We can’t explore the history of Indigenous people in the Chesapeake region without first talking about the role of Indigenous communities in the watershed today. In all six states that the Chesapeake Bay watershed encompasses, these communities are as meaningful today as they have been for more than 10,000 years.
Indigenous peoples today
Tens of thousands of people who identify as American Indian live in the Chesapeake region today. Some belong to state or federally-recognized tribes, others belong to groups with a shared heritage and many others celebrate their ancestry through their immediate family. While the terms "Indigenous" and “American Indian” are preferred by many, it’s best to refer to people by their specific tribal name whenever possible.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has formally recognized 11 tribes. Among them, the Pamunkey tribe was the first Virginia tribe to be recognized by the federal government.
- Chickahominy Indian Tribe
- Chickahominy Indians Eastern Division
- Mattaponi Indian Tribe
- Monacan Indian Nation
- Nansemond Indian Nation
- Pamunkey Indian Tribe
- Rappahannock Indian Tribe
- Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe
- Cheroenhaka Nottoway Indian Tribe
- Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia
- Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia
The State of Maryland has formally recognized three tribes (the Piscataway Indian Nation, Piscataway Conoy Tribe and the Accohannock Indian Tribe) and the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs serves the following Indigenous tribes in the state.
- Accohannock Indian Tribe
- Assateague Peoples Tribe
- Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians
- Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Sub-Tribes
- Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians
- Piscataway Indian Nation
- Pocomoke Indian Nation
- Youghiogheny River Band of Shawnee Indian
In Delaware, the state has formally recognized two Native American tribes: Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, and Nanticoke Indian Association. There are no federally recognized Indian tribes in Pennsylvania, although the most recent census reports an American Indian population of more than 12,000.
Chesapeake tribes’ deep history
The first inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay region are referred to as Paleo-Indians. They came more than 10,000 years ago from other parts of North America, drawn in by the abundance of wildlife and waterways. By 1000 B.C., Maryland had more than 8,000 Native Americans in about 40 different tribes.
When Paleo-Indians lived, the region’s climate was much colder than it is now. They spent their days roaming the area’s coniferous forests, foraging for plants, hunting small mammals and fishing. While the Paleo-Indians have often been portrayed hunting big game such as mammoths, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers, today it appears likely that this wasn’t their primary source of food.
One of the ways in which archeologists recognize Paleo-Indian presence is by a stone tool called the Clovis point. Though the artifact has been found in the carcass of large game, experts predict that Paleo-Indians generally used the tool to hunt small game. Where these artifacts are found, it’s determined that the Paleo-Indians lived.
Archaeologists call the inhabitants of the area from 9,000 to 3,000 years ago, during the Archaic period, Archaic Indians. The Ice Age had ended and the climate was warming, which forced Archaic Indians to adapt. They learned to use warmer-climate plants and harvest new foods brought in from rising waters and a shallower Bay, such as clams, oysters, fish, and other invertebrates.
With melting ice, narrow river canyons widened and became a better means of transportation, which the Archaic Indians utilized through small boats. Archaic Indians traded with each other for soapstone, which they made into pipes, beads and cooking utensils. Although the Archaic Indians lived away from the Chesapeake Bay shores, they made seasonal visits to gather food.
Beginning about 3,000 years ago, the Woodland peoples emerged as the dominant Indigenous group in North America. In the Chesapeake region, these Indigenous peoples had access to the thriving natural environment of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Here, they had access to massive oyster beds, herring, shad and striped bass spawning runs in the spring, an abundance of wild game, and freshwater marshes full of edible plants such as arrow arum, cattails and yellow pond lily.
Eventually, the Woodland peoples began producing ceramic pottery (for cooking, transportation and storage), domesticating animals, cultivating crops and using bows and arrows to hunt big game.
Woodland Indians were more sedentary than previous American Indians. They built small villages as farming progressively became more important, though they still established small hunting camps to take advantage of the Bay's bounty.
