Zekiah Fort (18CH808)


The Zekiah Fort site (18CH808) contains the archaeological traces of a 17th-century fortified Piscataway settlement located several miles south of Waldorf in Charles County, Maryland. The Piscataways were a large and powerful nation located on the north shore of the Potomac, tracing their leadership back to at least ca. 1300 AD. From that time until the early 17th century, the Piscataways had maintained their principal settlement and capital on the south side of Piscataway Creek at its confluence with the Potomac River. Sometime after 1600 AD they moved their capital further up Piscataway Creek, where they continued for several decades following the arrival of English settlers.

In 1680, during a period of significant unrest along the Maryland frontier, the Piscataways were forced to seek refuge from raids by the Susquehannocks and other northern Indigenous groups. By terms of a treaty signed in 1666, Charles Calvert, the Third Lord Baltimore, was obligated to provide assistance to the tributary group. He directed them to Zekiah Manor, one of several manors in Maryland held by Baltimore. The site is located on a later (ca. 1695) subdivision within the manor known as "Jourdan" (or Jordan).

The raids the Piscataways were suffering were in part retaliation for their role supporting the Marylanders in the 1675 siege of the Susquehannock Fort, located at the mouth of Piscataway Creek not far from the Piscataways' ancestral settlement. This siege, which was joined by a number of Virginians, precipitated Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia and created considerable unrest in the two Chesapeake colonies. When the Piscataway were directed to Zekiah, "a place now known unto them," they abandoned their corn and other crops and arrived in a destitute situation. Archaeologists Dennis C. Curry and Maureen Kavanagh estimate that the group seeking refuge consisted of between 90 and 300 members.

The Zekiah Fort site is found both at the top and at the base of a defensible knoll surrounded on three sides by springs and creeks ultimately draining into Piney Branch. A perennial spring provided freshwater for the people moved to the spot. An existing farm road probably follows the trace of the original 17th-century path leading to the knoll's top. Extensive survey in the area (including shovel testing of some 90 plus acres) suggests that the fortified settlement was confined to an area of about five acres.

Archaeological and documentary evidence indicate that the Piscataway remained at Zekiah Fort for about 12 years, although it also appears they periodically returned to their principal settlement at Piscataway. They finally abandoned Zekiah Fort in 1692, the same year that Baltimore reached a settlement with royal authorities after his government was overthrown in 1689. It is possible that the Piscataways' departure was driven by Baltimore's settlement.

The fort's location appears to have remained in the local memory at least through the late 19th century when a local man of "Wicomico" ancestry was reported to have taken visitors to the location. The memory of the settlement's location, however, had been forgotten by the early 20th century.

Archaeological Investigations

Post mold features, Zekiah Fort (St. Mary's College of Maryland)

The location of Zekiah Fort has been a focus of interest since at least 1934, with historians, archaeologists, and members of the now state-recognized Piscataway Conoy Tribe of Maryland interested in relocating the site. In 2009, Michael J. Sullivan, a local historian and businessman, and his wife Laura sponsored a series of surveys in the effort to locate and preserve the site. Archaeologists from St. Mary's College of Maryland under the direction of Julia A. King and Scott Strickland surveyed a number of properties along Zekiah Run believed to have a high potential for containing evidence of the fort. These efforts were rewarded in February 2011 when Potomac Creek ceramics, red and white tobacco pipe fragments, and glass beads were discovered in shovel tests along an unnamed tributary of Piney Branch.

The archaeologists had been drawn to the location's perennial freshwater stream, productive agricultural soils, and defensive situation. The shovel testing program at the site included the excavation of 1,362 shovel tests. Fill from the shovel tests was screened through ¼-inch hardware cloth and all artifacts were retained. Only 233 shovel tests yielded artifacts datable to the late 17th century; these shovel tests were used to define the site's horizontal boundaries.

