ON THE BRINK OF CONTACT: NATIVE MARYLAND, A
Native Maryland, 9000 B.C.-1600 A.D.
Dennis C. Curry
[The author neatly encapsulates the major periods within a vast timespan by marking the most
important distinctions within the sparse archaeological record. This article first appeared in
Maryland Humanities (Winter 2001). - Eds.]
The new millennium threatens to be the last millennium to retain remnants of the earliest
human culture in Maryland, if we are not careful to preserve our Native heritage. The long,
complex story of humans here began over ten millennia ago. Native tribal groups, with
established societies and cultures, did not meet the first arriving Europeans until the early 1600s.
Maryland's first human inhabitants, called "Paleoindians" by archeologists, arrived at the
end of the last glacial period, probably between 3000 and 9000 BC. The glacial environment had
changed from its chilling cool temperatures with mastodons and mammoths roaming over vast
grasslands to a warmer post-glacial setting of forests inhabited by smaller mammals including
elk, moose, deer, and possibly caribou. The Paleoindians were hunter-gatherers organized into
regional semi-nomadic bands. These first settlers made their homes around local sources of high
quality cherts and jaspers, the raw materials used for making stone tools. They ate what they
gleaned from hunting, fishing, and gathering seasonal resources such as nuts and tubers.
During the vast Archaic period, from around 8000 to 1000 BC, these early humans
gradually adapted to continuing environmental changes. They invented the spearthrower as
smaller, more solitary animals such as deer began to dominate the region. The retreat of northern
glaciers and the resulting meltwaters began the transformation of the lower Susquehanna River
into the resource-rich estuary we know today as the Chesapeake Bay. The increased variety and
numbers of available food resources allowed their settlements to become more sedentary, and
social systems--still centered around bands--operated in more well-defined territories and
increased in complexity.
The beginnings of the Woodland period about 1000 B.C. saw sweeping changes across all
aspects of this evolving society. As Native Americans settled into more sedentary hamlets, they
developed ceramics and began to farm.
Some two thousand years later, around 1000 A.D., Native American cultural development
in Maryland reached a threshold. In archeological terms, this was the turning point at which the
Middle Woodland period with its hunter-gatherer/early horticulturalist groups living in scattered
hamlets evolved into groups of agriculturalists consolidating into tribal units and living in
Our knowledge of Maryland's Middle Woodland period prior to 1000 is primarily
represented by the "Selby Bay Complex" in the Coastal Plain and centered in the Patuxent
drainage. In western Maryland, much less is known of this period. The few archeological sites
found seem to indicate distant and outside cultural influences at work--from the Pennsylvania
Somerset Plateau to the north, from West Virginia to the southwest, and from the Clemson Island
region of the lower Susquehanna to the northeast. The intervening eastern Blue Ridge and
Piedmont regions appear to have been largely uninhabited and may have served as a buffer area
between the western Native American groups and the coastal Selby Bay groups during this
Early inhabitants of the Selby Bay Complex are noted for their artifacts made from exotic
lithic materials (blue rhyolite, purple argillite, brown and green jaspers), shell-tempered
"Mockley" ceramics, lanceolate and stemmed projectile points (referred to as the Selby Bay
type), large cache blades, 3/4-grooved axes, and two-hole elliptical gorgets. The early inhabitants
of this period developed extensive procurement and storage/distribution network. This involved
both trade and exchange as well as direct procurement. For instance, argillites from New Jersey
may have been obtained through long-distance trade and exchange systems. They also
established a direct system for extracting and distributing rhyolite from the Catoctin Mountain
region of Maryland. This involved people traveling from the Patuxent area to the Catoctin area, a
distance of 70 miles or more. To make this system work, they developed a series of specialized
sites: quarries for the actual extraction of rhyolite; nearby workshops for transforming raw blocks
of material into transportable, useful forms called blanks; caches for temporary storage of these
blanks; and rockshelters for temporary campsites.
During this time, settlers still needed to hunt and gather their food. Men were now using
the newly introduced (around 800) bow and arrow. In and around the Patuxent region,
archeologists have defined two types of sites related to Middle Woodland subsistence. The first
includes widespread resource procurement camps found in strategic settings where they could
easily exploit resources, especially seasonal ones such as fish, nuts, or large stands of wild rice.
After gathering resources, the people took their food to centralized base camps, detected
archeologically by the presence of large storage pit features. The range of resources which
archeologists have recovered from these storage features illustrates the breadth of this food
procurement system: oysters (from sources 30 miles away), freshwater and marine clams, deer,
beaver, turkey, turtle, sturgeon, acorn, hickory, and walnut. From these base camps/storage sites,
settlers would redistribute them as needed, probably to a series of local hamlets. The intensive
exploitation and/or horticulture of native plants was clearly a component of the Selby Bay
Complex's diverse subsistence base.
The Late Woodland period, beginning in 1000, marked a point in Maryland prehistory
when all facets of native society--settlement, subsistence, and political structure--began to
change. Perhaps the most influential change was that Native tribes shifted from hunting and
gathering to an agriculturally-oriented subsistence. Hunting certainly continued throughout the
Late Woodland period, but their increasing reliance on agriculture is vividly reflected in the
Corn and beans first appear at sites dating to around 1000 or slightly earlier. In western
Maryland, these crops were probably introduced by Monogahela groups from nearby
Pennsylvania. In the Monocacy River valley, the appearance of corn, beans, and squash is
coincident with the immigration of northern agricultural peoples (such as Owasco from New
York) into the region. Eventually corn agriculture reached the Coastal Plain areas of the Potomac
and Patuxent, and throughout the region settlement patterns shift to the major floodplains as the
need for arable land increased. By around 1400, most Native Marylanders became reliant on
agriculture throughout Maryland, with the exception of the Eastern Shore. Here, direct evidence
of the use of crops is extremely rare.
