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.
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.
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.
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.
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