“The Aborigines of the District of Columbia and the Lower Potomac” [American Anthropologist, Vol. 2, No. 3 (July 1889), pp. 225-268]

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

“Their houses are in the midst of their fields or gardens, which are small plots of ground, some 20 (acres), some 40, some Ioo, some more, some lesse: sometimes from 2 to Ioo of these houses togither, or but little separated by groves of trees. Neare their habitations is but little small wood or old trees on the ground, by reason of their burning of them for fire.” [John Smith] A community of this character occupied the eastern bank of the Anacostia, from Giesboro’ Point on the south to within a short distance of Bladensburg on the north; not a continuous line of houses, but a succession of them at short intervals and at points convenient for the river.

The Anacostia has at this place, on its eastern shore, low-lying banks that stretch out into a comparatively level plain. The western shore line is for the greater part swampy in character, and offers but little inducement to a permanent occupation by either fishermen or farmers, and the ancient people of Nacotchtanke were both, as well as hunters and warriors. Quoting again from [John] Smith: “And, lastly, Nacotchtanke, with 80 able men. The river, 10 miles above this place, maketh his passage down a low, pleasant valley, overshadowed in manie places with high, rocky mountains, from whence distil innumerable sweet and pleasant springs.”

The principal part of Nacotchtanke seems to have been about due east of the Capitol, for the fields at this point give greater evidence of occupation than at most others, though indications of Indian occupation are to be found at nearly all points of the valley. It should be noted that the dwellings were in most cases close to the bank of the stream. A line drawn parallel with the shore and three hundred feet distant would include the greater part of the houses.

The history of the Nacochtanks and Tauxenents is lost in that of their more powerful neighbors. After Smith’s voyage up the Potomac, in 1608, we hear no more of them until 1622, when a party from Jamestown, ascending the river in quest of supplies, stopped at a settlement on the south bank, at the mouth of Potomac creek. The chief here had no corn to spare, but said that “his mortal enemies,” the Nacochtanks and Moyaones, on the other side of the river, had plenty, and offered the services of fifty warriors to go and help the English take it. The offer was accepted. The white and red raiders attacked Nacochtank, and after a stubborn fight eighteen of the Nacochtanks were killed and the remainder driven from their cabins, which were then plundered and burned.t This battle was probably fought on the slopes just across the navy-yard bridge. Passing over minor occurrences, the next important event in the history of these tribes was the arrival of Lord Baltimore’s colony on the Potomac in 1634. The Catholic missionaries who accompanied the expedition soon won the hearts of the simple-minded natives, who gladly accepted their teachings, and the chief of the Nacochtanks-called by the missionaries Anacostans–even expressed his desire to live among the whites and become one of them; but this lasted not long. The cupidity of the traders and the encroachments of the settlers led to reprisals, resulting finally in a condition of chronic warfare, in which, as usual, the Indians were the greater sufferers.

On the arrival of the English in 1634 they found the tribes along the whole Lower Potomac and Patuxent living in constant dread of the Susquesahanocs at the head of the Bay, whose incursions had become so frequent and destructive that the weaker tribes had already begun to abandon their settlements for a more secure position farther up the Potomac. The Susquesahanocs continued their inroads upon Indians and whites alike until 1652, in which year a treaty was made, only to be broken again in 1676, when the pressure of the terrible Iroquois on the north drove the Susquesahanocs themselves from their ancient homes and forced them down upon the frontiers of Maryland and Virginia, which they ravaged from the Patuxent to the James, until defeated and almost exterminated by Nathaniel Bacon in a decisive battle at the present site of Richmond. The result was a treaty of peace in 1677, by which all the Indians as far as the head of Chesapeake bay were brought under tribute to the whites.

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