Americans and Europeans
John Smith and his companions came to the upper Potomac River in 1608 on a matter of survival—the survival of the colony at Jamestown.Without the Indian corn supplied in part by the native residents of this region, the first settlers at Jamestown would have perished.
John White's depiction of a small
palisade village in North Carolina
may illustrate what Potomac River villages were like.
Who were these Native Americans who greeted John Smith and his companions as they made their way up the Potomac in 1608? Where had they come from? Archeologists and historians disagree about the origins, the social structure and the relationships among the Indian groups who lived along this section of the Potomac River.
Some archeologists believe that the cultural characteristics of the Native Americans who lived near Belvoir and greeted John Smith may have spread southward from north central Pennsylvania through Maryland and, ultimately, down the Potomac River. The forms, manufacturing techniques, and decorative motifs of ceramics recovered from sites along the lower Potomac are similar to those found on earlier sites near the headwaters of the Potomac and its tributaries.
Scholars of Native American languages have argued that the forebears of the Potomac River Indians, who spoke an Algonkian language, may have migrated from the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where other Algonkian-speaking peoples lived. In fact, one legend of the Piscataway tribe, which lived across the Potomac from Fort Belvoir, refers to such a migration. Local archeologist Larry Moore has maintained that the Indians of southern Fairfax County spoke a Siouan language, which would suggest that they had come from the west.
Regardless of the different opinions regarding the origins of these groups, archeology has provided us some clues to the type of social structure that these early Virginians had developed. Historic accounts frequently refer to large Indian villages enclosed
Potomac Creek pottery is a
characteristic ceramic found
on sites near Belvoir.
within wooden stockades or palisades. John Smith’s map clearly shows that Native American villages and buildings lined both shore of the Potomac River below the Fall Line. The closest of these to Fort Belvoir was the “Chief’s Howse,” or town of Tauxenent on the Occoquan River, just south of the post. Archeologists have investigated several such village sites along the Potomac River.
Some Indians apparently occupied smaller satellite villages away from the larger town sites. Smith’s map distinguishes between chief houses and regular houses. Smith’s “regular houses” may represent smaller less substantial unfortified hamlets; at least one of these satellite sites has been found on Mason’s Neck, just south of Belvoir. The patterns of various storage pits and house outlines, the bone, stone, and antler tools, and the remains of plant and animal foods found on these sites show that these early Virginians used resources from both the river and the inland forests.
Three separate groups or tribes—the Dogue (also known as the Taux or Moyumpse), the Patawomeke, and the Piscataway Indians—apparently controlled this section of the Potomac River. Historic records leave little doubt that the Dogue Indians were most closely associated with the south-eastern corner of Fairfax County. Early Virginia land records also referred to the “Doeg” or Moyumpse Indians, using a variety of spellings. In the 1650s, the name of “Dogs Island” was applied to a tract of land on what is now Mason’s Neck, the next peninsula dowriver from Belvoir. Pohick Bay, which borders the western side of the Belvoir peninsula, was sometimes called “Doeg Island Creek” or “Miompses Creek.” As late as 1737, a map of the area identified an island in the Occoquan River as “Doge Island once an Indian Habitation in Occoquan Bay now little left of it.” Some Dogue Indians also resided with the Piscataway Indians across the Potomac River in Maryland on land between Potomac Creek and Piscataway Creek.
These fragmentary Indian tobacco
pipes—one stone, the other ceramic—were found at what is thought to be
the site of the village of Tauxenent. The effigy represents an otter.
During the rest of the seventeenth century, the Indians of the Potomac River region maintained a mixed relationship with the increasing number of European settlers in the region. For example, while the Maryland colony generally cultivated friendly relationships with most Indian groups on the Potomac, the colony’s relationships with the Dogue were strained. Friction between European settlers and Indians intensified in the 1650s when the Maryland government invited the Susquehannocks, an Iroquoian tribe that originally lived at the head of the Chesapeake Bay, to settle near Piscataway Creek in what is now Prince Georges County. Documentary evidence suggests that in 1675, the Dogue and the Susquehannocks were drawn, perhaps unwittingly into a conflict with colonists in Maryland and Virginia. For the next fifteen years, remnants of these two tribes roamed through Virginia’s Piedmont region and Southern Maryland, raiding frontier settlements and terrorizing both Indians and Europeans in Virginia’s interior. The sporadic conflicts and raids were not resolved until the 1690s.
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