Human History at Indian Head Spans Millenia

Jason Shellenhamer, field supervisor for the Louis Berger Group, points out differences in soil strata visible in an excavated sample pit during an archeological survey conducted in April on NSF Indian Head's Stump Neck Annex. Identifying the soil strata is important in archeological work since it can assist archeologists in determining the age of recovered artifacts and the archeological period. For this reason, archaeologists excavate stratigraphically, or one layer at a time, removing all soil from one time period before excavating the layers that preceded it. Archeologists are then able to compare results from various dig sites on one location. This provides a better interpretation of the recovered artifacts from the same soil layer. U.S. Navy photo by Andrew Revelos


      STUMP NECK, Md. -- It is hard to believe that man’s presence at Indian Head is older than the Egyptian pyramids. Archeological surveys at Naval Support Facility (NSF) Indian Head indicate that Native American Indians occupied Cornwallis Neck and Stump Neck since 10,000 years BP (before present) and continued through the early 1800s. 

      The earliest recorded occupation dates back to the Paleo-Indian period (9000-7500 B.C.).  To date, NSF Indian Head has documented over 120 archeological sites, ranging from small flakes and early pottery to a European “contact site” known as the Posey Site. It is named after Calvert Posey who was an engineer at Indian Head in the early 1960s. 

      After an explosion at one of the buildings, Calvert Posey began looking for artifacts. Based upon his early collections, the significance of the site was revealed.  With approximately 12,000 artifacts recovered at the site, crucial information is revealed on the first contact between Europeans and the local Indians tribe. It is believed that this initial contact occurred sometime between 1648 and 1670.  

      Evidence of trading - such as glass beads, clay pipes and copper - is prevalent throughout the Posey Site, indicating that the European settlers traded their goods for what is believed to be food and clothing. The Native Americans incorporated the goods received from the Europeans into their daily lives in the form of copper points for arrows and ceremonial pieces and ceramic beads for decoration and trade.

      It is important to understand that the ecosystems of today are dramatically different than those of the distant past. Archeological scholars believe that the sea level was about 340 lower than it was 10,000 years ago.  The people occupying the area at that time would have had access to significantly different resources than those found at the Posey Site. 

      As the water levels rose, the characteristics of the Potomac River changed.  During the Late Archaic Period (4000-1000 B.C.), camps were established adjacent to major waterways in order to use the varied resources associated with river systems.  These resources would have included fish, wildlife and a variety of plants. 

      With an increase in available food resources, the Native Americans developed the use of ground steatite bowls (clay bowls) for food storage.  This would have enabled longer term storage of food and other goods.  These vessels are a precursor of the ceramic bowls that were developed by Native Americans during the Woodland Period,  and are considered a primary marker between the Archaic Period and the Woodland Period.

      The appearance of ceramic technology marks the advent of the Woodland Period (1000 B.C. to 1600 A.D.).  Two types of ceramic ware common to the Early and Middle Woodland sites are the Accokeek and Popes Creek types.  The Accokeek has a cord impression on the vessel while the Popes Creek has a net impression.  Recent archeological surveys on Stump Neck revealed examples of the Popes Creek ware. 

      The Middle and Late Woodland Period saw an evolution of a diversified hunting and gathering system that was made possible by the increasingly complex riverine environment of the Chesapeake Bay. Trapping fresh and salt water fish, hunting small animals, the developing of corn horticulture and gathering other plant resources were all part of the subsistence patterns of the Woodlands people. 

      These behavioral changes led to the development of large permanent and semi-permanent stockade villages.  Two such villages, Moyaone and the Potomac Creek sites, are located near Indian Head. 

      During this time, there were also significant changes in the projectile points used in weaponry.  These changes were led by the development of the triangular points which are related to the development and use of the bow and arrow.  This allowed for the hunting of larger game such as deer and elk.

      The establishment of large villages during the Woodland Period provided the social and economic stimulus necessary to support the increase in population of Native Americans in the region.  As the population increased, so did the demand on the local resources.  It is believed that this may have led to competition and inter-tribal hostility between villages and tribes after 1300 A.D.  This is indicated by the presence of nucleated settlements and palisaded villages prior to the arrival of Europeans.  It is apparent that only the larger or more important villages, or those along the cultural borders, were palisaded.

      Early English accounts described these villages as ranging in size from 12 to 25 houses.  It is believed that these villages were occasionally moved due to agricultural practices that depleted the soil after several years of use.  Other factors contributing to village relocation included the exhaustion of local sources of fauna, wood, and other plants due to intensive hunting and gathering within a limited area around the village.

      Semi-permanent villages often served as base camps and were part of a settlement pattern that residents would use throughout the year to take advantage of the changing flora and fauna.  The archeological finds at Indian Head indicate the use of base camps but not large permanent villages. 

      The Posey Site is a permanent site, but is small in nature.  Due to the lack of a palisade or other defensive architecture, it is often referred to as a “hamlet”.  Archeologists speculate that the Posey Site could have played in several different roles.  The first one was that it served as a buffer between the colonists and the Native American populations in the “Old Pomunky Town” and other villages located to the north. 

      A second purpose was its use as a site to exploit trading with the European settlers by reprocessing goods acquired from them.  This is believed possible due to its location on the Mattawoman River and its proximity to colonial settlements.  Artifacts recovered indicate that these Native Americans utilized copper, ceramics, clay pipes, metal working tools, lead shot and other imported material. 

      A third use of the Posey Site may have been the European settlers’ need for cleared land in order to begin farming activities.  These scenarios are all possible, but until further historical and archeological research is completed, the true answer remains elusive.

      The evidence from the Posey Site suggests that the Native Americans who lived in the area into the 18th century had well-developed strategies for survival.  This conclusion is based upon the integration of elements from the traditional lifestyles with colonial lifestyles as well as the production of goods and/or services for use in a developing market economy.   Information gathered from the Posey Site indicates that the local Native Americans modified various aspects of their traditional technology for use in trade, and the survival of maintaining certain aspects of their traditional lifestyles.  This adaptation was a response to a rapidly changing economic, political, cultural and demographic environment. 

      In 1665, due to the increasing European population in southern Maryland and the decline of the Native American population, the governor of Maryland set aside all of the land between the Mattawoman and Piscataway, Creeks which included Cornwallis Neck.  This reservation was occupied by numerous local tribes including the Nacotchtanks, who moved from the Washington, D.C. area.  The Maryland law, also known as the Indian Reservation Agreement, stated that white men could not establish residence within three miles of an Indian settlement. 

      By 1720, the local Indian population dropped dramatically, from 8,400 at the time of the first settlement in St. Mary’s county (mid-1500s) to less than 200 in Southern Maryland.  Of these, it is estimated that only 30 Native Americans were living on Cornwallis Neck.  

      Although there is no specific reason for the decline, several factors including disease, war with the Susquehannocks, and abandonment of the area over broken treaties contributed to the steep drop in the Native American population.   The Susquehannocks conducted a war raid in 1681 which destroyed much of the village.  It is believed that many of the surviving Indians traveled to the fortified Indian village known as Fort Zekiah, located in the interior of Charles County. The fort existed from 1680 to 1692 when it was abandoned. 

                Archeological sites at IH continue to reveal glimpses in to the Native American lifestyles that existed and flourished for centuries. The Navy continues to fulfill its responsibility of surveying and gathering data on the historic and prehistoric occupation of NSF Indian Head.  The collection of this information will provide a valuable insight in to the way of life of those that preceded our arrival.



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