Piscataway-Conoy Tribe of Maryland
When English explorer John Smith arrived in what is now Maryland in 1608, he was astounded by the bounty that would later become the lifeblood of its colonization. He noted that there was, “No place more perfect for man’s habitation,” than the Chesapeake Bay. And he was right. The bay and its rivers offered a hearty supply of crabs, fish, oysters and waterfowl, while the forests and hills teemed with bear, deer, fox, rabbit, turkey and game birds of all kind. Maryland was a virtual paradise with seemingly endless resources. The English had discovered what native people had known for millennia.
The first known inhabitants of Maryland were Paleo-Indians who had gradually migrated here from other parts of the continent following bison, caribou and mammoth, and began to establish permanent settlements along its rivers and streams. By the first millennium B.C.E., Maryland was home to about 40 tribes, most of which were in the Algonquin language family. They traded with other tribes as far away as New York and Ohio, and established a complex society.
Colonization was tumultuous for the Piscataway. Already facing aggressive incursions by the Susquehannocks from the north, they began to slowly lose control of their ancestral lands to settlers. Colonial governments granted the Piscataway reservations called manors, but by 1800, even those rights were retracted.
Their alliance began to crumble as the various bands splintered and sought new lands. The largest contingent of the tribe, by this time known as the Conoy, migrated to Pennsylvania and settled for a time by the Susquehanna River with their former enemies—the Haudenosaunee—and sought the protection of German Christians.
The American Revolution took a toll on a number of tribes as they allied with one side or the other. By the end of the war, their villages were devastated. The Piscataway-Conoy were not spared this tragedy, and their remaining numbers were scattered. Some traveled northwest to what is now Detroit and parts of Canada, where they were absorbed into local tribes. Today, their descendants live with the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation in Ontario. Others fled south where they merged with various tribes in North Carolina. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Piscataway had disappeared.
Through it all, a small number of the tribe remained in Southern Maryland, scattered among the towns and villages, no longer a unified people. Over the years, they gradually melted into the local fabric, living quiet, rural lives.
The Piscataway lost something more than their tribe; they lost their identity as a people. The government at the time did not have a census category for Native Americans, so they were counted as and considered “mulatto” or “negro.” Not only did society not view them as Piscataway, they were not even seen as Native Americans. Although they still self-identified as Piscataway, their traditions faded with time. They were regarded as outsiders in their own communities, neither white nor black, but something different and undefined.