Prehistory

 

Where does local history begin?

 

 

That the history of any American locality does not begin with the arrival of European colonists is well understood. Nonetheless, aside from a few prefatory words (such as these) about what little is known of the populations that preceded what is most frequently referred to as “settlement,” that is generally the way that local history is done. The reason is records. Among the things that Europeans arrived with was the entire apparatus of land grants, surveys, deeds, wills, and laws, by which to establish title to land, and then to transfer that title, by inheritance or sale. No wonder then, when even the most ordinary lot and square of modern real estate can trace its origins to the first royal land grants in the Province of Maryland, that the reverently archived documents of property transactions concerning early land tracts are the first resort of local  history. (It is because the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia was monetarily compensated, and produced records, that local history is somewhat better equipped to address the other original sin that was slavery. )

That royal land grants went hand-in-hand with the eviction of the Indians is neatly illustrated in the person of Ninian Beall––genealogists call him “The Immigrant”––who was awarded thousands of acres for importing hundreds of settlers to Maryland. Colonel Beall served the province as an Indian ranger, patrolling between the Patuxent and the Potomac, and keeping the Piscataway Emperor informed of the wishes of the Maryland Assembly. Beall helped negotiate the departure of the Piscataway in 1697, after which the General Assembly passed an act of gratitude for his distinguished “Indian services.”

The story of the Piscataway Conoy––Conoy is their Iroquois name––people is beyond the scope of the history of a neighborhood that was no more than a distant corner of their territory. By 1697 they had already had to choose between leaving and being assimilated. Some, who chose the former, were drawn into the orbit of the Iroquois Confederacy, and began a long migration, first to Pennsylvania, and then to New York. There they appear to have merged with the Mohawks, most of whom crossed into Canada after the Revolution. Other Piscataways either remained in, or returned to, southern Maryland, where, classified as Free Colored by the early censuses, their Indian identity was officially ignored until the latter part of the 20th century. (The Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe were recognized by the state of Maryland in 2012.)

A few documents point to the likelihood that the precursor to Wisconsin Avenue was an Indian trail––which, almost certainly, means an animal migration route, of which the very first settlers––and all their successors up to the time of European contact––then made use as a highway. Archaeological evidence of human habitation in this region is generally concentrated along the Potomac River, and on the flood plain. There were prehistoric fishing camps where the Potomac begins to narrow, and fish are easiest to catch, south of MacArthur Boulevard, where 19th century antiquarians had already noticed that it was worth their while to walk the fields right after they were plowed, because of all the arrow heads that were turned up. These amateur archaeologists had also identified ancient quarries in the stream beds and ravines of the tributaries of the Potomac, and of Rock Creek, where prehistoric prospectors had discovered seams of quartzite, or of steatite, exposed by erosion, that could be quarried to produce hammers, knives, axes, drills, chisels, scrapers, pipes, bowls, arrowheads and spearheads.

To turn a rock into a useful object, it was reduced and shaped by chipping at it with other stone tools, and many rocks were rejected after only a few blows, if they didn’t break just right. Since prehistoric quarries and workshops were active for thousands of years, accumulations of such chipped cobblestones were plentiful in certain stream beds in the District of Columbia. (In the 1880s so many were carted away and used for surfacing city streets that the archeologist William Henry Holmes was led to observe that the nation’s capital was “paved with the art remains of a race who had occupied its site in the shadowy past.”) Today the only relatively undisturbed Late Archaic quarries are in what is now park land, but only an archaeologist would be interested in them: ancient manufacturers can be relied upon to have taken all the good pieces.

 

 

 

For a fuller account of the neighborhood prior to the arrival of Europeans, see:

 

Dennis C. Curry, “Research Notes and Maryland Miscellany: A Closer Look at the Last Appearance of the Conoy Indians,” Maryland Historical Magazine, , Fall 2011, Vol.106, No.3

James D. Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009

Paul Byron Cissna, The Piscataway Indians of Southern Maryland: An Ethnohistory from Pre-European Contact to the Present, 2003

Erica S. Maniez, “Piscataway Creek to Point of Rocks: The Decline of An Empire, A History of the Piscataway Tribe of Maryland,” Brunswick [Maryland] Railroad Museum, 1994

Stephen R. Potter, Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley, 1993

Robert L. Humphrey and Mary Elizabeth Chambers (afterword by Stephen R. Potter), Ancient Washington: American Indian Cultures of the Potomac Valley, GW Washington Studies, No. 6, 1977

James H. Merrill, “Cultural Continuity Among the Piscataway Indians of Colonial Maryland,” William & Mary Quarterly, Ser.3, Vol.36, 1979, pp.548-570,

Christian F. Feest, “Nanticoke and Neighboring Tribes,” Handbook of the American Indian, Vol.15, pp.240-252, Washington, 1978

Alice L. Ferguson and Henry G. Ferguson, “The Piscataway Indians of Southern Maryland,” Alice Ferguson Foundation, Accokeek, Maryland, 1960

Titus Ulke, “The Artifacts of the Potomac Valley Indians,” American Anthropologist, Vol.31, Issue 1, pp.122–129, January-March 1929

Samuel V. Proudfit, “Aboriginal Occupancy of the District of Columbia,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol.25, pp.182-193, 1923

William Henry Holmes, “Stone Implements of the Potomac-Chesapeake Tidewater Province,” Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1897

 

 

 

________________________________________________________

Carlton Fletcher

 The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.

 

 Questions and corrections may be directed to

carlton@gloverparkhistory.com

 

The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.