by G. Murphy Donovan (June 2014)
“We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.” – Hegel
One afternoon a couple of neighborhood kids came by to see if they could install a basketball hoop on our corner. I thanked them for asking; at the same time saying that my permission for civic improvements wasn’t necessary. No matter, the boys were more concerned about disturbing us than getting municipal approval. The corner was a hangout for whiffle ball anyway. So I allowed as how basketball might just diversify the amusements. The intersection on our corner is one few level spots in the heights above the Potomac River. A month or so later, on a bitter cold windblown night, the basketball brothers installed their hoop under the streetlamp.
This high ground above Chain Bridge has a history as a gathering spot. Our neighborhood sits atop an ancient Algonquian settlement. Hoops were a part of Native American games for millennia. Lacrosse is a direct descendant of one of those games. Basketball is one of those ironies of American history too. The most popular sport today on Native American reservations countrywide is “rez ball;” a rougher edition of basketball, a version of sport with few rules about contact.
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.”
However, Smith’s charming protégé lived long enough to marry (5 April 1614), have a son, and travel to London as Rebecca Rolfe on the arm of her new husband, John. While there, she was feted - and shocked to encounter her first John. Their last meeting was brief. She is reported to have told Smith: “You English lie much!”
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.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in my neighborhood, there’s little to remind anyone of the romance and drama of Algonquians, Englishmen, and that remarkable native girl. There’s a sign for Abner Cloud, miller and distiller. There’s a marker for Washington’s folly, the C&O Canal. On the Virginia side, there’s even a plaque marking the site of the old 19th century dueling grounds. They still duel in the nation’s capital. Fatalities are few but political quarrels are still lethal.
Except for the occasional Stone Age artifact turned up by spade, hoe, or erosion; nothing but indifferent memory marks the significance of this historic American corner. The bluffs above the river on the Virginia and Maryland banks have been preserved as forested parkland. Not so much in the District of Columbia.
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.
Agencies charged with historical preservation have an indifferent record in the nation’s capital. A few years ago, ground for redundant handicap access was excavated a few yards from the Cloud House at Fletcher’s landing. In the process, a US Park Service contractor unearthed four Stone Age cisterns and other artifacts. These basins were covered by flood silt eons ago. The unique artifacts were quickly reburied by the Park Service; buried and covered with treated lumber.
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.
The last vestige of the Indian presence in DC, the old Abner Cloud property above Fletcher’s landing, was originally purchased as a federal site. However, when ‘management’ of the area was ceded to the city, meadow and woodland became the Palisades ‘recreation’ center. Ironically, the centennial Cloud House (1801) is preserved and conserved; the surrounding Algonquian millennial settlement is not.
Over the years, the great trees and shaded Indian terraces on the colonial Cloud property above have given way to asphalt, benches, and other “improvements.” Recreation is seldom a synonym for historic preservation - or green space.
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.
Yet on this spot, I muse occasionally of how different Virginia, indeed American, history might have been if Matoaka had survived her trip to London. What if she had lived to be a first lady in the colonies? She was a bride in the first recorded inter-racial American marriage to John Rolfe, an entrepreneur that discovered real gold - in tobacco, the cash crop that made early American commercial and political success possible.
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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