Bay Journal

Piscataway Park’s role evolved from saving a view to sharing a point of view

  • By Lara Lutz on December 01, 2008
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Piscataway Park was created to preserve the view across the Potomac from Mount Vernon. It also protected land that was the political and cultural center of the Piscataways for centuries before Europeans arrived.  (Julie Brunton / Accokeek Foundation.) Piscataway Park was created to preserve the view across the Potomac from Mount Vernon.  (Accokeek Foundation) The story of the Piscataway people, past and present, is receiving new emphasis at Piscataway Park.  (Accokeek Foundation ) The Accokeek Foundation is using its setting and outreach programs to highlight the Piscataway presence through living history events, school programs, public lectures and a planned interpretive area.  (Accokeek Foundation)

To experience Piscataway Park on the eastern shore of the Potomac River, prepare to park twice.

Park once near the visitor center at National Colonial Farm. Spend some time exploring this rustic scene, with its tobacco barn and heirloom breeds of livestock. Talk with the costumed interpreters. Walk some trails. But don't leave yet.

Move your car to the unadorned lot down the road. Follow the trail at the corner of the lot as it crosses the marsh and opens into a large field along the river.

A red cedar tree stands conspicuously in the open space. This is the resting place of Chief Turkey Tayac, a 20th-century Piscataway Indian-and the most visible reminder that this land was once the center of Piscataway life and leadership.

The historic community here, located along Piscataway Creek, was called Moyaone. In 1608, when the first Europeans arrived with Capt. John Smith, Moyaone had been the seat of the Piscataway high chief or tayac for roughly 200 years. The town and its associated hamlets were well-populated, stable, and organized.

"From around 1400 on, this was an urban place, with people living close to each other and working at specialized occupations," said historian James Rice of State University of New York-Plattsburgh. "It wasn't until the 1650s and 1660s that European settlements on the river compared in size to the native towns they were replacing."

Rice is participating in a fresh effort, led by the Accokeek Foundation, to raise awareness about the importance of this place and the Piscataway people.

"Right now, their story is not immediately obvious when you walk onto the grounds," Rice said. "It's more in human memory, under the ground and in historical documents."

Piscataway Park, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, covers 5,000 acres of National Park land along the Potomac. The park was created primarily to secure an unblemished view from Mount Vernon on the opposite shore.

"It was a happy coincidence," Rice said. "We have this very significant place, saved for reasons that weren't closely related to its native history."

While Piscataway history intersects with that of the colonists and United States, it begins much earlier.

"We need to recognize that the story starts roughly 400 generations before Europeans showed up," Rice said. "And it wasn't a timeless, unchanging past. The rise of agriculture, the rise of chiefdoms and a more complex, even hierarchical society, all pre-dated the Europeans. These were big stories-change and tumult that made a big difference in people's lives."

Agriculture, for example, influenced the shape and location of Piscataway society. The communal center that developed at Moyaone stabilized there by the 1400s because the Piscataways had come to depend on calories from beans, corn, squash and other crops. They still moved between several core areas and traded actively with other groups, including those on the Eastern Shore, but they were more rooted to the land because of their dependence on crops.

Life along the Potomac River offered added security.

"They hedged their bets with diversified rounds of hunting and fishing," Rice said. "There are marshes and swamps for gathering and nearby uplands for hunting. By late winter, when the deer were lean and there weren't enough seeds left to eat from the preceding year, the fish runs would come in March and April, just in time to get them over the hump."

The Little Ice Age also impacted the Piscataway. During the 15th and 16th centuries, cooling temperatures caused what Rice describes as "resource wars" that spread from what is now western New York to the Shenandoah Valley.

"The uncertain growing seasons forced people to look for really prime, consistent farming areas," Rice said. "Competition meant that perfectly good locations just above fall line weren't inhabited because they were dangerous."

The rise of the Piscataway tayac and other chiefdoms evolved as a means of organized defense during difficult times.

The Europeans settlers were the ones to displace most of the Piscataways.

"Once colonial settlement moved into this area, things quickly fell apart," Rice said.

