The Eastern Shore Indians
By Matthew Krogh


“A Community Gone:  The Eastern Shore Natives”


            The “Eastern Shore Indians,” who first settled the area that is now Northampton and Accomack Counties, were a colorful, peaceful, and dynamic community.  They consisted of about 2000 people in the early 1600s and included at least fourteen tribes from the Mattawames to the Gingaskins.  They had such great Chiefs as Debedeavon of the Nusswatocks and Ekeeks of the Auwanakus.  Their community was a somewhat united but spread out one of small villages.  To begin, we will describe their cultural origins.


The Eastern Shore natives were descended not from natives across the bay but from natives of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.  They were of the Algonquin Family but were familiar with the natives across the bay.  They did not trade with the mainland, but merely paid tribute to Wahunsonacock, the Powhatan, or Emperor, on the mainland.  This came in the form of beads, copper, and skins they sent over in canoes.  This tribute is debatable, however, since Wahunsonacock lacked the naval power to invade the Shore if the Eastern Shore natives did not pay tribute.  He may have ruled more through fear of conquest.  Yet, it can be argued that the natives did have much contact with the Powhatan Confederacy since they spoke the same language and since the Eastern Shore natives received word of the Jamestown settlement before John Smith’s arrival on the Shore.


One of the first English visitors to the Shore was Sir Humphrey Gilbert who anchored on the southern tip of the peninsula in 1603.  He and his party were promptly attacked by the local natives and Gilbert and one of his men became the first casualties in the struggle between the natives and the settlers.  This, however, does not reflect the overall relations between the Eastern Shore natives and the settlers.  This attack was most probably influenced by the Spanish and English explorers who had been in the area previously.  Then the immutable John Smith arrived and explored the bayside and visited the Accomac and Accohannock tribes in 1608.  Smith estimated the two tribes’ warrior strength as 120 and their gathered population as 400, compared to the Powhatan Confederacy which had 8000.  Thomas Savage, who was the first permanent English settler, had good relations with the natives and learned their language.  He knew the Emperor of the Eastern Shore natives, Debedeavon, “The Laughing King,” who reigned over the Nusswattocks tribe.  Debedeavon took a liking to Savage and bestowed upon him much land which reveals the generosity of the Eastern Shore natives.  This land goes by the name of Savages Neck today.  Debedeavon, also known as Okiawampe, held court on Nandua Creek.  His brother, Kiptopeake, was in direct command of affairs of state.  This way, Debedeavon could hunt, fish and enjoy simple pleasures as he often preferred.  Many times Debedeavon placated the white settlers in order to keep the peace.  In one incident where his braves had killed two white men, he sent two of his own men with peace offerings.  Debedeavon was the last powerful native Emperor on the Shore and died in 1657.  In his will, which is on record in Eastville, he designates his daughter as his successor.  The lineage of leaders was matrilineal with descent from the mother rather than the father.


A typical Eastern Shore native was brown or tawny in color, with dark eyes, straight black hair and a beardless face.  Clothing for a male consisted of a breech clout of animal skin, often with the head or tail attached.  They wore deerskin moccasins or went barefoot.  Tied to the waist was a satchel in which he carried stone tools, tobacco, and amulets.  Hair was worn long on one side, the other side plucked bald.  Hair was also ornamented with shell beads or bird feathers.  Ornaments such as hawks’ bills, eagle talons, and animal teeth were also placed in the ears, and around the neck.  A woman’s attire was a fringed shirt or animal skin.  In the summer women wore nothing above the waist but in winter they wore a mantle of animal hide.  Women’s hair would be long and tied in braids.  It would also be ornamented with shells, ferns or flowers.  The women frequently had tattoos on their faces and bodies.


The Eastern Shore natives were farmers, fishermen, and hunters.  The men fished, hunted, and fought in wars while the women farmed, made mats, baskets, pots, and prepared food.  It should be noted that “wars” on the native scale usually contained no casualties.  Wars were fought as a game to display strength and agility.  As for the ES natives, they were in general very peaceful, since they need not worry about invasion from anywhere except the north.  This cultivated a very non-aggressive culture and made it easier for the settlers to impede on the natives’ lands and rule over them.


Cultivated crops were vital to the survival of the Eastern Shore natives.  Corn was the most important product and was raised along with beans, peas, and pumpkins.  There were also foods in the woods such as persimmons, berries, nuts and roots.  Tobacco was a valuable crop and was widely used, mostly in religious rights as an offering.  In addition there were wild berries that were picked for sustenance and roots that were dug for medicines.


