February 25, 2021
By Katherine Wilson, Conservation Assistant at Delaware State Parks
The peninsula we call Thompson Island has another name – Tawundeunk. This is the name the Nanticoke use, which means “the place where we bury our dead.”
On May 17, 2000, a ceremony was held to celebrate the dedication of the Thompson Island Nature Preserve. This was the formal ceremony to acknowledge the agreement between the Nanticoke and the State of Delaware. It was a commitment to do better going forward and to ensure that these sacred lands, while owned and managed by the state, would remain accessible to and protected for the Nanticoke.
The landscape of this area has changed dramatically from its appearance when the first inhabitants lived here. Today, Thompson Island is in the Rehoboth Bay and very close to the Atlantic coastline, but 12,000 years ago, it was “35 miles west from the Atlantic coastline and 10 miles west of the ancestral Delaware River” (Blume and Clark 1992).
The land now known as Delaware is part of the traditional homelands of the Lenape and Nanticoke peoples. European colonizers took control of this land, and the history of these lands prior to that moment have largely been forgotten and ignored by Westerners. Part of the mission of Delaware State Parks charges us with “responsible stewardship of the lands and the cultural resources that we have been entrusted to protect and manage.” Those cultural resources reach back thousands of years.
In May of 2000, the DNREC Division of Parks and Recreation (aka Delaware State Parks) and the Nanticoke Indian Association entered into an agreement that recognized the many ways that this land is spiritually significant to the Nanticoke and promised to care for the land in a way that preserves and protects it. Designating a space as a Nature Preserve is the highest level of land protection in Delaware.
These steps to secure the island followed an incident where permitted members of the Nanticoke tribe were disturbed while on the island for spiritual activities. In an effort to move forward and learn from the past, a formal agreement was made. This agreement also provides the Nanticoke with the ability to hold ceremonies on the island and be actively involved in the decisions made to manage it.
The first archaeologist to study the cultural history of Thompson Island was C. S. Weslager in the 1940s. He identified several human burials as well as pits from looters searching to steal objects without the intent to study the history. Archaeologists working for DNREC conducted studies on the island in the early 1990s to better understand the history of the land in order to better protect it. They found more evidence of very old prehistoric burials as well as items indicating campsites and other activities.
In addition to the island’s many cultural resources, it also holds many critical natural resources. The preserve has two types of wetlands: estuarine and palustrine. These are brackish water and freshwater wetlands, respectively. Dozens of species of birds and plants have been identified at this preserve.
Three of the threats facing Thompson Island are erosion, vandalism/looting, and sea-level rise. It is important for members of the public to respect the island and its importance to the Nanticoke people by not trespassing on the island or disturbing the sites. Delaware State Parks continues to monitor the island in keeping its promise to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. If you are interested in visiting, you can hike a trail to an overlook location that gives you a glimpse of this special place. Access by the general public to the island itself is prohibited.
The Nanticoke tribe is still active in southern Delaware. To learn more about the Nanticoke Indian Tribe and their annual pow wow event, visit their website here.