Published on October 21, 2010 by John
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Prayers handwritten in Piscataway language,
Latin, and English by Andrew White, SJ, ca. 1634—1640.
Lauinger Library, University of Georgetown
The Piscataway are a Native American tribe of Maryland. At one time, they were one of the most populous and powerful Native polities of the Chesapeake Bay region. They spoke Algonquian Piscataway, a dialect of Nanticoke. By the early seventeenth century, the Piscataway were led by a paramount chief and had come to exercise hegemony over other Native American groups on the north bank of the Potomac River.
Piscataway fortunes declined as the English Maryland colony grew and prospered. They were adversely affected by epidemics of infectious disease, and intertribal and colonial warfare. Most of the surviving tribe migrated north in the late eighteenth century and were last noted in the historical record in 1793 at Detroit.
Much reduced, remnant descendants in Maryland tended to merge with other tribes or assimilate to the culture, marrying both white and black neighbors. In the binary racial society that developed from late nineteenth-century legal segregation, Native American ancestry was subordinated to white and black classifications.
Since the mid-20th century, the Piscataway people have undergone a revival. Since 1978, three groups have arisen out of an earlier non-profit Piscataway organization and sought recognition as tribes: the Piscataway Indian Nation, the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes of Maryland, and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians. There has been tension in the independent claims of Piscataway identity. They are all located in Southern Maryland. None has state or federal recognition; Maryland does not recognize any American Indian tribes.
The Piscataway independently inhabit part of their traditional homelands on the Western Shore of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay in the areas of Charles County, Prince George’s County, and St. Mary’s County, located near two metropolitan areas, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. None of the tribes has a reservation.
Some archaeologists contend that the indigenous ancestors of the Piscataway came to the Potomac River region roughly 10,000 years ago. They believe the peoples coalesced into the Piscataway nation, comprising numerous settlements, sometime in the 14th or 15th century CE. After excavating ancient sites, archaeologists have posited that sometime around 800 CE, peoples living along the Potomac had begun to cultivate maize as a supplement to their ordinary hunting-gathering diet of fish, game, and wild plants.
Some historians have connected the Piscataway’s later name of Conoy with the historical Kanawha Indians of present-day West Virginia. Other evidence suggests that the Piscataway migrated from the Eastern Shore, or from the upper Potomac, or from sources hundreds of miles to the north. It is fairly certain, however, that by the 16th century, the Piscataway were a distinct polity with a distinct society and culture, who lived year-round in permanent villages.
The onset of a centuries-long “Little Ice Age” after 1300 had driven Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples from upland and northern communities southward to the warmer climate of the Potomac basin. There growing seasons were still long enough to grow maize. The increasing conflict over territory was enormously destructive to Native Americans.
By 1400, the Piscataway and their Algonquian tribal neighbors had become increasingly numerous because of their sophisticated agriculture, which provided calorie-rich maize, beans and squash. These crops added surplus to their hunting-gathering subsistence economy and supported greater populations. The women cultivated and processed varieties of maize and other plants, breeding them for taste and other characteristics. The Piscataway and other related peoples were able to feed their growing communities. They also continued to gather wild plants from nearby freshwater marshes. The men cleared new fields, hunted, and fished.
By 1600, incursions from Iroquoian peoples from the north had almost entirely destroyed many of the Piscataway and other Algonquian settlements above present-day Great Falls, Virginia. Their villages below the fall line survived by banding together. They gradually consolidated authority under hereditary chiefs who exacted tribute, sent men to war, and coordinated the resistance against northern incursions and rival claimants to the lands. A hierarchy of places and rulers emerged: hamlets without hereditary rulers paid tribute to a nearby village. Its chief, or “werowance”, appointed a “lesser king” to each dependent settlement. Changes in social structure occurred and religious development exalted the hierarchy. By the end of the 16th century, each werowance on the north bank of the Potomac was subject to the paramount chief: the ruler of the Piscataway known as the Tayac.
English explorer Captain John Smith first visited the upper Potomac River in 1608, and referred to the Piscataway by the name Moyaons, after their “king’s house”, i.e., capital village or Tayac’s residence, also spelled Moyaone. Closely associated with them were the Nacotchtank people (Anacostans) who lived around present-day Washington, DC, and the Taux (Doeg) on the Virginia side of the river. Rivals and reluctant subjects of the Tayac hoped that the newcomers would alter the balance of power in the region.
