In the beginning, the Anacostia was with the people, and the people were with the Anacostia.
The people were the Nacotchtank Indians. They or their ancestors lived alongside the waterway for 10,000 years.
By the early 17th century, there were perhaps 500 Nacotchtanks across the Anacostia watershed. They farmed squash, corn, sunflowers. They did not have horses or the wheel. They moved on the river and its dozen or so tributaries — clear and abundant with shad, pike, bass and oysters — on small canoes.
“The river was seen as a vein of Mother Earth; it was salty, like blood, and it tasted like blood,” says Gabrielle Tayac, a Piscataway Indian (the closest descendants the Nacotchtanks have left) and historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “It was part of the living system.”
In June 1608, John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac and its eastern branch, what would become known as the Anacostia. Buffered by thick forests, the Anacostia was 40 feet deep as far north as what is now Bladensburg, and Smith marveled at its clarity.
Then the Europeans put a crushing end to this Edenic idyll. By the time of the Civil War, the Anacostia was nearly a dead thing. And then it got worse.
Today, you can walk across almost any part of the 8.5-mile Anacostia, as most of it is five feet deep or less, choked by silt and pollution. The river’s wetlands, which nurture its flow, have been reduced from 2,500 acres to about 150. The Northwest Branch, once big enough for boats and barges, is now an anemic creek.
“Everything from the Anacostia’s channel to its mouth has in some shape or form been altered,” says Stephen Potter, regional archaeologist for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service.
To most Washingtonians, the Anacostia is a very remote presence — that dirty glop of water under the 11th Street Bridge, the Potomac’s ugly cousin, the barrier that sets off the city’s poorer sections from Capitol Hill.
But visions of what the river was — and, to a limited extent, what it may be once again — still exist.
Drift down the river on a lazy summer afternoon, past a bend near Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, and it hardly feels as if you are in the middle of a major city. The tree-lined banks rise to a small crest. A turtle lumbers off a log and plops into the salty brown water. A crane, startled, takes two steps and lifts its wings to rise across the river.
Is this how it looked to Smith and the first Europeans? If so, how did colonists kill it off so quickly?
Smith, in a journal of his voyage, thought the area was paradise, saying it was fed by “innumerable sweet and pleasant springs.” Henry Fleet, the English explorer, came through a decade after Smith, recording the mouth of the river as “Nacostine,” which roughly translates as a village trading center. It was Anglicized as “Anacostia.”
When Maryland was chartered in 1632 , historians estimate, there were perhaps a few hundred whites living in the region. But with the rush to settle the New World, that number quickly multiplied, to more than 25,000 by the turn of the 18th century.
The new settlers clear-cut forests along the flood plain of the river. Well-connected planters snapped up huge land grants and set up slave-labor plantations. No one used fertilizer to replenish the soil, and the fields were quickly robbed of nutrients. This led to more clear-cutting along the Anacostia in search of richer land, unleashing tons of soil into the river with each heavy rain.
In the late 1730s, Christopher Lowndes, an English importer and slave trader, began buying up property in what was soon to be known as Bladensburg. He established a waterfront shipyard, ropewalk and store. He prospered, and in 1746, he built a mansion he called Bostwick, on a small hill perhaps a quarter-mile from the port. (The house remains there today, one of the oldest buildings in the city.)
After the Revolutionary War, two important developments had devastating effects on the Anacostia.
One, farm leases for near life-long terms were reduced to annual rentals, removing any long-term interest tenants had in the land and leading to even more ruthless clear-cutting. Second, English demand for tobacco dropped off, and landowners gradually replaced the crop with wheat. Tobacco was maintained with hoes, but wheat required plowing, which led to massive siltration.
“You have to remember that, before it was decided to make this the capital, it was just farming and plantation land. It was no big deal,” says John R. Wennersten, in “Anacostia: The Death & Life of an American River.”
The first federal employees arrived in 1800, and Washington began its growth as the nation’s capital. Within a generation, the Anacostia was so clogged with silt and debris that deep-water boats could no longer make it to Bladensburg. In 1873, Washington began using underground sewers to dump raw waste into the river.