Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Founding of St. Mary’s City:
The Colonists and the Yaocomaco

At the time of the colonists’ arrival to what is now St. Mary’s City in 1634, the Yaocomaco were reportedly in the process of relocating North due to Susquehannock raids in the village.
According to Father Andrew White, the Yaocomaco “had the yeere before our arrivall there, made a resolution, for their safety, to remove themselves higher into the Countrey where it was more populous, and many of them were gone thither before the English arrived” (Hall 1925:74) (Clash of Cultures 189).
Reportedly, the Yaocomaco “readily received the English, freely giving their houses to the colonists” (Cissna 1986:133). The Woodland Indian Hamlet at Historic St. Mary’s City depicts how St. Mary’s City would have looked within the first 9 months of the English colonists’ settlement during which time the colonists lived among the remaining Yaocomaco, inhabiting abandoned witchotts.
Inviting the 200 colonists to assume the land they had called home, the Yaocomaco shared their culture and lifestyle with the English settlers, providing them with guidance in self-reliance to survive in the Southern Maryland climate. The two co-existing groups exchanged various aspects of their respective material culture out of necessity and convenience, though both continued to adhere to tradition rather than assimilate.†
The similar but different ways of life of the colonists and the Yaocomaco are represented in the two witchotts in the Woodland Indian Hamlet at Historic St. Mary’s City. The longhouse witchott depicts how the Yaocomaco most likely lived at the time of the colonists’ arrival where as the smaller witchott (intended to accommodate a nuclear family unit) contains English colonial furnishing that would have been common for a colonist’s witchott home.
In a letter to his brother Lord Baltimore, Lord Calvert describes a great demand by colonists for the Yaocomaco sleeping mats. It is also known that the Yaocomaco tribe’s Yeocomico pottery and access to beaver skins were often used in trade.
The Yaocomaco sought English materials out of necessity rather than monetary motivation, desiring metal English tools and linen which were provided to the Yaocomaco in exchange for the land.
“To avoid all occasion of dislike, and Colour of wrong, we bought the space of thirtie miles of ground of them, for axes, hoes, cloth and hatchets, which we call Augusta Carolina. It made them more willing to enterteine us, for they had warres wth the Sasquasahannockes, who came sometimes upon them, and waste and spoile them and their country, for thus they hope by our meanes to be safe” (42) Father Andrew White, 1634.
The Yaocomaco who remained in the village to assist the colonists in settling in the area vacated the settlement within the year following the harvest of the tribe’s crops.

          Though missionary Father Andrew White succeeded in “converting” (rather, baptizing) several Yaocomaco, the Yaocomaco acceptance of the baptisms was likely solely to cement an allegiance with the colonists and had little real impact on the religious or cultural beliefs and practices of the Yaocomaco.

The Yoacomaco:
St. Mary’s First Residents

The native residents of what is now St. Mary’s City were the Yaocomaco, an independent Piscataway Indian clan of the Seccowocomaco tribe- a tribe that lived near present day Choptico. The Yaocomaco were of Algonquian lingual and Eastern Woodland cultural origin. They were probably living near the St. Mary’s River to take advantage of the natural resources of the region as well as potential trade with other natives and Europeans such as Henry Fleete who traded for beaver furs on the Potomac and its tributaries. Residing on either side of the river, the Yoacomaco tribe who lived in St. Mary’s City previous to its settlement were a hunting and gathering tribe, dependent on the seasonal local agriculture for survival.

“The Piscataway and Patuxent peoples…lived in towns, although subsistence requirements necessitated seasonal movement to interior hunting camps and regular coming and going from the towns” (Clark 119). A large component of the Yaocomaco diet, hunting was the chief occupation of men in the tribe. The most commonly hunted animals included deer, reptiles, shellfish, and most importantly fish such as sturgeon and striped bass.
Seasonal harvests of corn, beans and squash made up the majority of the Yaocomaco diet along with native seeds, fruits, and roots harvested nearby by the women of the tribe. A staple of the Yaocomaco way of life, corn was of the utmost importance to the tribe so much so that the destruction of a corn crop could be punishable by death.
The appearance of the Yaocomaco was described in detail by the colonists who observed and lived among them. Taller and displaying better health than the average European, the Yaocomaco were reportedly “tawny”-skinned with black hair which was often worn in two long locks on either side of the head.
Colonist John Lawson describes a tradition of body pigmentation among the Yaocomaco, explaining they would “dawb themselves with Bears Oil, and a Colour like burnt Cork. This is begun in their Infancy, and continued for a long time, which fills the Pores, and enables them better to endure the Extremity of the Weather” (Rountree 54).
Red and blue pigments would likewise be used on the face “mixed with oil, to keep off the mosquitoes,” according to Father Andrew white, a missionary colonists. And women would often have tattoos on the face, breasts, arms, and legs.
Making use of the abundant resources available, the Yaocomaco often wore animal (specifically deer) hides as loincloths and aprons  in warm weather and as mantles and leggings with linen trade shirts in colder months as well as moccasins and fur. Both men and women wore jewelry made from shell, bone, copper, stone, clay, and pearl beads as well as small animal parts for decoration.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Anatomy of a Witchott

