The Piscataway Indian Nation is a non-state, non-federally recognized Native American tribal nation, which, at one time, was one of the most populous and powerful Native polities of the Chesapeake Bay region. By the early seventeenth century, the Piscataway had come to exercise hegemony over other Native American groups on the north bank of the Potomac River. While Piscataway fortunes declined as Maryland colony grew and prospered, the Piscataway continue to be leaders among the tribal nations of Maryland, as well as throughout Indian Country in their commitment to Indigenous and Human Rights.
The Piscataway Indian Nation is a long-established tribal nation of Native Americans inhabiting traditional homelands on the western shore of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay in the areas of Charles County, Prince George's County, and St. Mary's County, located near two metropolitan areas, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The current chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation is Billy Redwing Tayac, an outspoken leader in the movement for Indigenous and Human Rights, and the son of the late Chief Turkey Tayac, a prominent figure in the Native American reclamation and revitalization movements of the last half of the twentieth century. There are also two other organized tribal groups that have emerged representing Piscataway people including the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe, led by Mrs. Mervin Savoy and the Cedarville Band of Piscataways, led by Natalie Proctor.
Some archaeologists contend that the ancestors of the Piscataway came to the Potomac River region roughly ten thousand years ago, and coalesced into a nation comprising numerous settlements sometime in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. After excavating ancient sites in the traditional homeland of the Piscataway, they generally posit that sometime around 800 CE, peoples living along the Potomac had begun to experiment with maize as a supplement to their ordinary hunting-gathering diet of fish, game, and wild plants.
Some historians have connected the Piscataways' later name of Conoy with the Kanawha Indians of present-day West Virginia, while other evidence suggests that the Piscataway migrated from the Eastern Shore, or from the upper Potomac, or from sources hundreds of miles to the north. It is fairly certain however, that by the sixteenth century, the Piscataway were a distinct polity with a distinct society and culture, who lived year-round in permanent villages.
In fact, by 1500, the Piscataway and their Algonquian neighbors had become so numerous that they gradually supplemented their hunting-gathering subsistence economy with increasingly sophisticated agricultural forms of production. Cultivating vast fields of calorie-rich maize, squash, and beans -- the production and distribution of which was controlled and facilitated by women -- the Piscataway and other related Algonquian peoples were able to feed their growing communities, even as they continued gathering wild plants from nearby freshwater marshes, and men cleared new fields, hunted, and fished.
The onset of a centuries-long "Little Ice Age" sometime in 1300, had driven Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples from upland and northern communities southward to the warmer climate of the Potomac basin, where growing seasons were still long enough to grow maize. The increasing conflict over territory was enormously destructive; indeed, by 1600, incursions from Iroquoian peoples from the north had almost entirely destroyed many of the settlements above present-day Great Falls, Virginia.
Algonquian villages below the fall line survived by consolidating authority in the hands of hereditary chiefs who exacted tribute, sent men to war, and coordinated the resistance against northern incursions and rival claimants to their homelands. A hierarchy of places and rulers emerged: hamlets without hereditary rulers paid tribute to a nearby village whose chief, or "werowance", appointed a "lesser king" to each dependent settlement. With political change came changes in social structure and religious evolutions that exalted this hierarchy. By the end of the sixteenth century, each werowance on the north bank of the Potomac was in turn subject to a single paramount chief: the ruler of the Piscataways, known as the "Tayac."
English explorer Captain John Smith first visited the upper Potomac River in 1608, and referred to the Piscataways by the name Moyaons, after their "king's house" ie. capital village or Tayac's residence. Closely associated with them were the Nacotchtanks (Anacostans) around present day Washington, DC, and the Taux (Doegs) on the Virginia side. Rivals and reluctant subjects of the Tayac hoped that the newcomers would alter the balance of power in the region. This strategy worked: the Virginia Company, and later, Virginia Colony, in search of trading partners, consistently allied themselves with Piscataway enemies. By the early 1630s, the Tayac's hold over some of his subordinate werowances had weakened considerably. But when the English began to colonize what is now Maryland, the Tayac managed to turn the newcomers into allies. Granting the English an Indian settlement that the English re-named after their own monarch, St. Mary's City, the Tayac also intended that the new colonial outpost now serve him as a buffer against Susquehannock incursions from the north. The Tayac Chitimachen converted to Christianity in 1634, and had a daughter who married colonist Giles Brent of Maryland; they crossed the Potomac to live at Aquia Creek, Virginia.
Any benefits to having the English as allies and buffers were short-lived. Maryland Colony was initially too weak to pose a significant threat, but once the English transitioned from establishing a beach-head to developing a colony, they turned against the Piscataway. Colonial authorities forced the Piscataway to permit the hated Susquehannock, an Iroquoian people, to relocate to their own territory after the defeat of the Susquehannock by the Haudenosaunee. This unhappy compromise only escalated hostilities that eventually culminated in war, so that by 1675, the Susquehannock were expelled from Maryland Colony. The Iroquoian Susquehannock had suffered a devastating defeat, first through a callous act of English treachery, and thereafter, by Piscataway warriors who leapt at the opportunity to attack their traditional enemy.
