Indians of the Chesapeake

Early History

Fifteen thousand years ago the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean was near the continental shelf. The Susquehanna River flowed through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia and emptied into the ocean. Then the polar ice caps began to melt, causing a rapid rise in sea level. Approximately 7,000 years ago the rise in sea level began to slow. This allowed estuaries all over the world to grow, including the drowned riverbed of the Susquehanna River known as the Chesapeake Bay. As the Chesapeake expanded north and west, the Rhode River sub-estuary was formed.

An estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water with sources of both fresh and salt water. Estuaries have access to the ocean, so they are influenced by the tides. Salt water enters the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, while fresh water comes primarily from rivers such as the Susquehanna, Potomac, and the James. The Rhode River sub-estuary receives salt water from the Bay and a large portion of its fresh water from Muddy Creek.

Estuaries are extremely productive ecosystems. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are transported by water running off the land from agricultural fields. Plants growing in the shallow waters of an estuary use the sun's energy to convert these nutrients into food through photosynthesis. These plants become food for small animals, which then become food for larger animals.

It is this abundant food resource that brought the earliest inhabitants to this area. Paleo-Indians manufactured large spear points to hunt animals in the Susquehanna River area as long ago as 11000 B.C. They also gathered berries, nuts, and seeds.

From 8000 B.C. to 1000 B.C. the climate continued to warm. As a direct result, the Chesapeake Bay formed from glacial melting, and effectively changed the way people lived in this region. During this time, the Archaic period, larger animals such as the mastodon and the bison disappeared and were replaced by smaller animals in the developing forests.

Archaic hunters made smaller spear points to hunt rabbit, squirrel, deer, and beaver. They still gathered seeds, berries, and nuts, but they also began to use the resources of the evolving estuary. Large piles of discarded oyster and clam shells, called middens, have been found along the shoreline. These "garbage heaps" give archaeologists clues about the lifestyle of these people.

Over the next 2,000 years settlement patterns changed. At first, small groups moved between the forest and the estuary with periodic assembly at a large site. By 1100 A.D. small family groups, based in established villages, went on hunting and fishing trips at favorite sites along the estuary. Again, the shell middens found at these sites provide clues on the diet and habits of these people.

Woodland Period of the Piscataway Indians

It is at this point that the Java History Trail begins its story. No archaeological evidence exists to indicate a permanent village on SERC property, however the presence of large middens indicates seasonal usage for hunting and fishing. At least three groups of Native Americans, the Piscataways , the Choptank, and the Mattaponi, shared the rich resources of the area. The exhibits on the Java History Trail use the Piscataway as a representative group.

Small groups of Piscataway men, women, and children inhabited this area during the late summer and fall months. They came to hunt white tail deer, rabbit, bear, muskrat, otter, mink, and other small animals used for food, clothing, or tools. As the most important resource for the Piscataways, white tail deer provided meat, bone tools, glue, sinew, and hides for clothing and shelter. Game included wild turkeys, geese, ducks, quail, and partridge. Hunting methods entailed trapping and snaring as well as larger, organized hunts involving many men and boys. Around 800 A.D. the introduction of the bow and arrow greatly changed hunting methods and the type of points being made.

The development of pottery also occurred as another important change during this time period. Previously, bowls were carved from soapstone, causing them to be very heavy and difficult to carry. Pots made from local clays were much lighter, easier to transport, and they were more durable than baskets or animal skin pouches. Depending on the natural resources available to them, American Indians tempered the clay with sand, crushed rock, or shell. Tempering prevented cracking when the pots were fired.

Using mostly tulip poplar trees, women made dug out canoes by burning the felled trees and scraping out the charred remains with oyster shells. Hickory was used to make handles for tools, while witch-hazel, locust, and ash were used for bows. Women collected berries as well as chestnuts, walnuts, hickory nuts, and acorns. Acorns were utilized for many purposes: 1) after boiling the acorns, the extracted oil was rubbed on joints to relieve pain 2) grinding the meaty part of the acorn produced a type of flour and 3) the storability of the acorn during the winter months also increased its value as a resource.

As the estuary and the surrounding marshes were expanding, the Piscataways increasingly used the resources found there. Judging from the number of shells found in the middens, clams and oysters were eaten in great quantities. The shells were used for beads, pendants, temper for pottery, digging tools, and scrapers. The Piscataways also hunted and harvested turtles and diamondback terrapins.

Although there is no archaeological evidence to tell which types of fish this tribe ate, colonial records indicate that Indians in the Chesapeake caught sturgeon, shad, croaker, and sheepshead among others. Piscataways caught fish in many ways, using spears, nets, traps, hooks and line, and weirs (a V-shaped fence made of stone or wood built in a stream or river that herded fish into a trap). They also fished at night from canoes using fire to stun the fish, thus making it easier to spear them.

The Piscataways also used many plants associated with the estuary. The stems from cattails, when woven into mats, covered their shelters and served as ground cloths. The tribe pulled the roots of the cattail and ate them raw or boiled. The Piscataways also ate other marsh plants including tuckahoe, pickerelweed, wild rice and duck potatoes.

Additionally, in order to trap, hunt, and prepare their meals, along with accomplishing daily activities and shelter building, this tribe used a variety of stone tools. These included knives, drills, scrapers, axes, celts, grinding stones, hammerstones (used for making other stone tools), and bannerstones (used as counterweights on spearthrowers).

In 1607-1608 Captain John Smith sailed up and down the Chesapeake Bay recording what he saw and mapping the many rivers, islands, and geographic features he observed. Although he charted many Native American settlements along the Bay, he did not see any American Indians in this area. Tribes from the north (Susquehannocks) and the south (Powhatans) were at war with one another and made this area a "no man's land." The lack of Native American names for rivers in this part of Maryland provides further evidence that there were no permanent American Indian settlements.

However, Piscataways did live further south in Maryland. Their initial contact with the English was friendly, yet restrained. Piscataways tried to take the middle ground in their dealings with the English, neither fighting the English nor becoming converted to European lifestyles. Yet, by the end of the 1600s the Piscataway population dwindled from an estimated 8,000 people to approximately 80. Most died from diseases brought by the English and from constant wars with other groups. The remaining Piscataway people dispersed to different areas. Some joined the Cherokees, some joined the Delawares, while others relocated themselves with the Susquehannocks. A few moved to remote places within Maryland. It is their descendants that form the current Piscataway nation.