Paradise lost

Region’s native tribes lived lightly on the land

Friday, April 25, 2008

Click here to enlarge this photo
Staff photos by GARY SMITH
Above, Peter Quantock of Gibb Archaeological Consulting in Annapolis holds American Indian artifacts unearthed at an archeological dig on the grounds of the Port Tobacco Courthouse. Below, a shard of pottery found during a dig on the grounds of the courthouse is believed to be an Indian artifact.

If Southern Marylanders could step back in time to 400 years ago and see the terrain and waterways of the area during the era when Europeans were first settling the Chesapeake Bay region, they would think they were in paradise.

Where now there are ribbons and blocks of asphalt and concrete interspersed with thinned-out forests bordered by murky river and bay water, there was once thick tree cover, cleared fields brimming with naturally grown vegetables, forests filled with wildlife and crystal clear water teeming with a variety of aquatic life.

That’s how the first white settlers found the area when American Indians were stewards of the land.

Another dayin paradise

When Capt. John Smith plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay during explorations of the 2,300 miles of its shoreline between 1607 and 1609, he observed a lush, sparsely populated land packed with wildlife and rivers of clear water full of crabs, oysters and a variety of fish.

Bears, muskrats, beavers, mountain lions, deer and squirrels lived in the thick forests and a variety of waterfowl fed and bred in the waters of the Potomac, Port Tobacco, Patuxent, Wicomico and St. Mary’s rivers.

The lives of Native Americans touched the land lightly, taking little more than was required to make clothing, build shelters and feed their families.

In the 1600s, the Piscataways’ territory extended along the Potomac River in Prince George’s County from Broad Creek to Pomonkey Creek in Charles County. Subtribes of the Piscataway included the Nanjemoy, Mattawoman and Potapoco.

In St. Mary’s County, the Yaocomaco was the primary tribe. They lived along the St. Mary’s River when Smith arrived in Southern Maryland in the early 1600s, according to Coby Treadway, site supervisor of the Woodland Village Hamlet in Historic St. Mary’s City.

In Calvert County, the Patuxent (Pawtuxent) made camp along the Patuxent River.

Although the leaders of the tribes viewed the arrival of the Europeans with a wary eye, they entered into a cautious relationship with them, based primarily on the trade of goods for land and protection against tribes from the north who constantly raided their villages.

‘‘When Smith arrived the Native Americans didn’t shoot arrows at him,” said Michael Smolek, executive director of archeology at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard. ‘‘They were mostly civilized. It was very much a frontier along the Patuxent River when he arrived. It was sort of a no-man’s land.”

Invasions from the north

The daily life of American Indians in what is now Southern Maryland was difficult and included always keeping an eye out for their enemies to the north, the Susquehannock and Iroquois, who often came into the area in raiding parties to steal crops and livestock, said James Gibb of Gibb Archaeological Consulting in Annapolis.

A large number of the Piscataway used the Zekiah Swamp in Bryantown in Charles County as a refuge from the raiding parties, Gibb said.

‘‘They went to the Zekiah Swamp for protection,” he said. ‘‘This area became a major route for the Susquehannock and people just got out of their way. The Zekiah Swamp was one area where the Native Americans fled to seek refuge.”

‘‘When people are growing food they become sitting ducks for raiding parties,” Smolek said. ‘‘They’re predictable. Raiding parties knew where they were going to be.”

The Susquehannock headed south to hunt beaver for European fur traders, said Gabrielle Tayac, a historian with the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Piscataway Indian Nation.

‘‘The Susquehannock belonged to a different language group and they got involved with European fur traders,” she said. ‘‘They were armed by the Swedes during the fur trading era. They overhunted and overtrapped in their area so they started to push down farther south where there was still beaver left.”

Although the relationship between the colonists and the American Indians did not result in out-and-out bloodshed very often, the invasion of the settlers into their territory did produce some problems, Tayac said.

Eventually, the Piscataway turned to their long-time enemy, the Iroquois, to help them move farther north to get away from the settlers and their strange ways, she said.

