Algonquian Indians chose higher ground

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Algonquian Indians chose higher ground

May 23, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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The Civil War era U.S. Army map clearly shows the gentle slopes and marshes rising from the south side of Hunting Creek. The south end of Washington Street did not extend across the Creek and terminated at "Penny Hill," which may have been used as a burial ground. Map, courtesy of National Archives.

As part of a series discussing the history of the area near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, I focused last week on the Powhatan chiefdom which held together about 30 district chiefdoms composed of several villages in a hierarchical, tribute structure. In 1608, John Smith recorded in the location of one of these villages on the south side of Great Hunting Creek. Its name' Assaomeck meant middle fishing place in the Algonquian language of this region.

Comparing today's topography to the landscape nearly 400 years ago presents challenges. Neither the 17th century explorer maps nor the 18th century town maps are sufficiently precise to fix the point where this Indian village was once located. The earliest maps we have for comparison purposes date to the Civil War. Topographic maps prepared by the U.S. Army have 20 foot contour intervals and various markings to denote marshes, woods and agricultural lands.

Villages of this 17th century contact period were situated near resources, like water, soil for slash-and-burn agriculture, a commanding view, easy access to a large river system, and marshlands for collecting diverse foods. The hillslopes rising on the south side of Hunting Creek apparently fit these needs, unlike the topography on the north side where Alexandria is. The Civil War map, although it was made more than 250 years after John Smith's, documents the hillside, marshes and easy access to both the creek and the Potomac River.

The landscape has changed greatly in the Belle Haven and Huntington areas. There has been filling, grading and sedimentation so that the original slope is hidden and the mouth of the creek greatly narrowed. Amazingly, seaworthy ships in the 1740s once sailed up Hunting Creek to the village of Cameron near Telegraph Road! Today as you drive or jog over the bridge which joins South Washington Street with the George Washington Memorial Parkway, it is difficult to imagine this marsh as a thriving maritime trade route in prehistoric and historic times.

Although archaeologists have not discovered Assaomeck, they have recorded numerous Native American sites on both sides of Hunting Creek and Cameron Run. Some of the artifacts date to the occupation of the area by Algonquin speakers, as well as dating to much older times. The Algonquian, people who shared a language family and broad cultural similarities, spanned from Maryland to North Carolina. Stephen Potter discusses in his book, "Commoners, Tribute and Chiefs," that linguists and archaeologists currently agree that Algonquian migrations from the Great Lakes to the Middle Atlantic occurred either around A.D. 1-200 or A.D. 700-900. Before this period, many other Native Americans populated the Hunting Creek/Potomac River maritime setting dominated today by the Wilson Bridge and the Beltway-the transportation and trade corridors for the Middle Atlantic today.

In 1985, Paul Inashima's archaeological survey report for the National Park Service documented the prehistoric sites recorded here and south along the Parkway. The earliest archaeological finds are cited on W. H. Holmes' 1891 map. William Dinwiddie in the 1 9th century and Ralph Wake during World War II collected artifacts from one site near the gas station on Belle Haven Road and the Parkway. Although this area appears low and wet, and thus made from modern fill soil, Inashima has been able to locate collections at the Smithsonian and in test excavations which testify to the land's ancient date. We will look at the archaeological evidence next week of the Belle Haven area's Native American inhabitants dating back to 6000 B.C.