History & Culture

Helen Fowler stands by a small pool
Helen Fowler with her lillies.

Today, you join the cycle of discovery and rediscovery of this land that began when the Nacotchtank started living here over 4,000 years ago. Long before the arrival of the first European explorers, there was a vibrant culture, full of fishing, farming, hunting, and trading. The Nacotchtank utilized the resources on the Anacostia River for more than just food. From the cattail alone, people derived food, medicine, and the raw materials for household goods and shelter.

Later Englishman John Smith would come to explore the Anacostia or Eastern Branch of the Potomac in 1608. The English cleared the high land of protective forests to build farms in the 1600s. Remnants of the original wetland can be seen near the boardwalk. The value of local wetlands was lost to the English, accustomed to English bogs.

Later, the Industrial Revolution increased deforestation for fuel, fences, and homes. Unprotected by forest, soil washed into the Anacostia River and deep channels that once harbored sturgeon, filled with silt.

Coming here in the 1800s, Walter Shaw found the wetlands were a good place to build his water garden even though he was told the land was unusable. By building the paths that separate ponds from the tidal marsh, Shaw built a garden that would provide beauty and profit.

Later his daughter, Helen Fowler, would become an ambassador for water gardening and the Shaw Gardens. It was Helen who would successfully lobby Congress to save the gardens from dredge operations in the Anacostia River, and accidentally save a section of the original marsh.
It would be many decades before we rediscovered the social value of wetlands.

Today the historic ponds and the natural wetland areas that support them are managed by the National Park Service, in a balance that demonstrates sustainable management known to those first residents. Explore, see what stories the land can tell, and perhaps, see value in the park that is unique to you.

For more on Walter Shaw, Helen Fowler, and the wetlands, click here.

Last updated: September 10, 2020

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