As a leader at the Jamestown settlement, Smith explored and mapped the Bay and its rivers. He interacted with many native people along the way and later created a starring role for himself in the Pocahontas story. He has been featured in books and movies. The anniversary of his travels in 1607 and 1608 has spawned high-profile events across the Bay region and launched the start of a national historic water trail in his name.
But Americans' fascination with lone heroes has long skewed the stories of Smith and this pivotal time period. It's a problem that organizers of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail want to correct. While much of the public attention to the trail has focused on recreating the route of Smith's journey, one of missions given to the National Park Service in legislation creating the trail was to heighten awareness of his interactions with Native American cultures.
"What we had were two peoples looking at each other for the first time," said Dr. Gabrielle Tayac, a historian and curator with the National Museum of the American Indian. "The most fascinating part is not that Smith was in the boat, but what he saw along the way."
The image of a man forging through untouched wilderness never seems to lose its romantic appeal. Yet, it falls woefully short of describing the encounters between wealth-seeking Englishmen and the complex societies that existed here before they arrived.
The colonial viewpoint expressed in Smith's journals has persisted in many forms. Today, many people view the Bay's native people as playing little more than brief supporting roles in the story of a developing nation.
"The first misconception is that these were bands of roving savages, boundless and thoughtless, chasing buffalo," Tayac said. "What Smith actually saw were very complex and dynamic societies, with highly subtle agricultural practices, a complex religion and an interesting balance between men and women."
A second misconception is that the Bay's native people are gone. Their communities lost thousands to death and migration after the Europeans arrived. But others survived and stayed in their homeland, opting to live at the edge of a racist society that largely ignored their existence. They often lived in rural enclaves, excluded from white churches and schools. In Virginia, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 made it illegal for people to identify themselves as Indians. The act was in place until 1967.
Over recent decades, tribes of the region have worked to reassert their identities and gain government recognition. Virginia now recognizes eight native tribes: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi, Monocan Indian Nation, Nansemond, Pamunkey and Rapahannock. Delaware recognizes the Nanticoke.
The Accohannock Indian Tribe, Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians, Pocomoke Indians, Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes are based in Maryland.
Neither Maryland nor the federal government officially recognize any Chesapeake tribes. And many people still don't know that the Bay's native people live among them.
"It's a source of considerable consternation," said Tayac, a Piscataway. "We may not look how you think we are supposed to, but our communities are right here, along with everyone else who is part of this developing society."
The tribes are actively pursuing broader government recognition and promoting their heritage through outreach activities such as public talks and events.
Many are working with the National Park Service and Friends of the John Smith Water Trail to ensure that their experiences, and those of their ancestors, are integrated with the trail.
Seventeen tribes have historical ties to the trail, along with many contemporary descendants. Trail organizers want their stories to unfold in ways that many people have not yet heard.
"There are huge amounts of information about what happened to the people around the Chesapeake Bay that have never been told," said Deanna Beacham a Virginia Indian historian and consultant. "Europeans wrote in great detail about what they were doing and how they were interacting with these people, even bragging about some horrendous things. The rest of this story has never been told, but it's still out there, available to anyone who wants to dig through the books as passionately as the English dug out what they wanted to find."
Virginia Busby, an archaeologist and member of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, agrees that Native American history in the Bay region continues to be under-appreciated. "The wonderful thing is the variation," Busby said. "How native groups were organized, and how they embraced or conflicted with colonists. Their stories are so different."
When Smith and the other Englishmen arrived at Jamestown, they entered a world of multiple tribes living on both sides of the Bay. Many, but not all, tribes were connected to one of several overarching or paramount chiefdoms. Tribes within a paramount chiefdom maintained independent identities but paid tribute to a paramount chief.
The three large paramount chiefdoms were the Powhatan, Piscataway and the Nanticoke. The Powhatan tribes lived mostly in what has become Virginia, from the James River north to the Rappahannock. Piscataway tribes were based in what is now southern Maryland, along the Potomac River.
The Nanticoke lived on the Eastern Shore. "Smith described the Nanticoke as the best traders on the Bay with fur and white shell beads," Busby said. "They were quite a force, and maintained their identity as a strong, cohesive group well into the 18th century."
The size of the native population at that time is difficult to determine, but scholars estimate that more than 20,000 people lived in the Powhatan and Piscataway paramount chiefdoms alone.
Nothing about their lives was as simplistic as stereotypes suggest.
Most tribes were governed by a hereditary chief, supported by a council of elders and a system of supporting leaders or weroances. A weroance could be male or female.
"Native American women are usually portrayed as drudges, but they were in a far more powerful position than their European counterparts in 1608," Tayac said. "They could take on chiefly roles and participate in the council, and they controlled much of the food supply."
The council of elders advised the chief and led complicated spiritual ceremonies. They also consulted closely with healers and war leaders. Tribes lived in towns, but traveled the Bay region widely by canoe, spending time in camps that took seasonal advantage of fishing and hunting sites.
None of this, Tayac notes, sprung into existence when the Englishmen stepped off their boats.
"A lot of people think about American Indian history as starting in 1607 in Virginia, and 1634 in Maryland," Tayac said. "But the fact is you have more than 11,000 years of history here before Smith arrived."
