Notes on the Piscataway & Harrison's Island

C&O Canal Companion reference:
Canal Guide Mile 34.3

Harrison's Island, "500 acres of flat, wood-fringed farmland
shaped like a huge dolphin trapped in the Potomac,"
in the evocative description of historian Byron Farwell.
The island is privately owned, but protected from development
by a land easement agreement with the Potomac Conservancy.
Photo by M. High, with Mark Terry (pilot)


To be added

Mile 34.3 :

Harrison's Island was the staging point for the the 15th and 20th Regiments of the Massachusetts Infantry when they crossed over to Ball's Bluff on the night of October 20-21, 1861. The crossing was inordinately slow and was not completed until 4 a.m., as there were but three boats available for use. When the Union forces were routed on the evening of the 21st, the island was also the nearest refuge. Unfortunately, the shortage of boats added to the confusion and panic, and after the largest boat was swamped, officers encouraged their men to toss their weapons and gear and swim for it through the hail of bullets. Wounded soldiers who made it, sometimes clinging to tree limbs for flotation, were taken to house and farm buildings on the island where a makeshift hospital had been set up.

One of the soldiers from Massachusetts, Private Oliver Wendell Holmes, was lucky enough to be struck by two bullets relatively early in the engagement (approximately 4:30 p.m.), and was evacuated while the boats were plying their way from island to shore. Private Holmes recovered, fought at Antietam a year later, and earned the rank of brevet Colonel. After President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1902, Holmes earned the sobriquet "The Great Dissenter" as well as a reputation for honesty and bluntness. He retired from the court in 1932 and died in 1935 at the ripe old age of 94.


Additional Notes

The Piscataway Indians were living in what is now St. Mary's County, on the lower Potomac River, when Lord Baltimore began to settle the colony of Maryland. They were considered friendly to the British colonials, but were increasingly involved in disputes involving poaching and attacks on the settlers. Perhaps sensing further unpleasantness as the colonial farms proliferated, they abruptly removed themselves to the region of the Potomac just below Catoctin ridge in 1697. In 1699, a party of "Ambassadors" sent by the justices of Stafford County (Virginia) found the Piscataway living on an island in the Potomac.

The description that they gave of the island fits either Harrisons Island or Conoy Island, with some interpretations favoring Harrisons Island and others Conoy Island. The distances and directions given in the following report are difficult to unravel, but historian John T. Phillips points out that the party seems to have covered enough ground to place them well beyond Harrisons Island. Tom Hahn and some interpretative traditions of the National Park Service favor the Harrisons Island location; however, historical opinion is weighted towards Conoy Island--in addition to Phillips, Eugene Scheel and the venerable Fairfax Harrison identify that as the site of the Piscataway at the time of the 1699 embassy.




Stafford fs. April 21st

In obedience to his Excellencys Comand and an order of this Corte, bearing the 12th day of this Instance, Aprill, We, The subscribers, have beene with the Empeuor of Piscattaway, att his forte, and did then Comand him, in his Majtys name, to meet his Excellency in a Generall Assembly of this his Majties most Ancient Colloney and Dominion of Virginia, the ffirst of May next, or two or three dayes before, with sume of his great men. As soone as we had delivered his Excellency's Comands, the Emperor sumons all his Indians thatt was then at the forte -- being in all about twenty men. After consultation of almost two ours, they told us were very Bussey and could not possibly come or goe downe, butt if his Excellency would be pleased to come to him, sume of his great men should be glad to see him, and then his Exlly might speake whatt he hath to say to him, & if his Excellency could nott come himsealfe, then to send sume of his great men, ffor he desired nothing butt peace.

They live on an Island in the middle of Potomack River, its aboutt a mile long or sumething Better, and aboute a quarter of a mile Wide in the Broaddis place. The forte stands att ye upper End of the Island, but nott quite ffinnished, & theire the Island is nott above two hundred and fifty yards over ; the bankes are about 12 ffoot high, and very heard to asend. Just at ye lower end of the Island is a Lower Land, and Little or noe Bank ; against the upper End of the Island two small Island, the one on Marriland side, the other on this side, which is of aboute fore acres of Land, & within two hundred yards of the ffoorte, the other smaller and sumthing nearer, both ffirme land, & from the maine to the forte is aboute four hundred yards att Leaste--nott ffordable Excepe in a very dry time ; the fforte is about ffifty or sixty yardes square, and theire is Eighteene Cabbins in the fforte and nine Cabbins without the forte that we Could see. As for Provitions they have Corne, they have Enuf and to spare. We saw no straing Indians, but the Emperor sayes that the Genekers Lives with them when they att home ; also addes that he had maid peace with all ye Indians Except the ffrench Indians ; and now the ffrench have a minde to Lye still themselves ; they have hired theire Indians to doe mischief. The Distance from the inhabitance is about seventy miles, as we conceave by our Journeys. The 16th of this Instance Aprill, we left out from the Inhabitance, and ffound a good Track ffor five miles, all the rest of the daye's Jorney very Grubby and hilly, Except sum small patches, butt very well for horse, tho nott good for cartes, and butt one Runn of any danger in a ffrish, and then very bad ; that night lay att the sugar land, which Judge to be fforty miles. The 17th day we sett ye River by a small Compaise, and found itt lay up N. W. B. N., and afterwards sett itt ffoure times, and alwayes found itt neare the same Corse. We generally kept about one mile ffrom the River and a bout seven or Eight miles above the sugare land, we came to a broad Branch of a bout fifty or sixty yards wide, a still or small streeme, itt tooke oure horses up to the Belleys, very good going in and out ; about six miles ffarther came to another greate branch of about sixty or seventy yeards wide, with a strong streeme, making ffall with large stones that caused our horses sume times to be up to theire Bellyes, and sume times nott above their Knees ; Soe we Conceave if a ffreish, then not ffordable, thence in a small Track to a smaller Runn, a bout six miles, Indeferent very, and soe held on till we came within six or seven miles of the forte or Island, and then very Grubby, and greate stones standing Above the ground Like heavy cocks--they hold for three or ffoure miles ; and then shorte Riddges with small Runns, untill we came to ye forte or Island. As for the number of Indeens, there was att the ffote about twenty men & aboute twenty women and aboutt Thirty Children, & we mett fore. We understand theire is in the Inhabitance a bout sixteene. They informed us there was sume outt a hunting, butt we Judge by theire Cabbins theire cannot be above Eighty or ninety bowmen in all. This is all we Can Reporte, who subscribes oureselves

Yor Exlly Most Dutifull Servants,




Text excerpted from "Calendar of Virginia State Papers," Volume 1, 1652-1781, published by R.F. Walker, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1875. The only editorial change has been to substitute the modern "s" for the archaic "f."

Sources on the Battle of Ball's Bluff & Oliver Wendell Holmes:

  • Battle of Ball's Bluff, Staff Ride Guide, Ted Ballard, Center of Military History, U.S. Army, Washington DC, 2001 [74 pages, available from Government Printing Office]
  • Touched with Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1946. [Includes a letter to his mother and portion of his journal describing the battle and his wounding--also see Chapter XVI of Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson for an interesting assessment of Holmes' account of the Balls Bluff action and his other Civil War letters.]
  • Harvard Regiment biographical notes on Holmes.
  • Ball's Bluff, A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow, Byron Farwell, EPM Publications, McLean, Virginia, 1990.


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