Indigenous People in the Vicinity of Parkers Creek
This overview of prehistoric and historic time periods provides a structure for our discussion of the lifeways of local indigenous people in and near the Parkers Creek Watershed and south to Governors Run. The time periods follow the historic contexts prescribed by reporting requirements of the Maryland Historical Trust.
The narrative details specific to the area including the Parkers Creek watershed south to Governors Run were drawn primarily from three sources: the National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form completed by Scott Strickland for The Piscataway Indian Archaeological Landscape of Southern Maryland; Matthew Reeves's 1997 report, Phase I Archaeological Survey of Parkers Creek Watershed; and Molly Stephens's 1998 report Phase I Archaeological Survey of Parkers Creek Watershed. Several other reports of archaeological investigations within two miles of Parkers Creek were also consulted.
Archaeology surveys in Parkers Creek watershed. Left: Matthew Reeves, 1997. Center: Molly Stephens, 1998. Right: Matthew Reeves with Eva Brown, one of many volunteers who assisted in the surveys.
Archaeologists who study the history of indigenous people in Maryland divide their long presence here into three time periods: Paleoindian, Archaic, and Woodland. Both the Archaic and Woodland periods are further divided as described below. Scholars may disagree on the ranges of dates that are assigned to each. The dates offered here are approximate and follow the periods as described by the authors of the essay, "Maryland’s Prehistory" on the webpage Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland.
Paleoindian (11000 BC – 9500 BC)
The Paleoindian period was a time of rapid climate change. Sea levels rose with the melting of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. The people lived in small mobile bands moving between sources of stone for tools and areas with abundant food. They stayed mainly along the larger rivers. The Chesapeake Bay had not yet fully formed; the Susquehanna River was fed by numerous freshwater tributaries as it flowed south into the Atlantic Ocean. The signature artifact of this period is the fluted projectile point made of jasper, chalcedony, chert, and quartz.
Archaeologists have not found fluted points in the Parkers Creek Watershed, though a collector has reported finding a fragment of one. People in this period would have hunted game on the plain that stretched from the uplands at Parkers Creek eastward to the Susquehanna River. Reeves points out that the topography would have allowed expansive views of the plain to follow game movements. The uplands from which they might have watched are, by now, eroded into the Bay.
Archaic (9500 BC – 1250 BC)
Early Archaic (9500 BC – 7000 BC)
The Early Archaic period saw increases in population which may have been less mobile and more organized around seasonal activities. Trade networks may have begun during this time as people sought out resources from a wider range of environments, still mostly focused on large rivers. At this time, Parkers Creek was still a freshwater stream draining into the Susquehanna. Reeves reports that collectors have found bifurcate points, diagnostic artifacts of the Early Archaic, on ridges both north and south of the Creek. Those finds may indicate small- scale hunting on the uplands.
Middle Archaic (7000 BC – 3750 BC)
The Middle Archaic was marked by rising temperatures and more distinct seasons. The development of Chesapeake Bay was well underway and brought with it oysters, new fishes and more to the rivers which had become tidal by this point. Most people did not use these resources intensively until the Late Archaic. People tended to focus their activities around inland swamps and set up short-term camps in upland areas. The diversity of stone tool types increased in this period and plant-processing tools like mortars and pestles became more common. In Parkers Creek, which was still several miles from the expanding Bay, people were likely using the forests and wetlands in the watershed for procurement of food.
Late Archaic (3750 BC – 1250 BC)
During the Late Archaic the population continued to increase and more of the population stayed longer in one place. In contrast to the preceding period, settlement was focused on estuaries as well as freshwater streams and inland swamps. People began harvesting estuarine resources like shellfish, anadromous fish, and waterfowl. The Chesapeake Bay reached its familiar shape during this period.
Woodland Period (1250 BC – 1600 AD)
Early Woodland (1250 BC – 50 AD)
The Early Woodland period is defined by the first appearance of pottery. Settlement was focused along rivers with smaller, seasonal camps inland. During this period people began digging and using storage pits which indicates that they were staying in one location longer. Evidence suggests that they were using more seed plants which would later contribute to the rise of domesticated and cultivated crops. While archaeologists and local residents have found stone tools from this period in the Parkers Creek watershed, no period ceramics have been identified to date in the area.
Middle Woodland (50 AD – 950 AD)
The Middle Woodland period saw the continuation of increased sedentism within a pattern of seasonal movement between larger base camps and smaller, family-sized summer camps. People used resources from a wide range of environments, and long-distance trade seemed to have expanded. New ceramic types and stone tool types were introduced. In Calvert County, the larger camps would have been located near rivers and freshwater perennial streams.
