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.
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.
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.
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.