "Cow Tom" whose family was removed to the western Indian Territory in 1832. An interpreter, Cow Tom"fought in the Florida War." In 1868, Cow Tom went to Washington, D.C. to plead the case of Creek's entitlements to land and money.
Geraldine Elliott Robinson, great-great granddaughter of Cow Tom, documented the Cow Tomaccount in her genealogical research posted on the web. Robinson chronicled her family living among the Seminoles and resisting the federal plan of Indian removal. A relative, Ben Bruno, a maroon in Florida, served as Billy Bowleg's interpreter.
After bad treaties and camp burnings, members of her family gathered at Juniper, Florida before heading to Tampa Bay. The next stop was New Orleans, but before arriving there, men swarmed the slave ships saying, "These are our runaway slaves harbored by the Seminoles. We want them and their descendants. These are our legitimate slaves. Here are our papers. "Family members were taken to Fort Pike and held for 13 months. Eventually released, they journeyed to Fort Gibson Indian Territory, arriving May, 1838.
The history of Native Americans harboring fugitive slaves has been an elusive study. Scholars have been challenged by "irretrievable accounts"and sparse documentation. Yet, the story of the Seminoles of Florida does provide insight into the activities of the Nanticokes of Delmarva. While many Indian tribes imitated the white man in owning chattel slaves, the Seminoles never did.
From the beginning of slavery, slaves attempted to escape. In the 17th Century, many Africans from the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia escaped to Florida and built settlements near the Seminoles. The two peoples bondedand formed a close union based on their mutual hatred of slavery. Despite the U.S. government's attempts to break up their union, the two peoples, through intermarriages and friendships, remained allied. The Africans became known as Black Seminoles.
The term Seminole is Spanish for "cimarron," meaning runaway. These Indians of the Creek tribe had escaped from slavery and land encroachment in the British colonies. The first Seminoles found refuge in Florida, along theSuwannee and Apalachicola Rivers, because the territory was governed by Spain. Under Spanish policy, slaves in Florida were never chattel. For the slaveholding states in the deep South, Indian-protected fugitive slaves posed vast troubles. South Carolina assigned slave patrols to watch roads and countryside. In 1728, South Carolina acting governor Arthur Middleton wrote: "The Spanish are receiving and harboring all our runaway negroes, they found out a new way of sending our slaves against us, to rob and plunder us--they are continually fitting out parties of Indians from St. Augustine to murder our white people, to rob our plantations and carry off our slaves ." Middleton, a rice planter who held 107 slaves at the time of his death in 1737, had been personally affected by the Spanish policy of encouraging runaways. For the Spanish, their encouragement was just one more ploy to be used against their British enemies.
In 1773, Indian agent David Taitt threatened to cut off Creek trade unless the Indians returned the fugitives (Wm. S. Willis, Divide and Rule: Red,White, and Black in the Southeast,in Roger L. Nichols & George R. Adams, The American Indian: Past and Present, 1971, p.78). South Carolina authorities also required all traders to report and apprehend any Negroes found among the Indians.
In 1823, Florida's Legislative Council warned Territorial Governor William P. Duval of the "existing evils." The 14 page memorial spoke to those evils: "great numbers of negroes belonging to the planters, availing themselves of existing disorders" and running away only to take "refuge among the Indians." (John Hope Franklin & Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves, 1999, p.82).
Spain also had no interest in returning African and Native American refuges to the British. In fact, the Spanish policy was designed to pit the fugitives and natives against the British. During the early 1700's other tribes, including the Yuchis, Yamasees, and Choctaws joined the Seminoles in their journey from Georgia to northern Florida. White man called them, along with the Chickasaws and Cherokees, the "Five Civilized Tribes." However, the freedom these tribes so desperately sought escaped them. Parties of slave catchers crossed the borders from Georgia and Alabama to rove Spanish North Florida. And always their tribal hunting grounds and settlements were being snatched up from under them by the land hungry Europeans. Conflict ensued and the Spanish government was unable to maintain social order. The explosive situation escalated after 1814 when"The Red Stick" losers of the Creek Civil War emigrated to Florida and joined the runaway blacks and Seminoles. Several hundred runaway slaves had established Angola, a settlement stretching from Tampa to Sarasota County. At the close of the War of 1812, a British Major Edward Nicholls led an expedition, recruiting Seminoles and black runaway slaves to fight the Americans. On Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River, the British and herallies constructed a fort. When the British withdrew from the area, her allies moved into the fort, now known as "Negro Fort." This bastion served as a rallying point for the runaways.
