History & Culture

summer cattail head
The ever useful cattail

Jim Thackaberry

Today, you join the cycle of discovery and rediscovery of this land that began when people started living here over 4,000 years ago. These wetlands sustained their civilization with clean water, abundant food, medicine, and shelter. From the cattail alone, people derived food, medicine, and the raw materials for household goods and summer shelter. They began the cycle of human discovery, loss, and rediscovery.

Remnants of this original wetland edge two sides of the ponds near the boardwalk. The value of local wetlands was lost to the English, accustomed to English bogs. They cleared the high land of protective forests to build farms in the1600s. 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. By building the paths that separate ponds from the tidal marsh, Shaw built a garden that would provide beauty and profit. His daughter, Helen, 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 on people and places in the bar on the left.

Last updated: June 11, 2015

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