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Indian site survey: Telling a forgotten story

  • Charles County,St Mary's County,Calvert County
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“At our first comeing we found (as we are told) all in armes; the king of Piscataway had drawne together 500 bowmen, great fires were made by night over all the Country…”

Father Andrew White’s Brief Relation
Narratives of Early Maryland 1633-1684, Clayton Colman Hall

St. Mary's City, MD - In the beginning, a pristine land, a native people.

In 1634, initially tense encounters between Maryland’s indigenous residents and the English newcomers evolved into peaceful negotiations. Some things haven’t changed in 382 years.

Dr. Julia King, Department of Anthropology of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, along with her anthropology and history students, all met with Maryland Governor Larry H. Hogan and members of the Piscataway Indian Nation and Piscataway Conoy Tribe Saturday, Feb. 27 at St. Mary’s.

Underscored at the meeting was a recent grant from the National Park Service to document five Piscataway-related sites in Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties.

King said there are several sites they are particularly interested in.

One appears on Captain John Smith’s 1608 map of Virginia, an impressively detailed accounting of where native villages stood in the years preceding the founding of Maryland, called Cecomocomoco.

Another is Torp’s Landing, or Biscoe Gray in Calvert, along with Zekiah Swamp in Charles County.

Indian sites are not necessarily an anomaly in the historic record. Alice Ferguson did research on the Piscataways in the 1930s. Other features appeared more recently. In the early 1980s, a palisaded Indian site from the Woodland Period was unearthed in Lusby.

Other sites were revealed by modern construction, as in 2008 when a planning study for the Dunkirk Park and Ride in Calvert County uncovered two well-preserved and undisturbed Native American encampments dating between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 50.

Last summer at Lower Bromley in Chaptico, the work had nothing to do with construction projects.

King’s students dug 47 test pits plotted in cornfields revealing artifacts dating back 4,000 to 6,000 years. This year, they plan to sink 500 more over a 25 acre plowed field.

She said enough Woodland Period material, including remarkable pieces of Indian pottery, was found to indicate that the site might be Cecomocomoco as designated by Smith in his 1608 map.

It was no surprise to King when they found colonial artifacts in the mix.

“A good place to live is a good place to live,” she said.

“It was populated as far back as the birth of Christ,” King added. “There was a real population explosion there around 900 to 1200 A.D. It was the largest shell midden I am aware of in this county.”

Unique features last year included a copper pendant and a cannel coal bead. Neither material originated in the region.

Cannel coal is from Western Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which means it might have come into the region from one of many trade routes.

So many rich features warranted further study, and the National Park Service grant will allow that to happen.

“It’s really interesting archaeology,” King noted.

Kirsti Unilia is heading up the Calvert component of this summer’s proposed work as part of the Biscoe Gray Heritage Fund.

“It’s obvious to anybody who has been in Battle Creek there is a large shell midden above the creek,” Unilia said.

Just like the large midden found at Lower Bromley, such features indicate people lived there a long time.

Woodland Indians came much later in pre-colonial history. The Woodland Period began around 1,000 B.C. and evolved fully 500 years prior to European colonization.

Before that time, during the Archaic Period (9,000-1,000 B.C.), those who came to the region were nomads, roaming from food source to food source.

Judging from the wide array of projectile points discovered in Southern Maryland, migrations in and out of the region occurred repeatedly for thousands of years.

Lower Bromley on the Wicomico was one such site. Unilia is anxious to see if the Biscoe Gray site is another.

One underlying factor, she noted, as pointed out by the governor’s visit, is that the people who were here first, are still here.

“We want to help support any chance we can to make a living people more visible,” she said. “This is one way to do that.”

She said placing these sites on the National Register would draw national attention to a tale too long untold.

“And it will make it easier to tell the story,” Unilia stressed.

Contact Joseph Norris at joe.norris@thebaynet.com

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