PT River painting


Potu Pako — Tobacco Leaf

By Rico Newman

The Native Town and surrounding lands known today as Port Tobacco was and still today is occupied by descendants of its First Inhabitants, though not in their former numbers or in former historic dwellings. However, through the past several centuries they have endured there as tenant farmers, fishermen and oystermen, hunters and trappers, and parishioners of St. Ignatius Catholic Church (see photo below). Today some are homeowners on both banks of the Port Tobacco River.

In this brief missive of history prior to “contact” with non-natives, I hope to show a glimpse of life-ways of a people that “thrived” and not just survived in being without what were at time of contact and now considered material advantages. In a time prior to the establishment of the Calvert Palatinate in today’s Maryland, five areas to consider include; Technology, Subsistence Practices, Language, Social organization and Leadership.

TECHNOLOGY: Most familiar are implements of stone, wood and bone used in production for hunting; i.e. arrow/spear heads. Woodworking: celts, adzes, bone drills. Planting; shoulder blade of large vertebrates; i.e. deer, bison, elk, and use of cedar poles for planting seeds, twine from dogbane and other plants for tying off and erecting either long houses or wigwams (pronounced wig-way). The advent of pottery advanced the use of domestic implements over stone (Steatite) bowls; the stone being mined in areas rich in the source stone is in today’s Rock Creek Park. Pottery manufacture made great strides with addition of ground shell, sand, quartz or other materials that strengthened and prevented easy breakage and proving to be more durable in fire pits. Men and women spent many hours and days creating those items that extended their reach, made short work of what would have otherwise been laborious tasks.

When you consider the artistic side of products that came from time consuming activities mentioned in producing useful items, much of it was done during the winter when most were in the inland winter camps and had the leisure to engage in artistic and utilitarian crafts. It has to be presumed these works were carried out by Elders and women, and were times youth were exposed to it and trained in the skills needed to continue the traditions. Similar skills were employed from spring; getting nets and weirs made ready for fishing, burning off winter grasses to prepare old fields and clearing new fields for planting. Meats and fish were smoked, hides scraped and tanned, Long houses and Wigwams built and/or maintained, canoes made or repaired, and hunting needs taken care of.

SUBSISTENCE: Strategy is my take on seasonal plantings and associative work that assured a continuous crop, to not only sustain town inhabitants throughout the four seasons and to have a surplus for various reasons; though not in the sense of a cash crop, but for this particular town, a more cultural aspect.

The name of the town, “Tobacco Leaf” gives us a clue. Today we know, as the ancestors did then, you do not plant tobacco where you plant food crops. The same pollinators that attend one crop also attend the other and having your food bearing a tobacco flavor would not make it palatable. “Poto Paco” was so named as it had the honor to be the town to raise the Tabac (tobacco) for distribution to other towns and villages that made up the Confederacy or Chiefdom. They received other crops in exchange.  Tobacco was/is considered a “sacred plant.” Why? Like corn it has to be cultivated or it won’t grow or grows poorly. Tradition has it that Tobacco was given to appease the spirit of animals and plants that were taken for food. This token showed respect and homage for life. To not do so could result in plants and animals moving away and not making themselves available as a food source. 

Gourds were grown and dried to become storage receptacles for foods that could also be dried for future use during what is termed “starving time.” So called as during late fall to late winter the plants are few, and animals harder to surprise in the hunt. Spring to Fall there is an abundance of natural foods to gather, crops to gather. In early to late spring    fishing was important. The Weirs were set up or repaired in anticipation of the seasonal shad and herron runs to their spawning grounds in the tributaries of the Potomac River. Hunting picked up after the Doe’s had their young and the Buck’s grazed on new grasses and plants and getting big. Hunting is good with the return of foliage that enable the hunters to exercise stealth. Turkey’s, Ducks and Geese are taken and fill the Towns with delightful aromas.

