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Piscataway Indians

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A tribe of Algonquian linguistic stock formerly occupying the peninsula of lower Maryland between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay and northward to the Patapsco, including the present District of Columbia, and notable as being the first tribe whose Christianization was attempted under English auspices.

The name by which they were commonly known to the Maryland colonists — Pascatæ in the Latin form — was properly that of their principal village, on Piscataway Creek near its mouth, within the present Prince Georges county. After their removal to the north they were known as Conoy, a corruption of their Iriquois name. There seems to be no good ground for the assertion of Smith (1608) that they were subject to the Powhatan tribes of Virginia. Besides Piscataway, which was a palisaded village or "fort", they had about thirty other settlements, among which may be named Yaocomoco, Potopaco (Port Tobacco), Patuxent, Mattapanient (Mattapony), Mattawoman, and Nacochtank (Latin Anacostan, now Anacostia, D.C.). The original relation of these towns to one another is not very clear, but under the Maryland Government their chiefs or "kings" all recognized the chief of Piscataway as their "emperor", and held the succession subject to the ratification of the colonial "assembly". Their original population was probably nearly 2500.

The recorded history of the Piscataway begins in 1608, when Captain John Smith of Virginia sailed up the Potomac and touched at several of their villages, including Nacochtank, where "the people did their best to content us". In 1622 the same town was destroyed by a band of plunderers from Virginia, but afterward rebuilt. On 25 March, 1634, the Catholic English colony of Lord Baltimore, including the Jesuit fathers Andrew White and John Altham, and two lay brothers, landed on St. Clement's (Blackstone's) Island and established friendly relations with the people of Yaocomoco, as well as with the great chief of Piscataway, as also the chief of Potomac town on the Virginia side. The first altar was set up in an Indian wigwam. Owing to the attacks of the powerful Susquehanna at the head of the bay the people of Yaocomoco were about to remove, apparently to combine with those of Piscataway, and the English settlers bargained with them for the abandoned site.

The Jesuits at once set to work to study the language and customs of the Indians in order to reach them with Christianity. Father White, superior of the mission, whose valuable "Relatio" is almost our only monument to the Maryland tribes, composed a grammar, dictionary, and catechism in the Piscataway dialect, of which the last, if not the others, was still in existence in Rome in 1832. Another catechism was compiled later by Father Roger Rigbie at Patuxent. The Indians generally were well-disposed to the new teaching, and, other Jesuits having arrived, missions were established at St. Mary's (Yaocomoco), Mattapony, Kent Island, and, in 1639, by Father White, at the tribal capital Piscataway, which, from the name of the tapac or great chief, Kittamaquund, "Big Beaver", was sometimes known as Kittamaquindi. Here on 5 July, 1640, in presence of the governor and several of the colonial officers who attended for the purpose, Father White, with public ceremony, baptized and gave Christian names to the great chief, his wife, and daughter, and to the chief councillor and his son, afterward uniting the chief and his wife in Christian marriage. A year later the missionaries were invited to Nacochtank, and in 1642 Father White baptized the chief and several others of the Potomac tribe.

About this time the renewed inroads of the Susquehanna compelled the removal of the mission from Piscataway to Potopaco, where the woman chief and over 130 others were Christians. The work prospered until 1644, when Claiborne with the help of the Puritan refugees who had been accorded a safe shelter in the Catholic colony, seized the government, deposed the governor, and sent the missionaries as prisoners to England. They returned in 1648 and again took up the work, which was again interrupted by the confusion of the civil war in England until the establishment of the Cromwellian government in 1652 outlawed Catholicism in its own colony and brought the Piscataway mission to an end.

Under the new Government the Piscataway rapidly declined. Driven from their best lands by legal and illegal means, demoralized by liquor dealers, hunted by slave-catchers, wasted by smallpox, constantly raided by the powerful Susquehanna while forbidded the possession of guns for their own defence, their plantations destroyed by the cattle and hogs of the settlers and their pride broken by oppressive restrictions, they sank to the condition of helpless dependents whose numbers constantly diminished. In 1666 they addressed a pathetic petition to the assembly: "We can flee no further. Let us know where to live, and how to be secured for the future from the hogs and cattle". As a result reservations were soon afterward established for each of twelve villages then occupied by them. Encroachments still continued, however, and the conquest of the Susquehanna by the Iroquois in 1675 only brought down upon the Piscataway a more cruel and persistent enemy. In 1680 nearly all the people of one town were massacred by the Iroquois, who sent word to the assembly that they intended to exterminate the whole tribe. Peace was finally arranged in 1685. In 1692 each principal town was put under a nominal yearly tribute of a bow and two arrows, their chiefs to be chosen and to hold at the pleasure of the assembly. At last, in 1697, the "emperor" and principal chiefs, with nearly the entire tribe excepting apparently those on the Chaptico river reservation, abandoned their homes and fled into the backwoods of Virginia. At this time they seemed to have numbered under four hundred and this small remnant was in 1704 still further reduced by a wasting epidemic. Refusing all offers to return, they opened negotiations with the Iroquois for a settlement under their protection, and, permission being given, they began a slow migration northward, stopping for long periods at various points along the Susquehanna until in 1765 we find them living with other remnant tribes at or near Chenango (now Binghamton, New York) and numbering only about 120 souls. Thence they drifted west with the Delawares and made their last appearance in history at a council at Detroit in 1793. Those who remained in Maryland are represented today by a few negro mongrels who claim the name.

In habit and ceremony the Piscataway probably closely resembled the kindred Powhatan Indians of Virginia as described by Smith and Strachey, but except for Father White's valuable, though brief, "Relatio" we have almost no record on the subject. Their houses, probably communal, were oval wigwams of poles covered with mats or bark, and with the fire-hole in the centre and the smoke-hole in the roof above. The principal men had bed platforms, but the common people slept upon skins upon the ground. Their women made pottery and baskets, while the men made dug-out canoes and carried the bows and arrows. They cultivated corn, pumpkins, and a species of tobacco. The ordinary dress consisted simply of a breech-cloth for the men and a short deerskin apron for the women, while children went entirely naked. They painted their faces with bright colours in various patterns. They had descent in the female line, believed in good and bad spirits, and paid special reverence to corn and fire. Father White gives a meagre account of a ceremony which he witnessed at Patuxent. They seem to have been of kindly and rather unwarlike disposition, and physically were dark, very tall, muscular, and well proportioned.


     Archives of Maryland (29 vols., Baltimore, 1883-1900); BOZMAN, History of Maryland (2 vols., Baltimore, 1837); BRINTON, The Lenape and their Legends (Walam Olum) (Philadelphia, 1884); HUGHES History of the Society of Jesus in North America I, 1580-1615 (Cleveland, 1907); MOONEY AND OTHERS, Aborigines of the District of Columbia and the Lower Potomac in American Anthropologist, II (Washington, 1889); New York Colonial Documents (15 vols., Albany, 1843-87), s.v. Conoy; Piscataway, etc.; SHEA, Catholic Indian Missions (New York, 1854); SMITH, General History of Virginia (London, 1629; Richmond, 1819), ed. ARBER (Birmingham, 1884); WHITE, Relatio Itineris in Marylandiam, Maryland Historical Society Fund pub. no 7 (Baltimore, 1874).

About this page

APA citation. Mooney, J. (1911). Piscataway Indians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Mooney, James. "Piscataway Indians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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