Thursday, June 18, 2009

Politics, Politics

It turns out that four hundred years ago, Captain John Smith was the first (recorded) European to cruise up the Potomac. In doing so, he met lots of Native American tribes. The first lived on the south bank of the river, and down Chesapeake Bay. These Indians were part of the Powhatan Confederacy, with whom Europeans had been in contact for some time. Powhatan himself was suspicious of the English, and had (according to Smith, anyway) laid an ambush for the explorer on the banks of the Potomac. The intended attackers, however, did a poor job concealing themselves, and when Smith called them on their ruse, they came out, confessed that they had meant to attack the English, and went on their way.

Continuing up the river, Smith found that the other tribes he encountered were friendly without trying to kill him first. These Indians, on the north bank between the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay, were the Piscataway. Smith came to understand that these Native Americans were friendly for a reason: not only was the Powhatan Confederacy pressing north onto their side of the river, but the Susquehannocs upriver were aggressive as well. As such, the Piscataway, wedged as they were between two expansionist tribes, were anxious to find allies in their struggle along the banks of the Potomac.

Smith did not fail to make note of this, and thus it was that the English settlers of the region landed on Piscataway land. Aiding the Piscataway, the English colonists made enemies, but had the friendly tribes as a sort of buffer between them and the hostile Susquehannocs to the north. When Powhatan died, chaos in the region ensued, and the colonists supported a range of tribes, most of whom were warring with each other in the aftermath of the disintegration of Powhatan's Confederacy. Thus, the colonists effectively manipulated the shifting political balance of the region in order to keep the surrounding tribes weak as they adjusted to the land and grew stronger.

Political turmoil must flow along the Potomac.

Oh, by the way, the Potomac is named not after any one Native American tribe, but after the nature of the region. Situated at the confluence of a river that flowed past mountains, forest, and valleys alike, the settlers were among Indians who valued trade. The word, "potomac" was Algonquin (the root language of all the area's Indians) for "something brought," as in "something brought to be traded."

Source: Frederick Gutheim, The Potomac (New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1949), 21-31.
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