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Piscataway tribe

Total population

Approximately 4,103 Piscataway Indian Nation: 103[1]
Piscataway-Conoy Tribe of Maryland: 3,500[2]

Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians: 500[3]
Regions with significant populations
United States ( Maryland)
English, formerly Piscataway
Christianity, Piscatway Spiritual Beliefs and Practices
Related ethnic groups
Doeg, Nanticoke, Yaocomico

The Piscataway also referred to as the Piscataway Indian Nation, are Native Americans, once constituting the most populous and powerful Native polities of the Chesapeake Bay region. They spoke Algonquian Piscataway, a dialect of Nanticoke. One of their neighboring tribes, with whom they merged after a massive decline of population following two centuries of interactions with European settlers, called them Conoy.

Two major groups representing Piscataway descendants received state recognition as Native American tribes in 2012: the Piscataway Indian Nation and Tayac Territory[4][5] and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe of Maryland.[4][6] Within the latter group was included the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Sub-Tribes and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians.[4][7] All these groups are located in Southern Maryland. None is federally recognized.


  • Name 1
  • Language 2
  • Geography 3
  • Traditional culture 4
  • History 5
    • Precontact 5.1
    • 17th century and English colonization 5.2
    • 18th century 5.3
    • 19th century 5.4
  • Revitalization: 20th century to present 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Additional reading 9
  • External links 10


The Piscataway were recorded by the English (in days before uniform spelling) as the Pascatowies, Paschatoway, Pazaticans, Pascoticons, Paskattaway, Pascatacon, Piscattaway, and Puscattawy. They were also referred to by the names of their villages: Moyaonce, Accotick or Accokicke or Accokeek, Potapaco or Portotoack, Sacayo or Sachia, Zakiah, Yaocomaco or Youcomako or Yeocomico, or Wicomicons.

Related Algonquian-speaking tribes included the Anacostan, Chincopin, Choptico, Doeg or Dogue or Taux, Tauxeneen, Mattawoman, and Pamunkey. Possibly slightly more distantly related tribes included the Accomac, Assateague, Choptank, Nanticoke, Patuxent, Pokomoke, Tockwogh and Wicomoco.[8]


The Piscataway language was part of the large Algonquian language family.[9] Jesuit missionary Father Andrew White translated the Catholic Catechism into Piscataway in 1610, and other English missionaries compiled Piscataway-language materials.[10]


The Piscataway by 1600 were on primarily the north bank of the St. Mary's Counties in southern Maryland, according to John Smith's 1608 map which also notes the several Patuxent River settlements that were under some degree of Piscataway suzerainty. The Piscataway settlements appear in that same area on maps through 1700[11][12][13] Piscataway descendants now inhabit part of their traditional homelands in these areas. None of the three state-recognized tribes noted above has a reservation or trust land.

Traditional culture

The Piscataway relied more on agriculture than many of their neighbors, which enabled them to live in permanent villages. They lived near waters navigable by canoes. Their crops included corn, several varieties of beans, melons, pumpkins, squash and (ceremonial) tobacco. Men hunted bears, elk, deer, and wolves as well as beaver, squirrels, partridges, wild turkeys, and other small game with bows and arrows. Fishing, oyster and clam harvesting, and gathering berries and nuts in seasons supplemented their diets.[14][15]

As was common in other Algonquian villages, Piscataway villages included several individual houses protected by a log palisade.[16][17] Traditional houses were rectangular and typically 10 feet high and 20 feet long, a type of longhouse, with barrel-shape roofs, covered with bark or woven mats. A hearth occupied the center of the house with a smoke hole overhead.[18]



A succession of indigenous peoples occupied the Chesapeake and Tidewater region, arriving according to archeologists' estimates from roughly 3,000 to 10,000 years ago. People of Algonquian stock, which ultimately coalesced into the Piscataway nation, lived in the Potomac River drainage area since at least 1300 CE.[19] Sometime around 800 CE, peoples living along the Potomac had begun to cultivate maize as a supplement to their ordinary hunting-gathering diet of fish, game, and wild plants.

Some 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 16th century, the Piscataway were a distinct polity with a distinct society and culture, who lived year-round in permanent villages.

The onset of a centuries-long "Little Ice Age" after 1300 had driven Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples from upland and northern communities southward to the warmer climate of the Potomac basin. Growing seasons there were long enough for them to cultivate maize. As more tribes occupied the area, they competed for resources and had increasing conflict.

