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Mount Vernon was an attractive location for Native communities for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Washington family.

Archaeological investigations on the property currently owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association have led to the identification of at least 26 archaeological sites associated with human occupation in the deep past. These sites are located both inside the historic core and throughout the broader property. The following outline provides a sense of the course of this human occupation based on archaeological findings. 

"Open Air" Sites

All the sites explored to date are what archaeologists term “open air” sites, as opposed to “stratified” or layered sites. This means that sites at Mount Vernon were exposed to natural processes of weathering and erosion for thousands of years.

Think of the difference between an open field and a cave. Archaeological features such as ash from a campfire will disappear in the exposed field over time, whereas it could accumulate in the protected environment of a cave. For this reason, we have not used techniques like radiocarbon dating to precisely assign a “year” to our sites here at Mount Vernon.

Date Ranges

Fortunately, however, these processes did not impact artifacts that were used and left by humans in the deep past. This is important because the kinds of tools, manufacturing technologies, and the styles of many artifacts changed over time in patterns archaeologists have identified regionally. So, when we speak of human occupation here at Mount Vernon we use date ranges that might span thousands of years, and which have to be understood not as absolute years but rather as benchmarks in the timeline of the deep past. 

Early/Middle Archaic Period
10,000–4,500 years ago

Early archaic projectile points recovered from the Mansion vicinity. (MVLA)

Early archaic projectile points recovered from the Mansion vicinity. (MVLA)

Diversifying Regional Ecology

While human occupation in North America dates back to at least 17,000 years ago (the Paleo Indian Period), the first occupation at Mount Vernon dates to the Archaic period, which saw significant ecological shifts brought about by climatic change. Over thousands of years, regional forests became dominated by deciduous and nut bearing trees. The formation of the Chesapeake Bay caused rivers to slow creating more diverse ecological environments for marine and plant species. Game animals such as deer, elk, rabbit, and turkey became common.

In this diversifying landscape, human populations began to grow. Societies consisted of small groups, or bands, of people who moved frequently throughout the year to exploit seasonal resources. Towards the end of this period, groups may have begun to move less frequently or widely, as local resources became more plentiful.

Early archaic projectile points recovered from the South Grove Midden. (MVLA)

Early archaic projectile points recovered from the South Grove Midden. (MVLA)

Earliest Period of Human Occupation

It appears this is the earliest period of human occupation at Mount Vernon. Stone spear and javelin heads, often mistakenly called arrowheads, dating to the Early and Middle Archaic have been recovered close to the Mansion at the South Grove Midden excavation. Additionally, initial research on artifacts recovered archaeologically at the Slave Memorials and Cemetery (hereafter cemetery) suggests that this site was first visited at the end of this period.

While never a permanent settlement or village, the site was continually revisited by communities over the succeeding several thousand years on a seasonal or temporary basis.

Late Archaic Period
4,500-3,200 years ago

A fragment of the rim of a steatite bowl. Note the quarrying marks, or grooves, on the surface. (MVLA)

A fragment of the rim of a steatite bowl. Note the quarrying marks, or grooves, on the surface. (MVLA)

Population Growth

The environmental changes of the Early and Middle Archaic periods led to continued population growth among groups during the Late Archaic period. River resources played an increasingly important role to the communities of this period. Migratory fish species, such as shad and herring, as well as shellfish, became increasingly important to regional diets.

The appearance of steatite or soapstone bowls also helps define sites from this period. Such stone bowls were carved or hollowed out by hand from blocks of steatite which were quarried from regional sources. These bowls could be directly heated on a hearth unlike vessels fashioned from hide or fiber. These factors encouraged a trend towards a more sedentary lifestyle—moving less frequently and staying in a single location for longer periods of time.

A flaked, pecked, and ground stone ax. Such tools were used from the Middle Archaic through the Woodland periods. (MVLA)

A flaked, pecked, and ground stone ax. Such tools were used from the Middle Archaic through the Woodland periods. (MVLA)

Stone Tools

At Mount Vernon, archaeologists have recovered evidence of Late Archaic communities living throughout the property. The cemetery site, however, was clearly most heavily occupied throughout this period based on the artifacts recovered from excavations. For example, stone “axes” used to cut wood for fueling fires and building; as well as, stone pestles used to grind nuts, grains, or fibers were recovered.

