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Piscataway Exhibit

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

We want to thank Mario Harley, Wild Turkey Clan, Piscataway Indian Tribe for his powerful description below used in our newest exhibit at Historic London Town:

Native People of Anne Arundel County at the time of European Settlement

The placement of Piscataway villages formed a distinctive landscape that embodied our vision of the proper relationships among humans, land, waters, and animals. Our preferred village locations were along the banks of major creeks that created calm waters and security.

These sites provided flat land for farming, clay soil for pottery, marshes for edible plants, and forests for nut-bearing trees, building material, firewood and medicines. Many places throughout our homeland had some of these features, but where they all came together, one of our villages was located.

Our Piscataway homeland is embraced by a multitude of waterways. The Chesapeake Bay and the rivers, marshes, creeks, and streams connecting these waterways served as an abundant source of food. Our Mataponi ancestors living along the Patuxent River established seasonal encampments along brackish waterways such as the South, West, and Rhode Rivers to harvest their bounty. Using the various feeder streams, they would canoe from the Patuxent watershed, cross a short land trail, and then paddle into these watersheds.

These waterways provided an abundant source of fish to be harvested, preserved, and transported back to the villages to sustain their community through the winter. While at these fishing camps, our ancestors would gather oysters and crabs for the fishermen to eat upon their return. Evidence of this can be seen archaeologically at the many oyster shell middens. In addition to providing a food resource, the shells of oysters were used in the construction of pots.

A Brief Description of the History and

Traditional Lands of the Piscataway

Our historical Piscataway territory is defined as the lands on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay from the Patapsco River watershed in the north, to the Potomac River watershed in the south, and extending west along the Potomac River watershed to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though our historical tribal territory was extensive, our core village locations were along the tidal rivers and creeks where the climate is milder and the growing season for crops is longer.

At the time of European contact, our people consisted of sixteen tribes including the Choptico, Mataponi, Nacocthtians, Patapsco, Patuxent, and Yacocomico. Throughout the early colonial period, there was much confusion among European settlers about our tribal identities. We identified ourselves by the properties of the landscape in which we were residing at a point in time. Thus, every time we executed our cyclical village migration, approximately seven years, we would self-identify based upon our new landscape, thus using a new name.

Within the confines of the Maryland Colony our ancestors were known as Piscataway. However, Conoy was another name that our people were called by our northern neighbors. This name is synonymous with Piscataway. The Conoy name was later used in historical times to identify a subset of our ancestors, who departed our homelands in the early 1700s. We call ourselves Piscataway Conoy to connect our ancient history in our historical territory with those of our ancestors who emigrated north and west to avoid the European invasion.

Interactions between the Piscataway and

Europeans through the Colonial Period

Our ancestors had an amicable relationship with the English upon their 1634 arrival into our homelands. They anticipated a mutually beneficial relationship with a new trade network. The first decade was a period in which both cultures benefited from each other’s knowledge. Our ancestors taught the colonists what crops to plant and when, as well as techniques for harvesting fish and shellfish, hunting, and trapping for furs. In exchange for our knowledge, Europeans traded clothing, wool blankets, metal cooking pots, steel axes, and other goods.

By the 1650’s our people began to be displaced by European encroachment. The colonial government established reservations under the guise of providing us “protection.” Our independence, cultural norms, and freedoms came under attack by the colonists. Their aggression manifested itself in many ways: attempts to impose English law upon our ancestors; enforcing European customs of land ownership; and importing European diseases that our ancestors had no natural resistance to.

The decline of the fur trade for the Maryland Colony led to a new economy based on tobacco. Our ancestors grew small amounts of tobacco which they used in ceremonies, smoked to offer prayers to the spiritual world, or used as gifts. The colonists grew large quantities of a hybrid form of tobacco for sale in wide-ranging markets.

In the late 1600’s, Virginia royalists replaced the Calvert government and our relationship with the Maryland colony deteriorated. The dispossession of our ancestors’ historical waterfront villages became the focus of the colonial government.

The Piscataway after the Revolutionary War

The new settler plantations on our land did not erase our ancestors from the landscape. They were contracted by these plantations to provide fish, wild game, and other foods. To supplement payment, our ancestors could continue living on these sites. Thus, the traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering skills of our ancestors proved vital in supporting the tobacco-based colonial economy.

This relationship lasted until the end of the American Revolution. After the war, land owned by British loyalists was seized by the new State of Maryland, subdivided and sold in revenge for supporting the British. Unfortunately, the lands our ancestors occupied were also sold off.

Our ancestors left these properties and self-isolated into remote locations in Southern Maryland where they quietly blended into Catholic parishes. There, some became tenant farmers, some worked for fisheries, and others farmed in close-knit family communities, which dotted the landscape from Prince George’s County into St. Mary’s County. This pattern of keeping a low profile continued until the 1960’s Civil Rights movement which directly led to the American Indian Movement (AIM).

AIM was an intertribal movement of indigenous peoples across the country. Its focus was to reinvigorate native culture, advocate for the honoring of treaties, increase native self-esteem, and promote tribal self-governance. During this period, our Piscataway elders came together and openly became visible once again within our homeland. Our youth were encouraged to publicly share our arts, dances, music, history and culture.

Mario Harley

Wild Turkey Clan, Piscataway Indian Tribe