The Chesapeake Bay and Our Native American Heritage

This post focuses on our Native American heritage who resided along the borders of the Chesapeake Bay.  Digressing just a little into my lineage, my paternal Bolling ancestors were among the first in Jamestown and my maternal Lathrop ancestors the first in New England.  My ninth great-grandfather, Colonel Robert Bolling married Pocahontas’ granddaughter, Jane Poythress Rolfe, daughter of Thomas Powhatan Rolfe (the only child of Pocahontas [daughter of Powhatan and Chief of the Algonquian Nation] and John Rolfe) and his wife, Jane Poythress.

I am a native born Southern Marylander (the state named after the English Queen Henrietta Maria [1609-1669], wife of Charles I of England, and daughter of Henry IV of France).

King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria

King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria

I descend primarily from European emigrants (Great Britain [67%], Ireland [10%], and Western Europe [7%]), who helped found Jamestown, Virginia in 1607–America’s first permanent English Colony.  So, coming from Maryland and having ancient aristocratic ancestors who helped form the Commonwealth of Virginia (two states that border the Chesapeake Bay) as well as Native American heritage I always have had a natural curiosity about the origin of the Chesapeake, its name,  and inhabitants along its borders.

The Chesapeake Bay At A Glance

Pictured below is the earliest map to show the existence of the Chesapeake Bay, called “Baya de Santa Maria.” Juan Vespucci was the royal pilot of Spain’s hydrographic office and nephew of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom North and South America are named. The information on this map came from a 1525 voyage by Pedro de Quexos.

Chesapeake Bay Map

Map of the World, Juan Vespucci, Seville Spain,1526

Because the Chesapeake Bay has been so important to the history of Maryland, charts have played a central role from the 17th Century forward.

From the Maryland State Archives website, I gleaned the following key points about the Chesapeake:

  • In North America, the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary, a semi-enclosed coastal body of water with a free connection to the open sea.
  • Some 35 million years ago, a bolide, an object similar to a comet or asteroid, struck the present-day Delmarva Peninsula, creating a 55-mile-wide crater. The depression created by the crater changed the course of rivers and determined the location of the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The Bay, as we know it today, was created about 10,000 years ago when melting glaciers flooded the Susquehanna River Valley.
  • Today, fresh water from land drainage measurably dilutes seawater within the Bay. For ocean-going ships, the Bay is navigable with two outlets to the Atlantic Ocean: north through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in Cecil County, and south through the mouth of the Bay between the Virginia capes.
  • Native Americans living along its shores gave the Bay an Algonquian name. Chesepiook, meaning “great shell-fish bay,” was used to signify the abundance of Bay crabs, oysters, and clams.
  • In June 1608, Captain John Smith led two voyages throughout the Chesapeake Bay, and in its midst European settlers first landed at St. Clement’s Island, Maryland, in 1634.
  • Through the lower portion of the Bay, pirates settled and attacked ships off the coast. And, at its southernmost reaches during the Civil War, the first ironclads, the Confederate Merrimac and the Union’s Monitor, fought to a draw near Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862.
  • Many shipwrecks, remains of vessels sunk by natural forces, human error, or attack, lie deep under the Chesapeake Bay.

Native American Ancestors before the Europeans Arrived

Estimates vary, but according to the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Office which coordinates partnerships to develop and sustain national historic trails, it is likely that 50,000 or more people called the Chesapeake region home before the English arrived. Their ancestors had lived here for 40,000 generations—at least 10,000 years—so the ways of life of the native people were highly adapted to the geographic environment. Their economic, cultural, social, political, and spiritual systems were well established and sophisticated.

The First People of the Chesapeake

Chesepians were the Native American inhabitants of the area now known as South Hampton Roads in Virginia during the Woodland Period (1000 BCE to 1000 CE), and later prior to the arrival of the English settlers in 1607. They occupied an area which is now the Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach areas. They were divided into five provinces or kingdoms: Weapemiooc, Chawanook, Secotan, Pomouic and Newsiooc, each ruled by a king or chief. To their west were the members of the Nansemond tribe.

The main village of the Chesepians was called Skicoak, in the present independent city of Norfolk. The Chesepians also had two other towns (or villages), Apasus and Chesepioc, both near the Chesapeake Bay in what is now Virginia Beach. Of these, it is known that Chesepioc was located in the present Great Neck area. Archaeologists and other persons have found numerous Native American artifacts, such as arrowheads, stone axes, pottery, beads, and skeletons in Great Neck Point.

Politically, the area was dominated by the Virginia Peninsula-based Powhatan Confederacy. Although the Chesepians belonged to the same eastern-Algonquian speaking linguistic group as members of the Powhatan Confederacy across Hampton Roads, the archaeological evidence suggests that the original Chesepians belonged to another group, the Carolina Algonquian. Powhatan, whose real name was Wahunsunacock, was the most powerful chieftain in the Chesapeake Bay area, dominating more than 30 Algonquin-speaking tribes. The Chesepians did not belong to Powhatan’s alliance but instead defied him.

As English writer, William Strachey (1572-1621) documents in his book The Sea Venture, the “Chesapeake People” were murdered before our European ancestors arrived.