Interestingly, these tools were first invented and used in the Middle Archaic but continued to be essential for people in the following periods as well. Archaeologists also recovered large numbers of steatite fragments from the cemetery, in addition to numerous examples of distinctive broad bladed “spear” points associated with Late Archaic traditions.

Early/Middle Woodland Period
3,200-1,000 years ago

A “lug” handle for a ceramic pot. Note the crushed steatite mixed into the clay body of the fragment. (MVLA)

A “lug” handle for a ceramic pot. Note the crushed steatite mixed into the clay body of the fragment. (MVLA)

Clay Pottery 

The transition from the Archaic to the Woodland is traditionally defined by the invention and production of clay pottery by Native communities. This innovation has been termed by some scholars as the “container” revolution, due to the ability for groups to make pots quickly and in large quantities from clays readily found throughout the landscape. These vessels played a key role in the cooking and preservation of foodstuffs.

Increasing the cultivation of plant species and the exploitation of diverse food resources, such as fish and small game, led to even greater population growth and sedentism. Indeed, as this period progressed, communities moved towards settlement into hamlets or larger villages that were supplemented with small season camps for resource gathering.

A fragment from the rim of a ceramic storage vessel that has been tempered with sand. (MVLA)

A fragment from the rim of a ceramic storage vessel that has been tempered with sand. (MVLA)

Pottery Fragments 

It is clear Native communities continued to occupy Mount Vernon in the transition from the Late Archaic to the Woodland periods based on the presence of early ceramics on the property. We can tell these are early ceramics by examining the inclusions, or temper, in the ceramic. Temper is a term archaeologists use to refer to material Native potters mixed into the clay while making pots.

These additions made the pots less susceptible to breaking from the thermal expansion and contraction of cooking. Importantly, for archaeologists, the kind of temper Native groups used varied over time. Some of the earliest temper regionally was crushed steatite. Later ceramics were tempered with sand or crushed oyster shell, and were often decorated.

At Mount Vernon’s cemetery site archaeologists have recovered examples of pottery that suggest groups continued to exploit the riverine resources here into the beginning of the Woodland period. Fragments of pottery have also been recovered from excavations at other locations in the historic core, including in the South Grove and Upper Garden.

Late Woodland Period
1,000-400 years ago

A Late Woodland projectile point which would have tipped an arrow. (MVLA)

A Late Woodland projectile point which would have tipped an arrow. (MVLA)

Agriculturalist Societies 

Regionally, the Late Woodland period saw a transition into fully agricultural lifestyles among the local Native communities. With more intensive farming came the rise of centralized political power and large villages which served as the seats of chiefdoms. Tobacco, beans, native copper, and other trade goods arrived in the area throughout this period via expanding networks of interregional trade. This agricultural lifestyle was supplemented with hunting and foraging. Indeed, the prevalence of the bow and arrow for hunting, which was first used in the Middle Woodland period, meant a general shift towards the small, triangular-shaped arrowheads and away from larger projectile points.

Ultimately, European arrival disrupted these societies as disease, conflict and colonial policy destabilized traditional social and political structures within many Native communities.

A variety of Late Woodland ceramics recovered from sites at Mount Vernon. (MVLA)

A variety of Late Woodland ceramics recovered from sites at Mount Vernon. (MVLA)

Resource Collection

Throughout the Late Woodland, Native communities would have hunted and foraged for resources, as well as, farmed throughout the landscape of Mount Vernon. Based on current evidence, however, it appears Mount Vernon was not directly occupied on a permanent basis by the period of contact with Europeans in the early 1600s. Instead, Native groups such as the Dogue, who had a major settlement on Mason’s Neck, or possibly other groups present in the area, likely used the property as a resource collection area for larger settlements nearby. Artifacts associated with the Late Woodland have been found at sites located both inside and outside the historic core.

Today

Native Communities Never Disappeared

It is important to recognize that the disruptions to Native American societies by European colonialization never caused these groups to disappear. The histories of these communities are complex, but despite experiences of disenfranchisement and active persecution up to the modern era, Native communities are still present and active in the region. Recently six Virginia tribes received federal recognition and in Maryland three tribes are recognized currently at the state level.

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