What is the Relationship Between Nanticoke and Crabs?

My love for crabs started as a child vacationing on the Chesapeake Bay. My parents would drive from Nanticoke to Baltimore via Route 11. In those days it took four hours.

My mother’s only sister, Aunt Flo, lived off Eastern Avenue in Baltimore. She moved from Nanticoke to Baltimore with her husband during World War II because jobs were plentiful with Bethlehem Steel making steel for wartime ships. Aunt Flo’s best friend had shore property on Miller’s Island on the Chesapeake. Our two families would spend the day swimming in the bay. You could walk out a quarter of a mile, yet the water would only come up to your waist. The sand was soft and silky. Because the salination makes you more buoyant, I learned to swim quickly. Around supper time, we would walk down to Auggies and order a bushel of crabs. The fragrance of Old Bay seasoning on hot, steamed Maryland blue crabs is intoxicating! We would eat the crabs “hot and dirty” until the sun set, and then return to the city. These were the fondest of my childhood memories.

Aunt Flo had three children, two of which were twins, who were a year younger than I. One of the twins, Frank, loved crabbing. Every summer, when it was hot, and “when the crabs were running,” he would go out and catch about two bushels, which was the limit.
On a visit to Baltimore, Frank invited my sister and I to go crabbing with him. I jumped at the opportunity, thinking of the reward at the end. So at 5 o’clock in the morning, the three of us were up and off to Gunpowder Falls State Park. We actually had to wait in line to launch the boat in the dark! Frank used a trotline to catch crabs. A trotline is a rope approximately 1000 feet that rests on the bottom of the water anchored at both ends with anchors and floats. Bait is attached every six feet. Frank used old chicken necks to bait the line the evening before. He steered the boat out and dropped his trotline to the bottom of the river. Crabs like warm, shallow water and are bottom dwellers. Then we brought the boat to shore to eat a brown bag breakfast. Since my sister and I dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, we were cold on the early morning water and ran off to the ladies rest room and warmed ourselves with the hand drier. After about an hour on land, it was time to get in the boat to see if we got any bites. We worked as a team. Frank drove the boat, picked up the end anchor, and “ran” the line. As the boat slowly trolled the line, one of us used a long handled net to scoop up the crabs, and the other had tongs to check the sex of the crabs and put them in bushel baskets. By law you can only keep males that are five inches in length (the length of a soda can). Females are protected to propagate the population. To determine the sex of a crab, we would turn the crab over and look at the bottom of the shell (apron). If it looks like the Washington monument, it’s a male(jimmy). If the apron looks like the capital dome, it’s a female or (sook). At first it was tricky scooping up the crabs. Frank said they didn’t like sunlight and would release from
their bait, so we would have to be fast. However, after time, we had a rhythm and I couldn’t believe how efficient and easy it was to gather up two bushels. Before long, we were back at Aunt Flo’s house to steam the crabs. The afternoon was spent cracking crabs and enjoying the fruits of our bounty.

I was born and raised in Nanticoke, PA, which was named after the Nanticoke Indians. The tribe originated on the eastern shore of Delaware, their name means “Tidewater People”. The tribe was nomadic and traveled along the Susquehanna river
from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York to Canada. According to author, James Mitchner, in his novel Chesapeake, the Nanticoke Indians introduced crabs to Captain John Smith and the white settlers in 1608. And, that’s the relationship between Nanticoke and crabs.

There is a totem pole on Route 1 in Bethany Beach, Delaware. It bears the likeness of “Little Owl,” Chief of the Nanticoke Indians. Every summer, I pay him and the Nanticoke Indians homage by eating crabs and enjoying the beaches of his summer home.

“Auntie” Linda J. Puchalski

One Comment

  • Mary Ellen Higdon says:

    Great at Auntie Linda! I am now craving crabs. Also, I never knew how to distinguish a male crab from a female…very enlightening