Centuries ago, when Native Americans were the principal inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, many bands favored riparian settlement sites, owing to their fertile soils, defensible positions and proximity to food sources and transportation routes. Albeit for different reasons, many of the watershed’s contemporary inhabitants also favor waterfront dwellings.
At two such riverfront sites about 100 miles apart, one on the Susquehanna and another on the Potomac, modern development plans have landed atop remnants of Native American culture, challenging local leaders to strike a delicate balance between the past and future.
The fact that Native American artifacts have been discovered at these sites is not entirely remarkable. Populations of Native Americans thrived in the region before the Chesapeake Bay as we know it even existed. The earliest residents camped along the ancestral Susquehanna, which wound its way to an ocean with an edge farther east of its current coastline. Approximately 10,000 years ago, when the continental glaciers receded, they sent huge volumes of water downriver, and eventually the Susquehanna Valley flooded with saltwater, forming today’s Bay.
In the millennia that followed, native peoples adapted to dramatic shifts in flora, fauna and water levels. They changed from pure hunters to fisherman and farmers, and from perpetual ramblers to semi-permanent village settlers.
Much of the stuff of Native Americans’ lives, from spear points to tools to broken shards of pottery, can be found just beneath the surface of the soil. This drives treasure hunters of all stripes, from the hobbyists who regularly comb the watershed’s freshly tilled fields to the professional archaeologists who unearthed prehistoric stone tools when excavating for the White House swimming pool.
More remarkable is that municipal planning and zoning bodies in the watershed have recently begun to codify the need to establish strong protections for sites of prehistoric significance—and have in some cases even extended their definition of “prehistoric” to include not only Native American sites, but also those important to understanding the United States’ early slave culture.
One of the most innovative sets of standards is under consideration by the Prince George’s County Planning Board in Maryland, with guidance provided by its Historic Preservation Commission.
The commission has teamed its supervisor with hired archaeological consultants to develop a clear, repeatable method for reviewing sites that may contain evidence of prehistoric habitation. The methodology was approved by the county Planning Board in May, and next heads to the Prince George’s County Council for final approval. No date has yet been set for a vote on the issue.
The method begins with a thorough review by the Planning Board’s staff of historical documents, including maps, county surveys and correspondence. It also takes into consideration different natural features that were known to be favored by early inhabitants when determining where to settle.
Recognizing, though, that the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s earliest inhabitants neither spoke English nor commonly recorded their history in writing, the method makes provisions for types of inquiry that go well beyond a review of the written documentation.
Once the Planning Board’s staff reviews the first round of information on a site, it will decide if there is a likelihood of discovering artifacts that are significant to the county’s history. If there is a moderate to high chance of such findings, the Planning Board will direct the developer to conduct “Phase One” studies of the site. These developer-funded studies require digging 6 inches to a foot into the sub-soil in a search for artifacts.
Depending on the “Phase One” findings, the board may order a “Phase Two” inquiry. The second phase of study could include the use of innovative, non-invasive techniques like ground-penetrating radar to locate graves or underground structures.
If these studies turn up significant findings, the board will order a “Phase Three” study. This will lead to what is essentially a full-scale archaeological excavation, usually with the goal of reducing development’s effects on archaeological resources or removing artifacts before any construction is allowed to begin.
“Mitigation-removal is the most widely practiced way of dealing with artifacts,” says David Turner, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, which he characterizes as being more “reform-minded” than past commissions. “But we think there are indeed times when any development on certain sites will completely destroy a historic resource, and we are working with the planning board to find suitable solutions to these scenarios.”
The commission’s new methodology is receiving an immediate real-world field test in the southern part of the county, on a 23.5-acre parcel of land along the Potomac in Fort Washington, where developer Leo Bruso has been seeking the necessary permissions since 2001 to build more than 20 homes, each of which would cost more than $1 million.
Bruso’s development proposal is extremely contentious, not only because the tract of land is located in close proximity to other large tracts that have received permanent protection as Chesapeake Bay critical habitat, but because of uncertainty over the property’s historical significance.
Many residents contend that the tract is Tent Landing, the site of a Revolutionary War skirmish where a local militia repelled the redcoats. This fact had shielded the property from development for decades, but after a heated debate over whether the skirmish actually took place squarely on this property or at a nearby site, the Historic Preservation Commission in 2001 dropped the property from the county’s list of historic resources.
This led to an outcry by many local residents. “If a place as significant as Tent Landing can be subdivided,” community leader Dawn Davit said, “then historic preservation rules have become a meaningless shield for saving our diverse heritage.”
The residents’ protests were largely due the commission’s basing its decision on an examination of the property entirely in the light of its relevance to colonial times. They said that the commission was taking a far too limited view, and pointed to the existence of the graves of the Lyles family, who operated a 19th century farm and fishery on the property. Bruso dealt with this situation by exhuming their remains and moving their tombstones to the grounds of a nearby church. Other residents contend that the site should be protected because a slave graveyard was located on the property. And still others contend that the property on which Bruso proposed to build a subdivision—which he intended to call Florida on the Potomac—was the site of the Piscataway-Conoy Native American village, Tessamatuck.
