17th-Century Indian Fort Discovered Near Waldorf


Piscataway Artifacts Reveal a Vibrant Culture

(St. Mary’s City, MD) Sept. 15, 2011—Archaeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, in partnership with the College of Southern Maryland and local businessman Michael Sullivan, have discovered a 17th-century Piscataway Indian fort just outside of Waldorf, Maryland. For years, historians and archaeologists have searched for evidence of what is known as the Zekiah Fort, where the Piscataway moved in 1680 for protection from raids by northern Indian groups and English encroachment on their land.

Details of the significant discovery were revealed at a press conference Thursday, Sept. 15,  in Mount Victoria, Maryland, attended by Gov. Martin O’Malley and other state and local officials, numerous historic and preservation organizations, and representatives of the three local Indian tribes.

“As Marylanders, we know it is important that we celebrate our history and our rich diversity,” said O’Malley. “I congratulate Michael Sullivan, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and the Piscataway Tribal communities on the discovery of this 17th-century Piscataway Indian fort. You’ve helped accomplish what researchers have been trying to do for eight decades – helping us better understand a culture that traces back eight centuries.” 

It was not until 2009 that Sullivan, along with St. Mary’s students under the direction of St. Mary’s College of Maryland anthropology professor Julia King and in consultation with members of the Piscataway Indian community, began a systematic search for the fort and its surrounding settlement. Sullivan, who was working on a history of Charles County to help celebrate its 350th anniversary, tracked records and deeds back to the 1600s; he approached King with an idea of where the site might be. The team picked up the search and examined 300-year-old land records and old patents.

This spring and summer, two St. Mary’s alumni, Scott Strickland and Alex Flick, as well as students from King’s anthropology classes, focused on an undisturbed parcel of land. Very quickly, they found gun flints made of both European and local stone, and lead shot where they believe the fort stood; and glass beads, Indian and European pottery and tobacco pipes where the hamlets were.

“This was an intensively occupied settlement,” said King. “At least 90 and perhaps as many as 300 people lived around the fort.”

In 1680, the Piscataway were the focus of raids by northern Indian groups, including the Seneca and their allies, and by hostile English settlers who wanted their rich agricultural land. For their protection, Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, moved them onto the Zekiah Manor where they built a fort and surrounded it with small hamlets. When trouble brewed, they would run to the fort. A large spring was nearby as was the trail that became Route 5. The Indian families stayed there for about 12 years, until 1692, when they moved to what is now Prince George’s County and Virginia.

“Although Piscataway history is foundational to Maryland history, we so rarely hear about it, in part because surviving records are thin and somewhat biased, having been written by colonial administrators,” King said. “Finding the Zekiah Fort presents us with a very different kind of record about Piscataway life. The artifacts we are finding reveal a vibrant culture that shows how, under some unimaginable pressures, the Piscataway nation maintained their lifeways even as they adjusted to the European culture.

“The students are as responsible for this discovery as anyone,” King added. “They not only excavated the test pits, they were intimately involved in tracing titles, mapping 17th-century property lines onto modern maps, and met often to help build the model for where the fort may be located.”

The general area where the fortified settlement was found has been intensively developed and gravel-mined in the last half-century, so researchers are delighted the fort survives.

“The Piscataway Conoy people are indeed grateful for the efforts shown by the students in forging ahead in locating our old fort,” said Mervin Savoy, tribal chairwoman of the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe. “This will have a positive impact on not just our youth but on all residents of the state.”

Rico Newman, spokesman for the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe, agreed. “Locating the Piscataway Fort site and other recent discoveries significant to its Indigenous peoples represent opportunities for research and scholarship for archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians. For the successors of interest to these discoveries, their descendants, it represents opportunities for recovery, historical and cultural.” 

Sidebar From Discover CSM Magazine Fall 2009

Discovering the Future While Unearthing the Past

CSM Archaeology Students Find More than Coin

When CSM sophomore Sara Greenwell applied for an archaeology internship to dig in Charles County’s Zekiah Swamp, she wasn’t sure what she was in for, but weeks after the internship ended the 18-year-old from Hollywood is still reveling in the experience she had in unearthing early treasure as well as finding her passion and future career path.

 “I was told that the work would be hard. There would be bugs and heat and maybe hours and hours of boring digging without any finds. Oh and there were no bathrooms,” Greenwell recounted of the application interview. But it sounded like an adventure, and the internship came at the recommendation of her art history teacher at CSM, so she signed on.

Also roughing it was CSM science major Nicole Rasmussen, 25, from Lexington Park. “When I heard about the internship I thought it was the coolest thing ever.” She is used to spending time outdoors, but found the dig a bit extreme. “We would be in the middle of a field of tall grass, with no shade for hours. Our days were: dig, lunch, dig,” she said, adding that although it was monotonous, it was still exciting to be involved in historical detective work.

The adventure paid off in more ways than one.

While digging and sifting together one morning, Rasmussen and Greenwell’s efforts hit pay dirt. At a site near the landfill on Billingsly Road, Greenwell unearthed a Spanish reale coin from the first quarter of the 18th century. “When I saw it, I knew that metal was not supposed to be there,” she said. “’Finally,’ I thought, ‘I found something after looking so long.’”

A history major, Greenwell had the opportunity to work side-by-side with Dr. Julia King, an associate professor of anthropology specializing in the colonial period of Maryland at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and other CSM and SMCM interns. “We worked eight-hour days in very hot conditions,” Greenwell said. “When I got home at the end of the day, I would just eat and go to bed–you feel like you’re on a 24-7 camping trip. We were definitely roughing it. Archaeology is so different than in the movies.”

The archaeological detective work is part of a multi-year project to locate some of Charles County’s lost historical sites in areas such as Zekiah Swamp in the county’s southeast corner. King; Mike Sullivan, president of the Smallwood Foundation, a major contributor to the project; and CSM, providing lab space on its La Plata Campus, are joined in partnership with a half-dozen calloused, sunburned interns on this mission.

“We are looking for all historical sites in the Zekiah,” said King. “We believe there is a story to tell.”  In the summer of 2008, King’s team located the first Charles County Courthouse through a Global Positioning System and more than 550 one-foot-deep by one-foot-wide shovel tests. “Negative evidence, [if you find nothing in a shovel test], is still evidence,” King reminded her interns at the time. “It is evidence that you are looking in the wrong place.”

This summer, the team with Greenwell and Rasmussen worked to locate Fort Zekiah, a Native American site, and Lord Baltimore’s summer home.

It was Greenwell’s passion for history that drew her to the project; a passion that kept her at work through boredom, sweat and ticks.

She had discovered her love of history while taking a class with CSM Professor Chretien Guidry in the spring. “[Guidry] has a way of teaching that is inspiring. He is such a good teacher,” she said. “He sparked my interest in history and, because of him, I want to be a teacher to inspire others to love history too.” He is also a mentor, she said, “Professor Guidry has helped me plan classes all the way through my PhD.”     Rasmussen’s ‘ah-ha’ moment came while she was meeting with a CSM advisor. “I knew I wanted to go back to school and I thought about physical therapy, then veterinary medicine, but neither felt right for me,” she said. She liked forensics crime shows, she wasn’t bothered by harsh conditions and she thought she would love detective work. When she put them all together she came up with forensic anthropologist.  A former U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant, Rasmussen plans to continue her studies, work toward a doctorate in her field, and work for the FBI or do freelance work.