Handsell - A Place Remembered
Mar 11, 2013 11:21PM
● By Anonymous
The Alliance, which bought this bleak house and two adjoining acres, plans to preserve it as a reminder of the history that once surrounded it.
As Ingersoll walks around the two-story structure with boarded up windows and a metal roof consumed with rust, it’s difficult to imagine this was once a grand mansion reputedly built in 1770 by Henry Steele. According to Ingersoll, his 91 enslaved individuals tended to his house and labored in his fields that totaled about 8,000 acres spread over Dorchester County.
She points to the brick front and left side of the house: “These 18th century sections are older and much better built than the back wall.” Pointing to the loose bricks holding up the back of the building, she says, “This section was built later. We know that because we’ve discovered 16 extra feet of the house’s foundation. We’re just not sure what happened to the original house.”
Walking inside—toward the charred boards exposed between hanging pieces of plaster in the first story’s two-room interior—she says, “This story originally had four rooms and then caught on fire sometime in the late 18th century. “We’re not certain what caused it to burn. One theory is that British marauders who were raiding homes in the Chesapeake area could have set it on fire.” What is known is that a Steele descendent sold the house in 1837 to John Shehee, who used the ruins from the earlier structure to rebuild it on a much smaller scale.
“This is a house frozen in time,” Ingersoll says. “We don’t want to renovate it and make it all spit and polish like so many other historic homes. We want to keep it intact— except for necessary structural and safety changes. Someone walked out of here during the 1920s and it’s now exactly the way it was then.”
She recalls when board members pried a few boards out of the front windows. “I couldn’t believe the view,” she says, as she stands on the front steps and looks over acres of green soybeans. “That’s the first time in more than 70 years this house breathed in fresh air.”
A NATIVE AMERICAN STORY
Daniel Firehawk Abbott, board member of the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, is also passionate about Handsell. “I want to tell a more concise history of what happened here,” he says. Its land is sacred ground to him because this is where his Nanticoke ancestors lived in Kuskarawaok—a village on the banks of Chicone Creek and the Nanticoke River. The people lived in a matriarchal society and were governed by the Great Chief at Chicone. Belonging to the larger confederation of Algonquin- speaking tribes, theirs was a culture that spanned more than 16,000 years.
That is until a pale, bearded and oddly clothed stranger strolled into their midst in1608. The arrival of Captain John Smith began an influx of European immigration that lasted for hundreds of years. Soon, European settlers were invading the Indian hunting grounds and their livestock were trampling and uprooting the Indian gardens.
In 1698, according to Abbott, the Maryland Colonial government set aside 3,000 acres to serve as a reservation for the use of the Nanticoke people. By 1768, however, the dispirited Nanticokes, decimated by smallpox and overrun by white settlers, left to go north. Consequently, parcels of the reservation land were sold to European settlers or returned to the descendents of the original owners, including Henry Steele.
Abbott first learned about his people’s history from his grandfather and father. “We didn’t speak of it outside the family, since most people thought of Indians as savages,” he says. “I wanted to know more than what the history books tell us, and I remember being so excited when I found my first arrowhead.” Soon he was reading archeological and historical journals. “I wanted to know more about how my ancestors lived.”
After Abbott retired from his career in heavy industry water management, he began to delve into experimental archeology, where researchers learn to recreate the artifacts they find.
“I learned how to make prehistoric tools and clothing, how to make fire by friction, how to find edible plants, and how to use medicinal herbs,” he says. Abbot uses that information and more when giving his Origins presentations on Native American culture to fascinated audiences all over the Mid-Atlantic.
His current focus is on a 20-foot Native American longhouse he’s constructing on the Handsell property. To frame the house, Abbott is using bent saplings, lashing them together with plant fibers, such as hemp. For the thatched roof, he’s gathering Phragmites reed from the marsh. Then he’ll cover the roof with a bark cap.
“My future goal is to develop a Native-American village at Handsell, complete with a work shelter and gardens,” he says. Abbott wants people to understand and appreciate the Native American story, which has been so important to the American story.
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN STORY
Elizabeth Pinder-Pinkett, born in 1941 to a sharecropping family, remembers growing up near Handsell in an enclave called Indiantown. Mostly populated by the descendents of Handsell’s enslaved population, she’s a likely a descendent of Thomas Pinder—a free Black man who himself owned three slaves, presumably his wife and two daughters. Historians conjecture that he kept them en- slaved so they couldn’t be kidnapped and re-sold.
“We didn’t know Handsell was history,” Pinkett says. “That house was empty the whole time we were growing up. My uncle used to store his homemade wine in that basement. We called it the brick house, and it was always boarded up.”
She did know that her parents and many of their relatives worked for Allen Webb, whose family bought the Handsell property in 1892 and still farms 1,400 acres. “Mr. Webb used to own all our houses.”
When school was out, she and her siblings worked in the fields from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. “We grew anything we could harvest by hand,” she says. “We cut asparagus and picked tomatoes and cucumbers. We children got paid 75 cents an hour. Our parents were poor, but we didn’t know it because no one pointed it out to us. We raised pigs and chickens and ate lots of vegetables. All of us worked hard, but we had such a closeness of family.”
Their lives revolved around their extended family and friends, their segregated school in Vienna, and their nearby church. Once every summer, they would all take the ferry over to segregated Sparrow’s Beach in Annapolis. “We didn’t think about segregation much back then. We just went with the flow,” Pinkett says.
She pauses and then laughs, adding, “Working on a farm taught me one thing: I didn’t want to do it the rest of my life.” She also didn’t want to work in a canning factory where she snapped string beans and peeled toma- toes. Pinkett and all but one of her seven siblings earned enough money, however, to pay for their college tuition.
As an educator in Caroline County for 40 years, Pinkett taught in segregated schools until they were integrated in 1967. “It was so wonderful to have school books and equipment that weren’t handed down to us from white schools,” she says. “Finally, black children could write their own names in their new books.”
Pinkett’s older sister, 78-year-old Dorothea Pinder-Jones, also remembers those long ago days growing up near Handsell. “We got up early in the morning to tend to the fields. We hoed, weeded, and sometimes those rows seemed a mile long,” she says. “Then we would take a bath and go to school.” When it was time to harvest the produce, her father took the crops to the canning factory. Later, he and Mr. Webb settled on what her father’s portion of the profits should be.
“We had no running water or electric, but we didn’t miss it because we had no point of reference,” Jones says. As the eldest child, she also had to tend to her younger siblings when her mother died at age 47. “They wanted a better life for us,” says Jones, who went on to become a school principal in Wicomico County. “We wouldn’t let circumstances dictate to us, and we all learned to share and help each other.”
As the past slips into distant memory, the story of Handsell could potentially fade. Native Americans no longer tread this ground. Indiantown is empty—its houses gone. All that’s left is an isolated house surrounded by land that has been there for millions of years. But fade it won’t, thanks to the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, an organization that has vowed to watch over this unique piece of history, keeping its story alive for generations to come.