Maryland's Early Native Americans

by Tanya Travis

The map above shows the tribes who lived on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

The American Indians who lived in Maryland about 400 years ago had a culture that was similar to many other Indian groups in eastern North America.  People who share a culture often share ideas, languages, art, and customs.  The American Indian groups who lived in the forests of much of eastern North America are called Eastern Woodland Indians.

The Nanticoke

By the 1600s, several Eastern Woodland groups had settled around the Chesapeake Bay.  The largest Woodland group on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was the Nanticoke (NAN tih kohk), which means "people of the tidewater."  The Nanticoke grew corn, beans, and squash, but mostly fished for their food.  Farming was difficult on the marshy ground they lived on.  The Nanticoke traded with others.  Their trade was done by trading animals pelts and roanoke beads, which are beads made from oyster and clam shells, for items they couldn't get easily.  They lived in small round homes called wigwams and traveled in canoes they carved from wood.

Their customs and their language is lost. The last speaker of Nanticoke Lydia Clark, Died between 1840 and 1850.

The Piscataway

The Piscataway (pis KAT uh way) was the largest group on the Western Shore of Maryland.  Their main village was near the mouth of the Piscataway Creek.  The chief, or ruler of Piscataway, also ruled over many other Piscataway villages.

The Piscataway got their food through hunting, gathering food, fishing and farming.  When pottery was invented the Piscataway stored their food and protected seeds for planting in the pots.  More food meant that smaller Piscataway tribes joined together to form larger villages. 

Trading was important to the Piscataway.  They traded for food, tools, and weapons.  The Piscataway traded their knowledge of how to survive in America for metal and weapons. 

When more settlers arrived and wanted land where the Piscataway lived the tribe was pushed out of the area.  A small group of people in the tribe went to live with other tribes, but most of the Piscataway hid in unsettled areas of southern Maryland. 

The Susquehannock

The Susquehannock (sus kwuh HAN ok) were members of a large and powerful Woodland Indian group.  They lived in walled villages north of the Chesapeake Bay along the Susquehanna River in present-day Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. 

They often fought wars against less powerful groups to the south, such as the Piscataway.   Using canoes to travel, Susquehannock war parties attacked the Delaware tribes along the Delaware River and travelled down the Susquehanna where they fought the Nanticoke, Conoy, and Powhatan living on Chesapeake Bay.  Like other groups that lived on the Western Shore, the Susquehannock depended mostly on farming.

The Nanticoke, Piscataway, and Susquehannock Ways of Life

The forests and rivers of the woodlands provided most of what the Nanticoke, Piscataway, and Susquehannock needed to live.  They fished, hunted, and raised crops.  They also gathered berries, roots, nuts, and other wild foods.  The made clothes from animal skins and grasses.  Their clothing was decorated with shells, beads, and paint.

Like most Eastern Woodland Indians, Maryland Indians built longhouses for shelter.  A longhouse was a large house with a frame of wood poles covered with sheets of bark. Several families shared one longhouse.

The Accohannock or Annemessex

The Accohannock tribe is one of the oldest tribes in Maryland.  They lived on what would become the Eastern Shore of Old Virginia, which is presently the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.  They were the first watermen, hunters, farmers, and trappers on the Chesapeake Bay.  They fished from dugout canoes and trapped fish in weirs.  The tribes ate oysters, crabs, mussles, shad, perch, trout, bass, and flounder. They grew squash, maize (corn), and other Native American foods.  The Accohannocks also hunted waterfowl, deer, rabbit, raccoons, bear, and elk.

The Accohannocks were a peaceful tribe and built a strong relationship with white settlers.  According to stories told by the tribe, the Clan Mothers prayed for peace and survival.  They had a vision that told them to follow Pocahontas and marry their daughters to the white colonists. 

In 1659, the Accohannocks name was changed to Annemessex, the name of the river where they lived.

Eastern Woodlands Society

Woodland Indian groups usually had two chiefs.  One chief made decisions during times of peace and the other ruled during times of war.  Important decisions needed to be approved by a council of wise men.  A council is a group of people chosen to make important decisions or give advice.

In each village, men and women divided the work.  The men fished and hunted.  They built houses and made tools and weapons.  Men also traded and defended the village.  The women gathered food, farmed, and cooked.  They also took care of the children and made clothing.

Governing the Tribe

There were many different Indian tribes with many different kinds of governments.  Most tribes had a peace council and a war council.  The rulers hand many different titles.  The Nanticokes and Piscataways called their leader a werowance.  Sometimes women served as the werowance.  A tyac was the leader of several tribes.

