The Gingaskin Indians and an African American Community Rich with Native Blood

Turn seaside at Eastville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and you’ll be traveling on Indiantown Road. Most days this rural byway is lightly traveled. Traffic picks up just a hair when there’s some community activity–softball or basketball, for instance–at the Northampton County-run Indiantown Park at the end of the road.

Of course, most folks stealing home or slam dunking are thinking little that this spot was once the last refuge for the small band of Accomac Indians, a tribe whose legacy is left only in the lay of the land and the African American community they became part of when the world closed in around them.

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The entrance to Indiantown Park

The Accomacs’ story was all too similar to other Algonquian-speaking tribes. Europeans were hostile and imposed on them an unfamiliar notion of land ownership. Virginia’s General Assembly granted the tribe a reservation in 1640–at first 1,500 acres, later reduced to 650. A tiny fraction of the land on which they’d once thrived.

The Indians, who by that time had changed their name to the Gingaskins, were content to fish, hunt and gather wild edibles as their ancestors had done before them. The fallow fields of their reservation grew brushy. To their English neighbors this old way of making a living–subsisting rather than profiting–was irresponsible, lazy, shiftless. But the Indians didn’t mind. They just went about living as they had for ages, and as time went on and their numbers dwindled, they commingled with their social equals, finding solace, companionship, love in people who may not have looked like them but nevertheless shared a bond in their ill regard by the powers that be.

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A wooded path at Indiantown Park

In 1813, Virginia discontinued recognition of the Gingaskin reservation and divided the acreage among the residents because too many free African Americans–mistakenly thought to be mischievous by nature–lived among the Indians. The reservation dissolved because races were mixing. All those parcels became just more plots, inherited, sold, subdivided until, years later, not a single Gingaskin descendant owned a piece of what was once the last bastion of the Indians. Today it’s all privately owned and farmed. All but the 52 acres that are Indiantown Park.

Look closely at the tree lines, the farm roads, the drainage ditches, and what you’re seeing are those divisions made in 1813 because the Gingaskins weren’t Indian enough. Because they’d lived and loved as they wanted to.

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Gingaskin Reservation Outline

Top: A map showing the division of the Gingaskin reservation among residents. From Helen C. Rountree and Thomas E. Davidson, Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland, 1997.

Bottom: A modern-day satellite image from Google Earth and approximation of the Gingaskin reservation.

Indians left their legacy in the names that run the length of the Eastern Shore: Kiptopeke, Wachapreague, Onancock. The list is endless. With all the Native nomenclature you’d think their culture thrives there. But it doesn’t.

Most Indians long ago forsook the Eastern Shore altogether and moved far north. The Gingaskins, that small band of holdouts, became culturally African American. And it’s in those names–Press, West and others–where what’s left of the Gingaskin Indians, their native features washed out by time, can be found in oral traditions and the blood that runs through the heart of that community.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in African Americans, Ghost towns, Indians. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Gingaskin Indians and an African American Community Rich with Native Blood

  1. Roy O. Ballard says:

    Hello,
    I am a Parks & Rec. board member at Indiantown Park and a caretaker of the disc golf course. I try to respect what it was and what it is now it’s a special place to be, the white man took so much from the Indians it shames to be white sometimes. Thank you for doing this info.
    Roy Ballard

    • Joyce Rivera says:

      Thank you so much for caring about Indian Town Park…. My ancestry is that of Gingaskin Indian with the surname of Reid… I now live in Hampton, VA and do at times come over to the Shore to visit relatives that are still living there. I will make it my business on my next trip (which should be within the next couple weeks) to visit the park. Thanks again for your good work.

      Joyce

  2. Laurine Press says:

    Thank you for this information! My husband, Richard Press, is a descendant of Molly Press, one of the recipients of the land division of 1813. The Press family continues to celebrate their heritage and want to learn even more about our ancestors. Please share any information that you have. Thanks.

    • Tanika Lee (Granddaughter of Joseph & Ernestine Press) says:

      Not sure why my previous comment didn’t post…but Hello again Family!! I am so proud to be able to trace the history of my bloodline. This is such a blessing. Please keep me posted on any new information that you come across as I would love to learn more about my late grandfathers ancestry. Hope all is doing well, tell Dickey I said Hello! Miss you guys…we need to get the Press Reunion started again! I wouldn’t mind jumping on the committee again 🙂

  3. Joyce Rivera says:

    My Dad, Otha Smith (who presently is 101 years old) is the great grandson of Sara Reid who was full blooded Gingaskin Indian… I’d be very interested in any information I can get on this tribe. I’ve been educating the younger family members of their rich ancestry. Thanks for any information you can provide.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Joyce, Thanks for reading and for the comment. That’s interesting about your family’s Native heritage. That’s a significant slice of Indian ancestry as far as the Gingaskins are concerned.

      You should probably begin by tracking down the book Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland by Helen Rountree and Thomas Davidson. It has a great deal on the Gingaskins, even lists of known Eastern Shore Indians from the 17th-19th centuries. That was one of the main sources I used for this post, along with some of Rountree’s other work (she’s a prolific Virginia Indian anthropologist). If I run across more sources or information that could be of use to you I will pass them along.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Ben

  4. To Helen Rountree,
    I wish you help me with my Benjamin Phillips Accomac Co. history….Please do mot take it to the grave with you.

