Accohannocks take their history out of hiding
Paddle the Indian Water Trail at Bending Water Park
Wind was tugging at a red, white and blue flag hitched to a dock in Somerset County, on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. Mike Hinman, whose wisps of gray hair were also dancing in the wind, caught the flag and pulled it taut.
“Want to see who we are?” said Hinman. “I’ll show you.”
The flag of Somerset County, designed in 1693, flattened out for a moment to reveal two icons of its earliest recorded history. The backdrop is based on the British flag, with white and red stripes that cross at the center on a background of blue.
In the middle, like a medallion, is the profile of an Indian. It was placed there to acknowledge the many Indians settlements that once existed in this area.
The Accohanock were among them, and they were Mike Hinman’s ancestors.
“We know who we are,” Hinman said with a grin. “And we’ve been here a lot longer than this flag.”
Hinman — a paddler, hunter, car enthusiast, veteran and grandfather — is the official historian of the modern Accohannock Indian Tribe. Hinman’s tribal title is “Keeper of the Word.” His mission is to not only preserve the Accohannock story, but tell it as often as he can.
The Accohannock Indian Tribe is based in Marion Station, near the shoreline town of Crisfield, MD. The Accohannock trace their ancestry to native groups on the Eastern Shore that British settlers recorded on maps and other documents as the Accohannock, Accomack, and Annamessex people.
It’s a small group, operating as a nonprofit organization without state or federal recognition as an indigenous tribe. But the Accohannock are passionate about the story of their people, who over time have lived between two cultures, between two states, and in mixed-race families where some learned to hide their Indian heritage rather than talk about it.
Hinman is eager to share what he knows. One of his favorite settings is on the water, on part of the Indian Water Trail at Bending Water Park. The Accohannock tribe owns and manages the park, where they hold an annual fall pau-wau (pow-wow) and offer primitive camping for groups.
In December, the tribe received an award from the Maryland State Arts Council for creating Bending Water Park.
Clifford Murphy, program director for the Arts Council, said that the ALTA Award (for Lifetime Achievement in Living Traditions and the Arts) celebrates people and places that pass on community memory to the next generation. At Bending Water Park, the Accohannock share their history and traditions in ways that are deeply tied to a sense of place.
“The Accohannock have inhabited this landscape for millennia,” Murphy said. “To really understand that important piece of the landscape, you need a guide, and they’ve taken it upon themselves to be that guide and to teach the rest of us their story.”
The Indian Water Trail launches from a sloped dock on the back side of Bending Water Park into a sliver of marsh-lined water called Tulls Branch. If you like, you can make arrangements to use the dock and paddle down Tulls Branch as it widens into East Creek and meanders on toward the Pocomoke Sound. You can bring a canoe or kayak, or rent one from the park.
The route is part of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail, which follows the path of Smith’s explorations on the Bay in the early 1600s. The trail aims to evoke the landscape Smith traveled and teach about the Indian communities he encountered.
The Indian Water Trail at Bending Water Park, if you hire a guide, serves up the full package. The calm, shallow waters of Tulls Branch and East Creek are surrounded by acres of marsh — a large portion protected by conservation easements — with almost no modern structures in sight.
And Hinman, paddling beside you, tells tales of Indian experiences that most people have never heard.
“I’ve been out twice with Mike,” said Kristin Sullivan, who nominated the Accohannock tribe for the ALTA award. “He’s hilarious. He just keeps the conversation going. And it’s a really easy paddle, fun for kids or people who aren’t strong paddlers.”
As a guide, Hinman is both historian and entertainer. He laughs often and speaks with an easygoing, Eastern Shore accent about a long life lived among woods, water and his Indian elders.
Hinman takes history very seriously, in part because the Accohannock worked hard to preserve their oral traditions and recover parts of the historical record that recent generations knew little about.
The Accohannock were part of a large network of native communities living on the Eastern Shore in the early 1600s, when explorers like John Smith first made note of them. They originally lived in villages near Accohannock Creek in Virginia but shared relationships, including family ties, with many native groups across the Eastern Shore.
Virginia Busby, an anthropologist and archaeologist who specializes in the native history of Maryland, said that colonists often mistook these groups for completely separate “kingdoms.”