By 1400, the Piscataway and their Algonquian tribal neighbors had become increasingly numerous because of their sophisticated agriculture, which provided calorie-rich maize, beans and squash. These crops added surplus to their hunting-gathering subsistence economy and supported greater populations. The women cultivated and processed numerous varieties of maize and other plants, breeding them for taste and other characteristics. The Piscataway and other related peoples were able to feed their growing communities. They also continued to gather wild plants from nearby freshwater marshes. The men cleared new fields, hunted, and fished.

17th century and English colonization

Prayers handwritten in [20]

By 1600, incursions by the Susquehannock and other Iroquoian peoples from the north had almost entirely destroyed many of the Piscataway and other Algonquian settlements above present-day Great Falls, Virginia on the Potomac River. The villages below the fall line survived by banding together for common defense. They gradually consolidated authority under hereditary chiefs who exacted tribute, sent men to war, and coordinated the resistance against northern incursions and rival claimants to the lands. A hierarchy of places and rulers emerged: hamlets without hereditary rulers paid tribute to a nearby village. Its chief, or werowance, appointed a "lesser king" to each dependent settlement. Changes in social structure occurred and religious development exalted the hierarchy. By the end of the 16th century, each werowance on the north bank of the Potomac was subject to the paramount chief: the ruler of the Piscataway known as the Tayac.

The English explorer Captain John Smith first visited the upper Potomac River in 1608. He recorded the Piscataway by the name Moyaons, after their "king's house", i.e., capital village or Tayac's residence, also spelled Moyaone. Closely associated with them were the Nacotchtank people (Anacostans) who lived around present-day Washington, DC, and the Taux (Doeg) on the Virginia side of the river. Rivals and reluctant subjects of the Tayac hoped that the English newcomers would alter the balance of power in the region.

In search of trading partners, particularly for furs, the Virginia Company, and later, Virginia Colony, consistently allied with enemies of the settled Piscataway. Their entry into the dynamics began to shift regional power. 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 in 1634, the Tayac [21] He granted the English a former Indian settlement, which they renamed St. Mary's City after their own monarch.

The Tayac intended the new colonial outpost to serve as a buffer against the Iroquoian [21] Their only daughter Mary Kittamaquund became a ward of the English governor and his sister-in-law, colonist Margaret Brent, both of whom held power in St. Mary's City and saw to the girl's education, including learning English.

At a young age, Mary Kittamaquund married the much older English colonist Giles Brent, one of Margaret's brothers. After trying to claim Piscataway territory upon her father's death, the couple moved south across the Potomac to establish a trading post and live at Aquia Creek in present-day Stafford County, Virginia.[22] They were said to have had three or four children together. Brent married again in 1654, so his child bride may have died young.

Benefits to the Piscataway in having the English as allies and buffers were short-lived. The Maryland Colony was initially too weak to pose a significant threat. Once the English began to develop a stronger colony, they turned against the Piscataway. By 1668, the western shore Algonquian were confined to two reservations: one on the Wicomico River; the other, on a portion of the Piscataway homeland. Refugees from dispossessed Algonquian nations merged with the Piscataway.

Colonial authorities forced the Piscataway to permit the Susquehannock, an Iroquoian-speaking people, to settle in their territory after having been defeated in 1675 by the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), based in New York. The traditional enemies eventually came to open conflict in present-day Maryland. With the tribes at war, the Maryland Colony expelled the Susquehannock after they had been attacked by the Piscataway. The Susquehannock suffered devastating defeat.

Making their way northward, the surviving Susquehannock joined forces with their former enemy, the Haudenosaunee, the five-nation Iroquois Confederacy. Together, the Iroquoian tribes returned repeatedly to attack the Piscataway. The English provided little help to their Piscataway allies. Rather than raise militia to aid them, the Maryland Colony continued to compete for control of Piscataway land.

