Firehawk sidles his kayak up to the reedy bank and hops out, shells crunching underfoot. I would’ve never found this spot hidden among endless flats of phragmites, but he knows exactly where it is. He comes here occasionally, paying a sort of tribute to a migration his ancestors made countless times. It’s their trash we’ve come to see, before it’s too late.
This is one of Dorchester County, Maryland’s more-than-two-dozen shell middens–heaps of oyster shells where local natives camped for innumerable generations to eat and preserve the endless bounty at their doorstep. I’ve asked Daniel “Firehawk” Abbott to show me some of the places where the land and water bear rare physical proof of Indians’ dominion. Firehawk is a Native craftsman, educator and guide whose family has resided along these shores since humans first walked here. The old ones have long since departed this world, but Firehawk senses their presence. “I feel my ancestors here,” he says. “Their spirits still wander these lands.”
L: Firehawk; R: Our watercraft
Other than the bloodlines of women and men like Firehawk, a Nause-Waiwash tribesman (often referred to as Nanticoke in English), middens are the only tangible remnant of the Chesapeake’s first human inhabitants. They left no enduring monuments. Time and wild growth covered the few tracks they left.
In places, though, pre-contact Indians literally shaped the landscape. Tribes returned time and again to seasonal camps at the edge of tidal waters, land well-situated by a random quirk of geography to offer some benefit, a commanding view that might give fair warning of intruders, perhaps, or proximity to abundant oyster bars.
While they were here, where the Eastern Shore’s winding rivers empty into wide water, they gathered the shellfish so easily accessible, and cooked, ate and preserved them on the spot, leaving the shells where they lay along with the tools, pottery and fire-cracked rocks they used to heat water.
Middens at water’s edge
Over long stretches of time millions of shells collected and the land grew, rising ever so slowly from the flat margins beside these productive waters. Some middens here became two feet thick, covering a dozen acres or more.
The places Indians returned to at tidewater were cool weather camps; the lowlands’ biting insects made the temperate months there unbearable. During warm seasons they moved back inland where they lived at these streams’ headwaters for much of the year. But the shells stayed, remnants of their brief, regular residence, to be covered again with next year’s harvest.
A midden’s cross-section
Unfortunately, most of these last traces of the Chesapeake’s ancient inhabitants will soon be underwater. Rising seas have already inundated untold numbers of these priceless rubbish heaps and many more are washing into the Bay as we speak. Each white-capped wave takes another shell or two from exposed cross-sections. Every flood tide creeps a little higher up the vertical layers until, inevitably, they’re submerged.
The shells that plunk into the drab water tell of a time we modern occupants of these lands can only dream of–oysters shells as big as two hands, and too many to count, no less. It’s hard to tell what’s more lamentable, that we’ll never see a Chesapeake Bay that produces shellfish of the size and scale that Firehawk’s ancestors enjoyed or that the testament to those rich days, the traces of this land’s ancient stewards, will be a distant memory soon, too.
L: A blowdown exposes the layer of shells well inland; R: Traces of ancients are high up on the bank