When people think of the stereotypical “Native American princess” they immediately think of Pocahontas, as a young woman who struggled to establish peace between the Powhatan tribe and Virginia colonists. However, few have heard about Mary Kittamaquund, the daughter of the Chief of the Piscataway Indians and ward of Maryland colonists, who was used as a peacemaker and pawn to establish political relationships between the two cultures. While the Piscataway tribe understood a woman’s place within society very differently, the English saw young royal daughters as property to be used as deemed fit by the King/father. Watson (2021) highlights how researchers acknowledge the fact that royal European daughters were known to be used for their intercourse and reproduction abilities as key tools to secure power for the throne. Similarly, the Chesapeake Algonquian people (which the Piscataway are a part of) engaged in this type of “women as a commodity” viewpoint. Daughters of elite men were often the negotiated middle ground of establishing political ties. The products of sexual intercourse were physical evidence of linked families. Marriage, especially within the Catholic faith of the European colonists, legitimized any claims to land (Watson 2021; White 1991). Thus children were in a sense the “end goal” of this type of diplomatic strategy.
The Algonquian communities engaged in gift-giving diplomacy. Women often played the roles of host, entertainer, and sometimes bedfellow (Watson 2021). Jager (2015), when describing this process with Pocahontas and the Powatans, stated that “Native women (either single or married) were offered in cultural exchange; this diplomatic process extended membership to the outsider and linked groups together for a cooperative future”. Sexual relations would consummate the outsider’s acceptance within the group. Despite Jager’s matter-of-fact- statement, one must not ignore the fact that not all elite women would have consented to this “offering of cultural exchange”. In essence, these types of non-consenting exchanges erase a woman’s agency in the situation. Particularly with one as young as Mary it is safe to assume that she would not have been able to consent to her situation. Modern scholars, attempting to understand the role of Mary, have approached this early American historic period through several lenses; namely the contrast of romantic love versus the cold harsh reality that Mary, at age seven, would have been a pawn in a chess game played out by the adults in her life for the control of power and land ownership between her father, guardians (Leonard Calvert and Mary Brent) and eventual husband (Giles Brent).
Despite the negative lens today, it was likely in good faith that Mary’s father, and Chiefhead of her people, sent the seven-year old child to be raised by Governor Leonard Calvert and by Margaret Brent, it is unknown if the intention was for her to end up in a child-marriage. Mary’s father agreed to this exchange not only for Mary to learn English culture, but also to create ties between the two groups. For the English, this was a way of “civilizing the natives” and indoctrinating them in the Catholic religion and “white culture”. The resources that do survive from this time period do little to discuss the power of women and their bodies during this time; anything written particularly of native women serves to show “proof” of Europe’s superiority over native cultures (Watson 2021).
While fur and goods trading, the lust for land, religious conflicts, and religious war in England, undoubtedly shaped Mary Kittamaquund’s life, it was her early marriage to Giles Brent that would impact her the most. In late 1644, in Governor Calvert’s absence, Margaret Brent had allowed her 38-year-old brother Giles to marry ten- or eleven-year-old Mary. Despite the Brents’ best efforts, the marriage between Mary and Giles did not stabilize the ownership of Piscataway land for neither Mary nor her husband as it was aimed to do. While not much is known about Mary’s life outside Gile’s land disputes, however, it is known the couple had at least six children, whom only four survived childbirth.
Sadly, there are no records in existence which note the details of Mary Kittamaquund’s death, although it is known that in 1654 Giles Brent remarried. It is unclear whether Mary died as a young woman (potentially in childbirth), left Giles and resumed her Native American identity, or he divorced her. Interestingly, both Margaret Brent and her sister, Mary Brent, never married and yet retained high status within the Maryland colony. So Mary’s women role models would not have been typical of the time. Scholars have been able to do little with this information as not much is known about Mary’s life but I continue it would be interesting to consider how two unconventional women raising an outsider would have impacted the life of young Mary as she grew and was able to gain control of her own agency.
- Jager, Rebecca (2015) Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacajawea: Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman. Pp. 5; 39.
- Watson Kelly L. (2021) Mary Kittamaquund Brent, “The Pocahontas of Maryland”: Sex, Marriage, and Diplomacy in the Seventeenth-Century Cesapeake. Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 19, Number 1, pp. 24-63.
- White, Richard (1991) The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge University Press: New York.