Chartered in 1742 as a port town, Bladensburg is located on the Anacostia River south of the confluence of the Northeast and Northwest branches. This location was chosen for its suitability as a port for the export of tobacco from plantations spread across Maryland in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, archaeology revealed that the ecology of the Anacostia River near Bladensburg attracted inhabitants much earlier. One of the findings that stirred excitement was a Bare Island quartzite biface dating to the Late Archaic period.
Throughout our excavations we encountered evidence of Native American occupation dating from the Late Archaic to the Woodland Periods. Previously, no recorded Native American sites had been documented. One of our visitors, a representative of the nearby Piscataway tribe and a former resident of Bladensburg, was enthused that the archaeology corroborated the findings of oral narrative. Piscataway oral history describes the shores of the Anacostia River as heavily populated; taking advantage of the rich resources of the wetlands on the edges of the riverbanks and migratory fish in the deep estuarine waters. During the Woodland Period forests were burnt to maintain grassy meadows for corn farming, attracting game and the construction of palisaded villages. By the time of European arrival, complex regional politics had developed and the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed were used as “avenues of commerce and communication”. European settlers would eventually dominate, and completely replace the Native American occupants of the region, settling often in the same spots that offered congenial environmental advantages. These remains were hidden below centuries of silt from the flooding waters of the Anacostia.
The early inhabitants of Bladensburg began, in small degrees, an ecological alteration of the river that, during subsequent European occupation would completely change its ecology. Silt from intensive tobacco farming rendered the river unnavigable by the mid 19th century. Flooding, already a problem in the 18th century was exacerbated by the altered water channel and the routing of runoff from impermeable surfaces into the river. The natural curvatures of the river, which produced the resource-rich floodplain environments used by its prehistoric inhabitants, were straightened and surrounded by dikes by the Army Corps of Engineers beginning in 1952.
The comments we get from the public when we present this evidence from our excavations are often something along the lines of “You found that here, right in town!?” The river’s environment has been so radically changed by its long succession of inhabitants that earlier history, before the concrete, strip malls, and toxic silt, has been essentially unimaginable. But for many residents and Native Americans in the region, finding that Bladensburg history reaches as far back as 5,000 years or older is both a surprise and an affirmation that the river that wound through town was once a rich natural resource that brought people to settle here.