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November is National Native American Heritage Month—celebrating the culture, history, and societies that once called America home. That home includes the land now occupied by D.C.
The Anacostan tribe settled along the banks of the Anacostia River. About 300 people, of the originally named Nacotchtanks, created a trading village in present day D.C. Dr. Matt Costello, a senior researcher with the White House’s Historical Association, has worked to preserve the history of the tribe—even without a known ancestral lineage.
“We haven’t been able to find any living Anacostans,” he says. “It’s just one of those things where, when you’re talking about people who don’t document things in a written format, so much of its history is oral tradition.”
Another person keeping the story of the Anacostans alive is hobby historian Armand Lione, who runs the website onceasitwasdc.org. The site features an interactive map that documents major points related to the Anacostan tribe.
Costello says one of the first documented meetings with the Anacostans is with English explorer John Smith in the 1600s. That’s the same John Smith whose story of his relationship with Pocahontas, as portrayed in the Disney movie, was likely inaccurate. Smith documented many of the rivers and tributaries along the Chesapeake Bay and the tribes he encountered, including the Anacostans. Lione writes Smith placed the tribe near present day Bolling Air Force Base. However, conflicts with colonizers and a dwindling population from famine and disease in the late 1600s forced the Anacostans off their land.
“Historians and scholars believe … they moved briefly towards the end of the century toward the area of what is today Theodore Roosevelt Island,” Costello says.
The island was once called Anacostan Island, Costello says, adding that historians believe the still-active Piscataway tribe located further north in Maryland eventually took in the Anacostans remaining members.
Costello says there hasn’t been much archaeological research done in the District due to its quick development. However, developers have “stumbled” onto artifacts throughout the past few hundred years as Lione’s website documents:
- 1866: Workers digging a canal found relics of tools and weapons.
- 1883: More relics were found during Garfield Park’s construction
- 1871: A canoe was found near Navy Yard.
- 1997: A woman’s burial site was found during the construction of a freeway exit near Georgetown. The grave was over 1,000 years old and contained artifacts such as a comb and an arrowhead.
- 2009: A pot was found on the grounds of Bolling Air Force Base.
Lione’s website says the Anacostans’ main village was likely on the land that’s now the Carroll Estate in Southeast. He also writes that the two primary quarries, which the tribe used to create items for trade out of quartzite and soapstone, are now filled and “covered by apartment buildings.”
Costello says more artifacts were found when President Gerald Ford put in a swimming pool on the White House grounds. He says it’s unknown whether the artifacts were already there when construction for the swimming pool began or whether they were inadvertently transported along with the dirt needed for projects around the White House. This clouds whether these artifacts were found on White House grounds.
But he adds: “Considering the evidence in other parts of the city that Native Americans were flourishing and thriving in the 16th century and into the 17th century, I don’t think it’s very hard to believe that Native Americans were also still using the space that we now know today as the White House grounds.”
Ultimately, there’s little information left on who the Anacostans were or where they ended up, and in a video linked on his website, Lione says that comes with consequences, saying: “The cost of forgetting is to further erase the history of Native people who had previously lived on the land for thousands of years.”
—Bailey Vogt (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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