Though American Indians did not establish villages up Rock Creek, we know they were frequent visitors.
It was probably 13,000 years ago, as glaciers advanced as far south as Pennsylvania, that indigenous people first came to Rock Creek Valley. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers living on berries, nuts and roots, along with game ranging from beavers to mastodons. Fast-forward several millennia, and a warmer climate melted the glaciers—creating rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Though larger animals died out, a rich variety of fish and plant life allowed the Indians to form more permanent villages, perhaps even at the mouth of Rock Creek.
About 4,000 years ago, these Native Americans left behind the first evidence of visits to the valley. In addition to using the area as hunting and fishing grounds, they also had journeyed from their riverside villages to take advantage of Rock Creek’s rocks.
Camping and Quarrying
Archeological evidence shows that Indians established campgrounds in the bluffs above Rock Creek. Most prominently in the hillsides overlooking Piney Branch, they pried away stones of quartzite using deer antlers, bone tools or wooden levers. They broke the stones into almond-shaped forms several inches long, which they took back to camp and shaped into spear points. Natives also carved cooking vessels from boulders of soapstone they quarried in the area we today call Soapstone Valley.
One of America’s first renowned archeologists, William Henry Holmes of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, studied these quarry and camp sites between 1889 and 1894. He realized that the countless chunks of quartzite left behind represented stone that had been rejected and discarded.
Other archeologically significant sites along Rock Creek have been discovered in the shadow of the Whitehurst Freeway. The wide variety of arrowheads, spear points and pottery pieces suggest that these places were used as camping grounds by Native peoples time and again from some 6,000 years ago until the arrival of Europeans.
In one pit about 250 feet east of Rock Creek, archeologists unearthed the remains of a woman who had been cremated and then buried along with such artifacts as shark teeth, a comb carved from an antler and woven cloth made of pawpaw fiber. Because these objects are similar to those found in Native American graves in New York and Delaware, researchers believe the “Whitehurst Woman” could represent the first wave of Algonquians into the Chesapeake region about 1,300 years ago. Around this time, Indians were establishing a network of foot trails that served as trade routes along the East Coast and as far inland as the Ohio Valley.
In 1608 Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac, and his party may have been the first non-Indians to observe Rock Creek. The Natives encountered by Smith and other early European explorers lived in sizable villages during the spring and fall when they planted and harvested corn. In other seasons, groups of Natives would go on hunting and fishing expeditions—and Rock Creek Valley was a likely destination.
The arrival of Europeans scattered the local Algonquian Indians—the Piscataway (or Conoy)—and new diseases decimated their population. Other Native peoples sent war parties into the area, vying for dominance. France and England also used allies among the Indians to attack their enemies. The violence made Rock Creek Valley too dangerous for new settlers. Only when the 1722 Treaty of Albany provided some peace and stability did tenant farmers—many of them new German and Scottish immigrants—move into the wilderness and establish the first farms in the area that is now Rock Creek Park.
Even well into the 18th century, colonists used as landmarks so-called “Indian old fields”—including one clearing near the confluence of Broad Branch and Rock Creek. In these places, Native Americans may have burned away sections of forest to generate new growth that would attract game.
Indians and the Park
Rock Creek Park includes the Indian quarry sites along Piney Branch thanks to lobbying during the 1920s by William Henry Holmes himself. He called the land “a sacred spot” which deserved preservation “not only on account of its romantic beauty” but also because it was “the site on which for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, the Indian tribes of the Potomac Valley quarried quartzite boulders from which they roughed out…their implements of war and the chase.”
Klingle Mansion also has an Indian connection. After Joshua Peirce Klingle inherited the property from uncle Joshua Peirce in 1869, Mrs. Klingle hung two portraits in the parlor depicting two people she believed were her ancestors—Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan. Some local families can still trace their ancestry to the Piscataways and other Indian groups in the region.