Native American Heritage
Native Americans: Dorchester’s Original Settlers
Europeans who first explored and later colonized the land that now is Dorchester County discovered that another civilization pre-existed their arrival. For many generations before the appearance of Englishmen in the 1600s, Indians had been hunting game in the forests, clearing land for farming and harvesting seafood from the rivers, creeks and, of course, the Chesapeake Bay. The Choptanks and the Nanticokes—the two most predominant tribes—lived in villages, established trails through the countryside, traded with one another and governed themselves under rulers with such names as Ababco, Tequehapan, Vinnacokasimmon and Hatsawap. Some local historians speculate that a third tribe, an offshoot of a larger community of Indians associated with Maryland’s western shore, traveled across the Chesapeake Bay where they foraged on the chain of marshy islands English settlers later named Hoopers.
In 1608, only a year after the first permanent English settlers in the New World landed on the banks of Virginia’s James River and a dozen years before the Mayflower dropped anchor within site of New England, Capt. John Smith sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in an open boat or “shallop” in search of precious metals and a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. When Smith and his crew ventured up the Nanticoke River past today’s Elliott’s and Green islands, they were met with a shower of arrows fired by Indians who most likely lived in the nearby town of Nause. The Englishmen cautiously spent the night out of arrow range in the middle of the river and came ashore the next day near another Indian town located close to present-day Vienna in eastern Dorchester. This second encounter with what some explorers called “naturals” was friendlier. Smith and his crew traded with the Nanticokes and several members of the tribe agreed to act as guides as the Englishmen explored farther up the river before returning to the Chesapeake.
The Choptanks and the Nanticokes are namesakes of the rivers that define Dorchester County’s upper and lower borders. Inland from the low-lying Chesapeake Bay shoreline, the relatively high ground and easy access to waterways was as appealing to English settlers as it had been to generations of Indians. In fact, the city of Cambridge, Dorchester’s seat of government, was laid out in the late 1600s upon part of the site of what was the largest and longest-lasting of several Indian reservations in the region.
The relationship between the local Native Americans and the English was mostly peaceful, but colonial law favored whites and gave European customs and interests dominance over Indian traditions and needs. If an Indian encountered a settler along a trail, for instance, law required that the Indian throw down his weapons or be viewed as an enemy. Native Americans neither shared nor fully understood the European concept of property ownership. Indians established towns, but followed the seasons in pursuit of food in other areas. Sometimes, upon returning to their homes, they discovered that whites had taken over their land.
Dorchester tribes erected shelters and meeting houses of wood from nearby forests. No trace of them exists today. The structures either fell apart from natural decay or were cleared by settlers to make room for their own buildings. Still, much evidence of the Native American’s who lived here survives to this day—from place names and trails to burial grounds and countless artifacts.
The overall effect of European colonization on Dorchester’s Native Americans was a gradual and nearly total exodus from the region. By the 1740s, most Indians, facing continued encroachment on their lands by settlers eager to expand their farming, trapping and timber trades, had migrated to other settlements in Delaware, Pennsylvania and regions father north. But not all Indians left their homeland. Some remained and married into families of white settlers and free blacks. Today, Dorchester is home to many residents who proudly claim Indian heritage.