Before and After 1607, The Chesapeake Bay Region and Its People: A Guide to Better Understanding


On morning of the 6th of December, I drove down Route-32 to the Chesapeake Bay NPS’s office in Annapolis for a talk by Deanna Beacham, the American Indian Program Manager for the Chesapeake Conservancy, and the mind behind the National Park Service’s Indigenous Cultural Landscape project. Upon entering the room, I was greeted by Carolyn Black, the Chesapeake Conservation Corps intern with the National Park Service at the Captain John Smith Historical Trail. I could tell that her and Deanna had an amiable relationship, evidenced by their jovial banter and the fact that Deanna allowed Carolyn to stay at her house the previous night, as opposed to Carolyn driving back and forth from Northern Virginia for the meeting. Before the meeting began, Deanna passed around some literature that she had prepared for us, of which I will be extensively using as my source material for the latter half of this blog. She also created an annotated bibliography, which I will replicate at the bottom of the page.

Deanna wanted to have the meeting be engaging as opposed to a stuffy lecture, so she asked if any of us had questions about American Indian history in the Chesapeake Bay. As others asked questions, I thought about my own. For Patapsco Heritage Greenway’s History Days week in early November, I had planned to write a blog on the pre-colonial populations of the Patapsco River area. Unfortunately, the more I searched for source material, the more I struggled to write the blog. I knew that Algonquian-speaking tribes lived in the area, but those groups communicated with an oral language, so their histories and specific details about their ways of life were never written down, only spoken to one another.

My search for source material on the societies of oral-language speakers of the Patapsco reminded me of the scholarly rigor of hadith, or the collection of sayings attributed to Muhammad. His entire life was documented, and hundreds of years of isnad, or a chain of authentication similar to the apostolic succession in Christianity, are archived and interpreted for validity using “the knowledge of the principles by which the condition of the narrator and the narrated are determined.” (Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani) As the Qur’an is considered to Muslims their absolute primary source material for religious, social, and political guidance, of which countless calligraphic renditions have been made and many hafiz have memorized the scripture’s entirety, no such comparable cultural literature exists from the societies of American Indians inhabiting the Chesapeake Bay.

While we have surviving stories from some tribes, including the Iroquois creation myth of Turtle Island, or North America as we currently know it, we cannot observe how the stories and cultures developed throughout time without a discernable chronology. As an example, we know that the Ghost Dance movement of the late 19th century that was assimilated by many tribes in the Great Plains, most notably the Lakota Sioux and the Wounded Knee Massacre, was in response to subjugation by the colonists, based off of the archetypal circle dance that exists in countless cultures around the world, but only because it happened in a time period where documentation was standard practice. We even know the exact person who started the movement in 1869-1870, Tävibo, and the man who rekindled the movement. Wovoka, renamed Jack Wilson, was a Northern Paiute religious leader who learned Christian theology while living with David and Abigail Wilson, the latter of whom named him Jack for dealing with European Americans.

As I told Deanna of my efforts and asked if she knew anything about what life was like in the river valley before colonization, Deanna nodded with comprehension and then mentioned that it is difficult to determine who lived in the Patapsco River area without primary sources. The historical records that we have for the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries fall into two categories: writings by European visitors and prospective colonists (English, Spanish, Dutch, etc.), who wrote about the other cultures through their own points of view, and the material records unearthed by archaeologists. Because of the differences in syntax, word meanings, and spellings between modern English and the English of the time, as well as the need for interpretation by archaeologists to make sense of their findings, the documented histories do not tell the whole story of life in the Chesapeake Bay.

Because of a lack of reliable primary sources on the various towns, tribes, and cultures of the Chesapeake Bay before 1607, we rely more heavily on secondary source materials. Due to wide variations in academic vigor, cultural perspectives and sensitivity, and scholarly interpretations, there is very little that everyone agrees on about the early events of Jamestown, the Native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay, or Captain John Smith’s explorations of the Chesapeake. Despite an array of opinions obfuscating potential truths, if we are willing to allow differing voices to tell the stories, then we are far more likely to hear some versions of the truth.