Foods were dried or smoked for future use and stored in gourds hung from Long House rafters or buried in caches to be retrieved during “starving time.” Corn was dried and pounded into a flower as was the leached nuts of the Acorn and other nut bearing trees. Other fruits were dried and kept to season the cooking pots or used fresh for seasoning. Persimmon, Paw Paw, blue berry, strawberry, black berry, artichoke, Tuckahoe and other plants and fruits rounded out a diet providing nutrition on a grand scale.

LANGUAGE: The People spoke a dialect of Algonquin. As with any group of people communication has to take place if anything else is to follow; tradition exist due to language, there is also, storytelling, way-finding, naming of places, naming people, plants, animals, trees, fish, birds, etc. etc.  The local dialect is said to be closely related to that of Lenni-Lenape or Delaware Native people.

There is a current effort to revitalize the language along with other Traditions thought lost.   

SOCIAL ORGANIZATION: It is known that Maryland Natives enjoyed an Egalitarian way of life. That is, there were no political dictates beyond knowing to observe the teachings of the Seven Grandfathers. Most would agree there was a form of “Hierarchy” among the Towns that existed to assure social order. Women, mainly Clan Mothers in each Town or Village, assured the young were taught “rules of the road” so to speak, and to assure that as families grew in number they had ground upon which to raise sufficient crops for their subsistence while mindful of their duty to plant and raise Tabac. Mothers and daughters knew their roles in the community as did the men. Men were hunters and performed those task that required muscle. There were chores and obligations both shared. Children were said to not be subjected to corporal punishment, that instilling pride and the loss of same served to instill duty and obedience. Elders had a definitive role as they were the bearers of history and knowledge of those ideals that would sustain all members of a community.

A main feature of combined Social Organization and Subsistence would be in this manner; Men and Women then as now were subject to injury and often to an untimely death. When a man was injured in the hunt for instance, his family could be assured they would receive foods from surpluses stored for such eventualities (no Medicare or ACA). If a wife/mother became too ill or died, her extended family became substitutes. The Clan Mothers of each family assuring this.

LEADERSHIP: I mentioned in social organization, ‘hierarchy’, but it should be kept in mind there was no participation in social competition to determine rank or social status. Each town had Elders who were the ‘Wisoes’ (wise ones), a noted man of physical prowess and adroit in use of Tomahawk or War Club, Bow and Arrow, Knife and hand to hand ‘struggle’ was the “Cockaroose” or War Captain as they became known after contact. Also there was the ‘Werowance’ who had the role of overall “RESPONSBILITY” for the order of the Town or Village. ‘Clan Mothers’, each ‘gen’ or family had an Elder Clan Mother that had broad responsibility toward her family. Collectively they made decisions that impacted the full complement of a Town or Village; i.e. who the male leaders were, when the people would move to winter camps, when to distribute seeds for planting and who and how much ground was needed per family.

CONCLUSION: I hope I have succeeded in keeping it brief and yet cover the most salient points about lifeways of Native Inhabitants along todays Port Tobacco River, prior to contact as a glimpse of yesteryear.   

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Rico-Potu-Pako-1.png

Historic Sites in the Port Tobacco River Watershed

Many historic sites are located in the watershed, including the Thomas Stone National Historic Site; St. Ignatius Catholic Church, the longest running Catholic parish in the US; Chapel Point State Park, formerly home to an amusement park serving tourists from Washington, DC; and Port Tobacco, the historic Charles County Seat and deep water port.

The Port Tobacco Watershed is a classic example of the effects that an agricultural period can have on a watershed. During the late 19th century, deforestation caused high sedimentation rates that filled in the tidal wetlands and the port. Today, the tidal portion of the River is not visible from the Port Tobacco Village that previously docked cargo ships hauling tobacco. Sedimentation and navigable channels continue to be of concern to local residents.

More recently, the watershed was affected by a 2002 tornado that not only damaged homes and businesses, but also felled trees in the riparian corridor along its path. Much replanting and rebuilding has taken place since this event.