Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.
Handsell braids stories of those who lived there
A confluence of land and people
Along Indiantown Road, on the outskirts of Vienna, MD, there is a place called Handsell, where three histories come together to tell tales of Maryland’s earliest peoples.
Handsell is a tidy brick house that sits on two acres of land amid farm fields edged by forest. The woods border Chicone Creek, a pretty, burbling waterway that can accommodate kayaks at high tide. But Handsell is also the name of the whole property, which now includes a restored house, a re-created Indian dwelling, a path to the creek, and a view of farmland in all directions.
The property has kept a low profile as it enters its final phase of restoration, which makes discovering it feel all the more special. Those tasked with restoring it decided to recover and share the histories of three peoples whose lives converged on this land: the American Indians who lived here first, the white settlers who took the lands from them, and the enslaved African Americans who were brought here by force.
“We decided our story was going to be multicultural,” said Margaret “Midge” Ingersoll, who is coordinating the effort to restore Handsell. “This is a microcosm of Dorchester County, right here on this land, and the house is a monument to that.”
The Handsell team has been tackling all three storylines with gusto. As they conduct more research, the history of the land and its peoples will be more complete.
The Nanticoke and Chicone peoples were among the first to live on this land, which was described in colonial records as the home of the Nanticoke “emperor.” They fished at what is now called Chicone Creek and grew corn and vegetables in gardens. They lived here long before Thomas Taylor, an English trader and military officer who was granted the property in 1665. Once Taylor became the owner, he helped them to continue living independently on the land.
Handsell then changed hands and another trader, Christopher Nutter, became the owner. In 1720, Maryland declared Handsell an Indian reservation. But the next year, when Nutter attempted to sell the land to John Rider, conflicts occurred.
Unlike previous landlords, Rider tried to seize all 700 acres and the Nanticokes’ fort. At first, the government sided with the Indians. But in 1768, that same government authorized a seizure of the land, and it was deeded back to the Rider heirs. In a story that repeated itself across the country, American Indians were expelled from their homes, and white settlers moved in.
By the early 1770s, the tract was owned by Henry Steele and his wife, Ann Billings. The couple built “a large and pretentious house,” according to a history on Handsell’s website, but the 18th-century Georgian suffered fire damage — possibly in 1781, when the English burned other houses in the area during the Revolutionary War. Today, a brick facade and east wall are believed to date from the Steeles’ days, but the roof, chimney tops and interior woodwork are from the 1830s.
The Steeles sold the property in 1877, and it changed hands several times until the Webb family bought it in 1892.
Until the Civil War, each of Handsell’s owners depended on enslaved people to work the land and support the household. Billings and Steele enslaved 91 people. Subsequent owners enslaved fewer people, and some were manumitted. Later, freed families sharecropped in the fields around the house, living in small white clapboard homes. Many of their descendants still live in the area, and some have held reunions on the property.
Over time, the sharecroppers’ homes were torn down, and nothing was left to mark or commemorate the presence of the Nanticokes and Chicones. The brick house was almost gone, too. Covered in vines, vacant for almost a century, its roof collapsing and windows boarded up, Handsell was a storm or two away from becoming rubble. Like so many other properties in the area whose heyday had come and gone, Handsell could have disappeared nearly unnoticed.
But David and Carol Lewis, a preservation-minded local couple, bought Handsell from the Webbs. In 2009, the Lewises transferred ownership to the Nanticoke Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit group formed to preserve the house, the land and their multiple stories.
After seven years, a series of grants and thousands of hours in sweat equity from local volunteers, Handsell’s grounds, including a re-created Chicone Indian home, are open to the public.
A half-mile nature trail meanders through woods and fields to the placid Chicone Creek. Along the way, amateur naturalists can use a provided brochure to identify 12 species of trees. They include Eastern shore natives like American holly and loblolly pine, and less common species like persimmon trees and southern red oaks.
Eventually, Ingersoll said, she envisions a water trail from Handsell to the town of Vienna, which is a site on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. You can launch a kayak at Handsell, but paddling isn’t practical unless you arrive at mid or high tide.
The re-created Indian structures feature a domed longhouse, which the Nanticoke and Chicones would have made out of bent reeds (non-native phragmites grass was used for the re-creation) and covered with layers of bark to make an insulating shelter for both people and provisions. Neither a nail nor a screw went into Handsell’s longhouse, Ingersoll said.
Next to the longhouse is a lean-to shelter for storing firewood and an unfenced garden. Fences were largely unnecessary until the Chicone crops needed protection from the colonists’ free-range livestock. Thus far, Ingersoll said, Handsell’s replica garden has kept out modern-day garden nuisances, such as squirrels and deer.
The brick house at Handsell is open for tours by appointment only, but the Preservation Alliance plans to open it daily after they complete the restoration. For now, the house feels unfinished but still authentic. The interior is dark and rustic. Period furniture adorns some of the rooms. Signs in the kitchen, dark and cramped, describe the lives of enslaved people at Handsell. Floorboards in the house are a little loose, and the windows need to be replaced. But even when the restoration is done, it’s won’t have modern polish. It’s meant to be historically accurate.
Events at Handsell showcase the site’s shared heritage. Chicone Village Day takes place each year in April, a celebration of Eastern Woodland traditions that includes the contemporary Chicone and Nanticoke peoples. Instrumental in the preservation of Handsell was Daniel “Fire Hawk” Abbott, who traces his ancestry to the Nanticokes. He pushed for Handsell’s restoration and helped to bring authenticity to the re-created structures. Though now the coordinator for Native American interpretations at Colonial Williamsburg, Abbott returns to Handsell for special events. This year, 350 people attended the Chicone Village Day celebration to see him.
October features the Nanticoke River Jamboree, a living history event coupled with activities to high-light the slavery experience. This year’s event, on Oct. 13–15, includes Joseph McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, and Inalienable Rights, a living history troupe representing enslaved African Americans. McGill will spend the night in the basement at Handsell, and at the nearby Bayley House Slave Cabin in Cambridge, to emphasize the need to preserve slave dwellings across the nation.
Handsell also hosts living history events during which Ingersoll and others wear period costumes to represent life in the colonial and early American Chesapeake. They talk about life among the landed gentry who lived at Handsell and their impact on the native and enslaved people who shared the land with them.
The house is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation helped to fund the new roof. Work continues to replace the windows and refurbish the interior. But the house is always going to be somewhat rustic, Ingersoll said, in order to be authentic to the period. Ingersoll, an artist, has drawn a rendering of a restored Handsell and placed it over the fireplace. Some may say it’s an optimistic vision, but with all that Handsell’s team has accomplished, it seems within reach.
“Some people say we’re nuts, but that’s not true,” Ingersoll said. “I say we’re just getting started.”
For information, visit restorehandsell.org or call 410-228-7458.