American Indians > Indians & the Bay

Natives and the Bay – town
A Nause fishing camp on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore. If the Natives’ main town was not convenient to the spring fish runs, they built temporary summer fishing camps that might have looked like this.
Natives and the Bay – fishing
Accomac fishermen on the Lower Eastern Shore. In addition to spearing fish, the natives caught fish in weirs—fences built across a stream or river.
Natives and the Bay – dugout canoe
Dugout canoes were made by a laborious process of burning and scraping until the tree trunk was hollowed out and the bottom flattened.

For Native peoples, the Chesapeake Bay was a source of sustenance, a transportation lifeline, and a home.

Traditional lifestyles revolved around the Bay’s natural resources. The waters teemed with life, the tall forests sheltered an immense variety of animals, birds, and plant, and the soil was rich and fertile. The beauty and bounty of the Bay made it an attractive place to live in the early 1600s, just as it does today.

Seasons on the Bay

Life changed with the seasons. Most of the year, the Native peoples lived in towns or villages along the water’s edge. But twice a year, in spring and fall, some of them left these communities for hunting and fishing camps to enjoy the wild foods of the season.

  • Spring brought fish runs of herring, shad, striped bass, and sturgeon to the Chesapeake, and it also brought the Indians to coastal camps to harvest the spawning fish. Men trapped fish in a complicated system of weirs and nets, and caught them with spears. Smoking over open fires preserved the fish.
  • Summer was a time of plenty. Women and children spent much of their days in the fields and gardens growing corn, squash, and beans. They also gathered berries and herbs and foraged for tuckahoe roots and wild rice. Men hunted creatures large and small, from deer and bear to muskrats and turtles. Passenger pigeons in the skies and shellfish at the water’s edge offered an abundant choice of food.
  • Fall was a time to leave the town for communal hunts of large animals and migratory ducks, and geese. It was also a time for gathering a variety of nuts: acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, and hickory nuts.
  • Winter was a time of year when  people were less active. They lived on stored foods they had put away the rest of the year while they made tools, mats, and clothing, and shared knowledge through stories.

Towns by the Bay

The Indians moved their towns up and down the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay with regularity. Every few years, as old garden plots became depleted of nutrients, they would clear land for planting. When the new fields were located a distance away from their houses, they would build new homes and over time, the whole town would slowly move to a different location.

An ideal town site was on a forested waterway with a landing place for canoes,  a marsh nearby with reeds for mats and plants and fish for food, and good quality, level land above the flood plain for planting. Springs provided drinking water. 

The locations of Indian towns recorded on Captain John Smith’s 1612 map represent a snapshot in time but not a permanent record of American Indian habitations. See maps of American Indian towns along the major rivers of the Bay.

Water Transportation

The Bay’s waterways were used for fishing but also for transportation, migration, communications, and trade. In a land with pathways for foot travel, waterways were the fastest and easiest way to get around.

The Indians of the Chesapeake Bay relied on large dugout canoes as their main form of transport. They felled huge cypress,  Atlantic white cedar, and yellow poplar trees, and hollowed them out by burning patches and scraping out the wood. A finished canoe could carry 10 or more people and their baggage from place to place.

Why Were Canoes Important?

“Their canoes...they make them with one form of a trough. Some of them are an ell deep and 40 or 50 foot in length, but the most ordinary are smaller and will ferry 10 or 20 with some luggage over their broadest rivers. Instead of oars they use paddles and sticks with which they row faster than we in our barges.”

- Captain John Smith, 1612

The Native peoples of the Chesapeake relied heavily on the canoe as their primary means of transportation. The most common canoe was the dugout, made from the trunk of a large, straight tree. These canoes could be quite large, up to 45 ft. long and 3 ft. deep, and could carry up to 40 people. They were not very maneuverable, and paddling them was very hard work, but they were highly valued by the Indians because of their usefulness.

Once a good tree was located, it would be felled by girdling, or stripping its bark off so that the tree died, or burning a fire at its base and chopping with stone axes. After felling, the tree was floated to the community for the manufacturing work.  The log was shaped by building small fires on its surface and then scraping away the charred wood with oyster shells. Mud was packed on the edges of the log to limit the extent of the burning. This laborious process of burning and scraping would be repeated until the trunk was hollowed out and the bottom flattened to make the canoe stable in the water.

Birch-bark canoes were sometimes seen on the Chesapeake used by northern tribes who lived  where the bark needed for canoe making was available. These canoes were faster and more maneuverable than the dugouts.  They could be used by the northern Natives to conduct very effective raids.

Did You Know?

Natives of the Chesapeake tracked time and seasons. According to some English writers, passing years were counted by the number of winters, or cohonks—the sound of migrating geese flying overhead.


Learn More about American Indians and the Chesapeake Bay

  • Read more from the Virginia’s Mariners’ Museum about how the Algonquian tribes made and used aquintains,  their name for dugout canoes.
  • Visit the Pamunkey Indian Reservation where you can learn how the tribe’s relationship to the Pamunkey River dates back thousands of years.
  • Experience the Monacan Indian Village, a living history exhibit at Natural Bridge State Park.

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