Handsell, an architecturally significant brick 18th century structure derives its name from the original land grant laid out for the Proprietary in 1665. This land is historically and irrevocably linked to the early Native Americans of the Nanticoke and Chicone tribes. Located on the Nanticoke River and Chicone Creek north of Vienna, Dorchester County, the house which stands today was built on a Native American Chicone Village site. This site was established as an Indian Reservation by the state of Maryland in 1720, but in 1768 the Maryland legislature passed a bill authorizing the purchase of all remaining rights to Chicone Indian lands from the Nanticoke Indians. (Ref: Eastern Shore Indians of Maryland and Virginia, by Helen C. Rountree and Thomas E. Davidson, p. 159).
The first patent was awarded to Thomas Taylor, at Chicone who formerly was a licensed “Indian trader” and then a high ranking military officer who was usually the person sent by the proprietor to deal with the Nanticoke “Emperor” during this period. On July 13, 1665 he received a land grant called “Handsell” for 700 acres which encompassed the main Native American residential sites within the Chicone town lands. It is likely these were friendly patents held by Taylor to protect the “Indian towns” from other Englishmen. During the late 17th century, Taylor was an influential county justice who often served Maryland’s provincial government as an envoy to the Nanticokes and was also the nominal landlord of the Nanticoke paramount chief since he was the owner of record for the land grant that included the site of the Nanticoke Fort at Chicone. (Ref: Eastern Shore Indians of Maryland and Virginia, by Helen C. Rountree and Thomas E. Davidson, p. 146). Taylor served in many capacities including sheriff of Dorchester County 1675-77 and 1685.
On January 24, 1673 Quaker Leader George Fox visited the Indiantown on the Nanticoke River (Chicone Village) where the Emperor dwelt. The interpreter mentioned here was most likely Thomas Taylor. Here is an excerpt from his Journal:
“The twenty-fourth (Jan. 24, 1673) we went by water ten miles to the Indian town where this emperor dwelt; whom I had acquainted before with my coming, and desired to get their kings and councils together. In the morning the emperor came himself, and had me to the town; where they were generally come together, their speaker and other officers being with them, and the old empress sat among them. They sat very grave and sober, and were all very attentive, beyond many called Christians. I had some with me that could interpret to them. We had a very good meeting with them, and of considerable service it was; for it gave them a good esteem of truth and Friends; blessed be the Lord!” —–A Journal of George Fox. Philadelphia: 1831, p. 141.
In 1693, ownership of Handsell was transferred to a Christopher Nutter, an “Indian trader” who since 1670 was the interpreter for the region. However, the Natives Americans felt the English were getting too close to their village and surrounding lands, exerting too much influence on the tribe. In 1721 a serious conflict arose between the English and the Native Americans after Nutter’s heirs sold their land to a John Rider, who almost immediately tried to seize the 700 acres of Handsell, including the site of the Nanticoke Fort. The son of the Nanticoke emperor was among the inhabitants of the village. Because of the ill feelings caused by the English settlers who deprived them of the land on which they had once lived and hunted, the Native Americans complained that on the very banks of the Nanticoke River some of the colonists were building their houses. The Maryland government sided with the Native Americans and ordered John Rider off the reservation. But by 1742 only a few Nanticokes remained on their land.
In 1753 Chicone was made a proprietary manor making the reservation the property of Lord Baltimore. By 1768 the Maryland legislature passed a bill authorizing the purchase of all remaining rights to “Chicone Indian lands” from the Nanticoke Native Americans. In 1770 the land was deeded back to the heirs of John Rider, by then deceased. Henry Steele and his wife Ann Billings (grand-daughter of John Rider) were deeded 484 acres of the southern half of the Handsell tract, this portion bordered by the Chicone Creek and Nanticoke River, the exact site of the Native American village. According to Dorchester County history, Henry Steele built a “large and pretentious home on his property north of Vienna”. It is likely that Handsell is that house and that the part of the existing house is what remains of this large home.
In 1779-1781 British privateers raided and robbed homes along the waters of the Chesapeake Bay including “Weston”, the Nanticoke River home of Governor John Henry and the town of the Vienna. It is possible that Handsell burned at about the same time as Weston or later in a house fire. After archaeological and physical study of the house, it has been determined that the Handsell house standing today was a victim to a fire and a partial collapse. Today it retains a brick façade and east wall that is believed to date from the 18th c, but roof, chimney tops and interior woodwork that dates from the early 19th period, indicating it was rebuilt to a smaller scale after the fire.
Handsell remained in the Steele family until 1837 when it was sold to John Shehee. A dendrochronolgy study undertaken by the NHPA in 2010 on the pine frame members of the house revealed that this wood was cut during the winter of 1837-1838. This indicates that John Shehee was responsible for the rebuild of the brick ruins of the original house to the present form. Currently, more research is ongoing into the history of this family. Shehee died in 1844 and his daughter and son-in-law, Milcah and Robert Rook remained at the house until it was sold.
In 1849, the trustee of his will sold Handsell to Jacob C. Wilson, who owned it until 1859 when it was sold to the Thompson family. In 1892 the Thompsons sold Handsell to the Webb family who has owned the large farm in various family partnerships. The Webb family corporation has continued to farm approximately 1400 acres of land surrounding Handsell house since that date. The house was boarded up many years ago and has remained unoccupied for at least 60 years.
The house at Handsell with two acres and a right-of-way to the Chicone Creek were purchased by David and Carol Lewis from the Webb family, who realized the historical benefit in having the house restored. The Webb family has also placed the entire 1,400 acres surrounding the house in Rural Legacy Conservation Easement. Recognizing the long history of this rare property, the Lewis’ sold Handsell house in 2009 (with support from the Webb family) to the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to preserving Handsell house for future generations to study and explore the rich history of the land, the river and the people of this place.
Handsell is now listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places and filed with the Historic American Buildings Survey!!
The ink rendering of a “restored” Handsell is courtesy of artist Margaret Wright Ingersoll.