The Palisades

When professional archeologists first worked around Washington, in the 1870s and 1880s, the city was rich with ancient Native American remains. Large sites lined both banks of the Anacostia River, and they stretched for miles along the Potomac from Rock Creek to above Little Falls. The early archeologists called these sites "villages," but most of them were not villages at all. They were simply places where huntergatherers camped again and again for thousands of years, each time leaving behind a few traces of themselves, until the accumulated material looked like the remains of a town. A few bits of the sites that once lined the Potomac bluffs survive in Pallisades Park and other green spaces, and homeowners in nearby neighborhoods sometimes find spearpoints in their gardens, but most of those sites were long ago destroyed by development.

Photograph of two archaeologists at a dig site. The man appears to be digging while the woman appears to be holding up a wooden sign.
Archeologists Digging a Test Pit Beside the Fallen Tree that Revealed the Location of the Little Falls Sites


In 2004 archeologists exploring a small stream valley just below Little Falls made a startling discovery. Native Americans generally camped on bluffs or by the river's banks, not in narrow valleys, and these archeologists had no plans to do formal testing in this valley. Until, that is, they happened to inspect the root ball of a tree that had recently fallen across the stream. Such root balls provide a glance at the soil hidden under leaves and undergrowth, and sometimes archeologists might see an artifact or two on the exposed soil, hinting at the presence of a site. But on this particular root ball there was much more than just one or two artifacts: three spearpoints and a piece of decorated Indian pottery. This was the first clue to what have turned out to be amazing archeological sites.

One archeologist (woman) is measuring the depth of the ditch with a measuring tape as the other (man) stands inside.
Two Archeologists Recording a Test Unit in Rock Creek Park.


The stream is so small that in places you can hop across, and the valley floor around it is no more than 50 feet wide. When archeologists dug test units on the flat areas by the stream they found thousands of artifacts. In one 3x3-foot test unit they found 24 spearpoints or knives, 182 potsherds, and 1,673 other artifacts (mostly waste flakes from making stone tools). The sites along this stream were used over a period of about 4,000 years, from about 2500 BC to AD 1500.

Broken piece of Decorated Potsherd, about 700 Years Old, from a Site Near Little Falls
Broken piece of Decorated Potsherd, about 700 Years Old, from a Site Near Little Falls


What accounts for the repeated visits to these spots over such a long time? The stream enters the Potomac not far below Little Falls. People traveling by canoe upstream might have landed here rather than fight the current. Canoes could have been portaged around the falls along the stream, which provides a convenient route through the steep bluffs. But these sites were probably not merely short-term camps. Many ceramic vessels were used, suggesting that women prepared food here. A large pitted stone was used for grinding nuts. Stone tools were made and repaired here. A large grooved ax shows us that people chipped wood, maybe for dugout canoes.

Assortment of 6 Crudely Made “Selby Bay” Spear Points or Knives from a Site Near Little Falls.
Crudely Made “Selby Bay” Spear Points or Knives from a Site Near Little Falls.


The people who visited the site between 400 BC and AD 1000 left dozens of crude points on the site. These tools have a "throwaway" appearance, as if they were made, used, and discarded in a matter of minutes. The people who made these points also used pottery. These sites must have been visited often in this period, possibly by family groups; the stone spearpoints imply the presence of men, pottery the presence of women, and the valley is too narrow to have held a large camp or village. Historic Indians lived in large villages for only part of the year, during the seasons of planting and harvesting corn. In the summer and winter smaller parties left the villages and went on hunting, fishing, and gathering expeditions. The sites on our little stream may have been used mainly by wandering bands in the autumn. The large nut-grinding stone certainly points to the fall, and cold weather would also help explain the choice of these sheltered spots, flanked by steep hills.

Part of a series of articles titled Ancient Native Americans in Rock Creek Park.

Rock Creek Park

Last updated: April 17, 2020