In search of trading partners, the Virginia Company, and later, Virginia Colony, consistently allied with Piscataway enemies. Their entry into the dynamics began to shift regional power. By the early 1630s, the Tayac’s hold over some of his subordinate werowances had weakened considerably.
But when the English began to colonize what is now Maryland in 1634, the Tayac Kittamaquund managed to turn the newcomers into allies. He had come to power that year after killing his brother Wannas, the former Tayac.He granted the English a former Indian settlement, which they re-named St. Mary’s City after their own monarch. The Tayac intended the new colonial outpost to serve as a buffer against Iroquoian Susquehannock incursions from the north. Kittamaquund and his wife converted to Christianity in 1640 by their friendship with Father White, a Jesuit, who also performed their marriage. Their only daughter Mary Kittamaquund became a ward of colonist Margaret Brent, who became influential in St. Mary’s City and saw to her education, including learning English.
At a very young age, Mary Kittamaquund married much older English colonist Giles Brent, one of Margaret’s brothers. He made various attempts at claiming Piscataway territory, but they then moved across the Potomac to live at Aquia Creek in present-day Stafford County, Virginia. A recently approved historical highway marker there memorializes Mary Kittamaquund and notes her marriage to Brent. They were said to have had three or four children together. Mary died young, at about age 22, as Brent married again in 1654.
Benefits to having the English as allies and buffers were short-lived. The Maryland Colony was initially too weak to pose a significant threat. Once the English began to develop a stronger colony, they turned against the Piscataway. By 1668 western shore Algonquians were confined to two reservations: one on the Wicomico River; the other, on a portion of the Piscataway homeland. Refugees from dispossessed Algonquian nations merged with the Piscataway.
Colonial authorities forced the Piscataway to permit the Susquehannock, an Iroquoian-speaking people, to settle in their territory after having been defeated in 1675 by the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee). The traditional enemies eventually came to open conflict. With the tribes at war, the Maryland Colony expelled the Susquehannock, after they had been attacked by the Piscataway. The Susquehannock suffered devastating defeat.
Making their way northward, the surviving Susquehannock joined forces with their former enemy, the Haudenosaunee, the five-nation Iroquois Confederacy. Together, the Iroquoian tribes returned repeatedly to attack the Piscataway. The English provided little help to their Piscataway allies. Rather than raise militia to aid them, the Maryland Colony continued to compete for control of Piscataway land.
In 1697, the Piscataways relocated across the Potomac and camped near what is now Plains, Virginia in Fauguier County. Virginia settlers were alarmed and tried to persuade the Piscataway to return to Maryland, though they refused. Finally in 1699, the Piscataway moved north to what is now called Conoy Island in the Potomac near Point of Rocks, Maryland. They remained there until after 1722.
In the 18th century, some Piscataway, as well as other Algonquian groups migrating away from English settlements, relocated north of the Susquehannah River. They were then said to number only about 150 people. Known then as the “Conoy”, they sought the protection of the powerful Haudenosaunee, but the Pennsylvania Colony also proved unsafe. Some Conoy resumed to migrate north, resettling in New France. In 1793 a conference in Detroit reported they had settled in Upper Canada. Today, descendants of the northern migrants live on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation reserve in Ontario, Canada.
Some Piscataway may have moved south toward the Virginia Colony. They were believed to merge with the Meherrin.
Numerous contemporary historians and archaeologists, including William H. Gilbert, Frank G. Speck, Helen Rountree, Lucille St. Hoyme, Paul Cissna, T. Dale Stewart, Christopher Goodwin, Christian Feest, James Rice, and Gabrielle Tayac, have documented that a small group of Piscataway families continued to live in their homeland. Although the larger tribe was destroyed as an independent, sovereign polity, descendants of the Piscataway survived. They formed unions with others in the area, including European indentured servants and free or enslaved Africans. They settled into rural farm life and were classified as free people of color, but some kept their own traditions. For years the censuses did not have separate categories for Indians.
In the late 19th century, archaeologists, journalists, and anthropologists interviewed numerous residents in Maryland who claimed descent from tribes associated with the former Piscataway chiefdom. Uniquely among most institutions, the Catholic Church consistently continued to identify Indian families by that classification in their records. Such church records became valuable resources for scholars and family and tribal researchers. Anthropologists and sociologists categorized the self-identified Indians as a tri-racial community. They were commonly called “Wesorts.”