Piscataway fortunes declined as the English Maryland colony grew and prospered. They were especially adversely affected by epidemics of infectious disease, which decimated their population, as well as intertribal and colonial warfare. After the English tried to remove tribes from their homelands in 1680, the Piscataway fled from encroaching English settlers to Zekiah Swamp in Charles County, Maryland. There they were attacked by the Iroquois but peace was negotiated.[23]

In 1697, the Piscataway relocated across the Potomac and camped near what is now The Plains, Virginia in Fauquier County. Virginia settlers were alarmed and tried to persuade the Piscataway to return to Maryland, though they refused. Finally in 1699, the Piscataway moved north to what is now called Conoy Island in the Potomac near Point of Rocks, Maryland. They remained there until after 1722.[24]

18th century

In the 18th century, some Piscataway, as well as other Algonquian groups migrating away from English settlements, relocated north of the Susquehannah River. These migrants from the general area of Maryland are referred to as the Conoy and the Nanticoke. They were spread along the western edge of the Pennsylvania Colony, along with the Algonquian Lenape who had moved west from modern New Jersey, the Tutelo, the Shawnee and some Iroquois.[25] The Piscataway were said to number only about 150 people at that time. They sought the protection of the powerful Haudenosaunee, but the Pennsylvania Colony also proved unsafe.

Most of the surviving tribe migrated north in the late eighteenth century and were last noted in the historical record in 1793 at Detroit, following the American Revolutionary War, when the United States gained independence. In 1793 a conference in Detroit reported the peoples had settled in Upper Canada, joining other Native Americans who had been allies of the British in the conflict. Today, descendants of the northern migrants live on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation reserve in Ontario, Canada.

Some Piscataway may have moved south toward the Virginia Colony. They were believed to merge with the Meherrin.

19th century

Numerous contemporary historians and archaeologists, including William H. Gilbert, Frank G. Speck, Helen Rountree, Lucille St. Hoyme, Paul Cissna, T. Dale Stewart, Christopher Goodwin, Christian Feest, James Rice, and Gabrielle Tayac, have documented that a small group of Piscataway families continued to live in their homeland. Although the larger tribe was destroyed as an independent, sovereign polity, descendants of the Piscataway survived. They formed unions with others in the area, including European indentured servants and free or enslaved Africans. They settled into rural farm life and were classified as free people of color, but some kept Native American cultural traditions. For years the United States censuses did not have separate categories for Indians. Especially in the slave states, all free people of color were classified together as black, in the hypodescent classification resulting from the racial caste of slavery.

In the late 19th century, archaeologists, journalists, and anthropologists interviewed numerous residents in Maryland who claimed descent from tribes associated with the former Piscataway chiefdom. Uniquely among most institutions, the Catholic Church consistently continued to identify Indian families by that classification in their records. Such church records became valuable resources for scholars and family and tribal researchers. Anthropologists and sociologists categorized the self-identified Indians as a tri-racial community. They were commonly called a name (regarded as derogatory by some) "Wesorts."

In the late 1990s, after conducting an exhaustive review of 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.[26] A fresh approach to understanding individual and family choices and self-identification among American Indian and African-American cultures is underway at several research universities. Unlike during the years of racial segregation, when all people of any African descent were classified as black, new studies emphasize the historical context and evolution of seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century ethnic cultures and racial categories.

The Maryland Colony dissolved the Indian reservations in the 18th century. In the 19th century, census enumerators classified most of the Piscataway individuals as "free people of color", "Free Negro"[27] or "mulatto" on state and federal census records, largely because of their intermarriage with blacks and Europeans. The dramatic drop in Native American populations due to infectious disease and warfare, plus a racial segregation based on slavery, led to a binary view of race in the former colony. By contrast, Catholic parish records in Maryland and some ethnographic reports accepted Piscataway self-identification and continuity of culture as Indians, regardless of mixed ancestry. Such a binary division of society in the South increased after the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. Southern whites struggled to regain political and social dominance of their societies during and after the Reconstruction era. They were intent on controlling the freedmen and asserting white supremacy.

Revitalization: 20th century to present

Although a few families identified as Piscataway by the early 20th century, prevailing racial attitudes during the late 19th century, and imposition of Jim Crow policies, over-determined official classification of minority groups of color as black. In the 20th century, Virginia and other southern states passed laws to enforce the "one-drop rule", classifying anyone with a discernible amount of African ancestry as "negro", "mulatto", or "black". For instance, in Virginia, Walter Plecker, Registrar of Statistics, ordered records to be changed so that members of Indian families were recorded as black, resulting in Indian families losing their ethnic identification.[28]

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 among Piscataway and other Indian descendants throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. He was allied with the American Indian Movement Project for revitalization.

