Belle Haven, Occoquan banks were once Indian sites

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Belle Haven, Occoquan banks were once Indian sites

May 16, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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A map of John Smith’s, dated 1612, shows Indian villages along the Potomac River. Tauxenent was a chief’s village, Assaomeck, "middle fishing place," was in the Belle Haven area.

Today we look at Old Town and imagine the past. Yet, the historic past in Alexandria goes back less than 300 years, Try to imagine our town and suburban areas stripped of their buildings and roads. Look back 17,000 years ago to the formation of the Chesapeake Bay and the changing landscape of this coastal plain. How did those environmental shifts affect human habitation over the thousands of years Native Americans frequented our part of the Potomac River Valley.

We are fortunate to have rich sources of information about these processes from many local archaeologists. Fran Bromberg, one of the City archaeologists, has written a thesis on the distribution of native sites along the Potomac, Dr. Bill Gardner of Catholic University and Fairfax County Archaeologist Mike Johnson have spent years documenting Native American sites. Much of their research has been brought together with additional ethnohistorical and archaeological data by Dr. Stephen Potter in his book "Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs-The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley."

The rising sea levels caused by the melting ice sheets in warmer temperatures around 17,000 years ago formed the Chesapeake Bay in the drowned Susquehanna valley. The Algonquian name means "country on the great river." The bay is the largest estuary in the country and its huge watershed contains great biological diversity.

The Potomac is one of four rivers which drains the Virginia coastal plain into the bay. It was John Smith and 14 others from Jamestown who traveled up the Potomac on a two-ton barge in 1608 looking for "a glistering mettal, the Salvages told us they had from Patawomeck." The Smith party had both peaceful and hostile relations with various native groups, but ended up recording placement of villages and surveying the natural resources from the mouth of the Potomac to the Great Falls.

The map made during this trip records a village, or hamlet, just south of Great Hunting Creek in the Belle Haven area. It was classified as smaller than the village farther south on the Occoquan Creek, Tauxenent, in which a werowance (district chief) lived. Thus, villages were organized into districts, all of which tied together into the Powhatan chiefdom.

Stephen Potter writes: "Named for the paramount chief who governed the majority of the Virginia Algonquians, the Powhatan chiefdom was the largest and most centralized of the southern Algonquian polities, incorporating more than thirty smaller chiefdoms or districts."

The smaller villages, such as the one near Great Hunting Creek, would have had several houses for commoners as well as buildings for storage, sweathouses and menstrual huts, Site location was based upon proximity to a tributary of a major river, a spring, the "rise of a hill", marshlands, and fertile land for slash-and-burn cultivation of maize. It is possible that the village John Smith recorded was once near Fort Hunt Road and the Belle Haven Country Club.