References to Bay tribes also disappear shortly after the era of John Smith. The result is that one small slice of Native history has been used to define the whole.
"We hear about the contact period, from 1607 and a while after that, then nothing," Tayac said. "Much later, we sometimes hear that two tribes still present a deer to Virginia's governor every year. Well, where was everybody in the meantime? Where were they while they were fishing, crabbing, organizing churches and did all they could to keep their medicines, their arts and their philosophies alive?"
A focus on the contact period also limits the interpretation of native cultures to a time of conflict.
"Lots of what we know about native people was in the context of disruption, fear and loss-a time of really abnormal circumstances on all sides," Tayac said. "Do we understand Virginia only in the context of the Civil War? We may think about it a lot, but it doesn't characterize the entire experience."
Humanizing both sides of the conflict is important, too, because it helps non-native people understand the legacy that it created. But confronting the details of such violence can be difficult.
"It's one thing to watch native dancing and say, 'Isn't that pretty?' It's another thing to hear about a massacre and how people have been dispossessed and raise questions about rights," Tayac said.
In 2007, a new Virginia highway marker became one example of how this can happen successfully. The Virginia Indian Council and Virginia Department of Historic Resources worked together to create and dedicate the highway marker, which commemorates a 1610 massacre of Paspahegh by the English.
Jamestown setters burned the Paspahegh town while most of the men were away hunting, killing about 16 people. They took the chief's wife and children hostage, but soon changed their minds.
An Englishman's eyewitness account describes what happened next. The men began to murmur, unhappy that "the quene and her Children weare spared." They decided to put the children to death "by Throweinge them overboard and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water. Yet for all this Crewellty the Sowldiers weare nott well pleased." The queen was later killed by a sword.
Tayac said that the purpose of airing such details is to promote understanding, not guilt. "The Paspahegh project was an extremely healing partnership, with American people of all different backgrounds who wanted to commemorate what happened there," she said. "It was very inspiring."
In the middle of this complicated web of history, emotions and policy, partners on the John Smith trail are excited about sharing Native American perspectives more broadly. Meetings with native communities over the coming year will be focus on ideas for where and how that might happen along the trail.
Certain areas appear to be natural focal points. Rod Torrez of the National Park Service said that some Eastern Shore interpretive sites will likely fall along the Nanticoke River and in shoreline areas surrounding Vienna, MD, which once was the heart of Nanticoke country.
The Rappahannock River is rich with heritage, as well as the Chickahominy River, where plans for a water trail are already under way.
Jefferson Patterson Park on the Patu-xent River has worked with many Maryland tribes to interpret native life. Staff at National Colonial Farm are actively consulting with native people on how their site in Piscataway Park, a historical hub of the Piscataway chiefdom, can help visitors better appreciate the tribal life that existed there.
"We're just in the first chapter," Torrez said, "but there are lots of places Baywide that this effort will influence. Hopefully, we'll get some stories out there that people aren't used to hearing."
One thread that may connect them is the Chesapeake Bay itself.
The Bay's native people share traditions and spiritual beliefs that are deeply rooted in the land and its many creatures. Their cultures have long nurtured an understanding that humans participate in the web of life, but shouldn't dominate it. As native ways were disrespected and excluded from the mainstream United States, the message of stewardship was lost too.
"As an indigenous person, you understand that you have a responsibility to not take more than you are given. The natural world nourishes you, and you have to nourish it back," Beacham said. "People haven't been doing that to the Bay for 400 years now, and it shows. To me, the native values we can share through the John Smith trail might help other people to enjoy the Bay, feel attached to it, and care about it in a way that has nothing to do with ethnicity."
Native American Resources
The best way to get information about local tribes is to contact them directly or visit their websites. The most comprehensive collections of web addresses and contact details for local tribes is found at these two sites:
- Virginia Council on Indians: Includes information about and links to the eight tribes recognized by Virginia, a suggested reading list and other links.
- Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs: Includes links to Maryland tribes, events and heritage information.
- Friends of the John Smith Trail: Includes details about the trail and general background on Native American life in the Bay region.
- Virtual Jamestown: Includes video interviews with contemporary tribe members, historical images and text and teaching materials.
- Virginia's First People: Site from the Virginia Department of Education includes lots of teachers aids.
- Virginia Indian Heritage Program
"Virginia Indian Heritage Trail" is available for $7 plus S&H at the Virginia Foundations for the Humanities at 145 Ednam Drive, Charlottesville, VA 22903-4629 or by calling 434-924-3296.
The National Museum of the American Indian is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Call 202-633-1000 or visit www.nmai.si.edu/. The exhibit, "Return to a Native Place: Algonquian Peoples of the Chesapeake" introduces visitors to the native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region-what is now Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Delaware-through photographs, maps, ceremonial and everyday objects, and interactive activities. Visitors are educated on the continued native presence in the region, and provided with an overview of the history and events from the 1600s to the present that have impacted the lives of the Nanticoke, Powhatan and Piscataway tribes. It is curated by Gabrielle Tayac, Ph.D., a Piscataway.