In Virginia, all geese are swans.
– John Adams

enlarged potomac smith mapb

One of the first American explorers was Captain John Smith who navigated the Chesapeake Bay and mapped many of its tributaries. In 1608 he gave the Potomac River its name based an Algonquian Native American tribe living near the upper reaches of the north side of the navigable river.   The spelling of the name was simplified over the years from “Patawomeck flu” (as on Captain John Smith’s map) to “Patowmack” in the 18th century and finally to Potomac as it was officially shortened in 1931.  Some accounts say the name means “place where people trade” or “the place to which tribute is brought”.  The natives called the river above the falls Cohongarooton, translated as “river of geese” because the  river was known for an abundance of both geese and swans which inhabit its waters.


Here are swans nesting near Port Tobacco.  I think they are Tundra Swans, but they are similar to orange-billed Mute Swans.

tundra swans migration

Tundra Swans from the central arctic head south to North Dakota before proceeding east to Chesapeake Bay

The Algonquian-speaking natives used the Potomac primarily as a food source. In various seasons they harvested anadromous fish, crabs, oysters, and migratory birds like geese and ducks. The edges of the rivers were rimmed with villages when John Smith sailed to Little Falls near the modern-day Chain Bridge in 1608.

powhatan territory

The river was a transportation corridor for Powhatan’s towns and their travels extended to the Eastern Shore while canoes of fish and corn traveled regularly down the Potomac for pre-colonial trade. Still, with only about 15,000 people stretched from the Potomac to the Albermarle/Pamlico Sound, the pre-colonial Native American population density was thin. (source:

Being situated in an area rich in American tradition and heritage has led to the Potomac being nicknamed “the Nation’s River.” George Washington, the first President of the United States, was born in, surveyed, and spent most of his life within the Potomac basin.  He believed that the very river that flows past his mansion provided the most direct access to the interior waterways of North America.  The Potomac mythology stayed with him all his life but it was determined by later generations that no natural water route to the interior was feasible because of the impassible regions of the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains.

Washington eventually retired to Mount Vernon in 1797 after he left the Presidency and lived there until his death at the age of 67.   It was an enormous, 8,000-acre plantation, with the main house overlooking the river. He devoted himself to its care, raising crops and enhancing its operations.  A visit to Mt. Vernon is a marvelous journey to an earlier time in our Nation’s life and its preservation has been exceptional.

mt vernon from piscataway park

Mt. Vernon at twilight


flocks of tundra swans in the fields near Mt. Vernon

After his retirement George Washington continued to contribute to the development of commerce in the region.  Maryland and Virginia were in an extended political dispute about the river boundaries and in 1785 when they were meeting and unable to resolve these differences  Washington then invited them to his home for further deliberation.  They were finally successful in developing an agreement that was eventually ratified by both states.  According to one historian:

James Madison, one of America’s founding fathers and a Virginian, was the leader in Congress who urged a permanent capital on the Potomac in return for allowing a debt assumption plan of Alexander Hamilton’s to pass in Congress….Thomas Jefferson invited his friend Madison and his arch-enemy Hamilton to dinner and while Madison voted against it, he agreed to the plan.  Four Congressmen with districts situated around the Potomac switched their votes to allow for the debt assumption plan to go through.

Washington, DC is the largest city on the Potomac.  During The War of 1812 the British sailed up the Potomac, eventually took the city and set fire to and demolished the White House as well as bridges spanning its waters.

President John Quincy Adams swam nude in the river, Harry Truman enjoyed yachting and gambling on its waters and the Kennedy family used it for sailing on long weekends.

The Potomac River (/pəˈtoʊmək/) flows into the Chesapeake Bay in the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States.  The river  is approximately 405 miles  long with a drainage area of about 14,700 square miles.   In terms of area, this makes the Potomac River the fourth largest river along the Atlantic coast of the United States and the 21st largest in the United States.  Over 5 million people live within the Potomac watershed.


The river has two sources.  (In the next few paragraphs I am borrowing heavily from the cited Wikipedia article) The source of the North Branch Potomac River is the Fairfax Stone which also marks the western boundary of land granted to Lord Fairfax by the King of England in the 1700s. Almost two centuries later, in 1910, this stone was to be the determining factor in the final state boundary between West Virginia and Maryland.  Some historians believe that the original stone may have been set by George Washington, a surveyor in his youth.

The original stone, erected by Fairfax in 1746, was a small pyramid of sandstone bearing the letters “F-X,” but has been replaced by a natural boulder which sits over the spring at the branch source.   It sits about 400 feet off the main road that runs from Thomas in Tucker County, West Virginia to Redhouse, Maryland.

