Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

So finally we say goodbye to both the Washington Redskins and the “we try harder” Washington Football Team.


As Arlingtonians hail the Commanders we can finally end the debate over our sports team’s exploitation of Native American culture, a controversy that threatened to spur barroom fights for 30 years.


But let’s apply some perspective: the Indians preceded us here for 13,000 years!


The first recorded details were supplied by Capt. John Smith during his 1608 voyage up the Potomac. Some 10 sites have been discovered within Arlington’s borders, most on the banks of the river. Digs further inland have produced artifacts near N. Glebe and Military Roads, the southern end of Four Mile Run and along the border with Falls Church on what once was the Isaac Crossman farm. That’s according to C.B. Rose Jr.’s “The Indians of Arlington,” which she published in 1957 to mark the 350th anniversary of Virginia’s Jamestown settlement.


Their more prominent site, one that Smith—viewing the exotic peoples onshore from the safety of his canoe— was called “Nameroughquena” (opposite today’s Roosevelt Island). Those people were known as the Necostins, likely part of the larger Piscataway nation in Maryland.


Surrounding the Necostin community of perhaps 300 (of whom 80 were able-bodied men, quoth Smith), was a settlement of people called Nacotchtank (Anacostia). In the 1940s, work near the mouth of Marcey Creek inserted Arlington into the annals of archaeology as a site of early Native American civilization. Major Carl Manson dug up cord-marked pottery fragments that went on display at the Smithsonian Institution (still there in the anthropology department of the National Museum of Natural History).


“The Marcey Creek site was a small village, occupied by a sedentary people for sufficient time to enable the soil to increase in thickness as much as 23 inches,” he wrote in 1948 in Cambridge University Press’s journal American Antiquity. “The depth of the culture-bearing layers, the crudeness of the stone artifacts, the absence of organic material, and the complete absence of pipes indicates a greater antiquity for this site than for any other thus far excavated in the Potomac Valley.”


Today Arlingtonians can view locally unearthed arrowheads from the Woodland period (3,000 years ago) at the Gulf Branch Nature Center, one of only two Northern Virginia sites included on the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. The Gulf Branch staff re-created an accurate dugout canoe. Built with modern power tools rather than the clamshells probably used by the natives, it famously sunk on its first outing. But onlookers can get the idea.


The Arlington Historical Museum displays pottery shards found near the Potomac, plus various tools found elsewhere in Arlington. A stone axe was uncovered near the 16th hole of the Army-Navy Country Club. Also exhibited is a souvenir of Arlington’s contribution to the 1957 statewide fair celebrating Jamestown, a scale model of a Potomac-side Indian village. That occasion clearly raised awareness of the native people’s heritage among the Arlington’s largely European-descended populace.


So let’s go further than simply deleting “the Skins.” When Arlington next debates street names, we should remember that nearly every main thoroughfare—from Glebe Rd. to Wilson Blvd. to Columbia Pike to the newly named Langston Blvd. — was paved on trails blazed by our Native American forebears. Let’s name one for the Necostins.


Preservationists are watching Richmond action on a bill drafted after last year’s rushed demolition of two historic Arlington homes, the Febrey-Lothrop house and the Fellows-McGrath house.


The legislation by Del. Patrick Hope (with a Senate counterpart by Chap Petersen) would give preservation activists standing in court to challenge demolition plans and give the county board more time to weigh whether to approve local historic designation status that protects selected homes.


Activists Tom Dickinson and John Reeder say the county board, facing protests surrounding those two homes, “bowed to the wishes of the developers.” Arlington County is “following the bill through the process,” a spokeswoman said.