1. Introduction: The Potomac River Basin and Appalachia

How did Indigenous Americans influence the cultural amalgamate in the Appalachian Mountains and the Potomac River Basin? I thought it was a relatively simple question with a simple answer. But after several months of thought and an enormous amount of research the subject became anything but simple.

Three distinctly unrelated branches of human history converged there: Indigenous American, European, and African. And remarkably this convergence might well have happened due to an occurrence in the Middle East: the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is thought that this single event and the subsequent closure of routes into the Far East triggered European western expansionism, and Europe was determined to have the Far Eastern goods to which it had become accustomed. By then it was known that the world was round and that there was no reason why they couldn’t sail west to reach the east. But what they didn’t know before embarking west was of the existence of two vast continents that lay between Europe and Asia.  When Columbus arrived in 1492, an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag, he thought that he had reached Asia, and that the inhabitants that met him were Indian. At that moment the race was on, and so was the holocaust. Every major European country clambered to claim a piece of the New World and stopped at nothing to have it for themselves. They slaughtered millions of Indigenous Americans, and they slaughtered each other.

Meanwhile, Portugal had begun exploring the West African coast with its eye on the slave trade, as early as the 1440’s.  About 150 years later, in 1607, the English established their first permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. A cross section of this colony’s population tells us a great deal about what would become the Appalachian, Piedmont, and Tidewater cultures. Of the hundred people who first arrived, a vast majority of them were white indentured servants from the British Isles owned by a handful of wealthy aristocrats who had set their sights on becoming richer. In 1619 the English brought the first 20 slaves to Jamestown. In time, indentured servants earned their freedom and disappeared into the mountains, along with both freed and runaway slaves.

Let’s face it, today we think in boxes. Outside of present day local populations many of us think Washington DC when the Potomac River is mentioned. But the river basin is vast, reaching from West Virginia all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Endless miles of tributaries, along which countless tribes lived, fished and traveled, suggests to me that these diverse tribes were at one time joined by the great Hopewell Exchange System that connected Great Lakes Canadian tribes with those of the Gulf Coast and reached from the Potomac River Basin to the Mississippi River and beyond. In order to understand the Potomac River Basin peoples I had to travel not only those extensive waterway travel routes but look thoughtfully into the Paleolithic peoples, through the Archaic and the Woodland periods, and finally to first contact peoples.

I found the easiest organization of cultures was through linguistically related groups that in some cases, I have further divided into states for my own limited comprehension, while recognizing how absurd this would actually be to Indigenous Americans. Within the Mid-Atlantic region, of which Appalachia and the Potomac River Basin are a part, we find Siouan tribes linguistically related to the tribes of the Great Plains, and Iroquoian most often thought of as New York State and Canada. Then there are the incalculable numbers of Algonquian speaking tribes; and even the Chisca and Yuchi, cultural enigmas because of their early extinction. So simply put, there is no single tribe native to the Potomac River Basin or Appalachia in general but rather a kaleidoscopic array of far reaching cultures and languages that influenced each other.

Like its history, the numerous essays that follow are many-branched as well. They provide introductory material on geology, geography, history, anthropology, and so forth, all of which lead to ethnobotany, and settle comfortably in Appalachia, the Potomac River Basin, and beyond. Little did I realize that when I started out I would have to turn back the clock 26,000 years before I could grasp an evolution thought to be sparked a mere 500 years ago. I wish to extend my deepest apologies to my African relatives in which whose history I am not well versed, and therefore have not been included here. And while I find myself discussing numerous Indigenous American tribes and their ancestors, I do not have their permission to do so. My goal is to acquire a sufficient understanding to more deeply appreciate the complexity and sophistication of Mid Atlantic peoples prior to their contact with Europeans, and their demise, and too often, their extinction after it. Even the most basic knowledge helps us to sense a greater urgency with regard to the survivors, the investigation and preservation of archaeological sites, as well as the restoration and support of natural habitats as they might have been prior to the European invasion.

While preparing this material it took on a life of its own and evolved in a specific order. I recommend that the essays be read in that order and I have numbered them for your convenience.

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Responses to “1. Introduction: The Potomac River Basin and Appalachia”

  1. Beautiful!

  2. Verda – the magnitude of this work you call Turtle Island amazes me. What a journey!
    I am grateful for all you have uncovered, pulled together and taught me.