“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.


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

John Stuart Skinner and The American Farmer

It’s April and the season when I enjoy watching friends post about readying their gardens for summer crops-amending the soil and planting starter pots of tomatoes, basil and squash. This year in particular, as we all practice social distancing and struggle with finding safe and home-based activities, I suspect that summer gardens are bound to provide plentiful harvests.

Figure 1. Agricultural hoe from a well at Oxon Hill Plantation in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The well was filled between 1710 and 1750.

Having the correct tools is certainly a boon to home gardeners, as well as more serious farmers. This was no less true in early America. The iron hoe shown in Figure 1 was recovered from a well filled prior to 1750 at the Oxon Hill Plantation (18PR175) along the Potomac River. At that time, the primary cash crop on the plantation would have been tobacco and this particular type of broad hoe was known as a “Virginia” or “weeding” hoe (Evans 2012). Agriculture has always been an important economic driver in Virginia and Maryland and knowledge about farming has always been an important consideration.

Just over a century ago, in April of 1819, Calvert County native John Stuart Skinner began publishing the first agricultural journal in the United States. Entitled The American Farmer (Figure 2), this publication aimed to provide accurate knowledge about new agricultural technologies, animal husbandry, and farm commodity prices, in order to re-invigorate agriculture after its nadir during the War of 1812 (American Farmer 1819). The publication, whose first issue appeared on April 2, 1819, was a weekly periodical with a booklet format of eight pages (Pinkett 1950). The American Farmer’s subtitle was “Rural Economy, Internal Improvements, News, Prices Current” and a subscription could be had for four dollars a year.  

Figure 2. The American Farmer masthead for April 2, 1819.

Skinner’s publication was very popular and he retained agents in Philadelphia, Raleigh, Richmond, New York, Boston and Charleston within four years of beginning publication (Berryman 1982). The American Farmer was also endorsed by a number of noteworthy men, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. Skinner’s publication was part of a larger movement within the United States to improve agriculture through the application of scientific principles.

John Stuart Skinner Lithograh by F. D’Avignon (From the Farm Book), 1851

Having been raised on “The Reserve”, a plantation in rural Calvert County, to a family of farmers, Skinner was knowledgeable about agriculture (Berryman 1982). But farming was not his only interest; Skinner was an interesting man with a variety of careers (Figure 3). Born in 1788, he began practicing as an attorney at the age of twenty-one. He served in the Navy during the War of 1812, was a mail inspector and a federal agent for prisoner exchange, held the position of postmaster of Baltimore from 1816 to 1837 and later was the Assistant Postmaster General of the United States (Pinkett 1950).

Although Skinner ended his involvement in The American Farmer in 1830 in order to pursue publication of a sporting magazine (Berryman 1982:47), the periodical continued to be published until 1897. Often considered “the father of American farm journalism”, Skinner remained involved in publications on agriculture and sporting topics until his untimely accidental death in 1851. 


American Farmer. 1819. The American Farmer. August 13, and 20, 1819.

Jack W. Berryman. 1982. Sport, Health, and the Rural-Urban Conflict; Baltimore and John Stuart Skinner’s American Farmer, 1819-1829. Conspectus of History, Volume 1, No. 8. Website accessed April 14, 2020 at https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/ConspectusH/id/624.

Chris Evans. 2012. The Plantation Hoe: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Commodity, 1650–1850. The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. 69, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. 71-100.

Harold T. Pinkett. 1950. The “American Farmer,” a Pioneer Agricultural Journal, 1819-1834. Agricultural History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (July, 1950), pp. 146-151. Website accessed April 10, 2020 at https://www.jstor.org/stable/3741028.