Maryland: Piscataway Park

Ruins of Marshall Hall
The ruins of the former Marshall Hall, the long-time home of the Marshall family.

Courtesy of National Park Service

Along the Potomac River just opposite Mount Vernon, mammoths and mastodons once wandered the land near the home of the first president of the United States, George Washington. Piscataway Park in Maryland became a unit of the National Park System to protect the view George Washington experienced from his home in Virginia across the Potomac River, but the area has a much longer and richer history. First occupied by human hunter-gatherers between 3,000 and 500 BC, this area along the Potomac underwent waves of settlement by successive people until colonists from Maryland and Virginia settled the land. Today, the beautiful vista from Mount Vernon is much as it was in Washington’s time, and visitors to Piscataway Park can experience a natural landscape similar to that found in the time of American Indian and colonial residents of the area. This landscape, the Piscataway homeland, was the site of the political center of the Piscataway chiefdom, a large Indian village that was able to sustain itself on the natural riches of the Potomac, nearby game, and agriculture. When Captain John Smith first mapped the area in 1608, the Piscataway chiefdom spread throughout southern Maryland and included a number of semi-independent nations. 

In the beginning, native peoples’ use of the land around the river was brief, coinciding with sporadic hunting and gathering trips. Around 500 BC, small villages began to develop, the importance of agriculture increased, and between 300 and 900 AD, permanent settlements were constructed. Between 500 BC and 300 AD, different groups of people migrated in and used the space, but no one group settled there. Periodic use of the area followed by abandonment continued until around 1200 AD when the Potomac Creek, also called the Piscataway people, related to the Algonquin, occupied the area. By 1300 AD, the settlement was a fishing village with a developed agricultural system and homes protected by a palisade. Archeological evidence from this time includes fishhooks and other hunting tools. Multiple graveyards (ossuaries), some with as many as 600 bodies, surrounded the village, giving a clue as to its relatively large size. The Accokeek Site, the place of a Piscataway settlement, is a National Historic Landmark. This successful settlement did not survive long after the arrival of European explorers. Nevertheless, the area that is now Piscataway Park remains the spiritual center for the Piscataway people. Although the Piscataway people now are scattered, many still live in Maryland.

The troubles for the Potomac Creek or Piscataway people, who lived along the Potomac, began when Captain John Smith explored the area on a trip to map the region. Smith was probably the first European to meet these people whose village he called “Moyaone.” The precise location of Moyaone is unknown. At the time of Smith’s arrival, the tribal lands of the Piscataway included most of Maryland from the mouth of the Potomac to present-day Washington, DC. A controversial character, Smith helped to establish the British colony at Jamestown in 1607 and became leader of the group in 1608. His time in the New World was limited, however. Following his 1608 Potomac mapping trip, he suffered grave injuries in a gunpowder explosion in 1609 and returned that same year to England. Visitors can learn more about early settlement in the region through the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, another site in this travel itinerary.

Even though Smith’s stay in present-day southern Maryland was brief, the effects of his voyage were long lasting. Later explorations by others up the Potomac were not peaceful and resulted in the burning of the village in the 1620s and 1630s. After the second fire, the Piscataway moved away from the immediate area. The Accokeek Creek site was vacant until another tribe, the Susquehannock, built a fort where the village had been. In general, little is known about the Susquehannock; the site at Piscataway Park leaves few clues as it was again abandoned in 1675 as colonists from Maryland and Virginia displaced the native peoples.

Piscataway Park also includes Marshall Hall and the National Colonial Farm. As the colonists from Europe expanded their settlements, they, like the various American Indian tribes before them, changed the surrounding landscape to meet their needs. Marshall Hall (built circa 1725 and destroyed by fire in 1981) is an example of colonial-era land use in the area. Before its destruction, Marshall Hall had been the home of the Marshall family. Beginning in 1650, the original property was combined with other, smaller sites, including a piece of land deeded to the family by the Piscataway. The property stayed in the Marshall family until they were forced to sell it after the Civil War. From the late 1800s until the 1970s, the estate was the site of a popular amusement park.

The National Colonial Farm is a living museum of colonial farming and also a modern day organic farm, which generates its own electricity using solar energy. The traditional farming methods of the colonial farm demonstrate the life of most tobacco-farming colonists. This life is in direct contrast to that of wealthier plantation owners like George Washington, who lived on the opposite bank of the Potomac. The Accokeek Foundation's efforts led to a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the foundation to create and steward Piscataway Park to protect the area from urban expansion. The park encompasses approximately 5,000 acres and stretches for six miles from Piscataway Creek to Marshall Hall on the Potomac River. It shelters bald eagles, beaver, deer, fox, osprey, and other species and offers visitors a public fishing pier, two boardwalks over fresh water tidal wetlands, nature trails, meadows, and woodland areas.

Piscataway Park is located at the end of Bryan Point Road in Accokeek, MD, just off State Route 210 (Indian Head Highway). The park is approximately 30 minutes south of Washington, DC. Piscataway Park, Marshall Hall, and the Accokeek Creek Site within the park have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for National Register of Historic Places files for Piscataway Park (text and photos) and Marshall Hall (text and photos). The Accokeek Creek Site within Piscataway Park has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The park contains three main areas: the National Colonial Farm, the remains of Marshall Hall, and Piscataway Park. There is a fee to visit the National Colonial Farm; other areas of the park are free. Park grounds are open from dawn to dusk, though the National Colonial Farm maintains seasonal hours. For more information, visit the National Park Service Piscataway Parkwebsite or call 301-763-4600. More information on the National Colonial Farm and its exhibits is available through the Accokeek Foundation website or by calling 301- 283-2113.

Boating, hiking, and birding are popular activities at Piscataway Park. Not all parts of Piscataway Park are public property; some are privately owned. Visitors should be aware and mindful that they are traveling through a landscape sacred to the Piscataway people.

Last updated: August 18, 2017