We care, because we all leave tracks.

Native American Occupation to Colonial Times

Hand-made stone points have been found in the 58 acres of Runnymede Park, which confirms man’s presence here before the influx of Europeans to the area. The stone points from the park have been dated to the Woodland period of the Native Americans and estimated to be from 1,000 – 2,000 YBP. Using material collected within the Sugarland watershed and nearby archaeological sites, it can be assumed that the abundant wildlife and plant life of this area attracted Native Americans to the park area 12,000 YBP.

The Runnymede Park area offered fresh water from Sugarland Run as well as a spring just a few yards west of the park, and fertile soils with plant life that attracted some of their favorite game such as deer, bear, squirrel, beaver, turkey, and wildfowl.

12,000-9,000 YBP: Paleo-Indians using Clovis point technology (used from 13,000 – 11,400 YBP) left stone points that have been found at the Dulles airport site five miles to the south and west of the park and along the Sugarland Run north of the park. These Paleo-Indians hunted large animals, including mastodon, caribou, and bison, that were still present in this area until the last great ice age ended 8,000-9,000 YBP.

As these glaciers receded, the ocean level rose over 300 feet, flooding the Susquehanna, Potomac, James and other rivers creating the Chesapeake Bay. Several flooded Paleo-Indian sites have been discovered in the Virginia part of the Chesapeake Bay area, confirming that these people traveled extensively throughout this territory in pursuit of prey.

9,000 – 3,200 YBP: Nine miles north of the park, the Sugarland Run meets the Potomac River at Lowe’s Island. Archaeological excavations of this island confirm the value of this site to understanding Native Americans who left remnants of their stone tools and pottery for a nearly continuous period from the early Archaic (9,000-3,200 YBP) Period through the late Woodland Period (up to 500 YBP). This site had the great value of access to the yearly fish runs along the Potomac, fertile land for hunting game and later farming, and excellent defensive positioning from raiding parties due to its separation from the mainland by Sugarland Run. It can be assumed that Native Americans who hunted and lived on Lowe’s Island or similar tribes/family groups nearby also foraged in the surrounding areas like Runnymede Park.

Native Americans advanced from dispersed foragers (hunting far and wide) to sedentary foragers (hunting and collecting food in a more territorial area) from the period of 9,000 YBP to 3,200 YBP. It is believed that the Native Americans from this period traveled in extended family groups and spoke a common language with groups nearby, forming tribal communities or bands as they became more sedentary in their foraging.

They expanded their variety of stone tools and weapons, developing a spear thrower, or “atlatl” that greatly extended the range and effectiveness of their spears. They used bone and antlers to make hooks for fishing and awls and needles for sewing. They made stone axes to cut trees for fire, to carve canoes, and to build houses. They purposefully altered their environment by clearing sections of forest to encourage the growth of certain berry and nut trees and shrubs that attracted game to hunt. They used nets for fishing and made mortars and pestles for grinding nuts, roots, and grain into flour and medicines. They began to make cooking and storage vessels from soapstone near the end of this period. Many of these stone vessels were large and heavy, indicating that the owners were likely not moving around as much as the earlier groups.

There is evidence that Virginian Native Americans were trading among each other for products and materials that were far from their normal territory. For instance, soapstone vessels and quartzite points have been found hundreds of miles from the location of the outcroppings that they were quarried from. Native Americans began to plant squash in this area near the end of this period, a plant that was native to Mexico. The Native American population grew, clustering around rivers and streams, eventually joining bands through marriage and trade to form small settlements or hamlets. One of these hamlets is thought to have been located on Lowe’s Island.

3,200 – 400 YBP: About 3,200 years ago a new technology was introduced, some believe as a result of trade with the peoples living along the east coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The Virginian people began to make fired clay pots for cooking and storage. This allowed them to make large below ground and above ground storage vessels to store crops and grains for use later in the year. Secure storage allowed these people to manage their food stuffs so that constant foraging was not as necessary. The first evidence of more permanent homes began about this time. These homes were generally round, from 10 – 20 feet in diameter, with some larger, oval long houses from 16 to 26 feet in length. The walls and roofs were supported by 10-20 poles bent to meet at the top with bark or thatch walls and roofs. Storage containers were buried around the inside perimeter of the structure with a fire pit for cooking and warmth in the center. The center of the roof where the poles met was left open to release the smoke. The entrances faced the east so that the dawn light would enter their homes. They developed practices for preserving food such as smoking or drying meats and fruits and storing food in the cool earth.