Beads of shell served as currency and were called “roanoke” by the natives.  Purple shells were more valuable than white shells and the natives used the beads to trade with white settlers in lieu of money.  Copper was also highly prized, since bone, wood and clay were the only other raw materials.


Their homes were made of wood and bark.  Englishmen described native “wigwams” as being “shaped like ovens with a hole at the top to let smoke out.”  These wigwams were also generally filled with smoke from the fires.  A wigwam generally fit only one family and the “King” usually had the largest wigwam.


To hunt animals, one would use the bow and arrow.  The arrowhead was made of bone or stone and sometimes dipped in poison to insure a kill.  This poison was found in a local root.  After killing they would skin the animal using a bone knife.  They would then dry the skin and eat the meat.  Almost every part of an animal was used by the natives from liniments to brains.  To hunt fish, the natives used long arrows tied on a line.  They would then “shoot” at the fish.  They also used javelins headed with bone hooks.  These javelins were noted in 1608 by John Smith’s expeditionary force who at first thought they were implements of war.


As for funeral practices, it is known that the natives buried their dead.  They used specialized practices for their kings, putting them in burial houses with their riches.  Many graves lie undiscovered even today.


There was an old tradition of making young men into “black boys.”  This occurred when the young man reached adulthood and he was placed in with the bowmen.  They were told that if they “will be valiant and obedient to the Werowance, Wisos and Cockorooses, then their god will love them, all men will esteem of them and they shall kill deer and turkeys, catch fish and all things shall go well with them; but if otherwise, then shall all go contrary which persuasion moves in them an incredible obedience to their commands; if they bid them take fire in their hands or mouths, they will do it, or any other desperate thing, although with the apparent danger of their lives.”


The decline of the ES natives was a relatively quick one.  In 1622, a massacre was planned by the mainland natives.  Debedeavon refused to take part and even warned the settlers of the Shore.  This received no award and even helped doom the natives of the Shore.  Some were enslaved.  Some were killed outright.  Some were bred out by miscegenation, mostly into the black race.  Some were reduced to alcoholics due to the “firewater” that was traded to them by the settlers.  Lastly, some were killed due to epidemics, such as the smallpox epidemic of 1677.  This occurred after a quarantined white man escaped from his bed in a blind stupor and went among the natives.  Afterwards, the Eastern Shore natives swore the settlers were out to extinguish them.  Writing in 1705, Robert Beverly observed that the natives “of Virginia are almost wasted…they live poorly…each town, by articles of peace, 1677, pays three arrows for their land and twenty beaver skins for protection every year.”  Listed as still in existence were the tribes of Metomkin, Gingoteague, Accahanock, Pungoteague, Onancock, Chiconessex and Nandua.  None had more than 20 families.  By the time of the Civil War in 1861, the Eastern Shore natives were a memory.  Whites had forced them to sell their land in Indiantown Park near Eastville and most of the natives moved north to Maryland.  Indiantown Park, today, would be the oldest Indian Reservation in America had it not been disbanded.  As for the Eastern Shore natives, many of their descendents still live on the Shore today but there are no full blooded Eastern Shore natives in existence.  Overall, the ES natives left no more than a memory and a few arrowheads.  Their community, however, should remain a revered, admired, and studied one.


Native Words and Meanings

Nusswattocks~stream between two streams

Oanancock~(Auwannaku, Anancock) foggy place

Accomack~(Achomack, Accawmacke) other side place, place across the water

Accohanock~narrow and winding stream

Matchapungo~place of fine dust and flies

Chincoteague~(Gingoteague) land across the waters

Chiconessex~(Chesconnessex) place of blue birds

Kickoktank~(Kegotank) visiting place

Mattapony~bad bread or no bread

Matomkin~(Mattemikin) to enter a house

Mattawaman~river of shallows

Assawoman~rock cave

Pungoteague~(Pungotekw) sand river or sand fly river

Cuscarawaoc~place of making white beads

Assateague~large stream or inlet

Roanoke~place of shells

Pocomoke~place of shellfish and clams

Powhatan~place of the falls

Chesapeake~people of the great saline water

Werowance~Great chief




Turman, Nora Miller. The Eastern Shore of Virginia 1603-1964. Bowie, Maryland.       Heritage Books, Inc. 1964. ed.

Weslager, C.A. The Accomack and Accohannock Indians from Early Relations.           Eastville, Virginia. Hickory House. 2001. ed.

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