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Interpretive Essays


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 aggregated villages.

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 period.

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 archeological record.

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 foreigners--Europeans--would arrive.

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 Piedmont region.

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, and others.

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 others.

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.

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