From the Fairfax Stone, the North Branch Potomac River flows 27 miles (43 km) to the man-made Jennings Randolph Lake, an impoundment designed for flood control and emergency water supply. Below the dam, the North Branch cuts a serpentine path through the eastern Allegheny Mountains. First, it flows northeast by the communities of Bloomington, Luke, and Westernport in Maryland and then on by Keyser, West Virginia to Cumberland, Maryland.  At Cumberland, the river turns southeast.

fairfax stone setting

The source of the South Branch is located near Hightown, West Virginia along Parkersburg Pike (U.S. Route 250) on the eastern side of Lantz Mountain (3,934 ft).  From Hightown, the South Branch is a small meandering stream that flows northeast along Crab Bottom Road through the communities of New Hampden and Crab Bottom.  At Forks of Waters, the South Branch joins with Strait Creek and flows north across the Virginia/West Virginia border into Pendleton County.


The river then travels on a northeastern course along the western side of Jack Mountain (4,045 ft), followed by Sandy Ridge (2,297 ft) along U.S. Route 220 to the junction with U.S. Route 220 at Franklin.  It continues north through the Monongahela National Forest and eventually follows the western side of Cave Mountain through the 20-mile long Smoke Hole Canyon until its confluence with the North Fork at Cabins, where it flows east to Petersburg.  At Petersburg, the South Branch is joined by the South Branch Valley Railroad, which it parallels until its mouth at Green Spring.  In its eastern course from Petersburg into Hardy County, the South Branch becomes more navigable allowing for canoes and smaller river vessels and is the habitat to endangered bald eagles. It flows under the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad mainline between Green Spring and South Branch Depot and, after a river distance of 139 miles, the river’s two branches converge just east of Green Spring in Hampshire County, West Virginia, to form the Potomac.

The Potomac estuary then continues through the northern end of the Blue Ridge Province at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, very close to northwestern Loudoun County.



It then flows through a small section of the northern stretch of the Piedmont Province east of US Route 15 near Leesburg. About 10 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., the Potomac enters the “Fall Zone” and rapidly descends to sea level.


This is the most dramatic drop of any eastern river. Following that, the river flows into the to fenced pastures and hardwood forests. From its crystal mountain solitude, it flows on as one of the nation’s most studied and debated rivers. The Potomac runs from fresh to brackish, here polluted, there clean, pressed by urban use, or flowing in lonely reaches under the wings of osprey and heron.

Once the Potomac drops from the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain, tides further influence the river as it passes through Washington, D.C., and beyond. Salinity in the Potomac River Estuary increases thereafter with distance downstream. The estuary also widens, reaching 11 statute miles wide at its mouth between Point Lookout, Maryland and Smith Point, Virginia before flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

All of Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital city, also lies within the watershed.  The capital began using the Potomac as its principal source of drinking water with the opening of the Washington Aqueduct in 1864, using a water intake constructed at Great Falls.

The Patowmack Canal was intended by George Washington to connect the Tidewater region near Georgetown with Cumberland, Maryland. Started in 1785 on the Virginia side of the river it was not completed until 1802 and still did not connect the Eastern Seaboard to the Mississippi as was hoped.

canal boat

The Canal continued to operate along the banks of the Potomac in Maryland from 1831 to 1924 and allowed freight to be transported around the rapids known as the Great Falls of the Potomac River, as well as many other, smaller rapids.

Settlement west of the Blue Ridge occurred first near the Potomac River then further south – but not because of traffic coming up the river since the Fall Line obstructed any ocean-going traffic.  Alexandria was the deepwater port furthest upstream on the Potomac. Georgetown was shallower and was used more by coastal trading vessels rather than ocean-going ships carrying crops to England.

The river was frozen in the winter, flooded in the spring, and was too shallow in the late summer and fall when crops were harvested and ready to be shipped. Still, it was clear to forward-looking politicians in both Alexandria and Williamsburg that the Potomac River had the potential to become a major transportation corridor between the Atlantic and the Ohio River backcountry.  Lands along the main stem of the Ohio River and the flat country to the west that were most attractive, albeit further away from the Atlantic Coast. In an agricultural economy, the rich bottomlands were far more valuable than the forested Appalachian hillsides.

In the years of settlement the lower Potomac’s economy was dependent on slave labor.  The big reason for this was the tobacco farms which used slash-and-burn growing techniques that depleted the soil and sent a tremendous amount of silt into the river.  Despite being a shallow river it became a major shipping route and was even more so when the B & O Railroad terminated in a deepwater harbor near the district.

At one time hundreds of ferries operating on the Potomac but they fell out of favor and were replaced by bridges where there was enough river traffic. White’s Ferry is the last operating ferry on the Potomac links rural Loudoun County, Virginia and Poolesville, Maryland which is a agricultural reserve preservation area.