These native Virginians gathered at various times of the year to participate in and celebrate the harvesting of annual fish runs, migratory waterfowl, and agricultural crops. These local bands began to share common technologies, practices, and interests, forming tribes and developing their own culture. Houses became more complex and villages began to appear that might resemble a small town, including a central plaza, rowed houses, and separated farming plots. Specialization of labor began to develop with some within the tribe taking on leadership and ceremonial duties.

Cultural habits and creative developments flourished. They cultivated separate plots for raising tobacco, which they used reverently in forms of greeting and celebration. Ceremonial objects made of bone, stone, shells, and copper, some with intricate designs carved into them, date from this period.

Burial practices evolved regionally, including mound burials to the west and trench burials in central Virginia. Thomas Jefferson oversaw what many consider the first scientifically conducted archaeological dig of the Monacan tribe’s village around Charlottesville from this period. He identified that the dead were buried standing up with stones brought from a quarter mile away to separate different strata of these burials. No burial mounds have been found in this area, however.

Agriculture developed as well. These tribes had been planting sunflower, corn, and squash in fields that they cleared through slash and burn practices. Unfortunately this process fairly quickly used up the nutrients in the soil and required the tribes to move their villages every 10 years or so for fresh soil. About 1,000 years ago, beans arrived from trade with groups in contact with tribes of the southwest. Beans were then planted with the corn and the squash (or pumpkins) allowing the beans to fix nitrogen in the soil, while the squash provided ground cover to minimize water loss and weed growth, and the corn provided support for the beans. This symbiotic agriculture of beans, corn, and squash was known as the “Three Sisters” and it has been determined that approximately 25% of their diet was met with these crops. These improved farming practices sustained the soil quality and the land productivity, requiring the people to move their villages less often.

By the middle of this Woodland Period, most villages were occupied year round supported by short term and seasonal hunting and gathering camps. They used bow and arrow technology, which gave them more flexibility and accuracy in their hunting. Perhaps the possible Native American camp site found in Runnymede Park by the Fairfax Archaeologist in 1990 was one of these seasonal camps. Once a detailed study is conducted by the county’s archaeologist, we may understand a great deal more as to which village and tribe this campsite supported, and for what period of time.

It has been estimated that sometime around 700-800 YBP tribes speaking similar languages began to form confederations, with some warring and some trading occurring between confederations. At the time of Jamestown’s founding in 1607, Captain John Smith traveled fairly extensively among the various tribes in eastern Virginia, recording much of what he learned. He identified three major confederations in the current state of Virginia. The Iroquoian tribes of the Cherokee, Nottoway, and Meherrin were a fairly nomadic group living to the south and traveling into North Carolina. McCoy in his book Indians of Seventeenth Century Virginia estimates their total population at around 2,600 at the start of the seventeenth century. The Siouan tribes of the Manahoac, Monacan, Saponi, Tutelo, Mohetan, and Occaneechi shared a similar language, with different dialects. The Siouans lived in central and north Virginia, generally west of the fall line. Their population was estimated by McCoy at 8,000 to 9,000 at that time.

The third and possibly largest confederation was the Algonquians, who occupied land from the fall line of the Potomac south and east to North Carolina and the eastern shore. John Smith wrote of 32 distinct tribes with 161 villages of Algonquians that had varying degrees of allegiance to a powerful leader called Powhatan, who principally resided in a town called Werowcomoco on the north bank of the York River. Their population at the time Jamestown was founded was estimated at 9,000. It is believed that the Algonquians had moved into this territory several hundred years before from the north. The most northerly of these Algonquian tribes, with possibly the loosest allegiance to Powhatan, was a tribe called the Dogues.

