Naticoke Burial Customs

The Nanticoke, who lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, were connected, linguistically, with the Delaware, and before the latter removed westward beyond the Alleghenies they were neighboring tribes. The Nanticoke were encountered by Capt. John Smith and his party of colonists from Jamestown in 1608, living on or near the river which continues to bear their tribal name. For many years they were enemies of the colonists, but remained in the region until about 1730, when the majority of the tribe began moving northward, stopping at the mouth of the Juniata, and elsewhere in the valley of the Susquehanna, at last arriving in southern New York on the eastern branch of the latter stream, where they rested under protection of the Iroquois, who then dominated that section. Tribal movements were often slow and deliberate, with stops of years on the way, and a generation elapsed between the starting of the Nanticoke from the Eastern Shore and their arrival among the Iroquois. Like many tribes, they removed the remains of the dead from their old home to their new settlements, This was witnessed by Heckewelder, who wrote “These Nanticokes had the singular custom of removing the bones of their deceased friends from the burial place to a place of deposit in the country they dwell in, In earlier times they were known to go from Wyoming and Chemenk, to fetch the bones of their dead from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, even when the bodies were in a putrid state, so that they had to take off the flesh and scrape the bones clean, before they could carry them along, I well remember having seem them between the years 1750 and 1760, loaded with such bones, which, being fresh, caused a disagreeable stench, as they passed through the town of Bethlehem.” One of the ancient Nanticoke sites, one probably occupied at the time of the discovery of the people by the Virginia colonists, stood on the left bank of Choptank River, some 2 miles below Cambridge, Dorchester County, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This village was occupied until the year 1722, or until the tribe began their movement northward, Since this site was abandoned, sand, blown and drifted by the winds, has covered the original surface to a depth of many feet, And during the same interval the exposed face of the cliff has receded, caused by the encroachment of the waters of the Choptank. Now, as the result of these two natural phenomena, the surface once occupied by the village of the Nanticoke appears on the face of the cliff as a dark line or stratum, from one-half to 1 foot in thickness, and extending for about one-third of a mile along the shore, thus proving the extent of the ancient settlement. At one point on the exposed face of the cliff a quantity of human bones were visible, and when examined this proved to be ” a hard-set horizontal bed of human bones and skulls, many of them well preserved, about 1 ½ to 2 feet thick, 10 feet long, 3 feet under the village site stratum,” and further excavation showed this mass of bones to be “of irregular, circular shape, 25 feet in longest by 20 feet in shortest diameter and 1½ to 2 feet thick (thickest in the middle, and tapering at the sides).” A short distance inward and directly above the larger deposit was another mass of bones, this being about 7 feet long, 7 inches thick, and 2 feet wide. The two deposits were separated by about 1½ feet of sand. “In the main or lower deposit some of the bones had, others had not, been subjected to fire. The bone layer might have been subdivided thus: First, the bottom (6 inches), where the bones were in small fragments, blackened and bedded in masses of charcoal and ashes; second, the middle, next above (5 to 10 inches), where the skulls and bones, though somewhat charred, were intact; and third, the top (6 to 8 inches), where the bones, though mixed with bits of charcoal, showed no direct trace of fire. The conditions proved that many skeletons had been burned in the lower part of the main bed.” The bones in the smaller deposit “were generally intact in tolerable preservation, and in spite of the bits of scattered charcoal found with them, showed no direct signs of charring.” Ossuaries of this form are not characteristic of any Algonquian tribe, but at once suggest the customs of the Huron and other northern Iroquoian people. This large deposit of human remains may have resulted through some great emergency, at some time when it became necessary to dispose of many bodies which were placed in one common grave, rather than preparing a separate one for each. Single graves have been exposed on the face of the cliff, evidently near the ossuaries, which tends to prove this particular spot to have been the cemetery adjoining the ancient village. The county of Dorchester is bounded on the southeast by the Nanticoke River, and human remains have been discovered on the right bank of the stream just above the village of Vienna, and undoubtedly many other burial places have been encountered within this region, once comparatively thickly peopled, no records of which are preserved.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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