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“Whereas our well beloved and right trusty Subject Caecilius Calvert, Baron of Baltimore... may transport, by his own Industry, and Expense, a numerous Colony of the English Nation, to a certain Region... in a Country hitherto uncultivated, in the Parts of America, and partly occupied by Savages, having no knowledge of the Divine Being"

Charter of Maryland, 1632

Before Yaocomaco

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Native people have lived in the area that became St. Mary’s City for at least 11,000 years. For millennia, they thrived on the river’s shores, forging deeply rooted relationships with the land, water, and air, and the bounties that each offered. Communities were led by tayacs (paramount chiefs) or werowances (chiefs) who were counseled by a close group of wisoes (advisers). When they met to discuss issues facing the community, such as the potential of new diplomatic alliances or the threat of encroaching enemies, the Native people who lived in this area spoke a dialect of Algonquian. For many years, they migrated seasonally, following the paths of wild fauna and subsisting off of the flora of various ecological niches.

After 650 CE, corn became an important crop in the Chesapeake and Native peoples around the Bay began settling in agricultural villages to grow corn, beans, and squash, while continuing to take advantage of wild species of game. In the years that followed, larger settlements became more common, including an important one at modern-day Piscataway Park that was established c. 1300 CE. By 1600 CE, the Piscataway paramount chiefdom had come to dominate the region that included much of the western shore of modern-day Maryland; the Nanticoke controlled the eastern shore, the Powhatan held sway over land south of the Potomac, and the Susquehannocks and various Iroquoian-speaking groups raided the Tidewater region from the north. It has been estimated that the Piscataway and tribes who paid them tribute totaled 3,600 individuals at the time of European arrival (Cissna 1986: 49–53).

In the years immediately prior to European arrival, the area of St. Mary’s City was called Yaocomaco, an agricultural hamlet that was home to a tribe loosely allied with the Piscataway. Confusingly, colonial documents identified the people of Yaocomaco as the “Yoacomacoes.” The Yaocomaco lived on both sides of the river in witchotts, or long houses. This area offered high ground, freshwater springs, well-drained soils, numerous estuarine resources, and easy travel along many waterways.

Differing Motivations

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Like their neighbors, the Piscataway, the Yaocomaco had been subjected to attacks from Massawomecks and Susquehannocks venturing south into the region armed in some cases with iron weapons obtained through trade with northern French colonies. The arrival of the English probably came as little surprise. Tribes living in the region were familiar with the European colonial efforts in Virginia and elsewhere, and likely knew that English arrival brought prospects of trade and military alliances, but also foreign perspectives, a demand for land, and the potential for violence.

For the Maryland colonists, life along the Chesapeake Bay offered many things. For poor and middling English men and women, Maryland offered a chance to make a life, one that usually began with a period of indentured servitude and, assuming they survived the experience, ended in land ownership. For the Calvert family, the colony’s proprietary owners, Maryland was a place where they could establish a refuge where people could practice any Christian faith without fear of reprisal, something that was impossible in England at the time. It also granted the family a powerful hold over a colonial economic engine run on tobacco, a cash crop, and afforded them royal favor through the expansion of the English Empire.


At its heart, the colonization of Maryland was about adding land to the English king’s domain. The Maryland Charter, granted to Cecil Calvert, the 2nd Lord Baltimore, by King Charles I in 1632, conferred  the right to establish a colony in “a certaine Countrey… not yet cultivated and planted, though in some parts thereof inhabited by certaine barbarous people, having no knowledge of Almighty God” (Hall 1910:101). This passage reveals the fundamental agenda of the colonial endeavor: to claim land that was considered vacant and if necessary, to displace its ‘uncivilized’ occupants through economic exchange or violence.