Recorded American Indian history
Recorded American Indian history in the Chesapeake region began around 1600, when newly arrived European settlers started keeping records. Captain John Smith, who explored the Bay in 1607-09, found primarily Algonquian-speaking American Indians living by its shores. One of most reliable resources on where Indigenous people lived in the Chesapeake Bay region is the John Smith 1612 map of the Chesapeake Bay.
Additional records show that many distinct tribes with their own leaders lived around the Chesapeake Bay. In the Chesapeake region, larger tribes may have included the Powhatan, the Piscataway and the Nanticoke. The term "Powhatan Indians" is used by some to describe the tribes who were thought to have paid tribute to Powhatan, the most influential leader in present day eastern Virginia. Although as many as 30 separate Algonquian-speaking tribes were in eastern Virginia when the English arrived, it is unknown exactly how many paid tribute to Powhatan.
Prior to Captain John Smith’s arrival, 16th century artist John White depicted the life of Algonguian-speaking people living in present-day North Carolina. White’s paintings depict various aspects of Indigenous people’s society, from the way they fished and cooked to their towns and religious ceremonies. While these paintings are the only surviving visual record of American Indians in the mid-Atlantic before the arrival of European settlers, the accuracy of their depictions are questioned. Experts believe that the goal of the renderings were to encourage Europeans to invest in North American colonies, which could have influenced White to focus on aspects such as resource abundance.
Indigenous populations fell dramatically after European settlers arrived, devastating the rich cultures and communities of the region. Many people in various tribes were killed in violent conflicts or by disease, while others were driven away from their homes in the region. Because oral tradition was a critical part of preserving cultural knowledge, the stories of some tribes are known only through the artifacts and archaeological sites they left behind.
Scientists estimate there are at least 100,000 archaeological sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Just a small percentage of these are documented.
In 2002, archeologists confirmed the location of Werowocomoco, the capital of the Powhatan Indians. It was the scene of earliest interaction between the leader Powhatan and leaders of the English colonists from Jamestown including Captain John Smith. The site is positioned on an elevated piece of land on the York River, which would have been advantageous for the group. The site is now permanently protected by the National Park Service and tribal governments are engaged in the planning stages to open the site to the public. In the meantime, you can take a virtual tour.
Most archaeological sites are susceptible to destructive natural and man-made factors, such as development, farming practices and sea level rise. Fortunately, preserving historic artifacts goes hand-in-hand with efforts to clean up the Bay. For example, stabilizing shorelines and using agricultural conservation practices such as conservation tillage help reduce erosion and protect areas where archaeological sites are most likely to exist.
As we preserve these lands, we must also preserve the history and heritage of Indigenous people. This means continuous examination of artifacts and historical records, as well as support for contemporary American Indian communities.
Indigenous Peoples in the 20th century
Throughout the 20th century, Indigenous people in the Chesapeake region continued to fight for their rights and preserve their heritage.
In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all American Indians born in the United States, though initial efforts by the U.S. government sought to aggressively assimilate American Indians rather than recognize their heritage. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, founded in 1824, continued to hamper the relationship between the government and American Indian tribes through unfair treaties and intentional cultural assimilation.
These efforts were largely unsuccessful, and in 1934, the U.S. government passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which aimed to reverse the goals of assimilation and to support American Indian tribes and celebrate their heritage. Still, a contentious relationship persisted between Indigenous people and the U.S. government. During the Native American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and up until present day, Indigenous people in the Chesapeake region and across the country have protested, lobbied and fought court cases for federal recognition, associations and school systems, land rights and more.
Today, even as government and public organizations seek to preserve the history of Indigenous peoples and support future generations, challenges persist. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it is crucial that we honor the history of Indigenous peoples and celebrate their culture as we do all inhabitants of the region.
Our understanding of the history of Indigenous people and classification of modern tribes in the Chesapeake region is always evolving. If you have any suggested changes or additions to this page, please leave a message for our communications team.