Deep history displayed at Chicone Village Day

VIENNA — Ancient and colonial history was on display Saturday during Chicone Village Day at Handsell House.

Much has been learned about the Georgian-style colonial home and the surrounding property since the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance was formed in 2005 to purchase and restore Handsell. According to Midge Ingersoll, a member of the NHPA board who was dressed in colonial garb and answered questions inside the home Saturday, Handsell was once the site of a large Native American village that existed for thousands of years before English settlers arrived.

Ms. Ingersoll said John Smith visited Chicone Village during his circumnavigation of the Chesapeake Bay from 1607 to 1609. It was the largest village Capt. Smith explored during his adventure. He recorded 200 warriors present at Chicone. Based on the number of warriors recorded, Ms. Ingersoll estimates 1,000 to 2,000 natives lived there at the time.

In 1665, Thomas Taylor was granted 700 acres of land called Handsell at the site. At the turn of the 18th Century, the property was made into an Indian Reservation, but was restored to English ownership by 1769. Historians know the home was gutted by a major event, possibly a fire, before being rebuilt in 1837 by John Shehee, a local farmer.

Dorchester Banner/Bob Zimberoff
Midge Ingersoll, left, a board member of the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, tells guests about the history of Handsell, the Chicone Village, and recent projects Saturday during Chicone Village Day.

Much of the interior of Handsell dates to 1837, when the home was restored. The NHPA recently shored up the fireplaces which also support the whole structure. The roof and related infrastructure was rebuilt at a cost of $75,000. Soon, an estimated $50,000 will be used to replace windows and more. NHPA members, working with the Maryand Historic Trust, intend to leave the structure as original as possible.

At one point in its history, close to 100 slaves worked the farm surrounding Handsell. Shirley Jackson, a Dorchester County historian and genealogist, took residence in the basement for the day while dressed in period clothing. She answered questions about the slaves.

“In my school years, nobody had any idea what this place was,” Ms. Jackson said.

Handsell sat vacant for roughly 80 years before 2005. It was just an old, abandoned home that everyone passed on Indiantown Road. The property was given very little thought. Just in the past six or seven years, Ms. Jackson said, she learned that she is descended from a slave who lived and worked at Handsell. Ms. Jackson’s family recently held a family reunion there, and roughly 200 people showed up.

Also Saturday, Daniel Firehawk Abbott returned to Handsell to speak about his Native American heritage, the old village, and the replica Native American longhouse at the site. Firehawk is a former NHPA board member who guided the building of the longhouse, and interpretation of the ancient village. In 2016, Firehawk became coordinator of Native American Interpretation for Colonial Williamsburg Inc. and moved to Virginia.

Dorchester Banner/Bob Zimberoff
Daniel Firehawk Abbott makes a presentation Saturday outside the replica Native American longhouse at Handsell during Chicone Village Day on Indiantown Road near Vienna.

On Saturday, Firehawk said the longhouse is a well built structure that could survive a hurricane. The walls are 6-to-8 inches in places. The longhouse is very well insulated and comfortable. He slept in the longhouse the night before and woke up to birds singing Saturday morning.

“I would gladly live in a place like this if I could,” Firehawk told a gathering of attendees who listened to his presentation. “It’s so easy to maintain.”

Firehawk said he built another longhouse in Virginia, and he stayed in the dwelling after a winter storm brought close to two feet of snow. With just a small fire inside, he was comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. He said such a longhouse would have required about 1,200 to 1,500 man hours to build back when the village was thriving.

Ms. Ingersoll said so much history remains to be uncovered at Handsell.

“For everything we have learned, there are still so many unknowns,” Ms. Ingersoll said. “We have a lot still to investigate.”
For more information about Handsell, the Chicone Village, and the NHPA, visit www.restorehandsell.org.

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