Akin to the fact that an individual does not exist in isolation, but within an environment filled diverse forms of life, culture and history do not exist in a vacuum. Cultures are humanity’s divergent evolution from the biological processes that birthed us and the ecological processes that sustain us, and histories are the timeline of various cultures’ evolutions. When we are born, we are not only the product of a zygote, but of gametes fused within a spacious, living world rich in the languages that relate us to the stories, ideas, and feelings of others. Therefore, confirming multiple biases can help shed light on the shadows that others create.

As we attempt to draw the map of life around the Chesapeake Bay before 1607, we have to heavily rely on Captain John Smith and the other English. They did not locate or map all the towns that were present in 1607, so our list only includes primarily those who Smith and the others did document. Without written Algonquian histories, and without access to the oral histories passed down through generations, we only know that these tribes did exist in 1607, but not how the various groups formed. There is archaeological evidence that humans populated North America as late as 11,000 BCE, but beyond the arrowheads, tools, pottery, and patterns in the soil left from houses, fire pits, trash pits, wells, and burial sites, we cannot extrapolate much about cultural values or social structures without an available written or oral record.

However, as Captain John Smith and the others travelled through the Chesapeake Bay watershed, they made contact with numerous Algonquian-speaking tribes, some of whom that were affiliated with Powhatan through paid tributes and “political marriages” that produced offspring of Powhatan’s and the mother’s communities. We cannot assume that Captain John Smith was met with absolute hostility or friendliness by the various native peoples, as some may have considered the Europeans as nuisances, while others may have thought of them as useful for trading or for protection from other tribes. Some individuals within the tribes likely had differing views from their leaders. After all, as a species, humans can be fickle and subject to ardent conclusions. The Paspahegh, who occupied the land where Jamestown was founded, must have been puzzled as well as angered when a new group began setting up homes on a swampy, unhealthy piece of land on the north side of the James River. But, as the English population dwindled from 104 to 38 between June 1607 and the end of the winter, those that survived lived primarily because the Natives fed them. English records indicate that the Natives throughout the bay were generally hospitable at first, but as the new settlers took food without fair trade, or traded with some groups while ignoring others, some leaders had likely changed their minds about engaging with the English. Word spread of Captain John Smith and the sailors to groups within the area before the sailors themselves made contact. For many of the Chesapeake Bay Natives, their first encounters with these strangers occurred in the summer of 1608. It was then that those tribes had to make decisions about how to interact with the would-be colonizers.

Along the James River were the Chesapeake, Nansemond, Kecoughtan, Warraskoyack, Quiyoughcohannock, Paspahegh, Weyanoke, Appomattock, Arrohateck, Powhatan, Chicahominy, and the Monacan, who were the Siouan-speaking people of the piedmont west of the fall line and culturally affiliated with the Mannahoac. The York River was home to the Kiskiack, Werowocomoco, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Youghtanund, and Piankatank. On the Rappahannock River were the Cuttawomen, Opiscopank, Moraughtacund, Rappahannock, Pissaseck, Nandtaughtacund, and another Cuttawomen. Along the south shore of the Potomac River were the Wighcocomoco, Cekakawon, Onawmanient, Patawomeck, and Tauxenent. The northern shore was the Yaocomaco, Cecomocomoco, Choptico, Portobago, Nanjemoy, Mattawoman, Pamacocack, Moyaone (Piscataway), and Nacotchtank. On the Eastern Shore of the bay, tribes included the Accomac, Accohannock, Wighcocomoco, Choptank, and the Nanticoke, known as the Kushkarawaok to Captain John Smith. At the headwaters of the bay lived the Lenape, Ozinies, Tockwagh, all of whom spoke a different Algonquian language, and the Susquehannock, who were likely Iroquoian speakers. Somewhere to the northwest dwelled the Massawomeck.

The world of the Native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay changed dramatically in the centuries after 1607, but they did not entirely disappear. Today, the NPS Chesapeake office partners with 15 descendant American Indian communities. Those communities include the Lenape Indians of Delaware, the Nanticoke Tribe, the Accohannock Tribe, the Nause Waiwash, the Pocomoke Tribe, the Piscataway Indian Nation, the Conoy Piscataway Tribe of Maryland, the Monacan Indian Nation, the Rappahannock Indian Tribe, the Upper Mattaponi Chickahominy Indians Eastern Division, and the Nansemond Tribe.

