Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Indigenous people of Montgomery County, Maryland

My home has been near Washington DC in Montgomery County, Maryland for a decade and I was long overdue in learning who lived here before me. I don't mean 11 years ago. I mean before Europeans arrived.

It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, so I emailed the Maryland Division of Historical & Cultural Programs:

I've been poking around trying to determine what Indigenous people lived in what is now Bethesda. I've scanned numerous articles about the people of Maryland before Europeans and they mention many MD counties, but oddly, so far, none have mentioned Montgomery County. Best I can tell from my cursory search, I believe it may have been the Piscataway, the Nacotchtank, or both?

I heard back from Matthew D. McKnight, Ph.D., Chief Archaeologist - Maryland Historical Trust, at the Maryland Department of Planning, who kindly allowed me to share his helpful reply:

You ask a very interesting question, and I think you hit upon the answer. Based on what early English records exist, the best guess as to which Native American group(s) would have inhabited the Bethesda area at time of Contact is the Nacotchtank or Anacostans

We know from the records in Virginia that the Patawomeck controlled the Virginia side of the Potomac and that they allied themselves with the English, and we know that they often fought with the Nacotchtank who controlled the opposing Maryland side. The Piscataway were the principal tribe on much of Maryland western shore and many native groups were allied with them in a kind of confederacy. The Nacotchtank were one such group.

Unfortunately, disease and warfare decimated the population to the extent that by the time European settlement moved farther inland (to Bethesda and greater Montgomery County), we don't have first-hand written accounts of Indigenous people because much of the area had been abandoned. 

By the 1680s there is some archival evidence that suggests the area had become a route south for the Seneca, Susquehannock, and other northern tribes who were at war with the Piscataway. There are some accounts of northern Indians building forts in Montgomery County, which suggests abandonment. We do have archaeology documenting plenty of pre-Contact occupation, but tying particular archaeological "finds" to the named tribes of the historic period has always been difficult.

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