Chief Indian Reorganization Act, Chief Turkey Tayac organized a movement for American Indian peoples that gave priority to their self-identification.

"There are still Indian people in southern Maryland, living without a reservation in the vicinity of US 301 between [29]

After Chief Turkey Tayac died in 1978, the Piscataway split into the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes (PCCS), the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, and the Piscataway Indian Nation. These three organizations have disagreed over a number of issues: seeking state and federal tribal recognition, developing casinos on their land if recognition were gained, and determining which groups were legitimately Piscataway.[2][30][31]

Two organized Piscataway groups have formed:

  • Piscataway Indian Nation and Tayac Territory headed by Billy Redwing Tayac, indigenous rights activist and son of the late Chief Turkey Tayac;
  • Piscataway Conoy Tribe, which is split between two tribal entities:[32]
    • Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Sub-Tribes
    • Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, led by Natalie Proctor.[31]

In the 1990s, the State of Maryland appointed a panel of anthropologists, genealogists, and historians to review primary sources related to Piscataway genealogy. The panel concluded that some contemporary self-identified Piscataway descended from the historic Piscataway.[33]

In 1996 the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA) suggested granting state recognition to the Picataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes. Critics were concerned about some of the development interests that backed the Piscataway Conoy campaign, and feared gaming interests. (Since the late twentieth century, many recognized tribes have established casinos and gaming entertainment on their reservations to raise revenues.) Gov. Parris Glendening, who was opposed to gambling, denied the tribe's request.[2]

In 2004, Governor Bob Ehrlich also denied the Piscataway Conoy's renewed attempt for state recognition, stating that they failed to prove that they were descendants of the historical Piscataway Indians, as required by state law. Throughout this effort, the Piscataway-Conoy stated they had no intent to build and operate casinos.[2][30]

In December 2011, the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs stated that the Piscataway had provided adequate documentation of their history and recommended recognition. On January 9, 2012, Gov. Martin O'Malley issued executive orders recognizing all three Piscataway groups as Native American tribes. As part of the agreement that led to recognition, the tribes renounced any plans to launch gambling enterprises, and the executive orders state that the tribes do not grant any special "gambling privileges".[34]


