The Chesapeake Bay was a very different place between 18,000 and 11,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. As the climate moderated and rivers found their modern-day courses, plants and animals became established, and the once-barren plain was replaced with swamps, lagoons, grasslands and forests. These changes made the area habitable for humans.
Archaeologists generally agree that the first inhabitants of the Chesapeake region arrived between 12,000 and 11,500 years ago, while glaciers were retreating; some, however, suggest an arrival several thousand years earlier. The first residents, known as “Paleoindians,” probably organized themselves in small groups and moved across the country living off the land. They established temporary camps, obtaining all they needed from the local environment, and left when game or other resources became scarce. They fashioned tools and weapons from natural materials like rock and animal bone. The presence of “foreign” rocks and technologies, such as spear throwers and notched projectile points traced to other parts of the country, indicate that early residents of the region traded with other peoples.
The period between the end of the ice ages to about 3,000 years ago is called the Archaic Period. With the warmer conditions that followed the ice ages, narrow river canyons became wide transportation corridors, and the shallow Bay offered access to clams, oysters, fish and other invertebrates. Remains of aquatic species found by archeologists indicate an increased use of the Bay’s estuaries and rivers by Archaic peoples.
The Chesapeake region continued to offer abundant resources for the Woodland peoples who populated the region, beginning about 3,000 years ago. Food, tools and household products came from many sources. The Bay and its rivers teemed with fish, mollusks, crustaceans and other invertebrates. Birds were plentiful, varying by season as migratory species passed through. Plant species were numerous. Mature forests, with closed tree canopies that kept the sun from reaching the forest floor, towered over the Coastal Plain. Trees may have stood 50 feet (15 m) higher than today’s forests. Early Woodland inhabitants began to fire pottery. Clay pots and jars facilitated cooking, transportation and the storage of food and water. As time progressed, tools, pottery and textile production became more sophisticated. The domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops increased as Woodland peoples settled in larger groups. Perhaps one of the greatest advances was the introduction of new cultivated plant species, including squash, beans, tobacco and corn. To ensure adequate food supplies, native farmers used fire to create fields from forested land. They used raised beds, hoes and digging sticks to improve crop yields and let shrubs grow between garden plots for erosion control. Woodland peoples began to live in towns generally located near sources of firewood, water and fertile soil. Towns lasted as long as the resources did—typically 10 to 20 years. When soils became depleted, the people moved to a new location. As towns, technology and agriculture became more complex, so did political systems.
Over time, small bands, or tribes, became larger, forming chiefdoms, a political unit that included a number of permanent towns headed by a single powerful leader. Generally, chiefdoms encompassed large geographic areas. The Powhatan tribes, headed by a paramount chief known as Powhatan who lived from about 1545 to 1618, included many Coastal Plain settlements between the York and James rivers. In 1607, the Europeans developed the first permanent English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. By 1640, war and disease introduced by the Europeans had reduced the American Indian population to 2,400—just 10 percent of its pre-colonization size.