First Nations

From 1300 – 1600, according to Piscataway oral history, people who became identified as the Piscataway migrated from the Eastern Shore to the Potomac estuary of Maryland. A trading town called Natochtank was downriver from Bladensburg, serving traveling Europeans and Indian settlements along the banks of the Anacostia throughout the 1600s. There is no modern day Anacostan tribe, but descendents are likely a part of modern day Piscataway groups. See this article for more.

European settlement

From 1670 – 1740, informal settlements and farming communities of Europeans settled around Bladensburg, which was established as town in 1742. Bladensburg was an important deep water port for 100 years, and a major trading center for commodities such as lumber, grains, imported and manufactured goods. Farming practices such as plowing fields for tobacco and grain cultivation caused extensive silting in the river, leading to the closing of Bladensburg port in 1840 when the river became too shallow.

War of 1812

On August 12, 1814, the Battle of Bladensburg was fought in the area now made of Bladensburg, Cottage City and Colmar Manor. This was apparently a quick battle, as the British army quickly overpowered the Americans, and continued their march south to the capitol which they captured, and burned much of. This battle was termed “the most humiliating battle in American History” (see the Wikipedia article for the reference)

The Dark and Bloody Grounds

During the first half of the 19th century, Dueling Creek was the site of over 50 duels and was known as “The Dark and Bloody Grounds.”  The most notorious duel was between Stephen Decatur and James Barron, both naval officers, over a conflict that had been brewing for 12 years. After Decatur’s death, hours after their duel on March 22, 1820, the US Navy strongly condemned dueling as a means of settling disputes.

Other famous duels that took place here include one that resulted in the death of Daniel Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, in 1836. Congress passed an anti-dueling law in 1839 following the death of Rep. Jonathan Cilley (ME) on these dueling grounds. Duels continued at the site, though mostly at night to prevent discovery. Local historians have placed the actual duel sites as within the boundaries of Cottage City (there is a strip of Dueling Creek on park land there).

The Army Corps

The last big curve of Dueling Creek was once the bed of the whole Anacostia River! This explains why a relatively low-flowing creek has such a wide, rich floodplain. This is a map from 1938, showing the big serpentine loop of the Anacostia that has become the creekbed of Dueling Creek.

1938 map of Anacostia
1938 map of Anacostia

In the 1930’s and 40’s the Army Corps of Engineers set about straightening the river, and draining wetlands. This was part of a larger effort to eradicate malaria and make more land available for development by draining wetlands. A natural river has many turns and is constantly shifting its course along a floodplain. Those turns can develop into lakes and marshes, which help control flooding and absorb runoff. When the Anacostia River was re-routed into its new, direct path, the old bed became the tidal drainage for Dueling Creek. While mosquitoes were decreased, the natural ability of the river to manage sediment and flooding and nourish wildlife was lost. Pollutants that would have once been filtered out through extensive wetlands just race down the river and into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Landfill

The Colmar Manor Park used to be a landfill. It was a waste dump from the 1930’s on, and WSSC began operating it as a sanitary landfill in 1961. In 1970, Maryland National Capitol Park and Planning Commission (MNC-PPC) purchased the land. Over the next 14 years they leveled and capped the site – using dirt from Metro construction for the cap – and the park was created in 1984. Several environmental assessments happened in the 80’s and 90’s to determine the significance of environmental pollutants at the site.

The Dredge Ponds

Because the Anacostia has been constantly silting in and becoming more shallow, as a result of topsoil flowing into the river, it has transformed from a 70 foot deep channel in the 1700s (creating the bustling deep water port of Bladesnburg) to only being a few feet deep. Although this was initially due to European settler farming practices (tilling the soil, principally for toabacco), but the trend continues for a number of reasons. The ongoing silting we are experiencing now is related to suburban land management and stormwater practices and infrastructure.

Around the time of the river straightening in 1930, the Army Corps of Engineers began dredging the Anacostia to keep the channel open. At some point (looking for this detail!) a chain of ponds was developed on the river side of the landfill. These ponds had the goal of receiving the dredged slurry, and allowing the water to filter down through a series of ponds, getting cleaner, until the water reached Dueling Creek near the current dock. Dredging continues sporadically, but in recent years has been managed in such a way that the formerly full ponds are very low. In the 80s and 90s the ponds were mostly full, and hosted a wide array of birds, reptiles and amphibians that counted on them.