Late Woodland (950 AD – 1600 AD)
In the Late Woodland period the trend of increased sedentism continued though there was still some seasonal movement. Late Woodland sites were typically near large streams, often in areas with good agricultural soils. Larger villages began to develop around 700 years ago with outlying hamlets and resource procurement sites. Some villages were at least partially contained within palisades. The palisaded villages can be interpreted as fortifications indicating conflict among Late Woodland groups, though there could be other meanings. Villages were periodically moved, probably because of depletion of local resources like soil fertility and firewood.
Cultivation of corn, squash, and beans became widespread. The bow and arrow were introduced in the Late Woodland. Bone tools, beads, and clay tobacco pipes are also commonly found on Late Woodland sites.
Fragments of pottery from the Late Woodland have been found in fields north of the creek, but large settlements typical of this period along the Patuxent River, have not been found in the Parkers Creek watershed.
The Late Woodland period ended when sustained contact between indigenous people and Europeans began.
People and their Environment Shape Each Other
Some archaeological sites have many components showing that the same location was revisited repeatedly over centuries, and even millennia. We may conjecture that during any given generation people knew the sites and returned to them intentionally. Settlement or camp sites at any time are selected because of their location. The factors making locations favorable include access to desirable resources such as fresh water, food—oysters, fish, game, nuts, berries, and other plant materials, etc. In periods of conflict between groups of people, people selected a location that was defensible. The kinds of resources available were, of course, dictated by the environment. Before the Bay was formed, people on the local landscape may have had relatively greater access to fresh water, but the variety of food resources was quite different.
As a wider variety of food resources became abundant with a warming climate and the flooding of river mouths to create the world’s largest estuary, the population increased and the exploitation of resources began to affect the environment and the settings in which people lived, and how they lived there. Selectivity of plant resources for harvest and consumption eventually resulted in domestication and cultivation of certain plants. Farming required clearing of land and management of the soil. If the nutrients in the soil were depleted, then the fields had to be moved, or in some cases, the settlements that relied on them were abandoned and the people relocated to establish new ones.
Indigenous Peoples in the Parkers Creek Vicinty
People have lived in what is now Calvert County for more than ten thousand years. Archaeology has been an important source of information about where and how people lived. Oral tradition among the Piscataway provides insight into indigenous peoples’ history and identity. Scott Strickland writes: "The Piscataway have called southern Maryland home for centuries . . . . Those that identify as Piscataway are also descended from the numerous allied groups such as the Choptico, Mattawoman, Nanjemoy, Patuxent, and Mattapanian."
In 1660, Governor Philip Calvert met with a brother of the Piscataway tayac [leader, ruler] who told of the history of his people, and a record was made of his telling. (Archives of Maryland, 3:402-3) The tayac’s brother recounted that a leader from the Eastern Shore united all native groups in the Maryland coastal plain and beyond, sometime between 1270 and 1400 AD, according to Strickland’s calculation, based on the number of generations that had elapsed between the arrival of the Eastern Shore leader and 1660 when the account was recorded.
The Eastern Shore leader would have arrived in the Late Woodland period. This account suggests that people living in Southern Maryland before that time were organized into numerous separate groups. We do not know how they related to or were affiliated with or against one another. By the time colonizers came across the Atlantic, those groups would have been allied. Nearly fifty archaeological sites have been recorded in the vicinity of property that ACLT owns or manages, within an area roughly defined as a polygon that includes lands from Dare’s Wharf to Governor’s Wharf on the East, and west as far as the tributary west of the ridge which is traversed by Tobacco Ridge Road as shown below. Thirty-eight sites were recorded during two archaeological surveys that ACLT performed with funding from the Maryland Historical Trust. Seven additional sites were documented during other projects.
Fig. 1 – Shaded polygon encompasses lands in and near the Parkers Creek and Governors Run Watersheds
The discoveries on those sites indicate that people here, as elsewhere in the region, began to stay in one place longer during the Woodland Period, beginning circa 1250 BC and extending to the arrival of Europeans. The increase of more sedentary occupations coincides with the appearance of ceramics. Archaeologists infer that ceramic technology allowed greater exploitation of resources in that it permitted food storage. Plant domestication began during this period, as well, which eventually led to farming. Not all plant domestication occurred locally; cultivars were frequently introduced through trade. Larger-scale social changes also played a role in settlement. Strickland notes that chiefdoms and concentrated political power "both grew out of and shaped the establishment of more permanent sedentary settlements." (Strickland 2018:17)
Numerous shell middens dot most of the waterways elsewhere in Calvert County, and many of them are indicative of native presence in the Woodland Period and much earlier as well. Many were likely short-term camp sites, some of which may have been associated with the later settlements. The proximity of all the sites to navigable waterways is indicative of the importance of the river and tidal creeks for transport of people and goods from the earliest occupations of the land. Because many of them were discovered during archaeological investigations required on development projects on specific parcels of land, the spatial relationships between smaller and larger settlements could not be studied or ascertained. It is likely that many other settlements of varying sizes, each part of a single polity, remain unrecorded. It is noteworthy that all of the Indigenous sites that have been investigated in the area around Parkers Creek were small and represented short-term occupations. It is possible that the people occupying these sites in the Woodland period were procuring resources for use by others who resided in larger settlements nearer the Patuxent River.