Following the shovel testing, 46 5-by-5 foot test units were excavated between May and July 2011 and an additional 25 units were excavated between May and July 2014. The test units along with the shovel tests were aligned with Maryland State Plane. The soil removed from each test unit was screened through ¼-inch hardware cloth. In an effort to recover beads and other artifacts of small size, a one-cubic foot column sample of the plow zone from each test unit was collected, screened through ¼-inch mesh, and the remaining soil then water-screened through fine mesh. All artifacts were retained.

Possible post mold and hearth features (Unit 445285), Zekiah Fort (St. Mary's College of Maryland)

The site has been extensively plowed. On the knoll top, stratigraphy at the site consists of a dark yellowish brown plow zone overlying a yellowish brown subsoil. Plow zone in this area ranged from 0.53 to 1.78 feet in depth, with an average thickness of 0.91 foot across the top of the knoll. Units with an unusually thick plow zone appear to have been located in a dead furrow, a raised ridge often found along the edge of agricultural fields and created through the act of plowing.

At the base of the knoll, stratigraphy consisted of a yellowish brown modern plow zone with 20 percent gravel overlying an earlier dark yellowish brown plow zone. The modern plow zone ranges in thickness from 0.8 to 0.97 feet while the early plow is approximately 0.6 feet in thickness. The modern plow zone contains some artifacts related to the site's colonial occupation while the early plow zone contained more than eight times that number.

Features below the plow zone were relatively few in number (excluding plow scars, root molds, and rodent burrows). No obvious fortification trench or ditch was observed at the site. Instead, features believed to be contemporary with the Piscataway occupation include post molds, small pits filled with burned clay and charcoal, and amorphous features associated with the post molds and pits. While all features were photographed and mapped, only one feature – a post mold – was excavated. This post mold had a V-shaped end and did not appear to have been set in a post hole. This post mold and others, however, were located in a larger feature that may or may not have been a subsoil variant. It is possible although not certain that these posts were associated with some kind of fortification.


Artifacts from Zekiah Fort (St. Mary's College of Maryland)

The 2011 shovel testing and test excavations at Zekiah Fort yielded a total of 7,836 artifacts.

Artifacts recovered include lithics of European flint and native stone, Indian and European ceramics, red and white clay tobacco pipes, glass beads, bottle glass, iron nails, lead shot, brass triangles, brass scrap, and animal bone as well as various other finds represented in small quantities. Given the rich assemblage of artifacts, it is possible that the portion of the site located atop the knoll represents the residence of an elite household, possibly that of the Piscataway tayac and his family. The artifacts recovered from the area at the base of the knoll contained fewer artifacts and few prestige items.

The collection also includes 19th- and 20th-century artifacts, albeit in low density. These artifacts represent a later ca. 1830-1860 domestic occupation associated with either the Thompson family or Benjamin F. Montgomery's ownership of the property.

Surprisingly, the largest category of material recovered from the site included animal bone, numbering 4,498 fragments (this count does not include quantities recovered from the water-screened column samples). The sheer quantity of the faunal remains is impressive given the acidic nature of the soil and the plowed contexts from which they came. Brad Hatch analyzed the faunal assemblage from the 2011 excavations at Zekiah Fort, finding that it was less diverse than the assemblage recovered from the Native-occupied Posey site on Mattawoman Creek, also in Charles County, Maryland. Wild species predominated at Zekiah Fort, but elements from a pig and a cow were recovered and may represent animals or foodstuffs brought in when the Piscataway were under pressure from raiding groups and in dire straits. More than 281 oyster shell fragments were recovered from Zekiah Fort even though the site is located some 25 miles from the nearest oyster habitat. The oyster shell was highly fragmented, weighing less than 400 g or 14 ounces.

