Gary Crawford - March 2011

 

Choptank Island and Robin Hood
by
Gary D. Crawford

 

We all know there couldn’t possibly be any real connection between Choptank Island (known since 1741 as Tilghman’s Island) and some 12th century English folk hero. What, then, is in store here for the Gentle Reader? A tall tale about a waterman in white rubber boots who plunders the night-steamers as they pass down the Bay from Baltimore to Norfolk? Who slips alongside in his bugeye and swings aboard on a halyard to relieve the frightened (but titillated) ladies of their pearls and rubies? Who then distributes his plunder to watermen’s widows and children, eluding capture despite strenuous efforts by the oyster police and the county sheriff?
Well, actually – no. It sounds like great fun, but I’m afraid that’s quite another story. This tale is a bit harder to believe – even though, as it happens, it’s true.
Our story begins across the Bay, not far from St. Mary’s City, then the capital of Maryland. The year is 1681, just 47 years after the first Maryland settlers arrived. Charles Calvert, Lord Proprietor of the province since his father’s death in 1675, is in residence. It is summertime, in the month of June.
On Monday, June 15, near Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac, someone murdered Thomas Potter and five other English settlers, including one woman. To the shocked authorities, this brutal incident clearly was an Indian raid.
A lockdown immediately was imposed. Indians were told not to approach an English plantation; any who went abroad armed or in paint were to be treated as common enemies. No time was wasted in arresting several members of the local Choptico tribe – three men, three women and two children. Their interrogation was scheduled for June 22.
The Indian situation in the Chesapeake was complex. They clustered in towns or forts governed by headmen with various titles, but it was difficult to keep track of shifting alliances.
To add to the confusion, Indians of the Chesapeake dressed alike, often lived with friends or family in other towns, and traveled abroad to hunt and fish. Given their polysyllabic names and unfamiliar pronunciations, identifications could be difficult. Devious Indians naturally took advantage of this confusion.
By 1681, the English had reached agreements with most of the Angonquin-speaking natives around the Chesapeake – the Chopticos, Passcattoways [Piscataways], Pottuxens – and, on the Eastern Shore, the Choptanks and Nanticokes. It was an alliance of sorts against their common enemies, the Iroquian-speaking Indians to the north, who were becoming increasingly aggressive. In February of 1681, a daring winter raid by a large band of Susquehannocks and Sinniquos [Senecas] nearly destroyed the Mattawoman nation in the upper Potomac.
In May, over 200 Sinniquos had come into the lower Potomac to enlist the Pascattoways in their cause or destroy them. A war dance was reported at Secretary’s Quarter, with Indians seen in paint; canoes carrying a dozen or more Indians were seen on the waters. The Council received a note from Col. William Chandler, coincidentally on the same day as the murders, conveying news from an Indian who said that a band of Sinniquos had come down and taken some prisoners outside the fortified Indian town of Zachariah. His report mentioned that “there is a party of Sinniquos gone down to Choptico to secure the Choptico Indians.” This overture to the Chopticos, who lived in the vicinity of St. Mary’s City, was alarming news and might bear on the murders. Their Lordships dispatched Col. Chandler and Col. Brandt to learn what the Sinniquos were up to – and whether any had been in the Point Lookout in mid-June.
Meanwhile, on Monday, June 22, exactly one week after the murders, the Council questioned the Choptico Indians they had in custody. The Lord Proprietor Charles Calvert himself presided. Also present were his brother Philip Calvert (Chancelor), his nephew William Calvert (Secretary), Henry Darnall and William Digges. With the help of interpreters, they first interviewed the three women, Nantapasque, Sachennaws and Apononaus; then the three men, Iaquiscouh, Noscomne and Paupakinquah. Indians sometimes were given European nicknames; in this case, Noscomne was also known as “Capt John.” As we shall see, this practice figures into our tale.
Although suspected of murder, these Indians were neither accused nor insulted. The Indians, too, behaved with decorum and gave straightforward answers. They asked about their movements, their associations, and whether they had been involved with the war dance at Piney Neck. They also were asked to account for the European items found in their possession: spoons, pins, pin cushion, an ax, powder and shot. Given how Native Americans (and others) were treated in later years, it is refreshing to read the courteous questioning. Happily, the verbatim transcripts survive. Here is a sample of the interrogation of Iaquiscouh.

