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Archaeology and Native Americans

Native Americans were the Chesapeake Bay region's earliest human residents. They did not leave written accounts of their time here. But they did leave records in the form of artifacts such as stone tools, animal bones and ceramic pots. These artifacts are the only way we can learn about the day-to-day lives of Native Americans, who once dominated the region.

Pre-European settlement tribes and artifacts


Paleo-Indians were the first inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay region. Archeologists recognize the Paleo-Indian culture by a stone tool called the Clovis point: an elongated, fluted spear head.

When Paleo-Indians lived, the region’s climate was much colder than it is now. Paleo-Indians spent their days roaming the area’s coniferous forests. They probably hunted large animals such as mammoths and mastodons for food.

Archaic Indians

The Archaic Indians lived from 9,000 to 3,000 years ago. They had to adapt to a rapidly changing environment by learning to use warmer-climate plants and new foods brought in from rising waters.

Archaic Indians traded with other groups for soapstone, which they made into pipes, beads and cooking utensils. Although the Archaic Indians lived away from the Chesapeake Bay shores, they made seasonal visits to fish, hunt, gather roots and harvest oysters.

In the 1970s, archeologists discovered Archaic-period stone tools while digging a hole for the White House swimming pool.

Woodland Indians

Woodland Indians dominated the Chesapeake region until European settlers arrived. Woodland Indians used of ceramic pottery, horticulture and, later, the bow and arrow.

Woodland Indians were more sedentary than previous Native Americans. They built small villages as farming progressively became more important. They still established small hunting camps to take advantage of the Bay's bounty.

Recorded Native American history

Recorded Native American history in the Chesapeake region began around 1600, when newly arrived European settlers started keeping records. Captain John Smith, who explored the Bay in 1607, found primarily Algonquin-speaking Native Americans living by its shores.

Many distinct tribes with their own chief lived around the Chesapeake Bay, but they often grouped into one confederation. One of the most powerful was Virginia’s Powhatan Confederation, named for its leader.

Despite its strength and savvy, the region's Native American population fell catastrophically after European settlers arrived. Many Native Americans were killed or died of disease, while others migrated away from the region.

Native American archaeological sites

Scientists estimate there are at least 100,000 archeological sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Just a small percentage of these are documented.

Most archaeological sites are susceptible to destructive natural and man-made factors, such as development, farming practices and sea level rise. Fortunately, preserving historic artifacts goes hand-in-hand with efforts to clean up the Bay. For example, stabilizing shorelines and using agricultural conservation practices such as conservation tillage help reduce erosion and protect areas where Native American archaeological sites are most likely to exist.

From Around the Web

  • American Indians: Learn about American Indians in the Chesapeake region from the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail website.
  • Native Americans: Information from The Mariners’ Museum in Virginia about Chesapeake Native Americans both pre- and post-European settlement
  • We Have a Story to Tell: Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region: Teaching guide from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian about historic and current Native American tribes in the Chesapeake Bay region
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