Archeology and History in Rock Creek Park

[photo] Union soldiers and artillery behind earthen berms at Fort Stevens.
Officers and men of Company F, 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery pose at Fort Stevens.

Library of Congress

Rock Creek Park is a 1,755-acre wooded oasis in the heart of Washington, DC. Beyond the main block of land along Rock Creek, the park includes parcels scattered across northwest Washington. Archeology has brought many untold stories of this park's long and fascinating history to light. People lived on the land for thousands of years before the park was established in 1890 and, even then, dozens of people still lived within its boundaries. Archeologists found Native American camp sites dating between 2,500 BCE and 1,400 CE, colonial tenancies, nineteenth-century dwellings, and Civil War military artifacts. Rock Creek Park's archeological resources thus preserve signicant points in Washington's regional history.
[photo] Pottery sherd decorated with linear patterns.
Native American pottery sherd recovered near Little Falls.

NPS photo.

Pre-Contact Sites

Large beds of quartzite cobbles quarried intensively between 2,500 - 2,000 BCE lay along Piney Branch, a tributary of Rock Creek. William Henry Holmes of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnography investigated these quarries in the 1890s. Holmes showed that what other researchers took to be ancient hand axes, were the early stages of a manufacturing process that eventually led to finely made spear points. Holmes' findings helped resolve an early debate about the antiquity of human presence in the Americas.

The area around Little Falls was a center of ancient Native American activity at the head of navigation on the Potomac River. Native Americans left sites on small, level areas only 50 to 75 feet wide in the valley at the foot of the falls. Archeologists found 1,000 to 1,900 artifacts in each 3x3-foot square unit. Up to 24 projectile points and 182 sherds of pottery were found in a single unit. These artifacts show that people used the sites regularly from 2,500 BCE to after 1,000 CE. Archeologists think that people camped at this small, protected valley to shelter in winter, hide their presence from enemies, or stop on a portage way around the falls.

The Colonial Frontier

In the 1690s, archival research showed that the Maryland Rangers used a fort in or near Rock Creek Park. At the time, the frontier of the colony was under heavy Native American attack. Although archeologists did not find evidence of the fort, they did recover three tenants' residence sites dating to the 1700s on land belonging to absentee landlords. Little is known through archival records about the tenants, who played an important role in clearing land and extending the Maryland frontier. They moved often in search of better land, but left few traces in written records. Archeology fills in knowledge through the material record about their lives. The pottery, glass, and metal recovered from these sites help us document the lives of these elusive people.

[photo] Metal toy figure.
C. 1900 metal cart driver toy, from a Black residence.

NPS photo.

The Civil War

Several forts built to defend Washington during the Civil War sit within Rock Creek Park. Archeologists identified a large garbage dump dating to the war in a wooded ravine near one fort and several small earthworks. The forts saw action only once, during the large Confederate raid on Washington in July 1864. Confederate General Jubal Early’s men advanced on Washington down a turnpike east of Rock Creek. When the guns of Fort Stevens halted them, they tried to bypass the fort by advancing down the Rock Creek valley. Backed by artillery, a hastily assembled force of dismounted cavalry, War Department clerks and garrison troops stopped them. Bullets and artillery shell fragments found during archeological investigations document the Confederate attackers' positions.

Nineteenth-Century Life

When Rock Creek Park was formally established, the area included two large mansions, dozens of smaller dwellings and two active merchant mills. Archeologists located features around the mansions and mills, which included the locations of a number of tenant houses. Documentary research showed that most of the tenants in the park were Black or Irish. One tenant site was occupied in 1890 by the family of Sarah Whitby, a widowed Black laundress with seven children.

Learn More

DataStore - Bold, Rocky, and Picturesque: An Archeological Indentification and Evaluation Study of Rock Creek Park, Volume I (

Series: Ancient Native Americans in Rock Creek Park (

Civil War Defenses of Washington (U.S. National Park Service) (

Series: The Sarah Whitby Site and African-American History (

Rock Creek Park

Last updated: April 3, 2024