“The Manner of Their Fishing”: Trapping Fish in Maryland’s Past


Curators at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab have the distinctly enviable pleasure of going through the lab’s archaeological collections as part of their daily jobs. And more often than not, the collections will yield interesting new discoveries—like the curious object in Figure 1. It was found in a bag containing many similar pieces of iron wire and had not been identified by archaeologists at the time of its excavation at the Oxon Hill/Addison Plantation site (18PR175) on the Potomac River in Prince George’s County. But leave it to MAC Lab Federal Curator Sara Rivers Cofield to come up with its identification as part of an eel trap (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Photo montage of a complete eel trap (created by Sara Rivers Cofield).

The only freshwater eel in North America, the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), spends most of its time in fresh or brackish water, migrating to the ocean to spawn (Wilding 2018).  While eel (Figure 3) has virtually disappeared from North American cuisine, it was very popular with colonial Americans, who brought a taste for it from England (Schweid 2002). Wrapped in a pastry crust, eel pie was a common and inexpensive London street food. The English settlers were not the only ones to enjoy eel’s reportedly robust flavor; Algonquin tribes smoked them (Booth 1971:108).  In the late 18th century, eels were a staple of George Washington’s army’s diet.  

 

Figure 3. Common Eel from The Fresh-water Fishes of Great Britain, drawn and described by Mrs. T. Edward Bowdich. R. Ackermann: London, 1828.

Riverine resources have always been an important aspect of Maryland’s past. In addition to spearing and netting fish, Maryland’s native populations used fish traps and weirs of varying types. Both traps and weirs worked by routing fish, including eel, into places of no escape, where they could be more easily speared or netted. Traps could be constructed of basketry, wire like the Oxon Hill example, or wood, similar to an example depicted by John White in late 16th-century eastern North Carolina (Figure 4). Fish weirs were more often made of stone arranged in a V-shape that channeled the fish downriver through a narrow chute and possibly into a smaller holding pen constructed of wood or brush for easy capture. A 1965 aerial photographic survey of a portion of the Potomac River near Washington D.C. discovered 36 prehistoric and colonial stone fish traps and weirs (Strandberg and Tomlinson 1969).  A total of 54 V-shaped stone weirs have been documented in the Potomac between Leesburg and Harper’s Ferry (Scheel 2000).

Figure 4. The Manner of Their Fishing. Artist John White, British Museum Collections.

The use of fish traps extends back thousands of years in Southern Maryland; archaeologist Horace P. Hobbs reported finding a six to seven thousand year old projectile point in one of the traps along the Potomac (Hobbs 1965, 1966). There has been some debate about who first constructed the weirs; engineer Dan Guzy (1999) argues that they were actually constructed during the colonial period by white and black settlers moving into this portion of Virginia and Maryland.   

Regardless of who originally built them, the Potomac fish weirs were used during the colonial period and nineteenth century.  Some weirs, blocking river navigation, were removed in the 18th and 19th centuries, much to the dismay of people living along the river (Scheel 2000).  

Today, eels are largely extinct in the Potomac, due to the construction of the hydroelectric dam near Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  The dam disrupts the eel’s life cycle, making it difficult for them to reproduce.

References

Booth, Sally Smith. 1971. Hung, Strung and Potted: A History of Eating in Colonial America. Clarkson N. Potter, New York.

Bowdich, Mrs. T. Edward. 1828.  The Fresh-water Fishes of Great Britain. Ackermann, London.

Guzy, Dan.  1999.  Fish Weirs in the Upper Potomac River.  Maryland Archeology.

Hobbs, Horace P. 1965.  Rock Dams in the Upper Potomac. Archaeological Society of Virginia, Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 96-98. 

Hobbs, Horace P. 1966.  Rock Dams in the Upper Potomac (Conclusion?). Archaeological Society of Virginia, Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 21-23.  

Scheel, Eugene.  2000. Fishing Out Evidence of Indian Heritage.  Washington Post. July 16, 2000. Website accessed July 24, 2020 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2000/07/16/fishing-out-evidence-of-indian-heritage/44edc5ee-ff1c-4923-a5de-8a3374a89518/.

Schweid, Richard.  2002. Consider the Eel. Gastronomica , Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 14-19.

Strandberg, Carl H. and Ray Tomlinson. 1969. Photoarchaeological Analysis of Potomac River Fish Traps. American Antiquity. Vol. 34, No. 3: 312-319.

Wilding, Sam.  2018. American Eel.  Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.  United States of America, North Carolina/Northwest Atlantic. Pots, Fyke nets, barriers, fences, weirs, corrals, etc. Website accessed June 11, 2020 at https://www.seafoodwatch.org/-/m/2e1924111fca41dfa385df05a239de04.pdf

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