Indigenous Peoples, Virginia Indians, and Alexandria
For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans and the founding of Alexandria in 1749, Indians seasonally lived in and traveled through the lands that would become the City of Alexandria. 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 and camping ground and one used by indigenous people for millennia.
The Potomac River borders and connects the lands and people of Alexandria and Virginia to Maryland and Washington, D. C. and today encompasses over a dozen federal and state recognized tribes and nations. Federally recognized tribes and nations in Virginia include the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan, and Nansemond. Virginia’s state recognized tribes and nations are the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi. The Piscataway Indian Nation, the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, and the Accohannock Indian Tribe have state recognition in Maryland.
Despite the past 250 years of construction and development, remnants of the 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 Indians visited the area beginning about 13,000 years ago.
Traditionally, archaeologists in the region have divided the Native American past into three major periods: 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 archaeologists define as the Contact Period.
- Learn more about Archaeology and Alexandria’s First People
- See a list of site reports for sites with Indian artifacts and features.
In the summer of 1608, John Smith embarked on two voyages around the Chesapeake Bay and up many of its tributaries in order to survey the area, determine the extent of the bay, make contact with the people already living there, and identify any resources the English might exploit. On June 16, Smith and fourteen others from the Jamestown settlement entered the Potomac River in a small barge. Over the course of a few weeks, they made their way as far up the river as Great Falls, where the river becomes unnavigable, before returning back to Jamestown. Learn more about John Smith’s expedition.
Regional Tribes and Information
Local Place Names
- Potomac [puh-TOH-muhk]
Potomac was one of two Algonquian words for the river forming the northern boundary of Virginia, and may have meant "great trading place," "place where people trade," or “something brought.” The Potomac's common spelling through the 18th century was “Patowmack,” but has taken other forms over the years (“Patawomeke," "Patawomeck"). The river derives its name from an Indian village on its southern bank, the home of the Patawomeke people. Following the founding of Jamestown, the Patawomeke began a friendly relationship with the English. However, soon after, white settlers forced the tribe from their land and resources. Today, their descendants, the Patawomeck, still live close to the original village in Stafford County and are one of Virginia’s state recognized tribes.
- Occoquan [AA-kuh-kwaan]
The Occoquan River is a tributary of the Potomac River in Northern Virginia, where today it serves as part of the boundary between Fairfax and Prince William counties, and also the location of the town of Occoquan. The Occoquan River Valley region was settled by the Dogue Indians who named the area “Occoquan” meaning “at the head of the water” or "at the end of the water."
- Dogue [Dohg] & Tauxenant [TUX–eh–nint]
The name “Dogue” may have been derived from the Powhatan word “taux,” which was subject to numerous alternative spellings in early colonial records, including Doeg, Doag, Dogney, Toag, Taux. John Smith mapped a village Tauxenent at the mouth of the Occoquan when he visited the upper Potomac River in 1608. He noted that the Taux lived there above Aquia Creek, with their capital Tauxenent located on “Doggs Island” (now Mason Neck – “Island” meant “Neck” in those day) where they gathered fish and also grew corn. According to archaeologists, the word “Tauxenent” does not appear again in the records of the English after Smith, but the Dogue are chronicled for another 75 years. Throughout the middle part of the 17th century, the Dogue lived on Mason Neck and on the Maryland shore of the Potomac, as neighbors of the Piscataway. Some of the Dogue later moved to King George County, Virginia.
- Chinquapin [CHING-kuh-pin]
The word Chinquapin in Alexandria and vicinity most likely referred to a species of tree that grew in the area, the Allegheny chinkapin or chinquapin (Castanea pumila). This tree produces fruit with many sharp spines which contains one shiny dark brown nut that is edible. Captain John Smith recorded this tree in 1612, observing its use by the Indians who made an infusion of chinquapin leaves to relieve headaches and fevers.
Wayfinding Signs & Exhibits
- We are all Americans -- Native Americans in the Civil War. Courtesy Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site
- Virginia’s First Highways. Trail Sign at Potomac Yards
- Life of a Creek. Trail Sign at Chinquapin
- The Story of Chinquapin. Trail Sign at Chinquapin
- There are additional places throughout Alexandria to learn about the history of Virginia Indians, including interpretive signs at Jones Point Park.
Indigenous People Day Resolution
- On September 10, 2019, the Alexandria City Council unanimously
adopted a resolution recognizing the
second Monday in October of each year as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Teacher Resources for Students
- National Museum of the American Indian - We Have
a Story to Tell: Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region
- Virginia Department of Education - Virginia’s
First People Past & Present