Heater’s Island and the Piscataway Indians

 Vandercastle and Harrison meet the Piscataway in 1699 (painting by William Woodward).

Vandercastle and Harrison meet the Piscataway in 1699 (painting by William Woodward).

    In chapter 16 of The Oberlin Anomaly, Sooleawa, sometimes known as Hannah Cassidy, tells the main characters, Jack Starkey and Sheila Cartwright that she was born on Heater’s Island near Frederick, MD in 1699.  She and other characters in the novel identify themselves as Piscataway Indians. Historically the Piscataway were first encountered near the confluence of the Potomac River with Piscataway Creek in southern Maryland in 1608 by Captain John Smith. The Piscataway moved throughout the area, sometimes found as far north as the foothills of Virginia.  

    Based on historical documents we have a picture of the Piscataway Fort on Heater’s Island.  In 1699, two emissaries of the Virginia governor, Vandercastle and Harrison, traveled to the island and found a fort some fifty to sixty yards square and containing and surrounded by cabins. It was estimated that approximately three hundred people men, women and children inhabited the settlement. 

    This group of Piscataway from Heater’s Island left Maryland around 1712, but there were other Piscataway Indians still living in southern Maryland where they continue to do so. Today, many in southern Maryland identify as Piscataway.  In 2012 Governor Martin granted state recognition to three separate Piscataway groups: the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, the Piscataway Indian Nation, and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway.

    In Chapter 6 the fictional Piscataway Indians are encamped on the Potomac River above Georgetown, DC and below Little Falls near the modern day Fletcher’s Boat House. They have set up a temporary fishing camp to take the striped bass that are migrating.

Source material used with permission from Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, 10515 Mackall Road, St. Leonard, Maryland 20685.
Author:  Dennis C. Curry


 Chapter 12 of the Oberlin Anomaly takes place in Cassidy's Tavern on the Georgetown, DC waterfront in 1822. The tavern fronts the Potomac River on Fishing Lane. It is modeled after Suter’s Tavern, also known as The Fountain Inn. Suter’s was one of Georgetown's best-known hostelries.  Although some controversy exists about the exact location, John Suter likely established the tavern in 1783 in Georgetown on Fishing Lane, placing it near the intersection of31st and K Streets, NW, or on nearby High Street, the modern day Wisconsin Avenue. Suter operated this tavern until his death in 1794, and his wife and son continued to do so afterward. In later years the tavern became an oyster house as pictured in the Library of Congress photo above and finally disappeared. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other notable residents frequented the tavern in its heyday. It was commonplace in those times for this, Georgetown’s most famous tavern, to provide lodging for travelers and to be the site of important business meetings, including the planning for the budding Washington City. 

 Suter’s Tavern (The Fountain Inn) in Georgetown (Library of Congress)

Suter’s Tavern (The Fountain Inn) in Georgetown (Library of Congress)

 In Chapter 12 of The Oberlin Anomaly Thomas Jefferson is staying in the fictional tavern and takes part in the story. It is known historically that Thomas Jefferson frequented Suter’s Tavern and once stated that “no man on the Atlantic coast can bring out a better bottle of Madeira or Sherry than old Suter.”

Elsewhere in the novel the fictional tavern has become the site of The Jefferson Society, and the scene for much of the action that takes place in the present time. It is no accident that the fictional Jefferson Society building sits near 31st and K Streets, NW, one possible site of Suter’s Tavern and adjacent to Thomas Jefferson Street, Georgetown.

  1. ^ Holmes, Oliver W. (1980). The City Tavern: A Century of Georgetown History, 1796-1898. Columbia Historical Society; City Tavern Association reprint. p. 5.
  2. ^ Ecker, Grace Dunlop (1933). A Portrait of Old Georgetown. Garrett & Massie, Inc. p. 18.
  3. ^ Holmes, Oliver W. (1980). The City Tavern: A Century of Georgetown History, 1796-1898. Columbia Historical Society; City Tavern Association reprint. pp. 2, 5.
  4. ^ Holmes, Oliver W. "Suter's Tavern: Birthplace of the Federal City". Records of the Columbia Historical Society. 73-74: 1–34.


Chapter One of forthcoming novel, The Oberlin Anomaly, takes place in 1901 along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal above Georgetown, DC. Most of the novel has its setting along the canal and nearby Washington, DC and Maryland in the current time, but there are flash backs like the first chapter, Viola.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) runs for some one hundred and eighty-four miles north along the Potomac River from Washington, DC to Cumberland Maryland. Historically canal boats transported coal and sometimes fruits and vegetables down to Washington and Alexandria, Va. The canal operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. It was built because the Potomac River is not navigable above Little Falls. The entire length of the canal now forms the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

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The canal descends 605 feet down from Cumberland to Washington and this required the building of seventy-four locks that lowered the canal boats during the route. A towpath ran along the side of the canal, and horses and mules and their leaders traveled the path towing the boats.  Eleven aqueducts were built to convey the canal over intervening rivers and streams.

The canal varies in width from 80 at the southern end to 50 feet wide at the northern end and runs some six feet deep. The canal boats made a round trip from Cumberland to DC or Alexandria in about twenty days, thirteen days down and seven days to return. This was done running the boats during the day. Some captains made trips in fourteen days or less running all night. 

The captains of the canal boats often bought their boats from a coal company like The Cumberland Coal Company.  They could get mortgages from these companies and pay them back on an installment plan. They made their payments by the load, paying perhaps $40.00 per each trip the length of the canal.

Families, like that of Vernon, James, Ophelia and Viola Hilliard in the novel, lived aboard the freight boats that carried the coal.