Indigenous Peoples

The shoreline of the Potomac River where Alexandria is located today has been a useful and popular spot for centuries, long before the modern community was founded.

Page updated on Oct 26, 2020 at 2:59 PM

Indigenous Peoples

Exploring the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, John Smith sailed up the Potomac River and contacted many different people along both banks. When Smith neared this point, he met at least two groups that we now refer to as the Tauxenents and the Nacotchtanks, both part of a larger affiliation known as the Conoy chiefdom. These people made up just a small percentage of the thousands of Native Americans who inhabited the region and enjoyed its rich resources of fish and game. Familiar place names today persist as reminders of Native Americans in the area include Dogue, Pohick, Accotink and Occoquan. After Smith's visit, it would be many years before white settlement would expand into this part of tidewater Virginia.

To learn more about state recognized tribes in Virginia today,  see this information from the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

13,200 years ago to ca. 1675 CE

The shoreline of the Potomac River where Alexandria is located today has been a useful and popular spot for centuries, long before the modern community was founded. Just upriver from Alexandria, the river tumbles over a series of cataracts known as Great Falls, its last obstacle to the Chesapeake Bay. These falls form a barrier to fish traveling upstream to spawn each year, which in turn makes the area just downstream a good fishing ground for local people.

The types of artifacts discovered in Alexandria indicate that Native Americans visited the area beginning about 13,200 years ago, and historical documents suggest that they remained in the vicinity until about 1675. During that time various groups used the area as a fishing camp.

Traditionally, archaeologists in the region have divided Native American prehistory into three major periods of occupation: Paleo-Indian (ca. 15,000 BCE - 8,00 BCE), Archaic (ca. 8,00 BCE - 1,000 BCE) and Woodland (ca. 1,000 BCE - 1,600 CE).  The arrival of Europeans in large numbers during the 17th century marks the beginning of what is called the Contact Period. 


We are all Americans -- Native Americans in the Civil War 

Courtesy Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site

At a time when fear of removal from tribal homelands permeated Native American communities, many native people served in the military during the Civil War. These courageous men fought with distinction, knowing they might jeopardize their freedom, unique cultures, and ancestral lands if they ended up on the losing side of the white man's war. Read this intriguing account of Native American contributions to the war effort for a fuller understanding of what the conflict meant to "all Americans."


Archaeology and Alexandria’s First People

Human occupation of Alexandria began thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Despite the past 250 years of construction and development, remnants of this Native American past still remain buried within the City. To date, archaeologists have identified more than 30 sites containing Indian artifacts and features and have registered them with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

The types of artifacts discovered in Alexandria indicate that Native Americans visited the area beginning about 13,000 years ago, and historical documents suggest that they remained in the vicinity until about 1675.

Traditionally, archaeologists in the region have divided Native American prehistory into three major periods of occupation: Paleo-Indian (ca. 15,000 BCE - 8,00 BCE), Archaic (ca. 8,00 BCE - 1,000 BCE) and Woodland (ca. 1,000 BCE - 1,600 CE). 

The arrival of Europeans in large numbers during the 17th century marks the beginning of what is called the Contact Period.  Discoveries, including a site near Petersburg, Virginia, called Cactus Hill, may help to establish that people spread into North America by 12,000 BCE or even earlier. 

  • Learn more about the Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Woodland periods

Virginia’s First Highways

Trail Sign at Potomac Yards

When Native Americans moved into the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States they traveled on waterways and created overland routes for hunting, migration, and trade. In essence, these were Virginia's first highways. View the trail sign online.

https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/archaeology/TrailSignPotomacYardsNativeAmericans.pdf

   

 

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