Water Trail History and Nature

Long before the arrival of European explorers, the abundance of fish, game, and other natural resources along the Anacostia River drew a vibrant American Indian culture to its shores. In the 1600s, the Nacotchtank Indians — prosperous farmers, gathers, hunters, and traders — lived along the eastern shore of the river. Jesuit priests later Latinized the Algonquian place name of Nacotchtank to Anacostia. Englishman John Smith explored the Anacostia in 1608. His arrival heralded both the rapid settlement of the land east of the river by English landowners and the rapid decline of the Nacotchtanks.

During the War of 1812, the British crossed the Anacostia River at Bladensburg on their way to attack Washington, DC. They confronted the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, and then burned the White House and other public buildings in Washington before setting sail for Baltimore. Word of losses at Bladensburg and the burning of Washington traveled to Baltimore, where the Americans re-enforced their defenses in preparation for battle there three weeks later.

By the late 1800s, the Anacostia River was filling up with silt that washed into the water from upstream farms. In the early 1900s, reclamation of the Anacostia River “flats” transformed the swamp lands into a riverside park. Today, Anacostia Park is a multi-use recreational park spanning over 1,200 acres, with shoreline access, a swimming pool, ball fields, trails, and picnic areas. The southern portion contains most of the developed recreational facilities, and the northern portion provides an excellent place to view wildlife. To explore this park, visit www.nps.gov/anac.


The Anacostia Water Trail is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, America’s first national water trail. The John Smith Trail paints the world of the seventeenth-century Chesapeake—its English explorers, American Indian cultures, and rich natural abundance. To learn more about the trail, visit www.smithtrail.net.


The Anacostia Water Trail also follows a portion of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The Star-Spangled Banner Trail commemorates the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake region—a hub for trade, industry and government that made it a prime target for the British. American lawyer Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a ship in the Baltimore harbor. The experience inspired him to write the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner, which became America’s national anthem in 1931. Learn more at www.starspangledtrail.net.