While the various tribes would prefer to be called by their tribal names, with the singular form being ideal, such as Piscataway as opposed to Piscataways, there is a style guide created by the National Park Service that details, among other general terms and phrases, whether “American Indian” or “Native American” is preferred among various communities. Some prefer American Indian because it exemplifies European ignorance, as the explorers had no knowledge of geography beyond the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and thought that they had reached the shores of India. Those in the Chesapeake Bay area are accustomed to American Indian because the term “Indian” has been in common use on the East Coast since John Smith. Some dislike “Native American” because it casts populations as a hyphenated minority. As American Indians are the indigenous peoples of this land, whose ancestors came to the Western Hemisphere a few millennia ago, they preferred to be considered as the original sovereign peoples, not another American minority. But, as we are all individuals with differing opinions, the “one size fits all” rule does not apply. When in doubt, it is best to ask. The one universal guideline is that respect and sensitivity are always appreciated.




Suggested Readings on Chesapeake Bay Indians
(compiled and annotated by Deanna Beacham)
(*) Recommended for beginners

Classic secondary sources are sometimes outdated and Eurocentric. They may present speculation as fact without distinguishing between the two. They may be good starting material but should not be used for interpretive content without additional review.

All of these readings are secondary sources unless labeled as primary sources. Consult primary sources to read what early English authors said about Chesapeake Bay Indians.

Blanton, Dennis B. and Julie A. King, editors
2004 Indian and European Contact in Context: The Mid-Atlantic Region
University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Beverley, Robert

1947 The History and Present State of Virginia, edited by Louis B. Wright
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. (primary source material)

* Egloff, Keith and Woodward, Deborah
2006 First People: The Early Indians of Virginia, Second Edition
University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London.

* Feest, Christian F.
1990 The Powhatan Indians, in Indians of North America, Frank W. Porter, III, editor.
Chelsea House Publishers, New York & Philadelphia. (classic secondary source)

* Gleach, Frederick W.
1997 Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Haile, Edward W.
1996 England in America: The Chesapeake Bay from Jamestown to St. Mary’s
City, 1607-1634. Towns from Smith and Zuniga maps on modern base map.
Dietz Press, Richmond, Virginia. (primary source material, comments are classic secondary)

1998 Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The
First Decade 1607-1617. RoundHouse, Champlain, Virginia. (primary source material;
Haile’s commects are non-academic classic secondary)

Hall, Clayton Colman
1910 Narratives of Early Maryland, 1633-1684. Open Source, printed by
BiblioBazaar Reproduction Series. (primary source material)

Hantman, Jeffrey L. and Dunham, Gary
1993 The Enlightened Archaeologist. Archaeology, May/June.

Harriot, Thomas
1972 A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia: The complete
1590 Theodor de Bry edition. Dover Publications, Inc., New York. (primary source material)

Houck, Peter W., M.D.
1984 Indian Island in Amherst County. Lynchburg Historical Research Co., Progress
Publishing Co., Inc.

Kupperman, Karen O.
2000 Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Cornell University Press,
Ithaca, New York. (classic secondary source)

Potter, Stephen R.
1993 Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. (classic secondary source)

Rice, James D.
2007 Nature & History in the Potomac Country. Johns Hopkins University Press,
Baltimore. (classic secondary source regarding Virginia Indians)

Rountree, Helen C.
1989 The Powhatan Indians of Virginia. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
(classic secondary source, particularly useful for natural history material)

1990 Pocahontas’ People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries.
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. (classic secondary source)

1993 Powhatan Foreign Relations, 1500-1722. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.
(classic secondary source)

Rountree, Helen C. and Davidson, Thomas E.
1997 Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland. University Press of Virginia,
Charlottesville. (classic secondary source)

* Townsend, Camilla
2004 Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. Hill and Wang, New York.
(highly recommended by Virginia Indians and scholars)

* Wood, Karenne (editor)
2007 The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Charlottesville.

* Wood, Karenne and Shields, Diane
2000 The Monacan Indians: Our Story. Monacan Nation, Madison Heights.

Wood, Peter H., et al., editors
2006 Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians of the Colonial Southeast, Second Edition.
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.