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Arlington’s Native American History

You might not know it, but Arlington and greater Washington, D.C., area have a long Native American history. Many names like Anacostia and Potomac were derived from local tribes, and the influence remains today. Even the famous Pocahontas is thought to have lived here at one point in her life. Native Americans lived in this area for centuries, well before colonization, when populations of different tribes were thriving. The Clovis people are some of the earliest known inhabitants of the region and are considered to be the early ancestors of many Native American tribes. According to the Arlington Historical Society, researchers have found evidence of Clovis technology from more than 10,000 years ago in every Virginia county.

For thousands of years, Indigenous nations lived relatively uninterrupted in Virginia (and the USA) until the first European settlers came in the 1500s. At that time, three tribes (the Powhatan, the Monacan and Cherokee) were the most prevalent in Virginia. They spoke Algonquian, Siouan and Iroquoian, and lived along coastal waterways in woodlands and mountain valleys, according to Virginia Tourism Corporation. In 1607 British explorer John Smith visited Northern Virginia during his many travels in the "New World." Here, he encountered Indigenous people and published a map of his discoveries and Virginia in 1612. The National Park Service says that this map calls out the location of over 200 Indian towns. Smith's map also shows a Native American village on the banks of the Potomac River where the Pentagon and Washington National Airport are today, says local history teacher Karl VanNewkirk. The Potomac River was important waterway for many tribes who lived along its banks and fished in its waters. The name is thought to be derived from the word Patawomeck, presumably representing an anglicized name for the Native American tribe that lived in this area, as recorded by the John Smith at the time. The 17th century Patawomeck lived in the upper reaches of the Potomac River and might have actually lived in Arlington, says Jim Adams, the curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The Pentagon and the Potomac River

Despite these thriving communities, native populations plummeted during the Colonial Era due to disease, continued conflicts, drought, restricted access to hunting and fishing areas, social instability, and discriminatory laws and practices, says the Arlington Historical Society. However, Native American tribes and their cultures are far from being something solely in history books. There are 11 state-recognized tribes living in Virginia today, including the historic Patawomeck tribe, who are located in nearby Stafford County. Seven of these tribes recently earned federal recognition. Learn more about Virginia's modern-day tribes and visiting their museums and cultural centers here.

While Arlington is not home to any tribes, there are several sites where you can learn more about Native American history in Arlington and the D.C. region. You can also download the Guide to Indigenous DC for more places to visit.

NMAI - The Americans Exhibit
The Americans exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. Paul Morigi, 2018/AP Images for the NMAI, Smithsonian

National Museum of the American Indian

Start out your tour at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) located on the National Mall. Head to the second-floor walkway to view a series of panels focusing on the Maryland and Virginia tribes. “These panels give a pretty good local background,” says museum curator Jim Adams.

Make sure to visit the exhibit “Americans,” which showcases how American Indian images, names, and stories infuse American history and contemporary life, and also discusses stereotypes. Visit the room where the real story behind Pocahontas is told. The real woman was born in what is now Virginia in 1595; her father was Powhatan the leader of a powerful confederacy. According to Adams, Pocahontas visited, and possibly lived in, the area that is now Arlington and Washington, D.C. She was later abducted by colonists, and was married to tobacco planter John Rolfe (not John Smith, as in the Disney movie and other accounts).

In November 2020, the museum unveiled the new National Native American Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. Designed to honor service across generations, the memorial pays tribute to the American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian veterans and symbolize the country’s respect for Native Americans’ service and patriotism. The memorial honors and recognizes for the first time on a national scale the enduring and distinguished service of Native Americans in every branch of the U.S. military.

National Native American Veterans Memorial by photographer Alan-Karchmer for NMAI
National Native American Veterans Memorial by Alan Karchmer for the Smithsonian's NMAI

Gulf Branch Nature Center

Located in a 1920s fieldstone-and-quartz bungalow in Arlington’s Gulf Branch stream valley, the Gulf Branch Nature Center was once the site of a Native American fish camp. Arrowheads and other artifacts have been found in the park. Today, the nature center features an exhibit on the Woodland Indians who lived in the area. Find pottery, tools and other items from the ancient inhabitants, as well as a replica of the aforementioned John Smith’s map.

Gulf Branch Nature Center via dr.ymchen/Instagram

Little Falls Road

Little Falls Road, which goes through Arlington and neighboring city of Falls Church, was originally believed to be an Indian trail that was put through the woods to get from one place to another, says VanNewkirk. The road later became an important transportation route. Today, you can drive on Little Falls Road to see historic houses and picturesque neighborhoods.

Header image photo credit: Alan Karchmer for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

Author: Talia Salem