Archaeologists and residents alike had reported finding scores of Native American artifacts on the property—the landscape has been cited in archaeological surveys dating back to the 19th century—and earlier surveys unearthed evidence of Native American occupation at the site dating back more than 5,000 years. The site even qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Places based on its archaeological significance.
The Historic Preservation Commission, though, had up to this point not characteristically protected sites on archaeological grounds, even though the statute that formed and empowered the commission directed it to focus on preserving “any individual historic resource that is significant and contributes to the historical, architectural, archaeological or cultural values … in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation.”
In February 2003, a hearing examiner recommended that the Prince George’s County District Council should review the commission’s decision, and in a first-of-its-kind action, the District Council returned the entire property to the inventory of historic resources. Bruso, the developer, eventually requested that the District Council reconsider the amount of land that it had designated as a historic resource, and the council ultimately upheld its earlier decision to re-instate the entire property to the historic resources inventory.
Bruso, in turn, appealed to the District Council’s decision to the county Planning Board, asking the board to approve plans to build an eight-home subdivision on a 10-acre portion of the property. The Planning Board delayed its decision for a year while the guidelines for an archeological study using ground-penetrating radar were forged.
Ultimately, Bruso commissioned a ground-penetrating radar study on his own that revealed several “hotspots” requiring additional study, and after test pits were dug and no major artifacts found, the Planning Board voted unanimously to approve the development plan. “We have to end this some place,” one Planning Board member told a local newspaper.
Residents immediately filed an appeal in an attempt to again block the development. That appeal is pending.
Those residents would have preferred to see the county block the development altogether, or at least negotiate a purchase of the land from Bruso, with the intent of turning the property into a park. And if Bruso had been unwilling to deal, they would have liked to see the county use its power of eminent domain.
Such a step could not take place without extreme controversy. While many localities technically consider the creation of parkland or open space as a legal and acceptable basis for the use of eminent domain, it is usually regarded as a heavy-handed tactic.
Commissioners in York County, PA, met this exact response when they voted a year ago to condemn, with the intention of seizing as eminent domain, an archaeologically and ecologically valuable property along the Susquehanna on which a local developer had intended to erect a subdivision.
A very public battle has since been waged in local media outlets between sundry voices for historic preservation and property rights.
The 80-acre parcel, on which developer Peter Alecxih Jr. had proposed to build more than 50 houses in a subdivision called Highpoint and over which Alecxih is now suing the county, was originally part of a much-larger property known as Lauxmont Farms, which was owned by the Kohr family for about 30 years.
In the late 1980s, the Kohr family declared bankruptcy, and has since sold off portions of the property and pursued plans to subdivide others in an effort to fulfill their obligations to creditors. The family still owns about 500 acres, including a portion of the property with unquestioned archaeological significance.
County officials have made purchase offers to the respective owners of each tract of land, but their offers were reportedly rebuffed.
The Kohr family denies that most of their remaining 500 acres were ever even for sale, and has called the county’s contention that family members had made sale overtures to county officials as “fiction fabricated to advance [their] agenda.”
The county officials, joined by state leaders including Gov. Ed Rendell, are hopeful the Lauxmont Farms and Highpoint properties will form the spine of a riverfront park that preserves the archaeological and ecological integrity of the landscape. They envision a publicly accessible “Susquehanna Riverlands Preservation Project” that will include an environmental education center, trail network and Native American heritage site.
The Native American heritage site is intended to educate visitors about what is considered to be the last major village occupied as a nation by the Susquehannock, a confederacy of at least five tribes whose name is believed to come from the Algonquian for “people of the muddy river.” The Susquehannock were known to be of remarkable height, and were skilled hunters and warriors hardened by years of conflict with the Iroquois, whose territory unfurled to the north.
The Susquehannock frequently launched invasive forays into the lower Chesapeake watershed, greatly influencing the settlement patterns of the Native Americans to the south to the extent that the Piscataway-Conoy people moved many settlements away from the open water and into back bays. Tessamatuck, the village that many residents believe to have once been located on the Tent Landing property, could be one such settlement.
An archaeological dig carried out by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on the Lauxmont Farms property in 1970 discovered evidence of a formidable single-line palisade, which likely ringed the settlement and provided for its defense. From its size, researchers were able to estimate the population of the settlement of nearly 1,000 people, uncommonly large for the time.
It is probable that this fortress-village was referenced by Lord Baltimore in a statement when William Penn requested land from King Charles II, “that fort is the boundary of Maryland Northward” sparking a debate that would not be resolved until the drawing of the Mason-Dixon line in 1765.
Because it was once a focus of Susquehannock life and because there are extensive graves there, the environs of the Lauxmont Farms property are considered by many Native Americans to be sacred. While the Kohr family does not allow archaeological exploration at the site, it has allowed people of Native American descent to hold ceremonies on the property.
And while local officials and the family cannot agree on if and how the property should be transitioned into a park, both sides agree that the portions of the property considered sacred to Native Americans must forever be protected.
This historical awareness has not been common in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, especially during time the rapid growth in population and development experienced by recent generations of residents.
Untold numbers of artifacts that could have offered great insight into civilizations past—and contemporary cultural identities—have already been lost as society charged forward. But a growing awareness of the need to protect the remaining vestiges of prehistoric times will ensure that the future residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed understand the story of the soil.