In the late 1990s, after conducting an exhaustive review of primary sources, a Maryland-state appointed committee, including a genealogist from the Maryland State Archives, validated the claims of core Piscataway families to Piscataway heritage. A fresh approach to understanding individual and family choices and self-identification among African-American and American Indian cultures is underway at several research universities. Unlike during the years of segregation that classified all people of any African descent as black, new studies emphasize the historical context and evolution of seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century cultures and racial categories.
The Maryland Colony dissolved the Indian reservations in the 18th century. In the 19th century, census enumerators classified most of the Piscataway individuals as “free people of color”, “Free Negro” or “mulatto” on state and federal census records, in part because of their intermarriage with blacks and Europeans. The dramatic drop in Native American populations due to infectious disease and warfare, plus a racial segregation based on slavery, led to a binary view of race in the former colony. By contrast, Catholic parish records in Maryland and some ethnographic reports accepted Piscataway self-identification as Indians, regardless of mixed heritage. Such a binary division of society increased after the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. Southern whites struggled to regain dominance of their societies during and after the Reconstruction era. They were intent on controlling the freedmen.
Although a few families identified as Piscataway by the early 20th century, prevailing racial attitudes during the 18th and 19th centuries, and Jim Crow policies of the 20th century, over-determined minority ethnic identification as black. In the 20th century, Virginia and other southern states enforced the “one-drop rule”, classifying anyone with a discernible amount of African ancestry as “negro”, “mulatto”, or “black”. The authorities dismissed other ancestry or identification. In addition, Southern states at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th passed legislation that made voter registration and voting more difficult, effectively disenfranchising blacks and minorities, and poor whites for decades. This lasted until the 1960s civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
20th century to present
Phillip Sheridan Proctor, later known as Turkey Tayac, was born in 1895. Proctor revived the use of the title “tayac”, a hereditary office which he claimed had been handed down to him. Turkey Tayac was instrumental in the revival of American Indian culture among Piscataway and other Indian descendants throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. He was allied with the American Indian Movement Project for revitalization.
Chief Turkey Tayac was a prominent figure in the early and mid-twentieth century cultural revitalization movements. His leadership inspired tribes other than the Piscataway. Revival also occurred among other Southeastern American Indian communities. These include the Lumbee, Nanticoke, and Powhatan of the Atlantic coastal plain. Assuming the traditional leadership title “tayac” during an era when American Indians were being regulated by blood quantum outlined in the Indian Reorganization Act, Chief Turkey Tayac organized a movement for American Indian peoples that gave priority to self-identification.
Today, the Piscataway Indian Nation is an sovereign, indigenous presence in their own Chesapeake homeland. The Piscataway Indian tribal nation is enjoying a renaissance.
“There are still Indian people in southern Maryland, living without a reservation in the vicinity of US 301 between La Plata and Brandywine. They are formally organized into several groups, all bearing the Piscataway name.”
After Chief Turkey Tayac died in 1978, the Piscataway split into the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes (PCCS), the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, and the Piscataway Indian Nation. These three organizations have disagreed over seeking state and federal recognition, developing casinos on their land if recognition were gained, and over which groups were legitimately Piscataway.
Three organized Piscataway groups exist:
Piscataway Indian Nation headed by Billy Redwing Tayac, a leader in the movement for Indigenous and Human Rights, and the son of the late Chief Turkey Tayac.
Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes, led by Mrs. Mervin Savoy.
Cedarville Band of Piscataways, led by Natalie Proctor.
None of these groups has state or federal recognition. In the 1990s, the State of Maryland appointed a panel of anthropologists, genealogists, and historians to review primary sources related to Piscataway genealogy. The panel concluded that some contemporary self-identified Piscataway descended from the historic Piscataway.
In 1996 the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA) suggested granting state recognition to the Picataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes. Critics were concerned about some of the development interests backing the Piscataway Conoy campaign, and feared gaming interests. (Many tribes had established casinos and gaming entertainment on their reservations to raise revenues.) Gov. Parris Glendening, who was opposed to gambling, denied the tribe’s request.
In 2004, Gov. Bob Erlich also denied the Piscataway Conoy’s renewed attempt for state recognition, stating that they failed to prove that they were descendants of the historical Piscataway Indians, as required by state law. Throughout this effort, the Piscataway Conoy have stated they have no intent to build and operate casinos.