History of the Anacostia River

The Anacostia Watershed was once an abundant ecosystem: an ideal, ecologically rich zone.  It had been inhabited for centuries by the Nanchotank Indians, but the arrival of European settlers brought a series of drastic changes to the Anacostia, beginning with Captain John Smith who surveyed and mapped the Watershed in his search for navigable watersCaptain John Smith recorded in his journals that he sailed up the "Eastern Branch" of the Anacostia River in 1608 in his search for the main branch of the Potomac River and was well received by the Anacostians.

The Washington City Canal, which operated from 1815 until the mid-1850s, connected the Anacostia initially to Tiber Creek and the Potomac River, and later to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The City Canal fell into disuse in the late 19th century, and the city government covered over or filled in various sections.

Agriculture, including corn crops and tobacco plantations, was the first source of pollution for the watershed.  Forests were cleared to make way for cultivation, and sedimentation clogged the waters and ports.  The use of the waters for trade and the erosion of the shores led the Army Corps of Engineers to build artificial seawalls along the river and to dredge the riverbed. 

The urbanization of the region brought further problems due to the destruction of more forest and wetland cover along with new sources of manmade pollution, industry and sewage.

By the 1900s, much of the Anacostia's biodiversity was gone.

Over the past 400 years, the Anacostia watershed  has changed from a lush, diverse ecosystem to one shaped by trade, agriculture, and a rapidly expanding population.  

Click here for a detailed history of the watershed.