Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program

Indigenous peoples were the Chesapeake Bay region’s earliest human residents and were among the first in the Western Hemisphere to encounter European explorers and colonists.

They did not leave written accounts of their time here, but they did leave records in the form of artifacts such as stone tools, animal bones, and ceramic pots. Today, there are tens of thousands of people in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia who identify as American Indian.

Photo Credit: dmvphotos/Shutterstock

Pre-European settlement tribes and artifacts


Paleo-Indians were the first inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay region. Archeologists recognize the Paleo-Indian culture by a stone tool called the Clovis point: an elongated, fluted spearhead.

When Paleo-Indians lived, the region’s climate was much colder than it is now. Paleo-Indians spent their days roaming the area’s coniferous forests. They probably hunted large animals such as mammoths and mastodons for food.

Archaic Indians

The Archaic Indians lived from 9,000 to 3,000 years ago. They had to adapt to a rapidly changing environment by learning to use warmer-climate plants and new foods brought in from rising waters.

Archaic Indians traded with other groups for soapstone, which they made into pipes, beads and cooking utensils. Although the Archaic Indians lived away from the Chesapeake Bay shores, they made seasonal visits to fish, hunt, gather roots and harvest oysters.

In the 1970s, archeologists discovered Archaic-period stone tools while digging a hole for the White House swimming pool.

Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a John White drawings American Indians of North Carolina cooking fish. Tribes in the Chesapeake Bay region likely used similar cooking methods for rockfish and other Bay species.

Woodland Indians

Woodland Indians dominated the Chesapeake region until European settlers arrived. Woodland Indians used ceramic pottery, horticulture and, later, the bow and arrow.

Woodland Indians were more sedentary than previous American Indians. They built small villages as farming progressively became more important. They still established small hunting camps to take advantage of the Bay’s bounty.

Recorded American Indian history

Recorded American Indian history in the Chesapeake region began around 1600 when newly arrived European settlers started keeping records. Captain John Smith, who explored the Bay in 1607, found primarily Algonquin-speaking American Indians living by its shores.

Many distinct tribes with their own chief lived around the Chesapeake Bay. In 1607, the region included three major chiefdoms: the Powhatan, the Piscataway and the Nanticoke. Many of the tribes in the Chesapeake Bay region belong to one of these three chiefdoms, although there were some who kept their independence.

The term “Powhatan Indians” is used by some to describe the tribes who were thought to have paid tribute to Powhatan, the most influential leader in the area now known as eastern Virginia. Although as many as 30 separate Algonquian-speaking tribes were in Eastern Virginia when the English arrived, it is unknown exactly how many paid tribute to Powhatan.

Despite its deep history, strength, and culture, the region’s American Indian population fell catastrophically after European settlers arrived. Experts estimate that the Powhatan chiefdom included about 12,000 people in 1607; only 1,000 were left by 1700. The Piscataway chiefdom had about 8,500 members at the time of English settlement; only 300 remained by 1700.

Many were killed or died of disease, while others migrated away from the region. Wars, loss of land and epidemics devastated indigenous communities. Oral tradition was a critical part of preserving cultural knowledge, meaning the stories of some tribes are known only through the artifacts and archaeological sites they left behind. But other tribes remain to tell their stories today.

Archaeological sites

Scientists estimate there are at least 100,000 archaeological sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Just a small percentage of these are documented.

Most archaeological sites are susceptible to destructive natural and man-made factors, such as development, farming practices, and sea-level rise. Fortunately, preserving historic artifacts goes hand-in-hand with efforts to clean up the Bay. For example, stabilizing shorelines and using agricultural conservation practices such as conservation tillage help reduce erosion and protect areas where archaeological sites are most likely to exist.

American Indians and Powhatan tribal leaders pose in front of Virginia State Capitol during ceremonies for the 400th Anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement on May 3, 2007. Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Tribes today

Today, the indigenous cultures of the Chesapeake Bay region are vibrant and thriving, testimony to their continued determination. Tens of thousands of people across the watershed identify as American Indian.

  • The Commonwealth of Virginia has formally recognized 11 tribes: the Chickahominy Tribe, Eastern Chickahominy Tribe, Mattaponi Tribe, Monacan Indian Nation, Nansemond Tribe, Pamunkey Tribe, Rappahannock Tribe, Upper Mattaponi Tribe, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Nottoway of Virginia and Patawomeck. The Pamunkey tribe is the first Virginia tribe to be recognized by the federal government.
  • The State of Maryland has formally recognized two tribes: the Piscataway Indian Nation and Piscataway Conoy Tribe. The Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs serves eight indigenous tribes in the state.
  • The State of Delaware has formally recognized the Nanticoke Indian Association.

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...