The First Seminole War (1817-1818) officially broke out over U.S. attempts to recapture runaway black slaves living among the Seminoles. Floridian historian Canter Brown, Jr. estimated that more than 1,000 runaways and free-born blacks lived among the Seminoles at the turn of the 19th Century (Race Relations in Territorial Florida, 1821-1845," Florida Historical Quarterly, v 73, #3, 287-305)
In 1816, the American army under General Andrew Jackson ordered the construction of Fort Scott on the Flint River to protect the Florida border and to destroy "Negro Fort," a perceived threat to Georgia's Slavocracy. That summer, Jackson ordered "Negro Fort's" destruction and the return of the 31 surviving blacks to their white owners. During the next two years, Jackson and his men burned Seminole villages and captured Spanish towns at St. Marks and Pensacola. The Americans drove the Seminoles into the Okefenkee swamplands. Under the terms of the Transcontinental Treaty, Spain ceded the Florida Territory to the United States in 1819. Though Andrew Jackson's brutal tactics spawned a congressional investigation, the 15th Congress was sympathetic to "national expansionism", later dubbed "Manifest Destiny." Moreover, many of the representatives and senators were slaveholders.
While the First Seminole War granted Florida to the new nation, it did not stop runaway slaves from fleeing to Florida. The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) resulted from the policy to remove the Seminoles from Florida. The runaway slaves, fearful of being turned over to white masters, helped to persuade their allies, the Seminoles, to resist removal. As settlers increased, the Seminoles grew increasingly frustrated with their dwindling lands.
Under the Treaty of Moultrie Creek of 1823, the Seminoles had agreed to exchange their existent land claims for that of a 4 million- acre reservation south of Ocala. However, the reservation proved agriculturally unsatisfactory. And the whites continued to seethe, believing the Seminoles were harboring runaway slaves. The October 16, 1824 edition of the St. Augustine East Florida Herald indicted: "Negroes are harbored among the Indians with impunity." During the 1820's, the Florida Legislative Council imposed strong sanctions against assisting runaways, including outlawing miscegenation.
The tinder box exploded; in 1835, federal troops arrived in Florida to control the Indian threat and force the tribes to relocate to reservations west of the Mississippi River. The Seminole leader was Osceola. The U.S. Government launched a third Seminole War (1855-1858) to force the Seminoles to relocate. Before acquiescing to the federal plan, tribal leader Billy Bowlegs fought both the U.S. army and Native American tribes attempting to capture the Black Seminoles and sell them into slavery.
The Seminole Wars were costly for the American government in terms of money and lost of lives. The armed conflict also postponed Florida's admission to the Union until 1845. General Thomas Sidney Jesup called the hostilities "a Negro war not an Indian war."
Nowhere is the explosive and complex nature of the early Underground Railroad as intense as in the halls of the U.S. Congress. On February 18,1846, Mr. Joshua R. Giddings, Representative from Ohio, addressed the issues of Indian treaties, fugitive slaves, the evils of slavery, and the power of the slavocracy. The treaty in question was the 1845 Creek agreement intended as compensation for slaves.
Giddings argued "that this treaty [arranged in secret] was negotiated for the sole purpose of arranging difficulties, and satisfying claims arising from the capture of fugitive slaves and for the purpose of paying for such slaves." (Congressional Globe, 29th Congress, lst session, p. 431)
Giddings discussed the history of the arrangements. In 1790, the U.S. had entered into a treaty with the Creek Indians who "agreed to deliver up such negroes as resided among them." However, the Creeks failed to deliver up the negroes. Consequently, "Georgia planters became clamorous for their slaves," and in 1821, the "Indian Spring" Treaty was negotiated. By terms of this treaty, the Indians agreed to pay for the slaves. As a result of such payment, they believed the slaves to be their property. "But the Seminoles, being connected to them in all relations of domestic life, refused to deliver them up as slaves."
Within this context, the federal government was removing southeastern tribes to the Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi River. However, the Seminoles refused to go into the Creek Territory because of their difference concerning fugitive slaves. The Seminoles did not consider escaped slaves to be property.
One of the problems for Representative Giddings was the annuities being allocated for the Indians. He felt the funds were inflated by "a slave-dealing President" and Senate to make compensation for the slaves that morally should not be returned.
On Delmarva and other locales in the Eastern United States, certain Native American tribes provided the earliest safe havens of a "Underground Railroad." They often paid a price for their bravery and humanity.
"The History and Genealogy of the
Native American Isolate Communities
of Kent County, Delaware, and
Surrounding Areas on the Delmarva Peninsula
and Southern New Jersey"
All rights reserved.
Not to be used for commercial purposes.