Making their way northward, the Susquehannock joined forces with the Haudenosaunee, and returned, time, and time again, to attack the Piscataway. Though they were still allies, the English provided little help to the Piscataway. Maryland Colony increasingly sought to wrest control of Piscataway land rather than serve as allies of a sovereign people. By 1668 western shore Algonquians were confined to two reservations: one on the Wicomico River, the other, on those settlements that comprised a portion of the Piscataway homeland. Refugees from dispossessed Algonquian nations coalesced with the Piscataway. In 1697, the Piscataways relocated across the Potomac and camped near what is now Plains, Virginia in Fauquier County, but this move was viewed with great alarm by the Virginia settlers, who tried to persuade them to return to Maryland, though they refused. Finally in 1699, they moved on their own accord to what is now called Conoy Island in the Potomac near Point of Rocks, Maryland, where they remained until after 1722.
In the eighteenth century, some Piscataway, as well as other fleeing Algonquian groups relocated once again, this time to the Susquehanna River. Known now as the "Conoy", they sought the protection of the powerful Haudenosaunee, but even Pennsylvania Colony proved unsafe. While families of Conoy Indians resumed a northward trajectory, and resettled in New France, others may have moved south toward Virginia Colony, and merged with the Meherrin. Today, the descendants of these migrants live on the Six Nations 40, Ontario, Canada reserve.
According to numerous historians and archaeologists including William H. Gilbert, Frank G. Speck, Helen Rountree, Lucille St. Hoyme, Paul Cissna, T. Dale Stewart, Christopher Goodwin, Christian Feest, and Gabrielle Tayac, a small group of Piscataway families continued to live in their homeland. Though destroyed as an independent, sovereign polity, the Piscataway survived, and resettled into rural farm life as free people of color.
In the late nineteenth century, archaeologists, journalists, and anthropologists interviewed a number of Piscataway who claimed that they descended from tribes associated with the old Piscataway chiefdom. The Catholic Church identified a core group of families as Indian, while anthropologists and sociologists categorized them as a tri-racial folk community whom they called "Wesorts." It was in this context that Phillip Sheridan Proctor, later known as Turkey Tayac, was born in 1895. Proctor, revived the use of the title, "tayac", a hereditary office which he claimed had been handed down to him. Turkey Tayac was instrumental in the revival of American Indian culture throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
In the late 1990s, after conducting an exhaustive review of archived primary sources, a Maryland-state appointed committee including a genealogist from the Maryland State Archives validated the claims of core Piscataway families to Piscataway heritage. An August 29 2007 Letter to the Editor of the Maryland Independent submitted by Dr. R. Christopher Goodwin testifies to this fact. The comprehensive finding of the committee also firmly refuted what the Piscataway believe to be an ethnic defamation campaign conducted by Thomas F. Brown, a sociologist, and Lea C. Sims, a genealogist. For almost one decade, the pair have continued to distribute several self-published internet papers--largely during the height of controversies surrounding Piscataway recognition and land reclamation efforts. Similarly, Brown and Sims have self-published online papers on other tribal groups of tri-racial heritage including the Lumbee even as they consistently fail to interest those peer-reviewed academic presses where sociologists such as Brown are expected to publish. In contrast, a fresh approach to the intersections of African-American and American Indian identities is currently underway at several first-tier research universities that emphasize the historical context and evolution of seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century racial categories.
Although a few families identified themselves as Piscataway Indians by the early twentieth century, prevailing racial attitudes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Jim Crow policies of the twentieth century determined ethnic and cultural identification. With the enforcement of the "one-drop rule", anyone with a discernible amount of African ancestry would be classified as "negro", "mulatto", or "black", thereby discounting any other ancestry. Moreover, with the nullification of American Indian identity through census enumeration and state legislation, any standing American Indian treaty rights were that much easier to abrogate. Thus, when American Indian reservations were dissolved by Maryland Colony in the eighteenth century, and when the Piscataway were reclassified as "free people of color", "Free Negro" or "mulatto" on state and federal census records in the nineteenth century, a process of detribalization was set into motion the implications of which were carried well into the twentieth century. Contradictorily, while the Piscataway were enumerated as "mulattos" in state and federal census records, Catholic parish records and ethnographic reports continued to identify the Piscataway as Indians.
Chief Turkey Tayac was a prominent figure in the early and mid-twentieth century cultural revitalization movements not only among the Piscataway, but also among other remnant Southeastern American Indian communities, including the Lumbee, Nanticoke, and Powhatan Indians of the Atlantic coastal plain. Almost one century ago, and with only a third grade education, the innovative, self-deterministic leadership-style of Chief Turkey Tayac began the process of cultural revitalization and self-determination that continues to mark contemporary efforts of Piscataway Indians. Assuming the traditional leadership title, "tayac" during an era when American Indians were increasingly being regulated by blood quantum outlined in the Indian Reorganization Act, Chief Turkey Tayac organized a movement for American Indian peoples that privileged self-ascriptive forms of identification.
Today, the Piscataway Indian Nation is an emergent sovereign indigenous presence in their own Chesapeake homeland. Like American Indian peoples all over the United States, the Piscataway Indian tribal nation is enjoying a renaissance. According to Helen C. Rountree, Wayne E. Clark, and Kent Mountford, in their book, John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages (2007): "There are still Indian people in southern Maryland, living without a reservation in the vicinity of US 301 between La Plata and Brandywine. They are formally organized into several groups, all bearing the Piscataway name."
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- Harrison Williams, Legends of Loudoun, pp. 20-21.