  5. Da'Mon E. Blake says:

    I’m the Great,Great,Great Grandson of one Sara Ried who was a Gingaskin Indian. If you have any info or have heard of her parents, siblings etc. please inform me. Thanks!

  6. Christopher Tull says:

    I was born in Northampton County at Nasswaddox Hospital. Both my mother and father family is from the eastern shore area and I am trying to learn about my indian ancestry as I am sure its full of indian history. If you could direct me to a resource where I can learn more I would greatly appreciate it. I apologize if this is not the correct place for this type of dialog.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks very much for the comment. Unfotunately, there is not a whole lot on Native heritage on the Shore, although the best resource, and the one I usually direct people toward is Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland by Helen Rountree and Thomas Davidson. You can probably look in their footnotes and other citations to find other sources.

      Hope this helps.

      Ben

  7. Karen Justice Sobotker says:

    I was born in 1960 in Philadelphia, PA but by age two I lived my paternal grandmother Estella White Justice Abbott in Mappsville, VA, born in 1905 Accomac . County; she married my grandfather Charles Justice when she was fourteen. Her mother was Jenny Federman White Fosque. Mom Jenny was from Assawoman. Any information about my people please share.

    Respectfully yours,
    Karen Sobotker

  8. Paula McClellan says:

    To Karen Sobotker – I am searching for my link to the Federman surname. Wonder if Jenny Federman is an ancestor of mine as well. I see Harison Federman in the 1930 Census records (ancestry.com). His son is Lester Federman who I believe is my grandfather…

    • Karen Justice Sobotker says:

      Hi you may be, give me a call at 313/879-7348. My great grandmother name is Jenny Fedderman from Assowaman VA.

  9. Paula McClellan says:

    Also – If anyone with ties to Accomac area can contact me, I’m searching on my spare time and would love to connect and share info, advice & guidance etc. My email is paulay3@gmail.com
    Thanks!

  10. Karen Justice Sobotker says:

    Yes contact me at 313-879-7348; my greatgrandmother is a Federman.

  11. Hi, everyone! National Congress of Black American Indians – NCBAI- held its first gathering in Washington, DC, Saturday, July 19, 2014, at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC). NCBAI has a page on Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/ncbai?_rdr
    We are excited for our future! : )
    “Let your light shine. There may be someone down in the valley trying to get home.”

  12. Patrick Watkins says:

    Looking for information on my Watkins and Guy family of Virginia who are identified as Occaneechi Saponi today but were originally from the Accomac area of Virginia prior to settling near the Fort Christanna reservation in Brunswick County, VA.

  13. Watkins is a common surname here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. You will be able to trace your lineage at Accomack county courthouse and Northampton county courthouse.

  14. Stephen K. Fox says:

    I have read Roundtree’s book and I am fascinated by the history it tells. I grew up in Northampton County, son a “Press” and have always known of the oral history of our Native American history, but had not seen any documentation relating to it until reading her book. This history is significant as it shows how free-born Black residents took refuge after the Nat Turner rebellion on the Gingaskin Reservation.

    • Joyce Ann Smith-Rivera says:

      My father, Otha Smith was born on the Eastern Shore (Northampton County), Eastville, VA. He is the great grandson of Sarah Reid who was a Gingaskin Indian. I have not yet read Rountree’s book but will definitely get it to gain more insight on that part of my heritage.

  15. Danielle Marié Joynes says:

    I’m a Joynes…and, would be interested in knowing if we were somehow related to this tribe.

    Danielle Joynes

  16. Dorene Handy Bumpass says:

    My mother Sarah Elizabeth Downing was born in Wachapreague VA to Eunice Mapp Downing. She has features of indian blood. We never knew the Tribe but her Aunt Missouri had long black straight hair and so did her cousin Obadiah Mears all born in Wachapreague Area. Want to know more about their Ancestry. Please guide me where to look. Thanks
    lizbump47@comcast.net
    Dorene Elizabeth Handy Bumpass

    • Karen Sobotker says:

      The tribe is the Accomack or Gingaskin which they were later named. The reservation was in Eastville area. This tribe mixed with the Africans for various reasons and the U.S. disbanded the Accomack in the late 1800’s. I went to school with some Handys at North Accomack in the 60’s and 70’s__I remember this one girl last name Handy__she had long beautiful dark hair. Hope this helps.

  17. Robert A. Watson says:

    Thanks so much for creating this post.
    My ancestors are Wests and I think I see a few plots with that surname on the diagram. I’d love to hear from anyone who has information on the Wests (or Welburns).

  18. Diane Hambrick says:

    I have recently stumbled upon this site and am seeking help in finding info on a distant relative of Indian/African American descent by the name of “Mollygaskin” or “Molly Gingaskins” who would have been born around 1845-50 (birthplace unknown) and was “married” to a Patrick O’bryan or O’Brien. They had a daughter named Fannie O’Bryan or O’brien who was born in 1871 and died in 1909 in or around Huntsville Alabama. Fannie is my paternal great grandmother.
    Can anyone out there help me?

  19. Roy R. Harris says:

    My brother and I recently travel to Eastville VA, September 19-20, 2016 and the site of the Gingaskin reservation tracing our Native American roots. We are early in our search so any help from anyone would be greatly appreciated. One line of our ancestors can be traced back to this reservation. Any info on whether or not any other descendants are still in the area would be welcome. We respectively live in Asheville, NC and Piscataway NJ.

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