Indigenous people at the beginning of the Colonial period
Scholars have debated the size of the total population of Southern Maryland at the time of contact with European traders and colonizers in the 1600s. Estimates range from 2,000 to 7,000 native persons living in the region.
Scott Strickland writes that at the time of contact, the Piscataway tayac ruled most of Maryland’s lower western shore excepting independent Patuxent villages in Patuxent River valley. Those villages were still influenced by the Piscataway chiefdom. The people in the region were threatened by raiders from the two Iroquoian groups: Massawomecks, believed to have been from western Pennsylvania, and from the Susquehannock, from the north on the Susquehannah River at the head of the Bay. Virginia Algonquians and the Patawomeck south of the Potomac were hostile to the Piscataway. The allied groups in Southern Maryland were thus threatened from three directions. It was in this context that Maryland colonists arrived in 1634.
Strickland writes the following, enriched by information and quotations from other works (cited in parentheses):
- In 1634, Wannas, then the Piscataway tayac, received the Maryland colonists guardedly at his capital on Piscataway Creek, with bowmen at the ready. When [Maryland governor Leonard] Calvert asked the tayac where the English could take up land. Wannas’ response to Calvert was "that he would not bid him goe, neither would hee bid him stay, but that he might use his owne discretion." (Hall 1910:72).
- The tayac’s statement was tactfully strategic; the Piscataway, while still a significant force, could not afford another enemy, given their relations with groups to their north and south. Nonetheless, their previous encounters with the Virginians necessitated extreme caution in attempting to ally themselves with new groups. (Merrell 1979:554-555).
- Because of the complex political geography, representations of early Maryland history have characterized Anglo-Native relations as generally peaceful, giving the credit to the Maryland colonists. This interaction has come to be characterized as an example of an imagined racial harmony (for example, the [text of an interpretive panel at the] Woodland Indian Hamlet at Historic St. Mary’s City describes "native peoples and English colonists living together, peacefully, until the colonists could establish their own settlement"). In reality, the relationship was far more complicated, and while "invasion" is not a word often used to describe colonial settlement, an invasion and occupation are exactly what the "founding" was for the Piscataway nation and related groups. The Charter of Maryland justified the impending dispossession of Native land by describing the region as a "Country hitherto uncultivated ... [and] partly occupied by Savages, having no knowledge of the Divine Being." English subjects understood that uncultivated land was wasted land, and that non-Christian people could be enslaved or otherwise dispensed with for their failure to cultivate the land in an English manner. To be sure, Maryland may have avoided the bloody wars experienced in early to mid-17th-century Virginia and the Calverts may have struck a more diplomatic tone with the Natives, but the ultimate goal was Native subjugation and, by the end of the century, Native removal.
- By 1642, there seems to have been a significant population of non-missionary English living or trading near Piscataway. That year, Governor Calvert and the Maryland Council commissioned Robert Evelin "to take the charge and Command of all or any the English in or near ab[ou]t Pascatoway, and to leavie train and Muster them" to put the English "in a posture of defence" against the Indians (Archives Md. 3:102).
- Further English encroachment and tension continued to build throughout the 17th century . . . these tensions would ultimately lead to Native displacement and adaptation to an ever-changing environment, both physical and social.
- (Strickland 2018: 10-11)
English settlers had patented much of the property in the Parkers Creek watershed along the shoreline by the mid-seventeenth century. None of the archaeological sites that have been studied shows clear evidence of interaction between Europeans and Indigenous people in the watershed. More investigation of personal and public documentary materials may shed light on contact between indigenous and non-native peoples in Parkers Creek.
Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory
2012  Maryland’s Prehistory. Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. https://apps.jefpat.maryland.gov/diagnostic/PrehistoricCeramics/prehistoryinMD.html
1997 Phase I Archaeological Survey of Parkers Creek Watershed. Prepared for the American Chestnut Land Trust, Prince Frederick, Maryland.
1998 Phase I Archaeological Survey of Parkers Creek Watershed. Prepared for the American Chestnut Land Trust, Prince Frederick, Maryland.
2018 "The Piscataway Indian Archaeological Landscape of Southern Maryland." National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. St. Mary’s College of Maryland.