Accawmacke Indian Descendant Suing To Reclaim Ancestral Lands

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Lisa Cypress

By Stefanie Jackson – A woman who can trace her genealogy back to the Accawmacke Indians, who lived on and later owned land in Eastville, is suing the Northampton County Board of Supervisors and PNC Bank to return two properties – including county-owned Indiantown Park – to the indigenous family to which the land originally belonged.

But even though the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia lawsuit – Lisa Cypress v. PNC Bank and the Northampton County Board of Supervisors – may appear to be a divisive action, Cypress intends for the outcome to benefit and bring unity to the entire community.

“This is not a division thing, it’s a unifying thing,” Cypress said in an Aug. 13 interview with the Eastern Shore Post.

The Accawmacke Indians – many of whom were “Negroid” in appearance, Cypress notes – also were known as the Gingaskin Indians, but Cypress generally avoids calling the tribe by that name because it has no root in the English language and forms an anagram that contains a racial slur.

An Accawmacke Indian reservation existed in Eastville from 1640 until 1813, when the reservation was legally terminated. According to Northampton court records, the land was divided into 27 lots of 25.5 acres each and deeded to the remaining tribe members in 1814.

Cypress can trace her family history back more than 250 years, to her fifth great-grandparents, Edmund Press and Rachel West, both Accawmacke Indians who were deeded land in 1814.

Cypress is a blood relative of six Accawmacke Indians who owned land on the former reservation. However, she is suing for the land of only two family members, Molly West (whose husband was William West) and Ebby Press (who was married several times and was named Ebby Francis when her land was deeded).

The land deeded to Molly West is the current location of PNC Bank’s Eastville branch. The lands that belonged to Ebby Press, by both deed and inheritance, are now known as Indiantown Park, approximately 50 acres owned by the Northampton board of supervisors.

The Northampton County courthouse contains two plats of the Accawmacke Indian land surveyed in 1813. One is found in Plat Book 2, 1808-1833, and the other is in Plat Book 35, 1808-1816, pages 257-533.

Both plats show Indiantown Road running west and east and its intersection with Seaside Road, running north and south, roughly as they are today. The Accawmacke Indian land appears to be bounded on the west by Courthouse Road and on the east by the water.

If Cypress was granted the PNC Bank lot, its fate would be up to negotiation, but she would favor the bank remaining on the property, as it is economic development, she said.

The Accawmacke Indians have a three-phase development plan for Indiantown Park, which would begin by transforming the existing building into a “historical, economic, agricultural indigenous learning center,” Cypress said.

Her long-term vision for the land includes a museum, gardens, a petting zoo, sweat lodges, and a tea shop with tea made from homegrown herbs like sassafras.

Later build-outs could include overnight lodging similar to a longhouse, and additional activities offered could include archery and learning about Accawmacke Indian crafting skills and herbal healing.

She also would like to see an herb-bottling plant similar to a facility currently operating in North Carolina.

The Accawmacke Indians were the “first documented herbologists,” she said.

“We want to actually be able to tell the historical truths and be able to give people an experience they cannot receive any other place in the world,” Cypress said.

Eventually there also would be water access for canoeing and other activities. Connection to the water is “essential,” said Cypress, who recently participated in an impact study by the University of Virginia on the effects of the Accawmacke Indians being landlocked for decades.

Tourism will play a role in the area’s economic growth, but development will be carefully planned to keep tourist attractions and residential areas separate.

“That will protect the agricultural and historic nature of the area because … tourism is not every day. People come and they leave, which is a good thing.”

“It enables you to have a sense of normalcy and it doesn’t necessarily invite an influx of people that changes the entire area,” Cypress said.

Indiantown Park’s existing commitments to host events and activities, such as soccer games, would be fulfilled during the transition period, she said.

The park would become a business incubator, complete with its own credit union so “people can invest in each other,” she said.

The community also would have a storehouse – similar to a food pantry – for people in need, but Cypress hopes no one would be in need because everyone in the community would either have a job or own a business.

“The focus … is to actually grow the area and create opportunities for not just our people but all the people that have not been able to have it for all this time,” she added.

The project will be inclusive of all Eastern Shore citizens, particularly the disadvantaged, whether they have darker complexions like indigenous Accawmacke Indians, or they appear European.

“Accawmackes, we love everybody. That’s just the way we are.”

The legal action being taken “is a mechanism to actually grow the area for everyone. And trust and believe that most of the people who have long genealogies here are related, whatever their complexion or so-called race may be classified as,” Cypress said.

“Eastville doesn’t get love. … People are not moving and throwing their money into Eastville,” she observed.

“The real goal is to actually bring resources to the area in a way that no one else can. … The county couldn’t do it. No one else can actually do this.”

Northampton County court records relating to Accawmacke Indians may appear accurate to someone unfamiliar with genealogy, but many of the documents are “faulty,” Cypress said.

Through the years, the land records have been muddled as names were changed (for example, referring to “Mary” as “Molly”), coordinates were rewritten, or boundary lines were redrawn.

But landmarks can’t be moved. Indiantown Creek is shown on the plat of the Accawmacke Indian land survey of 1813, bordering the Ebby Francis property, lot number 26. It’s the same creek that can be seen from Indiantown Park today.

Both PNC Bank and the Northampton board of supervisors have responded to the lawsuit, with the board of supervisors requesting to dismiss the case based on grounds that Cypress deems “frivolous,” such as Cypress representing herself.

Northampton supervisors also stated the case was filed in the wrong jurisdiction, but Cypress said the Eastern District of Virginia, a federal court, is the correct court because the case involves parties in two different states – Cypress currently lives and works in Georgia.

She will file an amendment to her claim and the defendants again must respond. Cypress is confident the lawsuit will not be dismissed but proceed.

“The land theft throughout hundreds of years is horrific,” she said. Indiantown Park even contains Accawmacke Indian burial grounds. But her lawsuit is a means to “restore some of what was taken … and also build and move forward,” she said.

“I feel like the Eastern Shore is where everything happened … the world just really starts there. So I feel like when we can get it right, there’s hope for everybody else to get it right.”

The Accawmacke Indians operate a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, American Indigenous Accawmacke Indians. For more information, visit their Facebook page of the same name or accawmacke.org

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