The Dogues’ main village, called Tauxenent, was near the mouth of the Occoquan River with a population estimated by Smith of 135 in 1608 (One of the Occoquan tributaries, Dogue Creek, is named after this tribe). It is known that the Dogue used an ancient trail from Tauxenent to the Aldie area that was later surfaced into a road by the colonists and is now called Braddock Road. Smith met members of this tribe who apparently indicated that they hunted and farmed on the land from the Mason Neck area north to the Potomac and west to as far as present day Centreville. Therefore, it is very likely that the Native Americans that hunted in Runnymede Park in the later Woodland Period belonged to the Dogue tribe of the Algonquians.

The Dogue occasionally came in contact with an unnamed Manahoac tribe living to the west near the Blue Ridge Mountains, though little is known about them; the trail to Aldie may have been a trade route for these meetings. To the north across the Potomac River, a tribe of the Iroquois Confederation lived in about 20 different villages, some surrounding the area of present day Baltimore. The Dogues named these people the Susquehannocks, meaning the “people at the falls”. These tall people were considered fierce warriors, and their contacts with the Dogue were often battles as occurred around 1610 when a group of these men crossed the Potomac and raided some Dogue camps.

Runnymede, “The Grocery Store”: Runnymede Park offered a wealth of food and medicines to the Native Americans who knew the growing patterns and properties of the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants around them. They made great use of this knowledge. For example, they had indicator plants such as the dogwood tree, which when it bloomed, indicated the optimal time to plant the corn. When the serviceberry bloomed, it was time to head to the rivers for the annual shad runs. In some areas today this bush is known as the shadberry bush for this reason.

Some foods could be eaten immediately such as the fox grape, pawpaw and persimmon fruit, walnuts and hickory nuts, and raspberries and blueberries. They often ground and roasted, boiled, or dried their collected foods including acorns, chestnuts (that died off in this area during a 20th century blight), hazelnuts, cattails, mayapple fruit, groundnuts, and Indian grass. Many of these were mixed with their hunted prey to make stews, food cakes, and jerkies. They used roots of solomon’s seal, groundnut, and tubers of spring beauty and potato vine for meals of starch. Teas were made of sumac berries, spicebush, and sassafras. They knew to tap the maple trees for their sugar. In fact, Sugarland Run got its name from the abundance of sugar maples along its banks during colonial times.

Dyes to decorate their clothing and skin were made from a plethora of local plants including bloodroot and sassafras root (red), sumac berries (red, brown, and black), sumac stems (yellow), sumac roots (orange), and eastern red cedar (reddish brown). The trees provided wood for fire, building homes, carving canoes, and making clubs (particularly the hard woods of hickory and persimmon). Branches of arrowwood are straight and cylindrical, making them perfect for these weapons that gave the bush its name.

The colonists were fortunate that the Native Americans were willing to share their knowledge of agriculture and the uses of native plants for medicinal purposes. They spread oils from bloodroot or jewelweed on their bodies as excellent insect repellants. They used the oil of may-apple roots as an insecticide when planting seeds. Goldenrod was used for toothache. Cardinal flower was considered an aphrodisiac, jack in the pulpit a contraceptive, and cedar berries and needles were used to treat headaches.

Black-eyed Susans were prepared for indigestion and treating burns, while Joe Pye weed was used as a stimulant and a cure for female-specific pain. Wounds or boils would be treated by a concoction using solomon’s seal roots; cuts, ulcers, and hemorrhoids were treated with smartweed. Dogwood bark and sweet cicely were used as antiseptics to reduce infection. The Native Americans even had treatments for arthritis (spicebush berries) and tuberculosis (St. John’s wort). All of these plants and many more can be found inside the 58 acres of Runnymede Park. A few of these park plants that were so useful to the early inhabitants are shown below:

Ripe Fox Grapes (Vitis labrusca)                  Hickory Nuts (Carya glabra) in Fall    



Red sumac (Rhus hirta) berries in Fall           Persimmon fruit (Diospyrus virginiana) after first frost

Shown below, clockwise from the upper left is a) the Runnymede meadow in summer, b) Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), c) bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) blooming in early spring, d) groundnut (Apios americanan) red blossoms, e) white potato vine (Ipomoea pandurata) flowers, and f) jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).