  1. ^ "Rebuttal of the Thomas Ford Brown Paper: 'Ethnic Identity Movements and the Legal Process: The Piscataway Renascence, 1974-2000' , Piscataway Nation and Tayac Territory, accessed 8 Oct 2009
  2. ^ a b c d Howard Libit, "Piscataway Conoy continues tribal-status effort: Bill aims to circumvent rejections by 2 governors". Baltimore Sun, 4 Mar 2004, accessed 8 Oct 2009
  3. ^ "About Us", Piscataway Indians
  4. ^ a b c Witte, Brian. "Md. Formally Recognizes 2 American Indian Groups.", NBC Washington, 9 Jan 2011, Retrieved 10 Jan 2011
  5. ^ "Piscataway Indian Nation and Tayac Territory." (retrieved 4 Jan 2011)
  6. ^ "Piscataway Conoy Tribe of Maryland." (retrieved 4 Jan 2011)(bad link 12 Dec 2013)
  7. ^ "The Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians." (retrieved 4 Jan 2011)(holder page only 12 Dec 2013)
  8. ^ Christian F. Feest, "Nanticoke and Neighboring Tribes", in Sturtevant and Trigger, p. 250
  9. ^ Sturtevant and Trigger, 240
  10. ^ "Roman Catholics in Maryland: Piscataway Prayers", Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 23 July 2010 (retrieved 4 Jan 2010)
  11. ^ Feest, in Sturteavant and Trigger, p. 241
  12. ^ and on a map of the Piscataway lands in Kenneth Bryson, Images of America: Accokeek (Arcadia Publishing, 2013) pp. 10-11, derived from Alice and Henry Ferguson, The Piscataway Indians of Southern Maryland (Alice Ferguson Foundation, 1960) pp. 8 (map) and p. 11: "By the beginning of Maryland (English) settlement, pressure from the
  13. ^ Alex J. Flick; et al. (2012). "A Place Now Known Unto Them: The Search for Zekiah Fort" (PDF).  
  14. ^ Ferguson pp. 15-16
  15. ^ Feest in Sturtevant and Trigger, pp. 243-4
  16. ^ A John White drawing of such a traditional village, possibly in tidewater North Carolina, is published in Kenneth Bryson, Images of America: Accokeek (Arcadia Publishing, 2013), p.11
  17. ^ Ferguson p. 13 cites Duel, Sloan and Pierce, The New World (1946, Stefan Larant, Ed.)
  18. ^ Feest, in Sturtevant and Trigger, p. 244
  19. ^ Ferguson, p. 11, refers to Robert L. Stephenson, The Prehistoric People of Accokeek Creek
  20. ^ "Manuscript prayers in Piscataway ." Treasures of Lauinger Library. (retrieved 4 Jan 2010)
  21. ^ a b "Kittamaquund, Tayac of the Piscataway (d. 1641)", Exploring Maryland's Roots, Maryland Public Television, 2010, accessed 22 Apr 2010
  22. ^ "Eleven New State Historical Markers Approved", Appomattox History, accessed 22 Apr 2010
  23. ^ Sturtevant and Trigger, 243
  24. ^ Harrison Williams, Legends of Loudoun, pp. 20-21.
  25. ^ Merritt, Jane T., At The Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003) p. 20
  26. ^ R. Christopher Goodwin, "Clarifying the Piscataway petition for recognition", letter to the editor, 29 Aug 2007,, accessed 8 Oct 2009
  27. ^ Sturtevant and Trigger 247
  28. ^ J. Douglas Smith, "The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922–1930: 'Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro'", Journal of Southern History 68, no. 1 (2002): 65–106.
  29. ^ Helen C. Rountree, Wayne E. Clark, and Kent Mountford, John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages (2007)
  30. ^ a b Jeffrey Ian Ross, "Commentary: Maryland's struggle to recognize its Native American", The (Baltimore) Daily Record, Jun 17, 2005, accessed 8 Oct 2009
  31. ^ a b Mitrano, Erica. "A tribe divided: Piscataway Indians’ search for identity sparks squabbles." Southern Maryland Newspapers Online. 3 Aug 2007 (retrieved 4 Jan 2011)
  32. ^ Witte, Brian, "MD Formally Recognizes Two American Indian Groups." NBC Washington. 9 Jan 2012, accessed 11 Jan 2011
  33. ^ Dr. R. Christopher Goodwin, "Letter to the Editor", Maryland Independent, 29 Aug 2007, accessed 20 Apr 2010
  34. ^ Dresser, Michael, "O'Malley formally recognizes Piscataway tribe", The Baltimore Sun, 9 Jan 2012, accessed 11 Jan 2011)


  • Sturtevant, William C., gen. ed. Trigger, Bruce G., vol. ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Volume 15, Northeast. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. ISBN 978-0-87474-195-7.

Additional reading

  • Barbour, Philip L. The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1964.
  • Barbour, Philip L., ed. The Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter, 1606-1609. 2 vols. Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, 2nd series nos. 136-137. Cambridge, England, 1969.
  • Chambers, Mary E. and Robert L. Humphrey. Ancient Washington—American Indian Cultures of the Potomac Valley. George Washington University, Washington, D.C. 1977.
  • Goddard, Ives (1978). “Eastern Algonquian Languages”, in Bruce Trigger (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15 (Northeast). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 70–77.
  • Griffin, James B. "Eastern North American Prehistory: A Summary." Science 156 (1967):175-191.
  • Hertzberg, Hazel. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan Indian Movements. NY: Syracuse University Press, 1971.
  • Merrell, James H. "Cultural Continuity Among the Piscataway Indians of Colonial Maryland." William & Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 36 (1979): 548-70.
  • Potter, Stephen R. Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.
  • Rice, James D. Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
  • Rountree, Helen C., Clark, Wayne E. and Mountford, Kent. John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages, 1607-1609, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • Tayac, Gabrielle. "National Museum of the American Indian ? 'We Rise, We Fall, We Rise' ? a Piscataway Descendant Bears Witness at a Capital Groundbreaking," Smithsonian 35, no. 6 (2004): 63-66.

External links

  • The Piscataway Conoy Tribe of Maryland, Official website
  • Piscaway Indian Nation and Tayac Territory, Official website
  • The Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, Official website
  • Piscataway Indians, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911
  • Leah C. Sims, "Unraveling a Deceptive Oral History: The Indian Ancestry Claims of Philip S. Proctor and His Descendants",
  • "The Shifting Borders of Race and Identity: A Research and Teaching Project on the Native American and African American Experience", University of Kansas
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