Ceramics include 906 fragments of both European and Native manufacture. Native-made ceramics predominate at 721 fragments and include Moyaone, Potomac Creek, Townsend, Yeocomico, Camden, colonoware, and unidentified shell-, sand-, and grit-tempered types. European ceramics include Rhenish and English brown stoneware, Staffordshire slipware, Manganese Mottled earthenware, Borderware, Buckley-like earthenware, North Devon gravel-tempered ware, tin-glazed earthenware, Merida Micaceous earthenware, and unidentified earthenwares. Merida Micaceous, an unglazed Spanish ceramic, forms approximately one-third of the colonial European assemblage.

Tobacco pipes number 926 fragments, including red (n=263) and white (n=661) pipes. One tobacco pipe remains unidentified and one appears to be agatized although not a Bookbinder variety.

Lithic artifacts include primarily European flint flakes, shatter, and gunflints; 26 gunflints were recovered from Zekiah Fort and all but one are made from European flint. The exception is a gunflint made from what appears to be a non-local American chert. None of the more than 500 European flint fragments appear to represent a form other than debitage or a gunflint. Other lithic artifacts found in the assemblage include tools, flakes or debitage, and fire-cracked rock of quartz, quartzite, and other native stone. Overall, the lack of native stone artifacts suggests two things: little if any Native occupation before 1680 and, after 1680, an increasing reliance on European guns for defense and subsistence.

Glass bead, Zekiah Fort (St. Mary's College of Maryland)

A total of 463 glass beads are included in the Zekiah Fort collection (not including column sample beads), forming one of the largest glass bead assemblages from any site in Maryland, especially one occupied for such a brief period. The majority of the glass beads are black or red in color.

A total of 483 nails are found in the collection. All of the identifiable nails are wrought with 28 complete examples measuring from one inch to 2.3-inches in length, with an average of 1.8 inches. The relatively short size of the nails indicates that they were not used for heavy framing but perhaps for the construction of boxes. Some nails show signs of clinching – that is, their ends were bent or curled around – and were likely used as fasteners.

Other artifacts recovered from Zekiah Fort include bottle glass, glass and copper buttons, copper triangles, a copper alloy tinkling cone, copper alloy tacks, a gun trigger, a fossilized shark's tooth, an iron triangle, lead shot, a possible lead net-sinker, a silver sword belt hook, an iron hinge, and an iron knife blade fragment.


Cissna, Paul Byron. 1986. The Piscataway Indians of Southern Maryland: An Ethnohistory from Pre-European Contact to the Present. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The American University, Washington, D.C.

Flick, Alex J., Skylar A. Bauer, Scott M. Strickland, D. Brad Hatch, and Julia A. King. 2012. "…a place now known until them:" The Search for Zekiah Fort. St. Mary's City, St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Hall, Valerie M.J. 2012. These Pots Do Talk: Seventeenth-Century Indigenous Women's Influence on Transculturation in the Chesapeake Region. Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University.

Marye, William B. 1935. Piscattaway. Maryland Historical Magazine 30(3):183-239.

Reynolds, Elmer R. 1883. Memoir on the Pre-Columbian Shell Mounds at Newburg, Maryland and the Aboriginal Shell-fields of the Potomac and Wicomico Rivers. Compte-Rendu du Congrès International Des América-nistes. 5th Session, Copenhagen. Available online at www.archive.org/stream/proceedingsinter1883inte#page/310/mate/2p.

Rice, James D. 2009. Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rice, James D. 2012. Tales from a Revolution; Bacon's Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. New York: Oxford University Press.

What You Need To Know To Use This Collection

  • The Zekiah Fort was occupied c. 16801-692.
  • The fort was built by Piscataways under siege from northern Indigenous groups.
  • Archaeological investigations include 1,362 shovel tests and 71 5-by-5-foot units
  • All soils were screened through 1/4-inch mesh. A cubic-foot sample of plow zone was water-screened after screening through 1/4-inch mesh.

Further Information About the Collection

The Zekiah Fort collection is owned by the State of Maryland and presently curated by the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab. For more information about the collection and collection access, contact Rebecca Morehouse, Curator of State Collections, at 410-586-8583; email rebecca.morehouse@maryland.gov.

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