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On the trail of the Native Americans: What really happened in this region?

April 08, 2002|BILL STERNER / Staff Correspondent

By Bob Maginnis

During the recent controversy over whether Boonsboro High School and Conocheague Elementary School would give up their Indian mascots, I realized that after being a resident of Washington County for almost 30 years, I knew nothing about the Native Americans who once lived here.

To learn more, I turned to Roger Swartz, an author, historian, educator and historical consultant who has done much research on the subject. The first thing he told me was that he didn't object to the term "Warrior" because, in fact, the great North-South trail used by Native Americans - now known as U.S. 11 - was called "The Warriors' Path."

The Tuscarora, he said, used that road to travel north in the years after 1713, after a war with the state of North Carolina and the Cherokee Indians.

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"They came up the Iroquis Trail, which is now U.S. 11. Somewhere in Martinsburg, that trail went to Cherry Run, up what is now Route 9 and then to Fort Frederick and to Mercersburg by way of Casey's Ridge. They traveled it all the way into the Cumberland Gap, where they fought the Cherokee in the South," Swartz said.

Other tribes who passed through the region include the Piscataway, whose homeland was on the eastern side of the Potomac River, across from Mt. Vernon, George Washington's home.

"A major town of theirs was on Heater's Island in the Potomac River. From there they moved into Pennsylvania from 1697 on," Swartz said.

"Then there were the Shawanoe, who we know as the Shawnee. Known as 'the Southern People,' they came here from Kentucky and Illinois and settled near Old Town, close to Cumberland, where Thomas Cresap set up a trading post," Swartz said.

"Throughout this whole era, the Lenape - the Original People - and the Shawanoe fought on the side of the French. This area was really devastated," he said.

What did Native Americans of that time eat?

They cultivated some crops, like corn, but Swartz said that if they were on a war raid, they would hunt along the way and subsist on jerky made from deer or the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon or seek food from the settlers in Maryland, Virginia and the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania.

"The Iroquis were our allies from 1744 on," Swartz said.

By that time, the tribes had obtained guns and though some warriors carried bows and arrows as well, iron axes and knives had replaced the earlier stone implements, Swartz said.

"There was some talk in the Piscataway council with the Maryland government in the late 1690s that 'The young men have forgotten how to use bows and arrows,' " Swartz said.

What would the tribal people use for shelter?

"Toward the Eastern Shore, the Piscataway would live in 15- to 20-foot wide and from 40-to-60-foot-long structures called longhouses, covered with grass. Further inland, these would be covered with bark," he said.

In an encampment, they would live in small oval-shaped huts called weigweis, which held nine or 10 people. The opening faced east or southeast and had a fire hole on top to let out smoke, Swartz said.

By 1754, Swartz said, most native people had been chased out of the area. The Treaty of Lancaster, signed in 1744, averted a major Indian war when Pennsylvania got Maryland and Virginia to recognize a "passport" issued by the Keystone State that allowed the Iroquis to travel the Warriors' Path.

"As a result, the Iroquois agreed to be military allies against the French, if it came to that, which it did," he said.

What really brought these people alive for me was a book Swartz lent me, called "The Art of Robert Griffing," published in 2000 by East/West Visions of Gibsonia, Pa. At $55 it's not cheap, but definitely worth it for its views of a culture now gone and for the text by George Irvin.

The book notes that unlike the Indians of the Great Plains, the Eastern Woodlands Indians did not wear war bonnets, but only a few feathers attached to a small knot of hair. Most other hair - including the beard - was plucked out, Irvin writes.

The outer edge of the ear was often slit, remaining attached only at the lobe and near the top. The resulting skin, when healed, was wrapped with brass wire and other ornaments, Irvin said.

Far from being the savages sometimes depicted by old Hollywood movies, Native Americans had strong beliefs. The Iroquis even had a constitution from which Benjamin Franklin is said to have borrowed ideas for our own U.S. document.

None of this does justice to a story that requires a book rather than one column, but we've got to start somewhere. If you'd like to learn more, buy Griffing's book, or attend Swartz's course on American Indian culture, which will run from Oct. 27 to Nov. 1 at the Shepherd Spring retreat near Sharpsburg.

It's part of the national Elder Hostel program. For information on costs, please call Anne Myers, program manager of Hagerstown Community College's Institute for Learning in Retirement, at (301) 790-2800, ext. 582.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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