The Chesapeake Bay is a marvelous resource for protection and for ample food supply, so it is natural that Native Americans used it fully. In this modern milieu, it is easy to forget the original peoples’ presence, especially in areas where European diseases decimated the tribes or hate-crimes and wars mostly silenced them. But, there are many areas, in all regions of the United States, where you CAN connect with Native Americans, and learn from them.
It behooves us to learn about those for whom the Chesapeake, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the James and the other great rivers, mountains and plains were home, long before Baltimore and Washington DC were ever contemplated.
Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay watershed was home to many different Indian groups: 1) Algonquian-speaking people inhabited the coastal area 2) Iroquois-speaking groups lived in Maryland’s Piedmont and mountains.
There are written details of their cultures, histories and ways of life from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English colonists and more emerges with new archaeological discoveries (more about the chance to visit one, next time).
The Algonquians and Iroquois shared an agrarian economy based on: corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco farming. They also gathered wild plant foods and materials from the woods, riverbanks and rivers.
Indians lived in farming villages during the summer and fall, and most Algonquian houses were spread out among the farm fields, just like the ancient Hebrews did at harvest time (living in Succot – “tabernacles”).
For the Native Americans, fortified villages existed and were surrounded by log palisades; these were located at the boundaries of their territories or in the leaders’ villages.
In winter, which could be relatively mild if close to the warming Gulf Stream waters or much colder inland and at higher elevations, families usually left for winter quarters in the interior of their territories. Once there, they hunted deer, turkey and other animals for food, clothing and other needs.
In spring, when food supplies became depleted, Algonquians traveled to fishing and oyster-gathering camps, in the robust river-bay system. By the end of June they began moving back to their farming villages to grow summer crops.
With the establishment of the Jamestown colony, in what became southern Virginia, in 1607 and then with Captain John Smith’s exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, more contact and interaction between the native peoples and the English started.
For what became Maryland, William Claiborne established the first permanent English colony on Kent Island in 1631, so to start trade for beaver skins with the Iroquois-speaking Susquehannock Indians.
Concurrently, Henry Fleet of Virginia established a trade for beaver furs with Potomac River Algonquian Indians in 1631. Indeed, it was these successful beaver trades and the promise of fortunes-to-be-made, which led to the establishment of the colony of Maryland on the Potomac River, by Lord Baltimore and royal charter, in 1634.
Below is a summary of some of the major chiefdoms, tribes and their locations if near either Baltimore or Washington, DC:
Algonquian Indians – Western Shore of Maryland
The most powerful Algonquian political organization was the now-decimated Piscataway chiefdom (tavac), located along the Potomac River. The name Piscataway Creek, near Washington DC, reflects its location. On the north shore of the Potomac River, five Indian chiefdoms owed allegiance to the Piscataway. They were as follows:
1) Anacostians (Anacostia River): Their territory was within today’s Washington, D.C., western Prince Georges County and Alexandria, Virginia. They lived in fortified villages along the Algonquians’ western frontier.
2) Piscataway (Piscataway Creek): Their territory extended along the Potomac River in Prince Georges County from Broad Creek to Piscataway Creek to Pomonkey Creek. Their major village was fortified. The supreme chief (tavac) lived here.
3) Mattawomen (Mattawomen Creek): Back in the 1630s, John Smith recorded them by the name of Pamacocack. They were located around Mattawomen Creek in Charles County, Maryland and Quantico Creek in Prince William County, Virginia. The tribe stayed in this area until 1735. Their descendants may be the tribe known as Piscataway Indians of today, who live in southern Maryland.
4) Nanjemoy (Nanjemoy River): Their territory extended from Mallows Bay on the Potomac River to Nanjemoy Creek in Charles County, and archeologists have found sites in this area which demonstrate the tribe’s use of oysters, in this saltier part of the river.
5) Potapoco (Port Tobacco River): Captain John Smith noted three villages along the Port Tobacco River in Charles County, Maryland, on the southern border of Washington, DC. These Indians migrated in the latter 17th century to the Rappahannock River of Virginia.
