Although there are no federally recognized Native American tribes in Maryland today, the original inhabitants of the area were composed of six tribes: the Lenape, the Nanticoke, the Powhatan, the Ohio Valley, the Susquehannok, and Tutelo and Saponi.
The Lenape lived mostly in the northeastern corner of the state prior to the 1700s, when a number of eastern tribes were displaced by colonial expansion. Also known as Lenni Lenape, meaning “true people,” or the Delaware Indians, because of their geographic location along the Delaware River, the Lenape traded beaver pelts, food, and land for various hunting, fishing, and maintenance goods.
The Nanticoke tribe, which included the Piscataway and Conoy, lived in the easternmost parts between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays and became known for sheltering escaped slaves during a critical period of American history. Capt. John Smith was first introduced to the “Tidewater People” in 1608, trading animal pelts and roanoke beads made of shells for hunting and fishing goods.
Occupying the lower southwestern parts of the state were the Powhatan, including the Accohannock. Also known by Capt. Smith, who named 100 of nearly 200 Powhatan villages on his exploratory map of the region, it was Chief Powhatan, who married his daughter, Pocahontas, to John Rolfe.
The Shawnee and Ohio Valley tribes lived in the most interior parts of Maryland, to the north and west of the Chesapeake. Tecumseh, a Shawnee military and political figure, worked ardently with his brother in an effort to unite Native American tribes against European settlers.
The Susquehannok, or “People at the Falls,” also called the Conestoga by the English, were a Native American confederacy of tribes that lived in scattered villages along the shores of the Susquehanna River. At the conclusion of a peace treaty with the Maryland in 1652, the Susquehannok ceded large territories and relocated to the north.
In 1609, Captain Smith described the Tutelo and Saponi tribes as “barbarous, subsisting on the products of the chase and wild fruits.” In Maryland, their territory was adjacent to the lands of the Shawnee, Susquehannok, and Powhatan tribes, and while their greatest enemies were the Iroquois, the Tutelo and Saponi tribes frequently warred with other tribes, particularly the Powhatan.
By the 1700s, patience and tolerance between Native American tribes and European settlements had worn thin and given way to various forms of hostility. According to one account, by 1763, when the first case of smallpox appeared in a military regiment, the commander of the British forces there ordered the diseased blankets be given to the Delaware tribe.
While Maryland’s history is rich with Native American presence, it also contains unfortunate episodes of violence, not only between tribes, but also between tribes and the colonists and militaries that occupied the areas.