Sunday, October 12, 2008

Father Andrew White and the Village of Portobac

Maryland is fortunate in having many documents that survive from initial European colonization, and most of those are in print or otherwise publicly accessible. One of the earliest compilations of early Maryland documents is Clayton Colman Hall's (1910, 1925) Narratives of Early Maryland, 1633-1684, reprinted by Heritage Books (1988) of Bowie, Maryland.

Among the passages from the annual letters of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) to their superiors in Europe is one reporting on the efforts of Father Andrew White in the region in 1642. It mentions that the so-called Empress of/from Pascataway (Piscataway) had been baptized in St. Mary's City and there was learning English. Then follows the following quotation:

Almost at the same time most of the town called Portobacco received the [Catholic] faith with baptism; which town, as it is situated on the river Pamac, (the inhabitants call it Pamake, [Hall states that it is now called Port Tobacco Creek]) almost in the center of the Indians, and so more convenient for excursions in all directions, we have determined to make our residence; and the more so, because we fear that we may be compelled to abandon Pascataway on account of its proximity to the Sesquesehanni, which nation is the most savage and warlike of these regions, and hostile to the Christians (p. 136).

On the strength of this short passage, then, we know that the small group of Jesuit missionaries intended to establish a mission along Port Tobacco Creek in the early 1640s, encouraged by ready access to Indians throughout the area and impelled by the threat of Susquehannock attacks on their base in Piscataway, further up the Potomac River in Prince George's County.

One of our tasks in exploring the archaeological record of Port Tobacco is to generate some expectations of what we might find, both of the "town called Portobacco" and of the Jesuit mission, and then to see if we can find that evidence in our excavations. While these tasks sound simple enough, they lead to a welter of questions, and I'll leave you today with some of them. Feel free to opine on any or all of them by commenting on this posting.
  1. What was Portobacco like before Father Andrew White made contact? Was it a village in the sense of a dense settlement occupied the year round, or was it a dispersed settlement of households along several miles of river front with small groups decamping from time to time to hunt and gather elsewhere in the region?
  2. Did missionization alter the appearance of Portobacco, perhaps with greater concentration of the Indians in a core area? And, if the latter, where was that core area?
  3. We have already recovered two European trade beads from the Holt and Compton properties, but is there evidence of more intensive trade and adoption of European material culture by the Indians? Did they Europeanize their houses, or did they continue to build their houses as they had prior to European contact? For that matter, what did those pre-contact house look like?
  4. Did early European settlers adopt any of the ways of their Indian hosts? For example, what did the house of Father Andrew White and his lay assistants look like and did they adopt aboriginal dietary patterns?
We'll have many more such questions, each of which prompts a series of more detailed questions.


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