Friday, March 6, 2009

DC in the BC...and Later

Below: John Smith's Map of Virginia, 1612.
It was the end of the Ice Age, and things were looking up. The glaciers were receding, causing the rising sea levels that would form the Chesapeake Bay. The climate was warming. By ten thousand BC, the first Washingtonians settled into the area. Over the next few thousand years field and forest developed.

The surrounding land of present-day Washington was rich with game and stone to make tools. Around 800 CE, experiment with agriculture began with the growing of maize. Squash, beans, and potatoes were later added to the diet. By 1500, the people around the Potomac River had become so numerous that both hunting and farming were necessary in sustaining the population of the region. The people who had settled into the area were of the Piscataway Conoy Nation, a collection of tribes unified during the 16th century in order to ward off Iroquois invaders. These Eastern Algonquian-speaking Native Americans developed a system of chiefdom whereby the leader of a village, a werowance, was subject to a single supreme chief, known as the tayac.

One of the larger villages in the region was located in present day Anacostia. Identified by Captain John Smith in his 1612 Map of Virginia, the village and people were referred to as the Nacotchtank. Smith estimated the village population to be at around 200, with 60 warriors. The village encompassed the area from Bolling Air Force Base, following the Anacostia River to Anacostia Park. The word Nacotchtank has been translated to mean "a trading town," and this town along with the Patawomeke village were the two larger villages in the region. These towns served as "gateway communities," allowing the tayac to control long-distance trade, such as beaver pelts from the north. The Nacotchtanks were variably referred to as Nacostins or Analostans, deriving the name Anacostia.

Not much is known of daily life among the Nacotchtank. What we do know is that in 1622, the English colonists burned and plundered the Nactochtank village, in order to obtain corn. The following year, Captain Henry Spelman led a group of Englishmen on trading mission along the Potomac. Spelman was an interpreter for the British and presumed himself to be in good standing with the local Native Americans. However, whilst traveling Spelman and 19 of his men were killed by the Nacostins, with one survivor, Henry Fleet, becoming captive at the Nacotchtank village.

What happened to the Nacotchtank? Escaping 5 years later, Fleet later became a skilled trader and interpreter as Spelman had been before him. Fleet's writings mention that by the 1640s the Nacotchtanks were located at a small village in the Georgetown area. A fragment population had inhabited Analostan Island, later named Mason's Island and even later referred to as Theodore Roosevelt Island. Within 40 years of contact with the Europeans, the population of the Piscataway Conoys had dwindled to one quarter of what it was when Smith first greeted them in 1608. Violence and disease had taken its toll on the Nacotchtanks who faded into obscurity by the 1680s; their lands soon covered by farm, plantation and town.

Of Interest: Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail,

Sources: National Park Service, "Civil War Defenses of Washington: The Native People, " Available online: (March 2009).

Piscataway Conoy Tribe of Maryland, "History," Avaiable online: (March 2009).

Stephen R. Potter, Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1993).

John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia (London: Printed by I.D. and I.H. for Michael Sparkes, 1624).
Photo Source: John Smith, "Map of Virginia," Library of Congress, 1612.

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