On the lower Potomac River, northern shore were two independent Algonquian chiefdoms:
___ Chaptico (Choptico Creek): Smith called them the Cecomocomoco and wrote their territory included Cuckhold Creek, Wicomico River and Brenton Bay — English placenames overcoming the native ones. The tribe continued to have a werowance (chief) and tribal organization until at least 1707, after which time families continued to live in the area, and may still be part of the population.
___ Yoacomaco (St. Mary’s River): The Yoacomaco suffered attacks by the Susquehannocks, and welcomed the new Maryland English settlers in 1634. They agreed to sell to the English 30 miles of their territory around the St. Mary’s River. The English moved into the tribe’s eastern village, where they learned farming and fishing methods from the Yoacomaco.
The tribe migrated to the southern shore of the Potomac River in 1642, when the English killed their werowance (chief), but they continued to hunt in Maryland into the 1650s. And, it begs to be answered, just why did the English kill the chief of this friendly tribe?
To the north, along both shores of the Patuxent River, John Smith recorded 17 Indian villages of Algonquian speaking Indians. They included:
___ Acquintanack (Patuxent River): Located in today’s St. Mary’s County, their territory extended from the mouth of the river to Swanson Creek, but they lost their territory to the ever-expanding English in the 1640s and so they moved in with the Pawtuxants.
___ Pawtuxant (Patuxent River). Located in today’s Calvert County from Solomon’s Island to Hunting Creek, this tribe had the most powerful of the chiefdoms on the Patuxent. They migrated upriver to a reservation in the 1650s, but then, even they had to move in with the Chaptico Indians (written about above) in 1692. There was no provision really made for these tribes to retain their lands. The English simply kept encroaching and pushing them out.
The Choptank tribe in Maryland (explained in another article) were the only tribe given a formal, deeded reservation, but the State of Maryland sold it out from under them in 1822! No wonder there’s so much residual bitterness about this constant, pervasive, continuing disgraceful treatment by the American government.
___ Mattapanient (Upper Patuxent River): Their original territory was located around the Western Branch of the Patuxent, in present day’s Prince Georges County.
___ Assacomoco (Upper Patuxent River): Their territory was on the east shore of the river from Hunting Creek in Calvert County to Lyons Creek in the southern part of Anne Arundel County – obviously, you will get more from this commentary if you pair it with an online map.
The Pawtuxent and allied chiefdoms had a culture similar to that of the lower Potomac Algonquians. Indians along the Patuxent River made shell-tempered pottery, variously called by archaeologists: Townsend, Yeocomico, Rappahannock and Sullivan Cove.
___ Shawnee (Susquehanna and Upper Potomac Rivers): This tribe of Shawnee spoke a variation of Algonquian more typical of the Midwest. They had migrated to the Susquehanna River in the 1690s in Cecil County before moving to Alleghany County, where the lived until the 1730s.
Iroquoian-Speaking Indians of Maryland
___ Susquehannock (Susquehanna to Patapsco to Sassafras Rivers), this was a major tribe In 1608, the Susquehannocks had villages containing thousands of people living in today’s Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — now farmed by the “Pennsylvania Dutch”.
The Susquehannock controlled, by right of conquest, the lands from the Patapsco River north on the western shore and the Sassafras River north on the Eastern Shore. In 1675 they moved to Piscataway Creek in Prince Georges County, near present-day Washington, DC.
The English attacked their fort in 1763, forcing them to flee, and the remaining people moved back to Pennsylvania or to New York, to become part of the famed Six Nation Iroquois.
___ Massawomeck (Upper Potomac River). The four different tribes lived in the mountains of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. They cease to be mentioned in the historical records after 1635, and their fate is a mystery. Likely they were decimated either by European diseases or felt compelled to seek sanctuary among friendly tribes elsewhere, especially if reduced in number.
___ Tuscarora (Monocacy River): This southern Iroquoian-speaking people from North Carolina had migrated to Maryland after the Tuscarora War, which the English settlers of North Carolina fought and won between 1711 and 1713. The tribe arrived in Maryland in Frederick County between 1719 and 1721. After this they continued to migrate north to become the sixth nation of the Iroquois Six Nation Confederation.
Thanks to: Wayne E. Clark, Maryland Historical Trust for this information.
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