by G. Murphy Donovan (June 2014)

“We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.” – Hegel

Before the Europeans, the bluffs above the river at Chain Bridge on both sides were occupied by Algonquian settlements for as long as eight thousand years. The short space between Fletcher’s boat house and Little Falls is the fall line for the Potomac River, the end of saltwater and tidal influence.

The riverine palisades where Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia come together were famous to pre-history long before Marion Barry came to town. The river was a source of communication, commerce, and food. The fall line also marked early political boundaries between coastal and inland native tribes. Traders had to disembark at Fletcher’s and portage their goods to a point above Great Falls to continue the east-west canoe journey to Ohio.

The choke point at Chain Bridge, the narrowest point for the entire river, was also a natural north/south crossing, an ideal place to set traps for migratory fish, and surely the busiest trading community in the Chesapeake drainage or possibly the entire East Coast. Route 123, the road that crosses chain bridge today, was a “rolling road” in colonial days, where barrels of tobacco could literally be rolled to the Chesapeake port at Occoquan.

There were no conveyances other than foot or canoe in the days before John Smith. Algonquians knew nothing of horses.

George Washington sought to mimic or “improve” the east-west trade route with a canal that paralleled the Potomac. Washington was not much of an engineer or student of native commerce. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal did not survive periodic valley floods or the advent of railroads. And the Algonquian nation did not survive contact with Europeans long enough to relish George Washington’s folly.

The neighborhood is not without romance either.  John Smith (1580-1631) visited Fletcher’s landing in the summer of 1608 and scoured every tributary stream bed in the Palisades on either side of the river in search of gold. Smith found no gold, but a few generations hence, gold was discovered and is still panned in the streams between Little and Great Falls. Not long after Smith’s visit, the Potomac below Little Falls was the exile home of Matoaka, aka Pocahontas (1495-1617), Smith’s frisky native girlfriend.

Smith first encountered the adolescent Indian princess near Jamestown, Virginia the previous year. He was probably her first English tutor. Legend has it that Matoaka subsequently saved Smith’s life, twice. Their relationship obviously transcended race and class, a liaison not blessed by Matoaka’s father, the paramount chief, Powhatan. Early colonists were dependent on native support, especially during the winter. The chief’s favorite daughter was a key intermediary with the English in those early years.

Smith injured himself in a gunpowder accident and he was not expected to survive. After less than two years in Virginia, he returned to London to confound the actuaries. There he mended and, excepting a voyage to New England, spent the rest of his days as a bachelor and a footnote to English colonial history.

To mitigate further fraternization, Matoaka was exiled to northern Virginia by her father to live with her uncle, a subordinate chief, after whom the Potomac River is named. It was here also that the teenager was kidnapped by the English and held for ransom. During her captivity she was wooed by another English settler, John Rolfe (1585-1682).

The Jamestown colonists set a pattern then that was to characterize relations with the natives to this day. They lied.

The vestigial colonists told Matoaka that Smith had died. Truth was the London Company would not permit John Smith to return to Virginia after his recovery. Smith was not fond of indolent aristocrats or London commercial bureaucrats in an age where, then as now, candor about such things did not enhance careers. Smith famously admonished his pampered colonial charges, “Those who will not work, shall not eat.”


A few days later, the American princess was struck with fever, probably plague, as her homeward bound ship cleared the Thames. The ship came about and put in at Landsend where Matoaka died and was buried hastily thousands of miles from home in an unmarked church grave. She was barely 22 years of age at the time.

Artist, ethnologist, and archeologist William Henry Holmes (1846-1933) surveyed the Algonquian terraces in the vicinity of Chain Bridge on several occasions. Holmes was one of those 19th Century polymaths who mastered art and science as his career demanded. He married the daughter of the first secretary of the Smithsonian. The Holmes collection of Native American artifacts from the Potomac palisades now sits in storage in a dark Maryland warehouse.

The US Park Service and various Chesapeake Bay NGOs are supposed to be sponsoring the Captain John Smith Historic Water Trail, a project that seeks to preserve the waterborne views that Smith and Matoaka might have enjoyed in the early 17th Century. If recent “improvements” at Fletcher’s and the old Cloud property are examples of historic vistas, “conservation” should be read as doublethink for more blacktop, treated lumber, parking lots, and playgrounds.

To date there is not so much a single state or federal marker to commemorate Smith’s presence in the upper river. Apparently, secrecy is the singular artifact preserved on the fall line of the Potomac. John Smith is the Waldo of the Potomac Palisades.

Palisades Recreation Center is now host to an AstroTurf soccer pitch, rubber playground, six exposed and unused basketball hoops and a batting cage, all on hot slabs of asphalt. Local kids sensibly prefer that single hoop on that cool shaded street two blocks away.  

Adult community organizers never met a meadow or stand of trees they couldn’t ‘improve’ with pavement. Recent embellishments for the ancient Algonquian site now include a skateboard obstacle course and a climbing (sic) wall. Local liability lawyers should be salivating.

Forsooth, most open space improvements and related ‘organized’ sports are the whims of adults not children. Parents like to believe that facilities and organization will make their children all the things that most parents are not – informed, fit, and athletic. Alas, the District of Columbia is another of those urban political monopolies where everything has price, but few things have value.

I hike often on the heights above Chain Bridge, often descending into the valley to a natural stone pool etched into a slab of bedrock. Local lore says this secluded stone cavity was Matoaka’s bath. More likely it was used to store or preserve the abundant migratory fish of yore.

Matoaka defied family, tribe, convention, and high chieftains to learn English and experience an alien European culture. The Pocahontas of legend was a feminist long before anyone had a word for the phenomena.  

Matoaka died young but not from want of intelligence, wit, and courage. She succumbed to European pathogens from which her race had no immunities. Ironically, the memory of Pocahontas survives in America as a cartoon character, not one of the great women of American history.

On nights when the fog rolls in off the river, the basketball hoop on our corner floats like a halo above the urban petroglyphs etched on the pavement below. Lit by lamp and moonlight, names like Izzy, Paris, Hunter, Marc, Shane, Jack, Tucker, Angus, Kit, Misora, Josie, Keagan, Zoe, Anna and others rise to echo our older glyphs, those ancient Patawomeck graffiti that decorate nearby streambeds.

And often I hear a drumbeat at the oddest times – in rain, snow, and sometimes at the midnight hour. I know it’s the thump of a basketball, but on our street it’s also the rhythm of life and local history, a tattoo for the past.

We stand on the grounds and shoulders of our ancestors. In an era of trivial amusements, we could do worse than remember and recognize the great men and women who passed this way – those who made America, blacktop, and AstroTurf possible.



G. Murphy Donovan is a long-time resident and fish hunter in the palisades above Chain Bridge on the Potomac River.



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