A portrait of Maryland Indians in 1681

January 07, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- History books about Maryland in the late 1600s have little to say about the Indians who remained in the colony at that time, and it's easy to conclude that the tribes had vanished from the forests by then.

A University of Virginia graduate student, however, has used the records of a 1681 murder investigation to show that 50 years after the first English settlement, Indians were still in the state -- hunting and making canoes for white planters, trading with them and even living alongside them for weeks at a time.

Documents from the murder inquiry by Maryland's Provincial Court also reveal that the Indians lived under a kind of racial apartheid imposed by suspicious white authorities. Indians were told where to live, forbidden to own guns and made to seek passes before crossing political boundaries.

"It's revealing how intimately involved the Native Americans are with the English colonists at a time when it's been said they were so decimated that they were not really doing anything that important," said Virginia Busby, of Culpeper, Va., a doctoral candidate in anthropology.

Maryland's Indian population had been reduced by disease and other factors at the time. The fur trade in which they had participated earlier in the 17th century had declined along with -- the beaver population. But many Indians stayed until early in the 18th century, Ms. Busby said, when they relinquished their land and moved north to Pennsylvania.

Today's Indian groups in Maryland claim descent from remnants of tribes that remained in the state or returned and learned to live amid the dominant culture.

Ms. Busby, 26, described her research yesterday in Washington at the 28th annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, taking the opportunity to caution archaeologists not to rule out the presence of Indians at Maryland sites dated to the late 1600s, or to overlook the possible artifacts of their economic activity.

The challenge, she said, "is to write Native Americans back into the colonial past."

The murder investigation was triggered by the killing in May 1681 of five men -- one named Thomas Potter -- and a woman near Point Lookout, at the southernmost tip of St. Mary's County. No details of the crime appear in the court records, Ms. Busby said. All Indians in the region were suspect, however, because of the frequency of frontier raids. Many of the raids were launched from the north by Senecas allied with tribes in New York.

The murder victims were all Protestants, and amid the religious antagonisms of the day, Protestants frequently suspected the colony's Catholic government of conspiring with "savage" Indians to kill or drive off Protestant settlers.

"That's one of the images that does make it into the modern histories -- the Indians as savages," Ms. Busby said.

One angry Protestant rabble-rouser, John Coode, erupted in court after the murders. "God damne all the Catholik Papist dogs," he said, according to the records. "I will be revenged of them and spend the best blood of my body."

Colonial authorities began bringing Indians into court to explain where they were and what they were doing at the time of the killings, and what they knew of the movements of other Indian groups. Through interpreters, they also had to explain how they had come to possess the European goods they carried.

Eight Piscataways brought to court from the towns of Choptico and Patuxent told investigators that they were not near the murder site. They said they had been hunting and making canoes for English settlers in Maryland and Virginia. One of their favorite customers was Nicholas Spencer, a Virginian who lived across the Potomac from St. Mary's City.

The Piscataways testified that they sometimes stayed in a house on Mr. Spencer's planation for weeks at a time while they hunted game, made canoes and traded. In all, they said, four separate groups of Indians had visited the Spencer place.

Nanzatico Indians from Virginia and Nanjemoys from Maryland told authorities that they had been trading with Nanticokes on the Eastern Shore, swapping puccoon root (a source of red dye) for shell beads. They later went to Mr. Spencer's to trade deerskins for cotton cloth.

These and other records suggest that whites relied on Indians for valuable deer skins, Ms. Busby said. They recognized Indians as the best hunters and regularly employed them to supply game.

Although the Maryland Indian laws and treaties were often sidestepped, they dictated where Indians could live and required that they check in with rangers appointed to monitor their movements across county or colony lines. When they encountered whites along the way, Ms. Busby said, they had to put down their weapons and wave a white flag.

Two white witnesses before the court reported that the Nanzatico and Nanjemoy bands they encountered near Point Lookout at the time of the murders had produced passes allowing them to be in the area.

Ms. Busby said Virginia ethno-historian Martha McCartney has called the system, which was used in Virginia and Maryland, "Native American apartheid" because of its resemblance to the former South African racial laws.

Maryland investigators hoping to connect the Indians with the RTC murder scene asked the Piscataways to explain where they had obtained the English spoons they carried, revealing more about English goods they had acquired.

Eventually, the Maryland Indians were all cleared of suspicion in the killings. The deaths were blamed on the Senecas, Ms. Busby said, but because the English in New York were making final a peace treaty with tribes there, no one was prosecuted.

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