A guest post by Jefe:
For at least 11,000 years, people have inhabited the Chesapeake Bay Region along the Atlantic coast of North America, now the part of the US known as Washington, DC and the states of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
In about 200 CE, an abrupt change in tools and pottery occurred, just before proto-Algonquians began to migrate to the region from further north up the coast.
By 1600, just before the English arrived, over 50,000 people lived in the region. They are categorized into three linguistic groups: Algonquian, Iroquoian and Siouxan:
Three Algonquian chiefdoms dominated the region:
- The Tsenacomoco (Powhatan) Confederacy. By far the largest and most powerful, they comprised over 30 tribes who lived in eastern Virginia between the Potomac and James Rivers. Of the 11 tribes recognized by the state goverrnment of Virginia, eight derive from this confederacy:
- Eastern Chickahominy
- Upper Mattaponi
Of these, only one was recognized by the US government as of July 2015: the Pamunkey, the tribe of Pocohantas (that recognition is currently on hold in November 2015). Only two have retained reservation land since the 1600s: the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi
- The Piscataway Chiefdom. On the northern banks of the Potomac (present-day DC and Maryland), their largest town, Moyaone, was founded near the mouth of Piscataway Creek (Accokeek, Prince George’s County). Two groups of descendants are recognized by the State of Maryland.
- The Nanticoke Chiefdom. Concentrated along the Nanticoke River in the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, they are currently recognized by the State of Delaware.
Both the Piscataway and the Nanticoke formed trade and military alliances with the Powhatan and kept friendly relations with the related Lenape further north, but regarded the non-Algonquian tribes as enemies or “despised other”.
Iroquoian groups (known by their Algonquian ethnonyms) included
- Susquehannock in the Susquehanna River valleys of Maryland, Pennsylvania and upstate New York (beyond them lived the Iroquois themselves); and
- Massawomeck, from the upper reaches of the Potomac in West Virginia, western Maryland and Pennsylvania into Ohio; affiliated with the Erie,
Both made frequent incursions into the Chesapeake region, traveling in birch bark canoes, lighter and swifter than Algonquian dugout canoes. The Susquehannock began making settlements from the mouth of the Susquehanna south along the Chesapeake Bay, splitting the Piscataway apart from the Lenape.
Anthropologists believe that shortened growing seasons during the “Little Ice Age” (1300s-1600s) caused recurrent crop failures, drawing Iroquoians south to invade the Chesapeake region, which enjoyed a longer, more reliable growing season, as well as bountiful seafood.
Virginia recognizes the Iroquoian tribes of the Cheroenhaka and Nottoway.
Siouxan tribes dominated western Virginia, upriver from the Powhatan. They included the state-recognized Monacan on the upper James River and the extinct Manahoac on the upper Rappahannock. They spoke languages related to the Sioux of the Great Plains.
In 1608, John Smith, an English sea captain, explored the Chesapeake and its tributaries, giving accounts of these tribes.
By the 1650s, the English had pushed north into the land of the Doeg (Tauxenent), Pattawomeck and Rappahannock and declared war on them in 1666. The Susquehannock were drawn into the war, leading to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The surviving Doeg were later absorbed into the Piscataway.
- Welcome to Native American Heritage Month 2015
- National Museum of the American Indian – has an exhibit on the history of the people of the Chesapeake Bay region
- American Indians – Legal Recognition
- Prince George’s County
- Bacon’s Rebellion
- Notes towards a Native American history of George Washington – Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is located on territory originally occupied by the Doeg, and lies directly across the Potomac from the Piscataway town of Moyaone.
- related native peoples
- Powhatan Museum
- We Have a Story to Tell: Native Peoples of the Chesapeake – from the National Museum of the American Indian