Credit: Photo illustration by alice kresse

In 1608, Captain John Smith, one of the founders of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, sailed with a small crew up the Potomac River on an adventure to explore the uncharted waters. “The river,” Smith wrote, “maketh his passage downe a low pleasant valley overshadowed in manie places with high rocky mountain from whence distill innumerable sweet and pleasant springs.” They sailed as far as the Little Falls of the Potomac, north of the present-day Chain Bridge, where the river was no longer navigable, the way blocked by a stretch of rapids, falls and swift water where the Potomac transitioned from a free-flowing stream to a tidal estuary.

Wrote Smith, “having gone so high as we could with the bote, we met diverse savages in canowes, well loaden with flesh of beares, deere, and other beasts whereof we had part.” Thus, Smith and his intrepid band became the first Europeans to meet the original inhabitants of what would become Montgomery County—settlers who had arrived more than 10,000 years before him.  

Native American tribes had crossed the Alleghenies, eventually settling in the Potomac River valley. Here, over thousands of years they traversed the ancient forests in search of game, which was abundant. They established hunting camps throughout the area, like the one discovered on the property of the National Institutes of Health, a site more than 3,000 years old, littered with broken arrowheads and the flinty flakes left from the manufacture of new ones, where bands stopped to fashion points to replace those lost in the hunt. The Native Americans fished the waters, netting thousands of shad at a time as the shimmering little fish made their run down the river (an annual tradition along the Potomac until the fish disappeared in the 20th century). They gathered wild fruits and nuts.  

Eventually, more than 2,000 years before Smith’s appearance in the county, they abandoned their nomadic life and settled in small agricultural villages built along the river’s edge north of the village of Potomac. They lived communally in long houses of bark and sapling, set beside cultivated fields of corn and beans, which they harvested and cooked together, the original succotash—a Native American word for “broken corn kernels.” Here they buried their dead, undisturbed until 1937, when amateur artifacts hunters Roy and Nicholas Yinger unearthed 73 graves at a village site near the community of Seneca—and destroyed the archeological record forever.

The trails worn through the forests by the Native Americans would become the paths followed by European pioneers in the 17th century, paths that eventually morphed into the likes of River Road and Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue. Trade at first was brisk between the newcomers and the original settlers; beaver pelts were in popular demand, due to a European mania for beaver-fur fashions during the 1600s, leading to the near extinction of the animal from overhunting. (Reintroduction efforts in the 20th century would help the beaver return to the county.) The natives gradually would be pushed back across the Alleghenies by settlers who, with land grants in hand, cleared the forests to cultivate a plant, introduced by the Indians, that became the basis of the county’s economy: tobacco. Thus, the Native Americans’ sharing of their culture became their undoing.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and living in Olney.