History books tell us that in 1609 Strachey, on the ship Sea Venture, headed to Virginia looking for adventure. A hurricane caused the Sea Venture to run aground at Bermuda. In The Sea Venture, he writes of his ten-month long struggle for survival. (William Shakespeare used Strachey’s  The Sea Venture book as the basis for his play The Tempest.)

The castaways, while marooned on Bermuda, built boats from their wreckage and eventually made it to Virginia and Strachey then began documenting life in the new colony. Because of his fascination with the Native American inhabitants, he also compiled a dictionary of Algonquin language. (The only other known record of Algonquin words was made by John Smith.)

In talking with the natives Strachey discovered information about them that few Europeans had learned. The Indians told him about the remarkable Chesapeake tribe.

He learned that a few years before the arrival of Europeans, the Algonquin priests informed Chief Powhatan that a great danger would arise from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay– so dire that it would destroy their empire, civilization, and ways of life. They told him his Confederacy of 30 tribes would be gone, their villages burned, and all of his people dead.

The Algonquin priests repeatedly pressed Powhatan to take action against this small peaceful tribe of 300-400 Chesapeakes who lived near the mouth of the Bay.  At first, Powhatan resisted because his priests could not give him specifics. Unfortunately for the Chesapeake Indians, Powhatan’s priests’ visions were persistent and became more compelling. And, sometime around 1606, the Powhatans murdered the entire Chesapeake tribe.

On returning to England in 1611 Strachey published his book, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia where he described the stories he heard from the Powhatans about their destruction of the Chesapeake (Chessiopeians) tribe:

“...not long since that his priests told him how that from the Cheaspeack Bay a nation should arise which should dissolve and give end to his empire, for which, not many yeares since (perplext with this divelish oracle, an divers understanding thereof), according to the ancyent and gentile customs, he destroyed and put to sword all such who might lye under any doubtful construccion of the said prophesie, as all the inhabitants, the wereoance and his subjects of the province, and so remaine all of the Chessiopeians at this daye, and for this cause, extinct.

During the 1970s and ’80s, archaeologists discovered the remains of 64 Chesapeake Indians during development in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach. Those bones dated to between 800 B.C. and A.D. 1600.  In April 1997, after decades of trying to recover these Native American remains, the Nansemonds’ reburied them near the English’s First Landing site in Virginia.

And yet today, we still can see evidence of our Native American roots in our counties and place names along the Chesapeake regions.  We live in Calvert County that originally was established as Patuxent County in 1654 (named after the Patuxent people) and note that its name was changed to Calvert County after Lord Calvert of Baltimore in 1658.  Just down the road from us a piece is Chesapeake Beach, named for the Chesapeake people who were an Algonquian-speaking tribe who resided in Virginia.  And fortunately for us, there are many more words and names that remain as they were known centuries ago.

About Algonquian-speaking Tribes

In the tables below, you will see references to “Algonquian-speaking tribes.”  The word Algonquian (or Algonkian) is a general linguistic/anthropological term used to refer to not only the small Algonquin tribe but dozens of distinct Native American tribes who speak languages that are related to each other.

  Native American County Names

Native County Names

  Native American Villages, Towns, and Cities Names

Native Place Names

From (the comprehensive reference site that catalogs all the known living languages [7,106] in the world today), I discovered the various tribes that made up the Algonquian-speaking confederacy and are included in the Algic Family language classification system–one of the largest indigenous language families of North America. It consists of 44 languages, the overwhelming majority of which (42 languages) belong to the Algonquian branch. The bulleted list below shows the Algonquian-speaking tribes and their countries of origin (Canada or the United States).  I have highlighted in green below the 12 Eastern Algonquian-speaking tribes who resided in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia along the Chesapeake Bay borders:

Algic (42)

Ritwan (2)

Many Algonquian languages are extremely endangered today. Only a handful of them has a significant number of speakers. Of the original 42 Algic languages, only about 27 of them are used today. The largest group is Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi with 104,000 speakers, while the largest single language is Ojibwa with some 35,000 speakers. Ten languages are already extinct, and many are on the verge of extinction. Most surviving languages are spoken by older adults who are not passing their language on to their children.

Below the double lines, I included a more complete Chesapeake Bay History Timeline that spans (according to the scientists) 35 Million Years!

A Chesapeake Bay History Timeline as Created by


5 thoughts on “The Chesapeake Bay and Our Native American Heritage

  1. Ms. Dickinson, thanks so much for all the information on here! I am currently doing some research on the Native American Indians located in the Chesapeake Beach, MD area. Was wondering if you had any information on what tribes were located in that area? I know Capt. John Smith landed there with his crew during his exploration’s of the Chesapeake (1607-1609) for 1 night. I know there were also 2 sites in that area were the Indians had camps (one was at the mouth of Fishing Creek and has since eroded away over time). Any info. you could provide would be very helpful. Thanks, Scott Nieman


  2. Hi there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new
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  3. Pingback: Our Native American Heritage–A Follow On | Our Heritage: 12th Century & Beyond

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