What towne belong you to? Pottuxen.
How long have you been with these other Indians? Five daies.
Where mett you with them? At Mr Gardiners.
What did you at Gardiners? I and my Brother were there makeing a Canoe where the rest of the Indians came and found us.
Whither went you from thence? To Coll Spencers together.
To his Dwelling house? We were at a small house hard by.
Were there any other Indians that you saw there? There came to us, some Nanjatico Indians.
How many? Eleaven
How came they by water or land? They came in a boate from the Eastern Shore.
How long had the Nanjatico Indians been there when yee came? Wee had been there about Six Daies when they came thither.
Did you trade with or receive any thing from the Nanjatico Indians? Noe, I saw some Roanoake and a White Matchcoate [cloak] in the boate.
Nothing else? I saw nothing more, Coll Spencer also went downe to the boate and saw that they had.
How long were yee with the Nanjatico Indians? The Nanjatico Indians made noe stay.
How long since yee came from Coll Spencers? About six Daies since.
Whither went yee from thence? To a Creeke hard by the Shipp, where we were taken.
What is become of your Gunn? I had none, I frequent not the woods, onely make Canooes.
What doe you with powder and shott, shott bag and horne? Kill a Deare now and then when I cann borrow a Gunn.
When you came over there were seene more padlers of you then now are found. We were noe more in Company but us three men, three weomen and two Children with our burdens.

The other prisoners gave similar accounts and the women provided satisfactory answers about the confiscated items. When a letter came from Col. Spencer himself arrived, confirming that they had built a canoe at his plantation, the whole affair was wrapped up quickly. Far from the lynching we might have expected, these Indians promptly were tried, acquitted and released. We may hope that the scissors and pins were returned to the ladies.
Attention again shifted to the north. There the investigation was not going well. The Council supplied Cols. Chandler and Brandt with reinforcements and ammunition, telling them to mince no words if the northern Indians refused to come to conclude peace. “You are to lett them know that we have had severall murders committed of late, the we doe know there was tenn Susquesahannohs and tenn Sinniquos sent downe Pottomock with a Pascattoway prisoner for their guide, with ordr to goe to the mouth of Pottomock and soe to goe up to the Northward which number of men have been discovered in severall places, & that we shall have just cause to believe that these men have committed the late murders...” Despite these steps, the Sinniquos proved elusive. Frustration was mounting.

***

Suddenly, on July 20, matters took a new turn. Information arrived from the Eastern Shore, from Colonel Vincent Lowe, a prominent Talbot County citizen and Maryland’s Surveyor-General. Lowe also was the second owner of Choptank Island, where he resided with his young wife, Elizabeth Foster Lowe, the first European born on that island.
Lowe knew of the murders at Point Lookout and when given information he thought might bear on the matter, he decided to report to the Lord Proprietary in St. Mary’s City immediately – and in person.
Lowe’s information was from two sources. A neighbor, Major William Coursey, reported that 21 or 22 Indians belonging to the kings Tequassino and Hatsawapp of Choptank in Talbot County had left their towns in early June and crossed the Bay. Coursey became suspicious when he learned that Tequassino said he did not know why they had left and hoped there would be no mischief while they were gone. Moreover, only half of the group had returned home. the second report was from another Bay Hundred neighbor, Mr. Thomas Vaughan. He was told that a large canoe with many Indians had been seen off Choptank Island in early June. His informant, also in a canoe, had tried to speak with the Indians, but they did not reply and made off toward Cook’s Point in Dorchester County.
The Council sent Col. Lowe back to the Eastern Shore with an official commission for himself and Col. Philemon Lloyd of Wye Island to investigate these reports. Lowe and Lloyd went right to work and quickly confirmed that a large canoe with a dozen or more Indians had crossed the Bay in early June, before the murders, and had returned soon after with about half their number absent, after the murders.
They called Tequassino and Hattsawapp to appear before the commission. Hattsawapp declined, but Tequassino appeared and cooperated fully. As it turned out, he had a special reason to do so – the group that crossed the Bay in early June had been led by his own son. We don’t know what name he was given as a child, but throughout the proceedings he was referred to, even by his own father, by a familiar English name, “Robin Hood.” Lowe and Lloyd made this record of their conversation with Tequassino:

We asked how many Indians went with Robin Hood over the Bay to the Western shore, about what tyme they went & about what tyme they continued there, and at what houses they were at?
Tequassino answered that Robin Hood and thirteene Indians more went over the Bay to the Western shore about the tenth or twelfth of June last past, and continued there about the space of ten dayes, and then returned again to their towne, and during their stay there they were at Mr Samuel Chews and John Watkins, except some few daies they were hunting in Maggaty Bay, and this Tequassion affirmes being informed soe by his sonn Robin Hood.
We asked what was the reason why Robin Hood returned soe suddenly from the Western shore and why but half of the Indians he tooke over with him did but returne again?
Tequassino answered that those Indians that staied behind were Mattapony Indians, and that they were gone to their owne towne, and the cause that Robin Hood and the rest of the Indians came over soe quickly was that they heard that the Sinniquos were come downe and had cut of [decapitated] some Pascattoway Indians and also had cutt off six English people about Pottuxen River or thereabouts and that John Watkins a liver on Western shore bid them be gone to their owne towne upon which they march’d away.
We asked whether they knew of any other Canooes of Indians that went over the Bay about the same time (viz) the 10th or 12th of June.
Tequassino answered that they knew not of any.
We asked them if they would make it their business to enquire amongst their owne & neighbouring Indians to find it out if any of them had committed or perpetrated the late Murther of the English at Point Looke Out?
Tequassino answered that they would be very diligent to find it out and if they came to any knowledge of the Murderrs they would presently discover it to his Lspp [Lordship] or some of his Councill. And further Tequassino Informes us that not long since there came downe tenn Sinniquos as spies and have taken a view of all their townes, and that they intend to informe themselves of all Creekes on the Eastern Shore and then to fall upon them, and that our Indians have discovered severall places where they have lately been and layne all night.

