Wednesday, June 22, 2011

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.

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