Along with some incidents of outright violence, Europeans decimated the Piscataway society by introducing disease and property laws. By the 1690s, most Piscataways had moved upriver and north into Pennsylvania. Some moved south. But one point needs to be clarified: Others stayed.

"The English conquest may have destroyed the political structure, but not the people," Rice said. "And despite their best attempts, they didn't destroy the culture either."

Modern Piscataways are organized into three groups: the Piscataway Indian Nation, the Piscataway-Conoy Indians, and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, each based in Southern Maryland. They have yet to be granted official recognition by the federal government or state of Maryland.

Thanks in part to the work of Chief Turkey Tayac, though, modern Piscataways have renewed their sense of identity and also an awareness of their cultural homeland at Piscataway Park.

Gabrielle Tayac, a historian with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and member of the Piscataway Indian Nation, is the granddaughter of Chief Tayac. "He was intensely interested in his own history at a time when it wasn't cool to be Indian," Tayac said.

Chief Tayac shared his knowledge of his native language with scholars, joined archaeologists studying the Moyaone settlement, and encouraged the preservation of the land as a National Park. He is the only person to receive permission for burial on National Park land, where countless numbers of his ancestors also lie beneath the earth. His resting place adds further power to a site that holds layers of meaning for the Piscataways and their shared history of the Chesapeake region.

"Given the significance of the site historically and culturally, it's astounding that this place still exists to be visited within metropolitan Washington, D.C.," Tayac said. "In Virginia, there's been a great deal of emphasis on finding of Werowocomoco, believed to be main seat of Powhatan. In Maryland, it has almost slipped under the rug."

But no longer, according to the Accokeek Foundation.

The Accokeek Foundation has managed 200 acres of Piscataway Park since 1957. The centerpiece of its work has been the National Colonial Farm, which sets the scene of a modest family farmstead just before the American Revolution.

The Ecosystem Farm is a more recent addition. This 8-acre farm demonstrates productive, organic techniques on soil that was first farmed by Native Americans at least 800 years ago, and then farmed continuously for the last 350 years.

Foundation president Wilton Corkern said that a recent look at Accokeek's programs triggered a long-needed focus on the Piscataway people. "It was obvious that one of the missing pieces is our interpretation of Native Americans. Now's the time to do it," he said.

During the last year, existing programs have added information about the presence of the Piscataways and their interactions with the colonists. Special events have highlighted Native American women's issues and introduced hundreds of school children to Native American cultures.

Accokeek and the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian formed an ongoing partnership, while a gathering of scholars, interpretive experts and Piscataway representatives laid the groundwork for future installations and publications. The effort is supported in part by funds from the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.

Excitement is building around the concept of an outdoor circle, with a series of posts that would provide a visual reference to the stockade and ceremonial posts that once stood at Moyaone. Each post would represent an aspect of Piscataway history and cultural values.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to talk about how people shape the land and the land shapes the people," Tayac said, "and to understand the human role as a steward of a place, rather than an owner."

Corkern hopes to see the circle installed in the next year. The Accokeek Foundation website will list other related events and programs beginning in the spring of 2009.

In the meantime, if you make a visit Piscataway Park, stay open to a presence that might not immediately greet your eye, and pause in the stillness of an open field that has a great deal to say.

The book, "Nature and History in the Potomac Country / From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson," by James D. Rice, will be available from The Johns Hopkins University Press in January 2009.

National Colonial Farm At Piscataway Park

  • Piscataway Park grounds are open dawn to dusk daily. The National Colonial Farm and Visitor Center are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from mid-March through mid-December. From mid-December through mid-March, the hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends only.
  • Guided tours of the National Colonial Farm are offered at 1 p.m. on weekends. The Ecosystem Farm is open by appointment or during scheduled walking tours at 11 a.m. on weekends.
  • Admission to National Colonial Farm is $2 for adults and 50 cents for ages 4-11. Admission for special events, such as Children's Day, African American Heritage Day, Colonial Day and Winter's Eve varies.
  • The park is located at the southern tip of Maryland's Prince George's County, about 10 miles from Washington, D.C. For detailed directions, or information about the park, visit www.accokeek.org or call 301-283-2113 x15.

For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors enjoyment of the Chesapeake region. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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