In all the tribes, women had some rights and powers.  They were often included in making decisions.  The village council talked about ideas until they could agree on what was best.  Chiefs had to talk to priests, warriors, and the tribal councils before they could make important decisions or go to war.

Wigwam Homes

To build a wigwam men would bend flexible saplings over and tie them together.  Then they would place the saplings into holes dug into the ground in a circle pattern to make a frame.  When the frame is done, the wigwams were covered with sewn cattail mats or sheets of elm bark.  Spaces are left for one or more doorways and a smoke hole is cut in the top to let out smoke from the central fire inside.  The doors and smoke holes had adjustable mats that could cover them during rain or snow.  

Longhouse Homes

Longhouses were set up in villages.   Each longhouse was built by making a frame from saplings and then covering the sides with ropelike grass and tree bark.   Its roof was made of bark and strengthened with animal skins.  If the skins and bark were peeled away, a frame of bent young trees would appear. 

Inside, a crackling fire would welcome visitors.  Longhouses were designed to house many families.  Each family had separate fires and sleeping areas.  Holes were cut into the roof of the longhouse to allow the smoke from the fires to escape.  If the longhouse had fives holes in the roof, it  meant that five families lived in the longhouse.


Eastern Woodland Indians would grow their crops all together in a garden.  They were hoed into evenly spaced mounds of earth with fish mixed into the ground to fertilize the soil.  Corn kernels from last years harvest were planted in the center of each mound and then bean and squash seeds were planted around the corn kernels.  As the corn stalks grew, the beans would wind their way up around the cornstalks and the low growing squash and pumpkins would spread out between the mounds. 

Gardens were near homes so they could be more easily taken care of by the females of the tribes.  Larger villages built palisaded forts around their villages to defend themselves and their garden where planted in large fields.  The fields were some distance away from their forts. 


Woodland Indians fished from wooden dug out canoes using fishing line made from the dogbane plant.  They cast the line into water to catch fish on hooks made from deer bone.  They also caught fish in strong nets woven onto carved wooden handles. 

Canoes were made by burning out the center of a log and then chipping away the burned wood over and over again until the canoe had the right thickness.  Wet mud was packed along the top rim and sides of the canoe so that it did not burn too far into the wood.  

Pottery Making

Pottery was made by digging up clay from old lakes or rivers and removing any small pebbles or pieces of sticks.  The clay was mixed with crushed shells and some sand to help it handle the temperature changes of the fire that makes the clay hard as stone.  Next, the clay is kneaded to make sure all the air bubbles are out and then it is rolled out.  The rolled out clay is cut into strips and then the strips are made into spirals that are placed on top of each other until the pot is the right size and shape.  Designs are carved into the pot with shells, combs, and fingernails.  The pots are set aside to dry and are then fired in a shallow hearth.


Native Americans used every part of the animals they hunted.  After eating the meat from a deer, they used the skin for clothing.  In the winter, people wore deer or bear skin.  They made warm leggings and long cloaks.  For summer clothes, women tanned the deer skins so they would be smooth and light.  During the hot summer, both men and women wore a kind of apron tied around their waists.  Young children wore very little when the weather was warm.  Native American shoes are called moccasins. They were also made from animal skins. 

The men and boys hunted for the animals and the women and girls sewed the clothing.  Men made needles out of animal bones and antlers.  Animal tendons were used as thread.

Native Americans used face paint for special occasions made of natural dyes from plants to tattoo their bodies.  They also made jewelry.  They hung stones, shells, animal teeth, and claws around their necks.  They used animal teeth and claws as earrings and sometimes put feathers in their hair.


There were several uses for  wampum.  Wampum beads were a sign that a person was not an enemy and they were presented during ceremonies to show that an agreement being made was honest.  Traders also used wampum as money.  Tribes also used wampum to decorate their clothes and jewelry.

Wampum was made of pieces of white or purple shells that were made into beads and strung together or pieces of shell strung on a strip of animal hide. 

It was made with purple and white shells. decorate their clothing and jewelry.

Spiritual Beliefs

Native Americans had a set of beliefs about how life began and what happens to us after we die.  There were rules about how people should treat each other and the world around them.

The people believed there was a god who created all life and was the giver of all good things.  This god was called Manito.  Since the creator god had made everything, all living things are sacred and worthy of respect.  The first food of the harvest catch of the hunt were always given to the creator in a ceremony of thanks for providing food. 

The people also believed in an evil spirit called Okee.  They gave gifts to Okee in hope of escaping trouble. 

Religous ceremonies were used to heal the sick.  Priests gave herbs to sick people to make them better and they knew which herbs were helpful in curing a certain illness. 

Native Americans believed in the afterlife.  They believed that the dead would go to a place where good behavior in life would be rewarded or bad behavior would be punished.