“That’s how the settlers saw it, but they didn’t understand that native landscapes were vast and the social structure was very fluid,” Busby said.
Smaller settlements were clustered around family groups. These small settlements would band together during times when a strong central leader was needed.
“At other times, the village was their primary identity,” Busby said.
By the mid-1600s, English settlers were increasing on the lower Eastern Shore. The Accohannock began to relocate in what became Somerset County, just north of the Virginia border. From an Indian perspective, they were moving toward people with whom they already shared ties. But today, in terms of modern geography, the tribe draws its legacy from two different states.
“They don’t really consider themselves to belong to one state or the other,” Busby said. “It would probably be easier if they were firmly one or the other, but they are both.”
In the 1660s, the Accohannock were joined in Somerset County by a group of Quakers who left Virginia to seek religious freedom in Maryland. According to Hinman, the Accohannock and Quakers shared a fairly peaceful existence, but Indians steadily lost access to the traditional lands and lifestyles that sustained their people. They began to intermarry with the Quakers.
“By 1705, the Accohannock had pretty much assimilated into the Quaker community,” Hinman said.
People with Indian heritage became less noticeable over time, and Indian culture was actively suppressed.
“We were de-tribalized,” Hinman said. “It was against the law to have chiefs and councils, so the government thought that was it, we were done. But we had a matriarchal clan system that just kept going.”
More than 20 different clans — with names like the Crows, the Barracudas and the Pigtails — continued to gather along family lines at local homes.
Clarence Tyler, a member of the Accohannock, grew up on Smith Island and remembers summer meetings of the Fish-Hawk Clan at his grandmother’s house in Ewell. “Then in the winter we met at my grandfather’s house in Tylerton,” Tyler said. “I’m proud of my native American heritage but back then it was such a hush-hush thing.”
Indian heritage was especially sensitive during racial segregation in the 20th century. “A lot of families were passing as white, and they just wanted to forget about it,” Hinman said.
Children usually weren’t told about their Indian ancestry until they were old enough to keep it quiet. But Hinman’s grandmother broke this rule. “She told me early, when I was about 6 years old,” Hinman said.
At the time, he was attending a school for white children. “So in school, when I was about 8 years old, I told them about it. I said, we have Indian blood and lots of people in this town do too. Man, that teacher, she snatched me out of my seat and sent me home,” Hinman recalled. “Then dad went down to the school and said my grandmother was filling my head with crazy stories. So they let me stay.”
Hinman’s not sure why his grandmother spoke freely to him at such a young age. “Maybe she saw something in me,” he said. “Maybe she saw I either had courage enough — or was dumb enough — to carry it into the future.”
Through the generations, many Accohannock descendants have continued to hunt, fish and farm on the same landscape that supported their ancestors for thousands of years. Some became watermen and lived through the “oyster wars” that took place along the Chesapeake’s Maryland-Virginia border.
“The river and marsh are still serving the same purposes as they did for native Americans,” Hinman said. “And that’s only because it’s not being crowded out by development.”
Hinman likes to point this out as he paddles on East Creek, making connections between old ways and modern life.
He’ll talk about native archaeology and colonial history, the types of homes that Indians lived in, and what John Smith may or may not have seen when he sailed up East Creek in the early 1600s.
But he will also share his personal knowledge of the land and the water. He’ll point out the eagle’s nest and raccoon tracks, laugh at how much time he spent in the woods as a boy, and explain how the color and height of grasses point the way through a marsh on relatively solid ground.
“Even though we know our history, we don’t live in it,” Hinman said. “We live in the present. We want to be known for who we are.”
Indian Water Trails & Bending Water Park
Bending Water Park is located at 28325 Farm Market Road, Marion Station, MD. It offers a launch for paddle craft, canoe and kayak rentals, guided tours and an annual pau-wau in October that’s open to the public. Fifty primitive camping sites are available, including sites for RVs. (RVers will need to bring their own generator.) For details and rates, go to www.indianwatertrails.com.
Visitors must call ahead to arrange their visit. Contact the Accohannock Indian Tribe at 410-623-2660.
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