Assaomack village depended on fish

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Assaomack village depended on fish

June 6, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Stone points discovered on Shuter’s Hill by Milton Penn years ago, were made about the same time as those found at Jones Point. 

Jones Point was an obvious place for Native Americans to camp and exploit the many diverse micro environments located nearby. Evidence of thousands of years of human occupation comes from archaeological excavations performed by Louis Berger & Associates, Inc. in 1984. Buried deeply beneath 19th and 20th century fill layers, Charles Lee Decker’s archaeological survey discovered several prehistoric tools documenting Jones Point’s significance for Native Americans between the years approximately spanning 3000 B.C. to A.D. 800. The artifacts document that tool manufacture and cooking probably occurred here as part of seasonal camps set up to exploit anadromous fish. 

The date 3000 B.C. is also the time suggested by archaeologists Dr. Bill Gardner and Dr. Jay Custer for the stabilization of salinity levels in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, like the Potomac River. The constant salinity created an environment which supported large oyster populations. Similarly, anadromous fish have specific temperature and salinity requirements in order for successful spawning to occur. Thus around this same time anadromous fish, such as American shad and white perch, became a dependable food resource for peoples along the Potomac. In historic times, shad and perch reached as far up the Potomac as Great Falls during their spawning seasons. These fish particularly spawned within freshwater marshes and swamps so prevalent around Hunting Creek.

Fish became an increasingly important food source for Native Americans after 900 A.D. Local populations became increasingly sedentary and dependent upon food which could be stored. While crop and nut harvests were stored, the supplies dwindled by late winter and early spring. The fish runs occurred during these seasons, which provided the people living near Hunting Creek ready access to protein when they needed it most.

The 1984 survey did not yield evidence of native settlements on Jones Point during this later prehistoric period, 900 to 1600 A.D. But the John Smith map of 1608 documents one such village on the south bank of Hunting Creek, which probably was situated up on a terrace near the Belle Haven Country Club. To underscore the importance of fish to their economy, the inhabitants referred to their village as Assaomeck, "middle fishing place."

A variety of methods were used to catch fish. The Indians started fires in dugout canoes at night to lure fish to the surface for spearing. They also built fish weirs which functioned as traps. Fish nets were made as well to harvest large catches. One badly eroded ceramic sherd discovered at Jones Point by Charles Lee Decker had a net impressed exterior. DeBry’s very early engravings illustrate Powhatans engaged in daily activities. One is a fascinating cross section of the river bottom, water, surface canoes and spearing activities, and sky. In the dugout, a fire burns while a long handled net awaits use. Fish, turtle and crab are abundant. Also shown in the engraving is an expansive fish weir compound.

John Smith wrote in his diary as his traveled along the coastal plain waters: "The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercies...The women and children do the rest of the worke." An excellent book, "First People," is available at public libraries and will be enjoyable for most ages discusses all Native American periods in Virginia.