This month, we share the brief history of indigenous people of Washington Grove environs that Town resident Ann Philips has researched and compiled with information contributed by Sarah Hedlund, Montgomery County Librarian/Archivist, and Heather Bouslog, Montgomery County Parks Archeologist. The generous collaboration of resident Wendy Harris and former resident Clare Kelly proved equally invaluable to Ann, who undertook this project with an eye towards eventually including it in Washington Grove’s Wikipedia entry.
The land where Washington Grove, and all of Montgomery County, now stands was traveled and inhabited by indigenous people from around 10,000 BCE. Members of the Massawomeck, Susquehannock, Seneca (Iroquois), and Piscataway-Conoy tribes lived in the area at the time of 17th century contact with Europeans, primarily using the land as crossover territory toward rock shelters, encampments, and sizable villages near the Potomac River. (1) (2) Tribal boundaries were fluid. By 1700 most indigenous tribes had suffered rapid population decline due to infectious diseases and wars and had been forced out by English colonists. (3)
12,000 years ago, an era colder than today’s climate, Paleo-Indian people moved together over the evergreen-covered landscape in small groups, adapting to changing seasons as they hunted bison, giant beavers and mammoth using poles tipped with fluted points made from worked stone. Points have been found in the area where Seneca Creek flows into the Potomac River. (4) (5) (6)
9000 years ago, the climate warmed and plants and animals similar to today’s species spread along the Potomac. Signs of human occupation can be found along the Potomac near Dickerson and other areas. (4)
Around 3500 years ago, tribes settled more permanently although still moving seasonally across woodlands, streams, and rivers. Seed collecting led to agriculture, and pottery-making began. A settlement near Potomac Maryland dated from this period included burial sites for both humans and their dogs. (4) (6)
In the environs of Washington Grove is a steatite (soapstone) quarry site listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, possibly dating from this Late Archaic time period. The presence of flaked stone tools suggests that Native Americans conducted quarrying here prior to the site’s use by local farmers and Washington Grove residents. (7)
By 1300 AD, indigenous people began to establish large settlements along the Potomac River, its islands, and uplands. They named the area Cohongoroota, “The Land Above the Falls”. The Piscataway people built longhouses ten feet high and twenty feet long, with barrel-shaped roofs covered with bark or woven mats. Villages were surrounded by palisades for protection, and outside were fields of maize, beans, squash, and leaf vegetables such as Chenopodium (goosefoot), Amaranthus and other plants. The bow and arrow were commonly used in hunting and warfare. A rock shelter in Gaithersburg near Seneca Creek (the Hargett-King Rockshelter) contained a blue bead, suggesting contact with Europeans. (4) (6)
In 1608, John Smith identified 166 tribes, including the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Powhatan group in Virginia, the Piscataway in Southern Maryland, and the Nachotank (Anacostia) near the Anacostia River. Montgomery County was ringed by non-Algonquian speaking groups who were often hostile but were also trading partners: the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock’s near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (Susquehanna River), and the Siouan-speaking Monocans and Mannohoac west of the fall-line below the Potomac River. The Potomac River Valley was a major corridor in and out of the region. The tribes most prevalent in the area of Montgomery County just prior to European arrival were the Piscataway Conoy and the Susquehannock. (8)
In the late 1600’s, on Conoy Island near Point of Rocks, 150 Piscataway-Conoy people retreating from colonists’ discrimination built houses in a palisaded village, speaking an Algonquian language now extinct. By 1722 the tribe had lost two-thirds of their population. (9)(4) Fearing further encroachment and hostility, the Piscataway-Conoy people left the area, some moving into Pennsylvania and farther north. Today, descendants of the northern migrants live on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation reserve in Ontario. Some members moved to Virginia and a few families stayed in their traditional homeland in Maryland. The three groups have identified as the Piscataway Indian Nation and Tayca Territory, the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Sub-Tribes, and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians. (10)
As of December 2017, three tribes are recognized by the State of Maryland: The Piscataway Indian Nation, the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, and the Accohannock Indian Tribe. None of the tribes are federally recognized. (11)
As of the 2020 census, 40,000 Maryland residents self-identify as Native American. (12)
1 “Tribes and Cultures”, National Park Service. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
2 “First Nations Across North America Map”, National Park Service. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
3 “Native Land”, Native Land Digital. Retrieved April 10, 2021.
4 “Native American Heritage Trail Guide” (PDF), sugarloafregionaltrails.org, 2016.
5 Walston, Mark, “The Montgomery County Story” (PDF), Montgomery County Historical Society, February 1986.
6 Maryland Archeological Conservation Lab, 2002. Maryland.gov. Retrieved April 12, 2021.
7 Washington Grove, MD National Register Nomination document (2020). Retrieved April 12, 2021.
8 Dent, Richard (1995). Chesapeake Prehistory, New York: Plenum Press.
9 Wikipedia: Piscataway Indian Nation and Tayac Territory. Retrieved April 20, 2021
10 Piscataway Conoy Tribe website. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
11 “Tribal Consultation”, Maryland Historical Trust. Maryland.gov. Retrieved May 19, 2021.
12 U.S. Census website, United States Census Bureau. Retrieved April 22, 2021.