English Arrival and the Beginning of Displacement

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In March of 1634, approximately 140-160 European colonists arrived in the Chesapeake aboard the Ark and Dove to establish the Maryland colony. Among them were figures such as Leonard Calvert, Maryland’s first governor, Mathias de Sousa, the first person of African descent to serve in colonial government, and Father Andrew White, a Jesuit priest who recorded details about the initial voyage and settlement. They first sailed up the Potomac where colonial leadership met with Wannas, the tayac of the Piscataway, the paramount chiefdom in the area. In speaking with Calvert through an intermediary, Wannas “would not bid him goe, neither would hee bid him stay, but that he might use his owne discretion” (Hall 1910:72). Wannas was likely aware of the conflict between the Powhatan and the English at Jamestown, Virginia a generation prior. Rather than accept the Maryland colonists into the territory near his seat of power, Wannas demurred. Under the advice of fur trader and interpreter Henry Fleet, the colonists traveled further away from the Piscataway, heading instead up the St. Mary’s River where they met with the Yaocomaco.

With Fleet acting as translator, Calvert negotiated with the Yaocomaco werowance. In exchange for textiles, axes, hoes, and other metal tools, the colonists were permitted to settle in half of the Yaocomaco village (the village is also referred to in English records as “Yaocomaco”). According to the arrangement, the Yaocomaco would remain in the other half of their settlement until the fall so that they could harvest their corn crop; they would then vacate the area.

 

During the first few years of settlement, while the two cultural groups lived near one another, relations remained relatively
stable. English records suggest that the Yaocomaco taught the colonists how to plant and cook maize and the two groups continued to trade during the brief co-habitation. The colonists’ desire for land led some to encroach on Native lands, which sparked disagreement and violence. A 1638 letter written by a Jesuit ministering in the colony reported that disease and the recent death of a colonist at the hands of an Indian had led colonial leadership to forbid the Jesuits from living among the Yaocomaco (Hall 1910:119). In 1642, English colonist John Elkin murdered the Yaocomaco tayac for reasons that went unrecorded. Soon after, the Yaocomaco retreated into Virginia, where they eventually merged with the Matchotics living on Virginia’s Northern Neck (Seib and Rountree 2014:76).


It is not clear whether the colonists and the Yaocomaco lived literally side-by-side during the earliest phase of the fort’s occupation, but it is likely that their residences were positioned in relative proximity to one another. Colonial records tell us that the trees surrounding the settlement had already been cleared by the Yaocomaco. Within three years of settlement colonists began moving out of the fort to settle their own plantations along the colony’s waterways where land was plentiful. In 1641, Leonard Calvert patented 100 acres described as the area “nearest together about the fort” to be his plantation. Calvert encouraged resettlement outside of his tract, called Governor’s Field, going so far as to expel those still living in the fort in the ensuing years. Thus Maryland colonists were only present in the fort for 8–9 years at most, with roughly half of that time being a period of intensive occupation.

With Fleet acting as translator, Calvert negotiated with the Yacocomaco werowance. In exchange for textiles, axes, hoes, and other metal tools, the colonists were permitted to settle in half of the Yaocomaco village (the village is also referred to in English records as “Yaocomaco”). According to the arrangement, the Yaocomaco would remain in the other half of their settlement until the fall so that they could harvest their corn crop; they would then vacate the area.

 

During the first few years of settlement, while the two cultural groups lived near one another, relations remained relatively
stable. English records suggest that the Yaocomaco taught the colonists how to plant and cook maize and the two groups continued to trade during the brief co-habitation. The colonists’ desire for land soon led to encroachment, disagreement, and violence. A 1638 letter written by a Jesuit ministering in the colony reported that disease and the recent death of a colonist at the hands of an Indian had led colonial leadership to forbid the Jesuits from living among the Yaocomaco (Hall 1910:119). In 1642, English colonist John Elkin murdered the Yaocomaco tayac for reasons that went unrecorded. Soon after, the Yaocomaco retreated into Virginia, where they eventually merged with the Machodocs living on Virginia’s Northern Neck (Seib and Rountree 2014:76).