Also at this time, the vast trade networks of the Middle Woodland period broke down.
Settlements shifted to floodplains and grew in size, and aggregated villages replaced the scattered
hamlets of earlier times. Their greater self-reliance on agriculture, the consolidation of people
into defined villages, and the more permanent nature of these villages reflected the shift from
band level to tribal society in Maryland. Eventually, this tribalization culminated in the
chiefdoms witnessed by the first European settlers, such as the Piscataway of the lower Potomac
region, and the Nanticoke of the Eastern Shore.
For much of Maryland prehistory, remains of deceased individuals were interred singly or
occasionally with one or two others in burial pits. The individuals may have been placed in a
flexed or an extended position, and grave goods may have been included or not, but essentially
interment consisted of placing the body of the deceased in a grave dug into the earth. Around
1300, bundle burials begin to appear at sites in the Piedmont. These burials consist of the skeletal
remains of the deceased, collected after the flesh has decomposed, bundled together, and
reinterred in a secondary grave (often beneath the floor of a house). A hundred years later,
especially in the Coastal Plain, all the dead from a village were buried in graves or placed in
scaffolds to allow the flesh to decompose. Then, at regular intervals, all the individual graves
were exhumed and the bones gathered up for communal reburial in one large, common pit known
as an ossuary. Hundreds of individuals were sometimes reburied in ossuaries (one Piscataway
ossuary near Accokeek contained the remains of more than 600 people), and included all ages,
from infant to the very elderly.
From an archeological perspective, these different burial methods mirror societal changes.
Early individual burials served as an efficient, practical method of disposal. Later, after groups of
families had formed villages, bundle burials were curated at the household level, indicative of the
source of power at the family level. And finally, the shift to mass ossuary burial can be seen as a
"community of the dead," reflective of the living communities organized during chiefdoms.
After 1400, not only were villages becoming larger and more consolidated, but the people
within those villages created a stronger communal identity. By 1450, many living in villages built
defensive palisades to thwart intertribal hostilities. Initially, hostilities may have been a result of
greater territoriality on the part of local groups and the need to control ever larger tracts of arable
land for corn agriculture, but eventually the situation was exacerbated by incursions of foreign
groups such as the Senecas and Susquehannocks. Soon, however, the ultimate
Western Maryland had witnessed occupation by the Susquehannocks from the mid-1500s
to the 1620s. Captain Henry Fleet's journal places the Massawomecks somewhere in the upper
Potomac in the summer of 1632. From the mid-1600s to the very late 1600s or early 1700s, when
the Shawnee appear, western Maryland seems to have been largely uninhabited. Around 1714,
the Shawnee established King Opessa's Town at Oldtown, and by 1721 they had at least three
other settlements in western Maryland; in 1738, however, the Shawnee abandoned King Opessa's
Town and Maryland at large.
In the Piedmont, two different groups appear to have resided in the Monocacy valley and
the middle Potomac region around 1400: people using shell-tempered pottery seem to have
expanded into the region from the south and/or west; and people using quartz- and granite-tempered ceramics, who most likely moved into the region from the north. Around 1450 these
people moved from the Piedmont region into the Coastal Plain area of the lower Potomac.
Around 1450 or shortly thereafter, there is little evidence for resident populations in the
In the Coastal Plain region after 1400, a generalized Algonkian culture appears with two
different ceramic traditions. The lower Potomac region from around Washington, DC south into
Charles County is dominated by peoples using quartz- and/or sand-tempered "Potomac Creek"
pottery. This pottery is believed to have developed out of the quartz- and granite-tempered wares
when the Piedmont groups moved south. In the lower Potomac south of the "Potomac Creek"
area, and in the Patuxent drainage, shell-tempered pottery predominates. Regardless of ceramic
tradition, however, the people of the Western Shore Coastal Plain demonstrated similar
Algonkian lifeways, and this resulted in the proliferation of tribal entities encountered by
Europeans in the early 1600s--Piscataway/Conoy, Pamunkey, Potopaco, Patuxent, Yaocomaco,
On the Eastern Shore, native groups resembled those of the Western Shore, although the
population seems to have been more disperse. These Algonkian groups, often encompassed by
the rubric "Nanticoke," included Nanticoke, Choptank, Pocomoke, Tockwogh, Wicomiss, and
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, dozens of Maryland tribes represented the
culmination of over 10,000 years of cultural development. Within a few years, Europeans would
arrive on Maryland's shores. One hundred years later, as result of European domination,
Maryland's native peoples would be all but gone. The Piscataway fled their homeland by around
1680, and most had left Maryland altogether by around 1710. Western Maryland was once and
for all abandoned in the 1740s by the itinerant Shawnee. And many of the Nanticoke left
Maryland's Eastern Shore for Pennsylvania in the mid-1740s. In 1792, just nine remained at the
Choptank town of Locust Neck.
Today, there is a resurgence among the descendants of Maryland's Piscataway and
Nanticoke peoples to revive their native heritage. While traditional lifeways have long been lost
to time, the pride in a culture's history remains. At the start of a new millennium, a flame once
thought dead in Maryland still flickers.