Native Peoples of Washington, DC

Three native americans seated
Washington D.C. Native Americans. Library of Congress photo.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the area we think of today as metropolitan Washington, D.C. was rich in natural resources and supported local native people living there. The Anacostia and Potomac Rivers provided a variety of fish, including a dependable supply of migratory fish that converged seasonally at this “head of tidewater” location.

Additionally, the surrounding wilderness provided plenty of forest produce and wild game such as turkey, quail, geese, ducks, deer, elk, bear, and bison. The native peoples also grew corn, squash, beans, and potatoes in small cleared areas on the fertile floodplains. They quarried stone in nearby stream valleys and used it for tools. Local American Indians also traded with native people from distant regions, exchanging resources and materials from a wide area. There is evidence that the strategic location of the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, tidewater and piedmont, made the area a major crossroads and trading center for coastal and interior tribes.

The village of Nacotchtank (from which the name Anacostia is derived) was the largest of the three American Indian villages located in the Washington area and is believed to have been a major trading center. The people of Nacotchtank, or Anacostans, were an Algonquian-speaking people that lived along the southeast side of the Anacostia River in the area between today’s Bolling Air Force Base and Anacostia Park, in the floodplain below the eastern-most section of today’s Fort Circle Parks. A second town, Nameroughquena, most likely stood on the Potomac's west bank, opposite of what today is Theodore Roosevelt Island. Another village existed on a narrow bluff between today’s Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and MacArthur Boulevard in the northwest section of the city.

Captain John Smith was the first European documented to have reached the navigable head of the Potomac River during his explorations in 1608. Smith’s explorations led to several subsequent contacts with American Indians, some friendly, some in outright conflict, and ultimately resulted in European take-over and settlement of the land and the virtual displacement of the local American Indians.

After only 40 years of contact with the Europeans, the population of local American Indians was only one-quarter of those that lived in the region prior to 1608. Many of the Nacotchtanks and other local American Indians died from diseases introduced by the Europeans and in wars. Others joined other tribes to the north, south, and west.

Civil War Defenses of Washington, George Washington Memorial Parkway, National Capital Parks-East, Rock Creek Park

Last updated: January 10, 2018