To preserve authenticity, the witchott will be built according to historical and archeological references. The reconstruction team will use natural materials to build the witchott as it would have been built by the Yaocomaco.
            The reconstruction team is modeling the new witchott after first-hand accounts by colonists such as Jesuit priest, Father Andrew White, and engravings by Theodor De Bry based on descriptions of similar American Indian villages by English explorers John White and Thomas Harriot.
The frame of the witchott will be comprised of arched cedar, hickory, or red maple saplings approximately 20 inches apart, tethered together with rawhide to form an oval structure. The longhouse witchott on site is somewhat larger than the estimated average longhouse in order to facilitate tours, measuring 35 feet long and 15feet wide versus the traditional 20 feet long by 12 feet wide.
“The houses were built of light poles bent over and tied together and covered with bark or rush mats. At each end was a doorway, formed by a curtain of mats which could be raised and lowered. …the women always kept a fire going in the houses” (Ferguson 1).

Used primarily for storage and sleeping, the witchott contains an ongoing fire in the center with a hole in the roof directly above it to vent out the smoke. However, the houses were notably smoky and not well ventilated. The fire was not used for cooking, instead the smoke served to ward off insects and animals as well as help preserve the grass mats, food, and other perishable items stored in the loft which, according to an account by Lord Calvert, “taketh up the best part of some of their houses” (Ferguson 2).

On the exterior of the witchott, mats of sewn or bundled grass are attached to the sapling frame to provide protection from the elements. Phragmite are usually used to make the mats rather than Yucca, a plant used by the Yaocomaco for many other purposes, which would disintegrate too quickly from exposure.

Witchott Reconstruction

This summer, Historic St. Mary’s City staff and volunteers are rebuilding the main witchott (longhouse) at the Woodland Indian Hamlet exhibit. For nearly thirty years the witchott has stood as the focus of the Hamlet. It is an important tool for interpreting and preserving the culture and heritage of the native people who occupied the Chesapeake region long before the settlement of Maryland’s first capital. The witchott- an Algonquian word probably meaning “my house”- has weathered hurricanes, tropical storms, and blizzards that have reduced modern structures to pieces, but after thirty years it is starting to show its age.
For the safety of staff and visitors, the Hamlet will be closed to the public from June 11th to September 9th, except for specific dates. On July 9 and 23 as well as August 13, we will rally volunteers and open the site for viewing. To learn more about the project, meet Hamlet supervisor Coby Treadway at the Visitor Center at 1:30 p.m. To volunteer, contact HSMC volunteer coordinator Anne Forrest at or call 240-895-4977 or 301-904-5070
When Maryland’s colonists arrived, the Yaocomaco had settled on both sides of the St. Mary’s River. Today’s St. Mary’s City was the site of a settlement of approximately 15 witchotts and other structures including hunting and sweat lodges as well as work shelters. The traditional Yaocomaco witchott would have sheltered an extended family of around 10-12 people during the Late Woodland Period, spanning from roughly 500 to 1000 CE.
“Piscataway [and Yaocomaco] houses were…biodegradable and above ground…. They were barrel-roofed affairs consisting of sapling framework and a mat or bark cover, with a smoke hole to vent smoke from the central fire. Their length ran from twenty to a hundred feet, their breadth about twelve feet, their height about ten feet. Along their sides were low platforms with mats spread on them for beds.” (Clark 119)

Nearly all materials used to build and furnish the witchotts are authentic and natural.  Phragmite mats cover the cedar frame and animal skins blanket the platform bed spanning the side wall of the house. Intended as only a semi-permanent structure due to the migratory nature of the Yaocomaco, witchotts have a relatively short lifespan.

The new witchott is expected to be open to the public on the annual Woodland Discovery Day September 10, 2011.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Welcome to the HSMC Witchott Blog!

Over the course of this summer, this blog will be your gateway to experience the re-construction of the Witchott longhouse in Historic St. Mary's City's Woodland Indian Hamlet. Not only will we keep you up to date with the Witchott Project, we will delve into the rich history of the Yaocomaco American Indians, St. Mary's first residents, and the early years of the colonial settlement at St. Mary's City.
For more information about Historic St. Mary's City and to schedule tours, visit the HSMC website: