Deep History & Archeological Periods

Archeological arrowhead points
Paleoindian period "Clovis" points

Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Human habitation of the Chesapeake Bay region dates to before the Bay itself was fully formed. Scientists are still debating where the first people to reach North America came from, how they traveled, and when they arrived. In any case, artifacts have been found in Virginia dating back more than 15,000 years. The Bay’s first residents were nomadic hunters, making ends meet in a glacial world.

Over the coming millennia, the ice age landscape of grasslands and pines transformed into the temperate rivers and estuary we know today. Indigenous peoples changed too, developing new technologies, growing in population, and forming larger communities.

As time went on, vast trade networks connected the Bay’s peoples to those across the Americas. Some 1,000 years ago, corn reached the region from its native Mexico, and farmed crops became a staple part of the Indigenous diet. Agriculture transformed society yet again, leading to the complex political structures encountered by Europeans when they arrived in the late 1500s.

Archeological Periods

The Paleoindian period refers to the period of time when humans first populated the Americas. When it comes to dating the first humans to reach North America from the Asian continent, evidence long pointed to sometime during the end of the last ice age, about 14,000 to 15,000 years ago.

But several archeological sites, such as Virginia’s Cactus Hill site, contain artifacts that date back to almost 17,000 years ago. At that time, the Bering Land Bridge would have been covered in impassable ice, suggesting that people may have instead come to North America by boat. They then proliferated throughout the continents of North and South America.  

The first inhabitants of the Chesapeake experienced a radically different environment from the one we know today. Most importantly, the world was undergoing a gradual transition from an ice age to a period of global warming, which we are still experiencing to this day.

The first humans in the Chesapeake would have lived in much cooler weather in grasslands and forests of coniferous, cold-weather trees like spruces and pines. The Chesapeake Bay and its marshes did not exist yet. This is because so much water was frozen in glaciers that the sea level was much lower than it is today.

Small groups of hunter-fisher-gatherers traveled frequently in search of the game they hunted and sites where they could mine stone. Used to make arrowheads and other tools, stone was an invaluable resource. Much of the remaining archeological evidence we have for these peoples is in the form of stone projectile points. 

In the Archaic Period, human technology and way of life evolved to a warming environment. Some 10,000 years ago, as glaciers melted and sea levels rose, the Atlantic Ocean began to flood the valley carved out of the land by the Susquehanna River. This was how the Chesapeake Bay was formed – and it is still expanding to this day. For this reason, the Chesapeake Bay is known as a ria, or drowned river valley.

The warming climate and growing waterways also had a drastic effect on the flora and fauna of the region. Conifers like pines and spruces were replaced by deciduous oaks and hickories. Wildflowers created meadows where berries grew. Warmer temperatures meant more plants could grow, creating a more productive ecosystem overall.

People were not yet farmers, but rather skilled hunters, fishers, and foragers. Warmer weather meant more food, and therefore the ability to support a larger population. New tools such as mortars and pestles were developed in response to the wider variety of food resources available.

By the Late Archaic period, people were increasingly less nomadic and more sedentary – staying in the same area. Settlements were made along waterways, populations increased, and long-distance trade routes were established. Valuable items that traveled long distances included rare minerals such as mica, marine shells made into beads, and items made from copper.

The Woodland Period is marked by the adoption of agriculture in the Chesapeake. By this time, American Indians in the Chesapeake region had already begun cultivating native plants like sunflowers, gourds, sumpweed (marsh elder), maygrass, lambsquarter (goosefoot), and amaranth.

They also planted non-native squash and gourds. These plants are native to Central America, so their spread throughout the Americas is a testament to the expansive trade networks that connected distant peoples.

By 3,200 years ago, fired clay pottery also appears in the archeological record. Previously, vessels had been carved from soapstone or crafted from hide or fiber. Clay pots were lighter, more easily replaced, and far better for food storage.

Around 1,000 years ago, corn arrived in the eastern United States from Mexico. Around that time, towns grew larger and denser, indicating that still more people were living together in established agricultural communities. Houses were round or oval shaped, with fire pits in the center and storage pits along the walls.

Even as crops became a staple food source, hunting, fishing, and gathering remained a significant portion of the diet, and people transitioned seasonally between summer farming towns and winter hunting camps. Once the land was drained of nutrients over a timeframe of about 10-20 years, towns would relocate. This was not always the case, as some groups sustained themselves year-round in a single location.

Towns included a wider variety of communal structures built for things like storing food and wealth, as well as hosting feasts, council meetings, and funerary ceremonies. Pottery technologies advanced in response to the need to store crops.

This societal structure led to an increasingly political world in which some people in the community controlled more power and wealth than others. By the Late Woodland period, large towns appeared, some of which had walls. This is a sign that there was warfare between different groups of people.

Complex political systems arose by the end of the Woodland Period, for example, the tributary system of the Powhatan peoples. In this system, various tribes, each led by their own chief, offered tributary payments of valuable items and food to an overarching paramount chief.

The end of the Woodland Period is marked by the permanent settlement of English colonists in the Chesapeake at Jamestown in 1607.

“091-5026 Cactus Hill Archaeological Site.” Virginia Department of Historic Resources, April 21, 2021.

Gallivan, Martin D. The Powhatan Landscape: An Archaeological History of the Algonquian Chesapeake. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2018.

Means, Bernard K., and Elizabeth A. Moore, eds. The Archaeology of Virginia's First Peoples. Richmond, VA: Archeological Society of Virginia, 2020.  

Strickland, Scott M., Julia A. King, and Martha McCartney. Defining the Greater York River Indigenous Cultural Landscape. St. Mary's City, MD: St. Mary's College of Maryland, 2019.

Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, Chesapeake Bay

Last updated: December 14, 2023