The Search for Wighkawamecq: the 2019 Tyler Bastian Field Session in Maryland Archeology

By Matthew D. McKnight, Chief Archeologist

As Maryland Archeology Month draws to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to invite you, the reader, to attend our Annual Field Session in Maryland Archeology which will be held jointly with the Archeological Society of Maryland (ASM) from Friday, May 24th until Monday, June 3rd.

Every year, dozens of volunteers from around the state converge on a site selected for its research potential and importance to the history or prehistory of the state. They will make significant contributions to a citizen science project and obtain training in archeological excavation methods. If you’ve ever had an interest in archeology, you should consider joining us. Your participation can range from as little as a few hours of work, to the entire 11-day field session.

Billingsley Point and vicinity as depicted on Augustine Herrman’s 1670 Map of the Chesapeake (published in 1673).

This year’s excavations will be held at Billingsley House near Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County. Owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Billingsley is operated as a historic house museum by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), who have graciously agreed to host and to assist with the excavations and project logistics this year.

Though the house museum dates later (to the 18th century), the site is the core of a 700 acre tract that was patented to Major John Billingsley in 1662, “…for transportation of 14 servants in the year 1650”. Though it’s pretty clear from the archival record that Major Billingsley never actually lived on the property, a European-built structure is depicted on the parcel on a map of the Chesapeake published by Augustine Herrman in 1673 (and drafted much earlier). Whether or not this structure depicts an actual dwelling or is merely intended to symbolize surveyed and patented land is still an open question. What is not in question, is that the tract was inhabited.

MHT Office of Archeology magnetic susceptibility survey results from October 2018.

The Herrman map marks the presence of not one, but two 17th-century Indian villages on the Billingsley parcel: one named “Wighkawamecq” and the other, “Coppahan”. In addition, the Proceedings of the Maryland Assembly on May 23rd, 1674 make it clear that Billingsley purchased his 700 acres from the “Mattapany and Patuxon Indians”, at least some of whom, “…doe Continue upon the Land”. This statement, as well as Herrman’s map, strongly suggest that two indigenous groups were living on this land in the mid 17th century.

The 18th Century “Hollyday House” at Billinsgsley Point.

In the fall of 2018 and again in late winter 2019, MHT Office of Archeology staff carried out a magnetic susceptibility survey on some of the agricultural fields at the Billingsley property. It was known at the time that a number of 20th century artifact collectors had been active on the site, but MHT did not have a good handle on precisely where this collecting had taken place. It was thought that magnetic susceptibility testing might be able to “zero in” on the locations where archeological deposits had been identified in the past. The magnetic susceptibility of surface soils can be influenced by past human activity such as burning, digging, the introduction of organic matter, and the introduction of foreign stone or other raw materials. Prehistoric artifacts had been recovered from the site, and hearths from ancient cooking fires would be expected to influence the magnetizability of the soils on-site.

MHT Archeology staff excavating a single test unit at Billingsley to examine site stratigraphy.

I’m happy to report that the technique worked amazingly well! Ultimately, after three days in the field, MHT identified a roughly 1.3 acre anomaly of culturally modified soils at Billingsley. Furthermore, the location of this anomaly matches almost perfectly the location of the “W” in “Wighkawameck” on the 17th-century Augustine Herrman map. It isn’t surprising that historically documented tribes such as the Mattapany and Patuxent would find a location appealing for establishment of their village in the late 17th century, precisely where their ancestors had lived during prehistoric times. It’s a pattern that has been observed throughout the state…that certain locations persist in the memories of Native Peoples. Sometimes for millennia.

MHT Archeology staff excavating a single test unit at Billingsley to examine site stratigraphy

“X” rarely marks the spot in archeology, but in this case, a “W” may. With your help, as well as that of the ASM and M-NCPPC, we hope to obtain archeological evidence for a 17th– century Native American presence at the Billingsley site in Prince George’s County. We have 11 days within which to do it. Please join us.

For more information about the Tyler Bastian Field Session in Maryland Archeology and to register to participate please visit the link below.

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.

Links for further reading: