Nanticoke Tribe

Nanticoke Indians (from Nentego, var. of Delaware Unechtgo, Unalachtgo, ‘tidewater people’).  An important Algonquian tribe living on Nanticoke River of Maryland, on the east shore, where Smith in 1608 located their principal village, called Nanticoke. They were connected linguistically and ethnically with the Delaware and the Conoy, notwithstanding the idiomatic variance in the language of the latter. Their traditional history is brief and affords but little aid in tracing their movements in prehistoric times. The 10th verse of the fifth song of the Walam Olum is translated by Squier: “The Nentegos and the Shawani went to the south lands.” Although the Shawnee and Nanticoke are brought together in this verse, it does not necessarily indicate that they separated from the main body at the sane time and place; but in both cases the separation appears to have occurred in the region that in verse 1, same canto, is designated Talega land, which was probably in Ohio, since their tradition recorded by Beatty 1 is precisely the same as that of the Shawnee. It is also probable that “south” in the legend signifies some point below the latitude of Pittsburg, Pa., but not south of the Kanawha. A different and more probable account was given to Heckewelder by the old chief, White, who said that, being great trappers and fishers, they separated from the Delaware after these had reached their eastern seat and wandered south in search of good fishing and trapping grounds.

The Conoy in 1660 informed the governor of Maryland of a “league that had existed for 13 generations with an emperor of Nanticoke lineage at its head, which embraced all the tribes of the province, and also the Potomac and, as they pretended, even the Iroquoian Conestoga” 2 The Tocwogh of Smith, as well as the later Doag, were possibly identical with the Nanticoke.

A short time after its settlement the Maryland colony found the Nanticoke a thorn in its side. As early as 1642 they were formally declared to be enemies, and not until 1678 was the strife composed by treaty. A renewal of hostilities was threatened in 1687, but by prudent measures this was prevented and the peace reaffirmed. In 1698, and from that time forward as long as they remained in the region, reservations were set aside for them. In 1707 they had at least 7 villages. In 1722 their principal village, called Nanduge by Beverley, contained about 100 inhabitants and was the residence of the “empress,” who ruled over all the neighboring Indians. At that time they numbered about 500. Soon afterward they began to move north, stopping for a time on the Susquehanna, at the mouth of the Juniata, and about 1748 the greater part of the tribe went up the Susquehanna, halting at various points, and finally settled under Iroquois protection at Chenango, Chugnut, and Owego, on the east branch of the Susquehanna in south New York. They were estimated at about 500 in 1765. A part remained in Maryland, where they were still living under the name of Wiwash in 1792, although reduced to about 30. In 1753 a part of those on the upper Susquehanna joined the Iroquois in west New York, with whom they were still living in 1840, but the majority of the tribe, in company with remnants of the Mahican and Wappinger, emigrated to the west about 1784 and joined the Delaware in Ohio and Indiana, with whom they soon became incorporated, disappearing as a distinct tribe. A few mixed bloods live on Indian river, Delaware.

The Nanticoke were distinguished from neighboring tribes by a darker color and peculiar customs. They appear to have been devoted to fishing and trapping as a means of subsistence. Heckewelder says: ” They are said to have been the inventors of a poisonous substance by which they could destroy a whole settlement of people, and they are accused of being skilled in the arts of witchcraft. It is certain they are dreaded on this account. I have known Indians who firmly believed that they had people among them who could, if they pleased, destroy a whole army by merely blowing their breath toward them. Those of the Lenape and other tribes who pretend to witchcraft say that they learned the science from the Nanticoke.” What particular characteristic, art, or knowledge caused them to be looked upon in this light is not stated; but it probably was their knowledge of poisons and the singular custom, which Heckewelder describes, of removing the bones of their dead from place to place during their various shifting. They appear to have had a head chief, to whom the English, adopting Old World terns, applied the name emperor to distinguish him from the subordinate chiefs whom they called kings. The line of descent of the former was in the female line, and as noted above, if Beverley be correct, a woman might under certain circumstances, hold the chieftaincy. Their towns appear to have been in some instances fortified, as Smith says: “They conducted us to their pallizadoed towne, mantelled with the barkes of trees,. with scaffolds like mounts, brested about with brests very formally.”

The Nanticoke confederacy appears to have included, besides the Nanticoke proper:

  • Arseek
  • Cuscarawaoc
  • Nause
  • Ozinies (?)
  • Sarapinagh

The Nanticoke had at various times the following villages:

  • Askiminkansen
  • Byengoahtein (mixed)
  • Cenango (mixed)
  • Locust
  • Matchettochousie
  • Matcjcpichtin
  • Nanduge
  • Natahquois
  • Necktown
  • Pekoinoke
  • Pohecommeati
  • Teahquois
  • Witchquaom


  1. Brinton, Lenape Leg., 139, 1885[]
  2. Maryland Arch., Proc. Counc., 1636-67, 403.[]

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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2 thoughts on “Nanticoke Tribe”

  1. My grandmother was a Nanticoke Indian from Millsboro,Del. Are there any good books that covers the history of the tribe?

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