‘‘The Piscataway allied with the Iroquois people in the north and asked them to please get us away from these people,” she said. ‘‘They went to their old enemies to try to get away from the white settlers.”

Some of the Piscataway migrated to Albany, N.Y., in 1685, finally settling in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, she said.

In St. Mary’s County, the Yaocomaco asked the settlers to protect them from their enemies to the north, Treadway said. Communication with the tribe was aided by Henry Fleete, an English fur trader who was captured and held captive by the Anacostia tribe for five years. During captivity, he learned the Algonquin language and culture.

‘‘Yaocomaco lived on land where our museum is today,” Treadway said. ‘‘When the English arrived, they moved out of their village to occupy a village on the other side of the St. Mary’s River. The Susquehannock were conducting raids all along the Chesapeake. They were so intense the Yaocomaco couldn’t defend themselves.”

Leonard Calvert, Maryland’s first governor, met with the chief of the tribe to work out a deal offering the tribe protection in exchange for the purchase of land, Treadway said.

‘‘He offered protection against the Susquehannock,” he said. ‘‘Part of the agreement was that some of the tribe would remain to help plant and harvest corn for the settlers.”

Much of the life of the Indians here remains a mystery, said Megan Williams, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum’s outreach director.

‘‘Everything that we know about them is from archeology,” she said. ‘‘We based our Eastern Woodland Indian Village on archeology from the area.”

Living in harmonywith nature

American Indians in Southern Maryland lived a hard life that was closely in tune with nature.

Ninety-five percent of the land was covered with old growth trees, but Indians cleared the forests sporadically to make it easier to move through them, Tayac said.

‘‘The forest was so deep that they burned undergrowth periodically to give it a park-like environment so that they could move quite easily through the woods,” she said.

Seventy percent of the food came from agriculture. Tribes would plant corn, squash, beans and sunflowers, said Rico Newman, cultural information specialist with the National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe. In all, 130 different vegetables were grown for food.

In addition, there was a wealth of wildlife that lived in the thick forests of Southern Maryland, including turkeys, deer and bears, Newman said.

In the summer, the tribes fished the rivers, Tayac said.

‘‘The rivers were much deeper and narrower then,” she said. ‘‘Now, there’s a vast amount of erosion.”

King dolphin, a variety of fish, waterfowl and oysters abounded in the waterways, Tayac said. ‘‘Oyster beds were absolutely massive,” she said. ‘‘They didn’t have to go too far out in the water to reach them. There are records that indicate that oysters grew as large as 13 inches long back then.”

Men would leave the villages in the warm weather to hunt farther west, Tayac said. ‘‘They would go on hunting and trading expeditions,” she said, adding that it might even have been possible for the men to bag a buffalo in Western Maryland. ‘‘There was quite a rich biodiversity there.”

For the most part, tribes lived in longhouses made of reed-covered mats secured to a wooden frame, Tayac said. A young man would move into the longhouse of his wife’s family once the couple had been married awhile and were ready to move out of their wickiup — a dome-shaped structure made from cedar that a newly married couple would live in during the initial stage of their marriage.

A matriarchal society

Native American men hunted and trapped and fished the rivers and bay, but they did not grow the food, Newman said. That job was left up to the women of the tribe.

‘‘Life was seen as coming through the women so they did all of the farming,” he said. ‘‘Men weren’t allowed to put their hands into Mother Earth. It was considered a violation.”

Clan mothers made most of the decisions for the tribe, Newman said, adding, ‘‘women contributed just about everything.”

‘‘Women were pretty much outspoken; they were very active in tribal politics,” Tayac said. ‘‘Women were part of the decision-making process. Women had far more power than their counterparts in England.”

The arrival of the Europeans into a culture that had lived in Southern Maryland for thousands of years certainly made a deep impact that American Indians are still trying to recover from, Tayac said.

‘‘They had a whole life going on and then suddenly somebody drops into the middle of it and changes things so that they’re never the same again,” she said. ‘‘It’s pretty amazing because this was a complex culture that had developed over thousands of years.”