The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Native American tribe once called D.C. home. It’s had no living members for centuries.

As the number of Anacostans dwindled, they merged with larger tribes in the region.

Excavation of the site for the Library of Congress in Washington around 1888. (Library of Congress)

More than 400 years ago, American Indians lived along the banks of the Anacostia River and elsewhere in Washington. In a city steeped in history, it’s a lesson few residents and visitors know.

D.C. resident Armand Lione, 71, wants more recognition for the Anacostans, a tribe that lived on land that would become the nation’s capital and from which the Anacostia River gets its name. He said that while many have heard of the Piscataways or the establishment of Indian villages that Capt. John Smith encountered around the Chesapeake Bay, few know of the more than a dozen spots within the District where American Indians lived.

“Native Americans get overlooked too often,” Lione said. “We had American Indians right here in D.C. that were living on these well-known modern-day spots like the White House and Capitol Hill. People should know this, recognize them and remember.”

For Lione, his interest in hometown American Indian tribes took off after trips to Melbourne, Australia. He said officials would mention in public meetings the indigenous people who once occupied plots of land around the city.

Lione, who’s lived in the District for three decades and is of Italian descent, began thinking about Native American history in his own city.

Over the past two years, he’s spent hours after his day job — a toxicologist reviewing medical reports for doctors — doing research at the Library of Congress and historical societies. He publishes a blog on his findings, saying residents and visitors should know and acknowledge the Natives who “once lived here.”

The Anacostans’ name is a Latin version of their original name, the Nacotchtanks. The name came from the Indian word “anaquashatanik,” which means “a town of traders.” They were known for trading throughout the Chesapeake area, even trading fur with the Iroquois of New York.

The Nacotchtank tribe in the early 1600s had about 300 members who lived in villages, mostly along the eastern banks of what is now the Anacostia River, before merging with other tribes in the early 1700s.

Lione, who originally is from New Jersey, has pushed for markers at spots the tribe occupied. He also wants more exhibit space and recognition for the tribe at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Museum officials said they support Lione’s enthusiasm and push for recognition for local tribes, noting that the Anacostans are mentioned at an exhibit on Native Americans in the Chesapeake Bay area.

The exhibits “adequately represent the Native Americans of this region,” said Eileen Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the National Museum of the American Indian.

‘400 years is long enough’: Virginia’s ‘first contact’ Indian tribes demand federal recognition

Ann McMullen, a supervisory museum curator, said exhibits are designed to “focus on living people and not on Anacostans who have been absorbed into other tribes.” She said the museum works with tribes in the Mid-Atlantic region, including the Pamunkeys and Piscataways, who are “descendants of people who were once here.”

“We’re much more likely to involve and consult with living people as opposed to relying on archaeology,” she said.

For the Nacotchtanks, the river was a source of food. They lived in wigwams, or longhouses, that looked similar to those of other tribes along the East Coast.

One village was east of what is now the U.S. Capitol, where they grew corn, beans and squash on plots where the Supreme Court and Library of Congress buildings now sit. Historians at the American Indian museum say tribe members could look down from what’s now Capitol Hill and see ducks and geese flying over what’s now the Mall.

“You could hunt there, too,” McMullen said. “You had access to water, wildlife, vegetation, and being on Capitol Hill, you had a breeze that other parts of D.C. don’t.”

They made sharp-edged tools from a quarry along the Piney Branch area and bowls and pipes from a soapstone quarry near what is now Van Ness. Samuel Vincent Proudfit, an archaeologist who worked with the Interior Department in the 1800s, found signs of the tribe’s existence in the remains of a village near Garfield Park, between First and Second streets SE on Capitol Hill.

William Holmes, another 19th-century D.C. archaeologist, said evidence of Natives in the area showed “this city, the capital of a civilized nation, is paved with the art remains of a race who occupied its site in the shadowy past.”

A hair comb, a hammer stone and pendants were found near the Whitehurst Freeway in 1997, where there likely was once a village called Tohoga. Lione said bits of arrowhead points and pottery were found on the White House grounds in 1977.

In the early 1600s, Smith led an exploration of Europeans and mapped tribes in the area. A 1624 map identifies the Nacotchtanks. Other tribes, including the Pamunkeys, Piscataways and Rappahannocks, also lived along parts of the Potomac River.

What makes someone Native American? One tribe’s long struggle for full recognition.

According to Lione, records from early Europeans found the Anacostans had “good stores of corn.” In 1622, roughly two dozen men from Jamestown made an attempt to get the corn.

Fighting broke out, and the entire group of settlers was wiped out, except for an Englishman named Henry Fleet, according to Lione’s research. Fleet was captured and spent five years living with the Nacotchtanks and learning their language.

An 1889 article by the American Anthropological Association indicated that a Native American chief then offered to help the settlers get corn from his “mortal enemies” — the Nacotchtanks and Moyaones on the other side of the river.

According to the article, “white and red raiders attacked the Nacotchtanks and Moyaones,” and after a “stubborn fight,” 18 of the Nacotchtanks were killed and the rest were “driven from their cabins, which were then plundered and burned.” It was retaliation for the killing of settlers, Lione said.

There’s also other evidence of Native Americans in the District.

In 1936, crews working on what is now Bolling Air Force Base found bones and skulls in two burial mounds believed to be of Native Americans, probably the Nacotchtank tribe. The burial site was also once a village, according to a 1937 research paper Lione found.

Recognition of tribe sparks debate within community of Native Americans

By the late 1660s, the Anacostans had relocated to what they called Anacostine Island, now Theodore Roosevelt Island. By the 1700s, the tribe merged with the Piscataways and other tribes to the north because of its small numbers.

Officials at the American Indian museum said there are no living Anacostans.

“Those who survived, they moved to where they could find other Native populations,” McMullen said. “They likely hooked up with other fragments of tribes and became more of the tribes we know today, like the Piscataways. They’re probably in some way descendants of Anacostans.”

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