Heater’s Island and the Piscataway Indians

by Dennis C. Curry,  Chief Archeologist, Maryland Historical Trust

Vandercastle and Harrison meet the Piscataway in 1699 (painting by William Woodward).

Vandercastle and Harrison meet the Piscataway in 1699 (painting by William Woodward).

In 1608, Captain John Smith mapped the Indian village of Moyaons near the confluence of the Potomac River with Piscataway Creek.  Smith did not describe the people of this village in his journal, but twenty-five years later Governor Leonard Calvert met with this Indian nation—the Piscataway.  When Calvert met the Piscataway, their village had moved from Moyaons to the head of Piscataway Creek.  Over the years, their principal village would move to Zekiah Swamp (1680) and then to the foothills of Virginia (1697).  In 1699, the Piscataway returned to the Maryland side of the Potomac, settling on what is now known as Heater’s Island.

Thanks to colonial documents preserved in modern archives, we have a surprisingly good picture of the Piscataway Fort on Heater’s Island.  In April of 1699, two emissaries of the Virginia governor—Giles Vandercastle and Burr Harrison—journeyed to the island where they observed a nearly completed fort (50-60 yards square) containing 18 cabins, with 9 cabins outside the fort.  Based on the Natives they observed, Vandercastle and Harrison estimated there to be 80 to 90 bowmen, which would indicate a total population on the island of around 300 people.  In December of 1704, the Maryland Council dispatched Col. James Smallwood and his men to the island seeking a nominee for the new “Emperor” so the Governor could approve that person as required by law.  Smallwood found the fort nearly abandoned, and learned that a smallpox epidemic had recently taken the lives of 57 men, women, and children (presumably including Emperor Ocotomaquath).  The Piscataway rebounded, however, and in 1712 the Swiss adventurer Baron Christoph von Graffenried encountered a vibrant population on the island, which he called “Canavest.”  Shortly after von Graffenried’s visit, the Piscataway left Heater’s Island to settle in Pennsylvania and later in New York.

Brass points, gunflints, glass beads, ceramics, and nails from Heater’s Island.

Brass points, gunflints, glass beads, ceramics, and nails from Heater’s Island.

Fast forward to the summer of 1970, when Heater’s Island – then privately owned, but now owned and managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources –  served as the focus of the University of Maryland–College Park’s first archeological field school.  From late June through August, several dozen students, under the overall supervision of Dr. Robert Schuyler and the general field direction of Ivor Gross, excavated 113 5- by 5-foot squares at the site of the 17th-century Piscataway fort.  Their excavations revealed a corner bastion of the fort structure (marked by a trapezoidal soil stain), a number of pit features containing evidence of what the Piscataway ate (mostly corn and deer), and an incredible collection of artifacts.  Unfortunately, a report on the excavations was never prepared.

In 2004, Dr. Schuyler (now at the University of Pennsylvania) transferred the collection and records to the Maryland Historical Trust and staff began analysis and report preparation.  Readily apparent in the artifact collection is the material culture shift that occurred among the Piscataway: European goods (glass beads, iron nails, glass bottles, and more) had clearly replaced Native-made items.  Stone arrowpoints are virtually absent, but triangular brass arrowpoints are plentiful.  The Piscataway also adopted another European weapon—the firearm.  The presence of guns on the site is marked by an abundance of gun parts, gunflints, and pieces of lead shot.  Similarly, Indian ceramics and Native tobacco pipes were largely replaced by those of European manufacture.  But this adoption of European goods seems to have resulted more from practicality than from assimilation.  Metal knives were sharper and more durable than chipped-stone versions, and wine bottle glass could be flaked into scrapers more quickly than quartz.  So while the Piscataway may have chosen more efficient European wares and materials, they did so while maintaining their Indian identity.  This is evident in their self-governance and in their dealings with the colonists.  The Piscataway strove to define their destiny.

Modern Piscataway in traditional garb.

Modern Piscataway in traditional garb.

When the Piscataway from Heater’s Island left Maryland around 1712, their documentary presence began to fade.  In Pennsylvania, this group of Piscataway settled, and eventually merged, with Nanticoke groups.  The Piscataway (or Conoy, as they were later known) appear as signatories on a handful of treaties as late as 1758.  The last official mention of the Conoy tribe is on correspondence they signed in 1793.  Yet this is not the entire story.  When the main group left Heater’s Island for Pennsylvania, there were other Piscataway Indians still living in southern Maryland.  These people may have been less visible, but they did exist.  Documentary evidence appears in several court cases: in a 1707 case (not resolved until 1712), Queen Nannsonan and a group from Choptico sought restitution for a plundered Indian grave; and in 1736 “George Williams, an Indian” petitioned the legislature for title to the land he had long occupied in Prince George’s County.  Certainly, many other Piscataway remained in southern Maryland but left no written record.  In the 1920s and 1930s, chief Turkey Tayac began a Piscataway resurgence that reached a crescendo in the 1970s.  Today, many in southern Maryland identify as Piscataway.  That Indian presence—300 years after the main group of Piscataway left Heater’s Island—led Governor Martin O’Malley in 2012 to grant state recognition to three Piscataway groups: the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, the Piscataway Indian Nation, and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway.

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