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'America's Neighborhood'

(S:1|E:01): Where the word "Potowmack" came from — This is the first episode of "America's Neighborhood," a video series about the current and past history of DC's Palisades. Please subscribe to our YouTube page where we plan to post new episodes and other videos. See the extended video with guest David J. Silverman.

Episode 1: East World Meets West

More than a dozen years before the Pilgrims first broke bread on Thanksgiving, or set foot on Plymouth Rock, English Colonists explored the shores of the Palisades and traded goods with local Native Americans. 

These East-World-Meets-West-World events occurred during these very weeks of July some 412 years ago. That’s when Captain John Smith and a small crew of English colonists sailed up the Potomac to explore and map our area. 

This early summer 1608 journey took place just months after Smith’s famous encounter with Pocahontas and a year after his fellow colonists built the first structures of the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia. 

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in America. While there were other explorers who previously visited the mid-Atlantic seaboard, Smith was the first to set the name "Potowmack" to paper. 

Along the way, he surveyed the river from its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay all the way up to Little Falls, near today’s DC Maryland Border. 

Smith and his crew were partially lured to the Potomac by the prospects of gold, trading goods, and the hopes of finding a water passage to the Pacific Ocean and possibly India. 

But make no mistake about it, Smith’s voyage to our area was borne as much out of necessity as it was adventure. Many of his people were on the verge of dying. Just some 18 months earlier, Smith was among 104 passengers who left England to find treasures in the new world.  But soon they were stricken with disease and hunger. 

Captain Smith's Local Voyages

By the winter of 1607, only 38 of the 104 new Jamestown colonists survived. This dire need led Smith to explore nearby shores in the winter of 1607,  when he traveled from Jamestown to Werowocomoco on what would become the most famous among his 20 local voyages. 

Capt. Smith and crew used a "Shallop" while exploring the Potomac and other rivers, and a colonial ship (like the one in the video) on the Chesapeake Bay and at sea.

Smith’s written description of his trip through the Palisades is uncharacteristically brief. He spent the greater part of a month stopping at villages of Nacotchtank, the Moyaone and the Tauxnative along the Potomac shores up through Little Falls.

The Nacotchtank lived in the future lands of Washington DC with their villages located mostly along the Anacostia and the Potomac rivers. Historians point to 19th Century maps that show the locations of several Nacotchtank villages in our area.

Such maps made by anthropologist S. V. Proudfit illustrate several archaeological locations  along the shores of the Potomac. 

These records along with a large number of artifacts depict a Palisades area that once was home to a large number of American Indians, living in prehistoric camps.  

American Indians were attracted to the Palisades ancient river terrace as well as its views to the Potomac River. They found this flat area (bound by Potomac Ave and MacArthur Blvd) suitable for habitation. Their homes were not teepees, but instead small round houses called wigwams, or in larger Iroquois-style longhouses.

Other signs of nearby sites have been discovered since. In 1982, the location of an archeological dig between the MacArthur Foxhall intersection and the Potomac's Three Sisters rock formation was listed by the National Register of Historic Places. Artifacts were found at the Potomac Palisades Site, which is about an acre in size.

In 1996 when construction workers near the WhiteHurst Freeway found the burial site of a Native American woman with these artifacts. The woman was buried sometime between 640 to 790 A.D., according to radiocarbon dating, along with pendants, 14 Great White shark teeth, and a comb made from antlers.

Local historian Doug Dupin has been researching and salvaging artifacts for nearly two decades throughout the Palisades stretching to his Sherier Place home.

The three groups of American Indians along the Potomac River and in the DC area were all Algonquian speakers, who according to Smith were hospitable and accommodating at the time of European contact.

While other tribes showed Smith and his crew hostility, the “Moyaones, Nacotchtant and Toags the people did their best to content us.”

Captain Smith wanted to continue north past Little Falls but could not find a way to make the passage with his boat. So he and his crew got out and walked along the shoreline to Great Falls. They met some Native Americans and did some trading for bear, deer and other meat.

This did not prove to be a good fishing technique so the English colonists drove fish toward shore and then used their swords to spear them. While doing this later in the Chesapeake, Smith was stung on the wrist by a stingray and believed the wound to be grave. So he immediately sailed back to Jamestown on July 21st bringing the Potomac trip to an end.

Following Capt. Smith's Potomac Trip

Smith survived the sting, but he was severely injured again in the seasons that followed by a gunpowder explosion in his canoe. 

In mid-October 1609, he sailed to England for treatment and never returned to Virginia. Pocahontas was told that Smith died.  Jamestown went through a period known as the “Starving Time” during the following two years when 70 percent of the English colony died. But those that survived continued to expand out into Virginia.

In 1614, Pocahontas married tobacco grower John Rolfe and had a son. But within their first three years of marriage, she became ill on a trip to England with her family and died at the age of 20 or 21.  

In 1614, Pocahontas married tobacco grower John Rolfe and had a son. But within their first three years of marriage, she became ill on a trip to England with her family and died at the age of 20 or 21.

In the years that followed, the Nacotchtank were impacted by diseases carried by western European colonists for which American Indians had no born immunity. This disease spread quickly, often decimating majorities of the American Indian communities, and making it easier for Europeans to colonize the new lands.

During the late 1600s, the Nacotchtank became more remote and various accounts say that some went to Analostan Island (later Roosevelt Island). Other members of the tribe may have opted to relocate to a large reservation across the Chesapeake Bay spanning parts of Mattawoman Creek and Piscataway Creek, according to Author & Historian James D. Rice. The reservation was established following the Treaty of 1666 for at least a dozen local tribes including the Nacotchtank.

Above is the extended interview video from "America's Neighborhood" guest, David J. Silverman, author of the book, This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.

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