Conoy Indians. An Algonquian tribe, related to the Delawares, from whose ancestral stem they apparently sprang, but their closest relations were with the Nanticoke, with whom it is probable they were in late prehistoric times united, the two forming a single tribe, while their language is supposed to have been somewhat closely allied to that spoken in Virginia by the Powhatan. Heckewelder believed them to be identical with the Kanawha, who gave the name to the chief river of West Virginia. Although Brinton calls this “a loose guess,” the names Conoy, Ganawese, etc., seem to be forms of Kanawha
Conoy Tribe History
The application of the same name to the Piscataway tribe of Maryland, and to the river, is difficult to explain by any other theory than that the former once lived on the banks of the Kanawha.In 16601 the Piscataway applied to the governor of the colony to confirm their choice of an “emperor,” and to his inquiry in regard to their custom in this respect, replied: “Long a go there came a King from the Eastern Shoare who commanded over all the Indians now inhabiting within the bounds of this Province (naming every town severally) and also over the Patowmecks and Sasquehannoughs, whom for that he did as it were embrace and cover them all they called Vttapoingassinem this man dyeing without issue made his brother Quokonassauni King after him, after whom succeeded his other brothers, after whose death they took a Sister’s Sonn, and sonn from Brother to Brother, and for want of such to a Sisters Sonne, the Governmt descended for thirteen generations without interruption until Kittamaquunds time who dyed without brother or sister and appointed his daughter to be queen but that the Indians withstood it as being contrary to their custom, where upon they chose Weghucasso for their King who was descended from one of Vttapoingassinem brothers (But which of them they know not) and Weghucasso at his death appointed this other Vttapoingassinetn to be King being descended from one of the first Kings this man they say was Jan Jan Wizous which in their language signifies a true King. And would not suffer us to call him Tawzin which is the style they give to the sons of their Kings, Who by their custom are not to succeed in Rule, but his Brothers, or the Sons of his Sisters.”
The order of descent in this extract gives it an impress of truth. It indicates close relation between the Nanticoke and the Conoy, though the inclusion of the Susquehanna (Conestoga) among the emperor’s subjects must be rejected. One of the tribes of the east shore from which this chief could have come was the Nanticoke. Thirteen generations would carry back the (late of this first emperor to the beginning of the l6th century. Lord Baltimore’s colonists in 1634 established a mission amongst them, and the “emperor” Chitomachen, otherwise known as Tayac, said to be ruler over a dominion extending 130 miles east and west, was converted, with his family. They were, however, so harassed by the Conestoga that a few years later they abandoned their country and moved farther up the Potomac. They, then rapidly decreasing, were in 1673 assigned a tract on that stream, which Streeter2 thinks may have been near the site of Washington, D. C. The Conestoga, when driven from their own country by the Iroquois in 1675, again invaded the territory of the Conoy and forced that tribe to retire up the Potomac and into Pennsylvania. This was a gradual migration, unless it took place at a much later period, for Baron Graffenried, while searching for a reported silver mine in 1711, found them on the Maryland side of the Potomac about 50 miles above Washington, and made a treaty of friendship with them. He calls them Canawest. About this time the Iroquois assigned them lands at Conejoholo on the Susquehanna, near the present Bainbridge, Pennyslvania, in the vicinity of the Nanticoke and Conestoga. Here they first began to be known as Conoy. Some of them were living with these tribes at Conestoga in 1742. They gradually made their way up the Susquehanna, stopping at Harrisburg, Shamokin, Catawissa, and Wyoming, and in 1765 were living in south New York, at Owego, Chugnut, and Chenango, on the east branch of the Susquehanna. At that time they numbered only about 150, and, with their associate the Nanticoke and Mahican, were dependent on the Iroquois. They moved west with the Mahican and Delawares, and soon became known only as a part of those tribes. In 1793 they attended a council near Detroit and used the turkey as their signature.
Conoy Tribe Culture
The customs and beliefs of the Conoy it my best be given by the following quotation from White3 although the author’s interpretations of customs often go far astray: “The natives are very tall and well proportioned; their skin is naturally rather dark, and they make it uglier by staining it, generally with red paint mixed with oil, to keep off the mosquitoes, thinking more of their own comfort than of appearances. They disfigure their countenances with other colors, too, painting them in various and truly hideous and frightful ways, either a dark blue above the nose and red below, or the reverse. And as they live almost to extreme old age without having beards, they counterfeit them with paint, by drawing lines of various colors from the extremities of the lips to the ears. They generally have black hair, which they carry rotund in a knot to the left ear, and fasten with a band, adding some ornament which is in estimation among them. Some of them wear on their foreheads the figure of a fish made of copper. They adorn their necks with glass beads strung on a thread like necklaces, though these beads are getting to be less valued among them and less useful for trade. They are clothed for the must part in deerskins or some similar kind of covering, which hangs down behind like a cloak. They wear aprons round the middle, and leave the rest of the body naked. The Young boys and girls go about with nothing on them. The soles of their feet are as hard as horn, and they tread on thorns and briers without being hurt.
Their arms are bows, and arrows 3 ft. long, tipped with stag’s horn, or a white flint sharpened at the end. They shoot these with such skill that they can stand off and hit a sparrow in the middle; and, in order to become expert by practice, they throw a spear up in the air and then send an arrow from the bow string and drive it into the spear before it falls. But since they do not string the how very tight, they can not hit a mark at a great distance. They live by means of these weapons, and go out every day through the fields and woods to hunt squirrels, partridges, turkeys, and wild animals. For there is an abundance of all these, though we ourselves do not yet venture to procure food by hunting, for fear of ambushes. They live in houses built in an oblong, oval shape. Light is admitted into these through the roof, by a window a foot and a half long; this also serves to carry off the smoke, for they kindle the fire in the middle of the floor, and sleep around the fire. Their kings, however, and chief men have private apartments, as it were, of their own and beds, made by driving 4 posts into the ground, and arranging poles above them horizontally.”
According to the same authority they acknowledged one god of heaven, yet paid him no outward worship, but strove in every way to appease a certain imaginary spirit, which they called Ochre, that he might not hurt them. They also worshiped corn and fire. The missionary probably alludes by this last statement to the use of corn and fire in certain religious ceremonies.
The villages of the Conoy were:
Proc. Coun., 1636-67, Md. Archives, 403, 1885 ↩
Streeter, Hist. Mag., 1st s., I, 67, 1857 ↩
White, Relatio Itineris, Co. 1635, ↩