North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

We have a story to tell: Native peoples of the Chesapeake region

From the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution


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Black and white drawing of the American Indian town of Pomeiooc.  The town consists of several buildings surrounded by a fence.  In the center several people sit and stand around a fire.

Engraving of the American Indian town of Pomeiooc, published in Thomas Hariot's 1588 book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. (Illustration by Theodor de Bry. More about the illustration)

When you look at the pieces of our people scattered about, it doesn’t look like we have much. But put together, we have a lot. We have a story to tell.
— Tina Pierce Fragoso (Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape), Philadelphia Inquirer, March 13, 2005.

Every place in the United States of America has an ongoing Native American story, and our nation’s capital is no exception. Washington, D.C. sits in the Chesapeake Bay region, surrounded by Maryland and Virginia. For more than 10,000 years, Native peoples have created thriving societies along the shores of numerous rivers that feed into the beautiful and environmentally rich Chesapeake Bay. They lived in connection to the seasons and the natural resources of the region. They settled in villages made up of wooden longhouses inhabited by extended families. Labor was generally divided, with women responsible for agriculture and men for hunting. Everyone cooperated in harvesting fish and shellfish from bountiful rivers and estuaries. Throughout their histories these societies adapted to difficult circumstances and unforeseen changes. Adaptability has been necessary for survival of Native peoples and their cultures, even to the present day.

When the English established their first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the Chesapeake Bay region included three major Native chiefdoms, systems of government made up of a group of tribes under the influence of a central chief. The three chiefdoms included the Powhatan, the Piscataway, and the Nanticoke. Most of the tribes living in the Chesapeake Bay region belonged to one of these three chiefdoms, although there were some tribes who kept their independence. [See map.] The people spoke related languages from a language family known as Algonquian. The central chiefs were men selected from families that inherited and passed their leadership rights from generation to generation. They usually lived in larger towns and oversaw a system of village commanders, or weroances, who could be men or women. An elders council advised the chiefs. The members of the council were called wisoes, and decisions were made in a council house called the matchcomoco. Holy men — elders who conducted spiritual ceremonies — also had a voice in the chiefs’ decisions. There were also “medicine men,” who were tasked with physical and spiritual healing. Leaders called cockarouses assumed command in times of war. The chiefs were unlike European kings or emperors; they were expected to work like everyone else and usually made decisions in consultation with other leaders.

Most of the Chesapeake Native tribes who have survived and continue to thrive today descend from the Powhatan, Piscataway, and Nanticoke chiefdoms. The tribes that did not originally belong to a chiefdom often became part of one in order to be afforded greater protection from the colonists. Other independent tribes dispersed to various parts of the continent, where they merged with other tribes. Centuries of dispossession from their original lands have left far fewer Native tribes in the present than there were in 1607. [See map.] Yet, the people remain and so do many Powhatan, Piscataway, and Nanticoke names on the landscape, evidence of the rich cultures that once inhabited the entire region. The nature of the struggles facing Chesapeake Native peoples today has changed, but they continue to live with the difficult legacy of colonial history.