The Native Americans of Maryland: Great Contributors Underappreciated

by Amy Kirkley, Severn School


Archihu, chief of the Potomac Indians, welcomed the colonists with open arms in 1634: "We will eat at the same table; my followers will too go to hunt for you; and we will have all things in common." [1] Though the Native Americans' greeting was warm and peaceful, King Charles I stated in the Maryland Charter that the Indians were to be eliminated. [2] His colonization of Maryland led to the dissipation of tribes and loss of Native American heritage. The Native Americans helped the colonists estbalish a strong economy and thriving culture for Maryland, yet their way of life was destroyed by the colonists.

When the first group of English settlers arrived in Maryland aboard the vessels The Ark and the Dove they were in need of shelter. Luckily, they met the friendly Yaocomico Indians who wished to move their tribe further away from the violent Susquehannock Indians. The Yaocomicos agreed to live in one half of their established village for one year while the settlers occupied the other half. After one year the Yaocomicos moved out of their village and the settlers had full control of their new home, which they named "St. Mary's".

A few Native American tribes such as the Yaocomico and Piscataway developed relationships with the settlers in which they shared their vast knowledge of survival skills. They taught the settlers how to build wigwams and palisade fences for their villages. Inside their villages, the settlers learned how to establish gardens and grow such vegetables as maize, beans, squash, potatoes, and pumpkins -- foods which they had never seen in England. In order to grow these vegetables they learned to use fish as a natural fertilizer. Then, the native Americans taught them how to make many different dishes from the vegetables, such as succotash, hominy, stew, cornbread, baked beans, and roasted corn. Some colonies were crippled by starvation, yet the Maryland villages thrived.

The settlers also learned how to hunt, fish, and travel through the waterways of Maryland. They hunted deer and bear, then were taught how to scrape the skins and work them to make soft winter robes. Oil was taken from the bear and used as an effective insect repellant. [3] The meat of the bear was then dried and fish was smoked for storing. The settlers' fishing improved when the Native Americans taught them how to make good nets and dugout canoes to travel through the creeks, rivers, and Bay. Then the settlers decided to put three canoes together with a sail and they built the first Chesapeake Bay boat. [4] With these lessons, the settlers were able to survive in their new colony.

The field of medicine was not very advanced in the 17th century, but the Native Americans added practical information to the primitive healing methods used by the English settlers. They taught the settlers how to make salves and oils from barks, leaves, and roots. The Native Americans also introduced them to a form of treatment in which the patient was taken into a small mat-covered building where they were "sweated" by steam from water on top of hot stones. [5] This practice was similar to our saunas of today. Unfortunately, the Native Americans' medicines, which helped the colonists stay healthy, were not good enough to keep hundreds of Piscataways from dying from smallpox and tuberculosis brought over by the settlers. [6]

The Native Americans became an essential part of Maryland's burgeoning fur trade. They were expert trappers who sold their furs to the colonial traders in exchange for pots, cloth, scissors and other modern household items. These colonial traders then made large profits by selling the furs to Europeans. The fur trade became a very prosperous industry for the Maryland colony.

The colonists of Maryland were eager to learn how to grow tobacco, which had already become a valuable export for the colony of Virginia. With the help of the Native Americans, the colonists learned how to grow tobacco in the Maryland soil. The economy of Maryland quicky became centered around the production and shipment of tobacco. It was extremely popular with the Europeans and became a greatly valued commodity. Tobacco brought great wealth, prosperity, and prestige to the Maryland colony.

While the colonial traders became rich in Maryland, the Native Americans stayed poor. The Native Americans did not have a use for money, nor did they understand its value, so they traded for household items. The colonists were able to earn a living from the fur and tobacco trades, but the Native Americans were not able to improve their economic status through trade. On the colonial social ladder, the Native Americans were considered to be below the landowning colonists. They exisited under the same conditions for many years and were never able to improve their lot, either socially or economically, during this colonial time period.

As the fur trade increased, many Native American tribes became dependent on the colonists for the basic necessities of clothing, weapons, tools, and utensils. As a result, the peaceful Piscataway tribe forgot how to make bows and arrows after less than fifty years of colonization. [7] The Piscataways became dependent on their alliance with the colonists for protection from their enemies, the Susquehannock. However, when they needed help, the colonists did not come and many Piscataways died. [8] Although their lives became slightly more modernized, thanks to European tools, the Native Americans lost some of their ancestral knowledge and survival skills.

The Native Americans' culture was undermined by the colonists. The Piscataway tribe, which had been almost 2,000 strong in 1634, was reduced to only 150 members by 1675 because of European diseases and their weakened defense against enemies. [9] The colonists took the Piscataways' land, hunting grounds, and farmland, which required them to become nomadic and flee from Maryland. Many tribes had such a fate and Maryland lost much of its Native American heritage. The tribes were underappreciated then and still are today, with only names on a map to signify their past existence. Without the cooperation of the Indians the Maryland colony would not have survived, however without colonization the Indians could have prospered.

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