It is not clear whether the colonists and the Yaocomaco lived literally side-by-side during the earliest phase of the fort’s occupation, but it is likely that their residences were positioned in relative proximity to one another. Colonial records tell us that the trees surrounding the settlement had already been cleared by the Yaocomaco. Within three years of settlement colonists began moving out of the fort to settle their own plantations along the colony’s waterways where land was plentiful. In 1641, Leonard Calvert patented 100 acres described as the area “nearest together about the fort” to be his plantation. Calvert encouraged resettlement outside of his tract, called Governor’s Field, going so far as to expel those still living in the fort in the ensuing years. Thus Maryland colonists were only present in the fort for at most for 8–9 years, with roughly half of that time being a period of intensive occupation.

In the years following their initial settlement, the Maryland’s colonists spread out from the footprint of St. Mary’s Fort, settling along water where land was plentiful and access facilitated by the riverways. The Maryland colony survived multiple rebellions (most notably the 1645 uprising associated with the English Civil Wars) and flourished thanks to the European craving for tobacco. With St. Mary’s City as its capital, Maryland offered a safe place for the free exercise of Christian religion, but it was that very freedom that led to the city’s decline. After another Protestant rebellion in the late 1680s, the Catholic Calverts were overthrown and Maryland was turned over to Royal rule. In 1695, Royal Governor Francis Nicholson ordered the capital be relocated to Arundelltown (modern-day Annapolis) and St. Mary’s City gradually transitioned from a thriving colonial city to an agricultural landscape that was worked primarily by enslaved African and African American labor.

After the Fort

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The Europeans who arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake forced changes to Native life. Following the murder of their tayac in 1642, the Yaocomaco left for Virginia. The Piscataway, Choptico, Patuxents, and other communities remained in their territories for a time, but faced continued encroachment by newly arriving colonists who settled on their land and let livestock run wild, destroying Native crops. In 1666, a group of tribes including the Piscataway, Nacotchtanks, Mattawomans, and more signed a treaty with Maryland’s colonial government that established reservation lands on which the tribes could continue practicing their traditional lifeways free from disturbance. In testimony given during the meeting of the colonial Assembly that led to the signing of these so-called "Articles of Peace and Amity," a man named Mattagund described the strain that he and his people were living under, arguing bitterly that "Your hogs & Cattle injure Us You come too near Us to live & drive Us from place to place, We can fly no farther let us know where to live & how to be secured for the future from the Hogs & Cattle" (Archives of Maryland, II: 14-15). These words capture the continuous disregard for Native land and husbandry practices in the colonists' perpetual push for territorial expansion.

Although these treaties were violated repeatedly, they were reaffirmed by subsequent agreements in 1692 and 1700 that added more and more restrictions on Native activities. By the 18th century, some tribes emigrated to other areas in hopes of living without constant colonist aggression. Some Native people decided to remain and despite marginalization, survived thanks to continuing traditions within strong communities.

WORKS CITED

Cissna, Paul B. 1986. The Piscataway Indians of Southern Maryland: An Ethnohistory from Pre-European Contact to the

          Present. Doctoral dissertation, American University.

Hall, Clayton C., editor. 1910. Narratives of Early Maryland 1633–1684. Barnes and Noble, New York, NY.

Lee, John Wesley Murray. 1848–1897. The Calvert Papers, No. 1–3. Baltimore, MD: J. Murphy.

Seib, Rebecca and Helen C. Rountree. 2014. Indians of Southern Maryland. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD.

IMAGES

Before Yaocomaco: Palmer point, rhyolite, c. 9500–7000 BCE

Differing Motivations: Rappahannock incised pottery, c. 950–1600 CE

English Arrival and the Beginnings of Displacement: Ignatius Loyola medallion, copper alloy, c. 17th century

After the Fort: Façon de Venise drinking cup, glass, c. 17th century