These answers were fairly persuasive and could be verified on the western shore by Mr. Watkins, the man Robin Hood claimed had told them to get out of the area before suspicion befell them. Considering their commission fulfilled, Col. Lloyd closed the proceedings and returned to Choptank Island.
The next day at Wye Island, more evidence corroborating Robin Hood’s innocence came to light when, as Col. Lloyd reported, an Indian asked “a Causall question.” He inquired why the Englishmen thought that Robin Hood killed the people below at St Maries. Lloyd told him, “Because he was seene to goe over the Bay about that time with neere twenty Indians with him, and all other Indians liveing on that side have denied the murder.” The Indian replied, “I am sure Robin Hood did not doe it then, for I was one of the Indians went over with him.”
Col. Lloyd promptly interrogated him in detail. He was told the party consisted of Robin Hood, himself, two other Choptanks, five Mattaponys of the Eastern Shore and six Pascattoways from the western shore with their children. They stayed about sixteen days at various English houses; Robin Hood and two others built canoes for three different people, whose names he provided. The Indian and five others went hunting up the Severn and Magothy rivers and said Robin Hood was still there, building canoes, when they returned. They had intended to continue canoe building and hunting, but when John Watkins told them about the murders, they all decided to go home.
Lloyd asked how many returned to the Eastern Shore and was told that all the Eastern Shore Indians had come back except for one Mattapony who wished to stay with the Pascattoways. And what became of that group? He was told they went through the woods to Pascattoway Towne, as they had no canoe to go by water. These exchanges followed:

Did you ever meete with Ever a greate Canoe as you went downe Choptank River? We saw a greate Canooe when we gott downe almost as lowe as the Island where Coll Lowe lives [Choptank Island, now Tilghman’s] a greate way from us.
Did the men in the Canooe call to you? Noe
Did you paddle away from them? Noe we went straite to Choptank [Harris] Creeke.
Did you putt on shore there? Yes we went up to Peter Haddawayes.
Where did you goe from thence? Over the Bay to John Watkins.
Doe you know or heare of any other party of Indians either Choptank or Nantecokes that went over the Bay any time this Summer? Noe none that I know or heard of.
Did you never heare the Indians discourseing who it might be that killed the English men? Yes they think it is the Sinniquos and Susquehannocks.
The Sinniquos doe not vse to come downe that way where those men were killed it cannot be them. The Indians Say they goe many times downe from Potapscoe in Canooes.

All this was corroborated on August 7 by one William Grose. He said he was on the western shore at John Watkins’ home on June 13 and saw Robin Hood there with other Indians, and again later at William Richardson’s, in both cases building canoes. Furthermore, on a later visit in July, when he told Watkins that Robin Hood was suspected of the Point Lookout murders, Watkins replied, “That could not well be, for they had been makeing Canooes amongst the neighbors and went a hunting to the head of Seavern untill the English men heareing the news of men killed below, bid them be gone home, soe that they came to his house, and he not entertaineing them they said they would goe to Herring Creeke and would come back againe, but he never saw them after.”

That wrapped it up. Their Lordships concluded, without a trial, that Robin Hood and his merry band had gone across the Bay for innocent purposes, to hunt and make canoes, but had picked a bad time for their expedition. Out on the Bay, they were mistaken at least once for a larger group of Sinniquos out on the prowl in a “greate canoe” and later on the western shore, they were in the vicinity when the murders were committed. Watkins then advised them to return home and they did so.
The hunt for the killers continued on the western shore, but we find no record of anyone ever been brought to justice. The evidence points to a Seneca raiding party. Chief Tequassino had spoken of Sinniquos prowling the Eastern Shore; Lloyd’s unnamed informant suspected them of committing the murders at Point Lookout. Twenty or more Sinniquos had come to the Eastern Shore in the “greate canoe” seen off Choptank Island about the same time as Robin Hood was coming down the river. They could have gone to Cook’s Point to avoid prying eyes, then slipped across the Bay and down to Point Lookout, committed the murders and escaped to the north by water.
So there we have the story of Robin Hood and his connection to Col. Vincent Lowe, the owner of Choptank Island. The tale really has nothing to do with his namesake, that legendary bandit who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. After all, that happened long ago and far away, in a wooded part of Nottinghamshire. And obviously Sherwood is nowhere near Tilghman’s Island.
Hey, now, wait a tick...!