Delaware Public Media

History Matters: Delaware's Forgotten Folks

Jun 5, 2015

They’re called Delaware’s Forgotten Folks.

 

For the next two editions of History Matters - produced in conjunction with the Delaware Historical Society, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the Nanticoke Tribe. Part II is here.

 

They were one of the first tribes to meet Europeans back in 1608, and very soon after the tribe began to mix with Africans and whites.

 

Members of the Nanticoke tribe have fought a long battle to be fully recognized as Native Americans. They say that battle has been difficult.

Tribal members speak of what they call a paper genocide, pointing to early Census takers who were instructed to mark Nanticoke people as simply black or mixed race.

Perhaps the earliest instance of this paper genocide occurred during an 1855 court case that lives on in the memories of Nanticoke people today.


In 1855, in Millsboro, Delaware, a man named Levin Sockum was doing very well for himself. He was a Nanticoke business owner.

His name was clearly Native American - Sockum is an Algonquin word. But the larger society viewed him as black.

Sockum sold guns and gunpowder, among other things, at his general store. Back in the 1850s, almost all whites and Native Americans owned guns. But it was illegal for black people.

The problems began after Levin Sockum sold gunpowder to another Nanticoke man, his cousin Isaiah Harmon.

 

The Nat Turner rebellion, in which a group of Virginia slaves killed over fifty people, had happened just twenty five years earlier.

So whites were anxious about black people gaining access to ammunition, and they were going to enforce every rule regarding who could buy and sell arms.

Levin Sockum and his cousin were accused of breaking race laws.

"Levin Sockum was accused of selling a gun, to a Native American, but they classified him as black," says William Daisey, current Chief of the Nanticoke Tribe.

But tribal members - including Chief Daisey - doubt that the larger white community was simply trying to enforce the letter of the law.

Chief Daisey at his home in Dover.
Credit Karl Malgiero/ Delaware Public Media

"He was prospering. And they did not like that. He was semi-independent and they did not want that," says Chief Daisey.

Gabrielle Tayac - historian for the National Museum of the American Indian says that’s likely true. 

"The assessment looking back on it was that his business was taking business away from white business owners, store owners in the area," she says.

"To me it seems like it was a case of jealousy," says tribal elder, Sterling Street.

"In that some of the white neighbors were jealous of Levin Sockum because he owned his store and he was making money, and his own nephew or cousin bought gun shot from him, and they wanted to prove that he was a mulatto or a negro, so that case was brought to fore."

And so what began as a simple case about selling gun shot became decisive in the destiny of the Nanticoke people.

"The question was, was he an Indian, or was he black? And the assessment was, if he were to be found that he were black or mulatto, then it would have been illegal for him to have made the sale. So it ended up being a racial trial," says historian Gabrielle Tayac.

And here’s where things got a little crazy. The prosecution brought out an 87 year old woman named Lydia Clark. They argued that she was the last real Nanticoke, and that Levin Sockum could not be Nanticoke.

Lydia Clark, the so called “last Nanticoke”, testified that Levin Sockum and his cousin were descended from slaves and a white landowner. In her testimony, she totally erased their Native heritage.  

"And because she lived on one of the white landowner’s land, we think that her testimony was forced," says Sterling Street.

 

"Looking back on it, her descendants really bring up the issue that she was elderly, that she was infirm, and that she was very dependent on the white family that she lived with," says Tayac.

 

After Lydia Clark testified that Levin Sockum and his cousin weren’t really Nanticoke, the all-white jury came to a decision.

     

"It was determined that he was in fact, mulatto, or negro, and that he was not a Nanticoke Indian," Tayac says.

In the end, Levin Sockum was given a fine and had to pay the entire burden of the court costs. Lydia Clark died a year later, and one of her descendants, said she died repentant. Lydia Clark allegedly told her relatives she had dishonored her people.

C.A. Weslager narrates that Lydia Clark's tombstone bore this inscription at the time of his writing in the early 1940s.
Credit From "Delaware's Forgotten Folks"

Levin Sockum had to face another trial and lost again, this time for simply owning a gun.

The damage from these two losses was too much, says Chief Daisey.

"He got tired of the junk, and he moved. Which a lot of folks did. Not everybody did, but some people did, they moved to New Jersey, moved to Philly."

 

"Nanticoke people ended up moving over to the New Jersey side, where the race laws weren’t so strict. And he could be himself, and he could be a Nanticoke person, he could be a business owner. And he really didn’t have to comply or degrade his sense of himself, at all. However what it meant is that he was uprooted from his homeland," says Tayac.

 

Levin Sockum left Delaware, but the memory of his story is still very much alive in Millsboro. After his case and departure from the community, the tribe maintained a low profile for generations.

Those subsequent generations, and how their descendants survived what Chief Daisey calls a paper genocide, is the subject of our next History Matters. Special thanks to Katie Davis for editorial support on this story.