Geography and Ecology

  • The Anacostia is thought of as a Washington DC river, but five-sixths of its watershed is actually in Maryland. Technically, the Anacostia “river” is an estuary – a place where fresh water and salt water meet.
  • Water flow is sluggish and “sloshy” due to the influence of three-foot tides. It is estimated that something floating in the river at Bladenburg can take 30-35 days to travel the 8 ½ miles to the Potomac, even if it avoids being stranded on the shoreline.
  • Before the early 1900’s, the tidal Anacostia was flanked by around 2500 acres of biologically rich emergent wetlands. More than 90% of the tidal wetlands were destroyed in the 20th century, and stone walls were built along both sides of the river.
  • Wolves, bears, bison, panthers, and elk were residents of the Anacostia valley before the Europeans arrived in the 1600s
  • Millions of shad and herring used to swim up the Anacostia each spring to spawn in the upper tributaries. Dams and poor water quality have all but ended the spring run, but river herring are today being restocked.
  • American Lotus, a water plant with a three-to-five foot floating leaf, is native to the Anacostia, but was destroyed as wetlands were eliminated.
  • The Anacostia supports at least eighteen species of fish and perhaps as many as twenty-three. White perch are the most numerous. Naturally-reproducing brown trout live in the upper reaches of the Paint Branch, an Anacostia tributary.
  • Water quality challenges include sewage leakage and overflows, oil and gas, chemicals and trash from street runoff, massive erosion (also mainly caused by street runoff), and legacy toxic sediments and sites along the river from former industial uses


  • Captain John Smith of Jamestown drew the first map of the Anacostia, which was published in 1612. A native American village on the east bank of the Anacostia was labeled “Nacotchtanck” – a Anglicization of a word thought to mean “town of traders.” This word eventually became “Anacostia.”
  • Tobacco farming in the Anacostia valley in the eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was the principal cause of severe erosion that filled in the river’s forty foot channel and created extensive mud flats. Prince Georges County was the largest producer of tobacco in the nation just before the Civil War.
  • Bladensburg, at the head of the Anacostia tide, was founded before Alexandria, Georgetown, or the District. At first large ocean-going ships could arrive there, then only smaller ones. The last cargo ship to leave Bladensburg was “Rover” in 1843.
  • When Washington DC was being designed in 1791 and 1792, the Anacostia was known as the “Eastern Branch”. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson asked that the old name “Anna Kastia” be included with “Eastern Branch” on a 1793 map.
boating kenilworth 1930 (1)
boating kenilworth 1930 (1)
  • Dueling Creek, a Maryland tributary of the Anacostia, is so named because over 50 duels were fought there from 1732 to 1868. The most famous person mortally wounded at the Dueling Grounds was Commodore Stephen Decatur, who was killed in 1820.
  • W.B. Shaw, a Civil War veteran, started a very successful commercial water lily operation in an Anacostia Marsh in the 1880s. Today the area is the stunning Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a unit of the National Park Service.
  • The Anacostia was designated a Maryland state Wild and Scenic River in 1968.