Quarries along its banks provided the bright red sandstone and also the lighter aquia stone that were used in many private and public buildings in the capitol’s development.  Over the years many manors were built and housed the successful owners and inheritors of lands in the colonies of Maryland and Virginia:  (see citation reference)

Opposite Mount Vernon, at the mouth of Piscataway Creek, stands Warburton Manor, granted in 1641 to the Digges family. A little south and west of this is Marshall Hall, granted to William Marshall in 1651. Bordering on “the freshes of Piscataway” was Mount Airy, the seat of Benedict Calvert, son of the fifth Lord Baltimore; here General Washington often stayed, and Calvert’s daughter Eleanor married John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington.

The “10 mile square”; which in 1791 became the Federal area was fringed with many notable manors – Riversdale, belonging to the Calverts; Northampteon, manor of the Fairfaxes of Cameron; the Darnall homes, including Woodyard; the Caroll manors, including Rock Creek Mansion, where Father (later Archbishop) John Carroll lived; Chillum Manor, where one branch of the Digges family lived; Clean Drinking Manor, which passed from the Coates to Charles Jones; Friendship; one of the Addison manors; Rosedale, the Beall properties, and others.

But these landed proprietors, with their charming affluence and leisure, by no means comprised the whole of humanity in Colonial Virginia and Maryland. There were many small planters who worked the less fertile land themselves – sometimes with a slave or two, sometimes alone; and some of the great Maryland landowners made fortunes by settling German immigrants on their plantations as tenant farmers. these small growers could no, like the rich proprietors, profitably consign their crops to English agents. “The large planters, therefore, became traders, buying the tobacco of their poorer neighbors and opening plantation stores in which the small farmers bought necessary merchandise.”; There were also rather considerable artisan, mechanic, and laborer class, mostly persons sent over from England under indenture to Colonial employers, whom they wee required to serve for a period of 3 to 5 years, as recompense for the cost of their passage and a commission to the agent or shipowner who had arranged the transaction. To all of these economically oppressed classes, the western “back country”; offered a promised land toward which they pushed in ever-increasing numbers. But no path of escape in any direction stood open to the hordes of African slaves, who constituted by far the largest population group in the tidewater region, and upon whose labor the imposing structure of plantation prosperity the region was chiefly based.

The river forms part of the borders between Maryland and Washington, D.C. (the District of Columbia) on the left bank and West Virginia and Virginia on the river’s right bank. The entire lower Potomac River is part of the State of Maryland, with the exception of a small tidal portion within the District of Columbia. Except for a small portion of its headwaters in West Virginia, the North Branch Potomac River is considered part of Maryland to the low water mark on the opposite bank. The South Branch Potomac River lies completely within the state of West Virginia except for its headwaters, which lie in Virginia.

Fisher describes the Potomac River’s flow through the five provinces this way:

“So most of the river is still just as beautiful as its headwaters. It flows through five distinct physiographic provinces: the highlands, where some flora is identical to Canadian; a rugged region of elongated vales and spiny ridges, including a fertile limestone “great valley of rare pastoral loveliness, called Shenandoah south of the river, Cumberland to the north (editor’s note: we call all that area Valleys & Ridges Province); the barrier Blue Ridge; a piedmont of rolling farms and wooded hillsides; and finally, below Little Falls, the coastal plain and its estuary with more than 950 miles of shoreline, a maze of ancient ‘drowned rivers.’”

Many historic events occurred along its banks:

In 1794, President George Washington had selected Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and Springfield, Massachusetts, as the sites of the new national armories. In choosing Harper’s Ferry, he noted the benefit of great waterpower provided by both the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. In 1817, the federal government contracted with John H. Hall to manufacture his patented rifles at Harper’s Ferry. The armory and arsenal continued producing weapons until its destruction at the outbreak of the Civil War.

In the summer of 1859, John Brown, using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, took up residence near Harper’s Ferry at a farm in Maryland. He trained a group of twenty-two men, including his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson, in military maneuvers. On the night of Sunday, October 16, Brown and all but three of the men marched into Harper’s Ferry, capturing several watchmen and seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.


This 1859 siege of Harper’s Ferry at the river’s confluence with the Shenandoah was but one of many epic battles of the American Civil War in and around the Potomac and its tributaries.   Other battles included those at Ball’s Bluff and Shepherdstown. In 1862 General Robert E. Lee crossed the river to invade the North and threatened Washington, D.C. in campaigns climaxing in the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg.  Confederate General Jubal Early also crossed the river in 1864 on his attempted raid on the nation’s capital.  The Union’s largest army was called the Army of the Potomac. 


Fort Washington, located near the community of Fort Washington, Maryland was for many decades the only defensive fort protecting Washington D.C.  The original fort, overlooking the Potomac River, was completed in 1809, and was named Fort Warburton. During the War of 1812, the fort was destroyed by its own garrison during a British advance. The current historic fort — maintained by the National Park Service — was initially constructed in 1824. It is a stone structure with a good cannon shot down the Potomac River. The fort was extensively remodeled in the 1840s and 1890s.

The Fort was turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1946 after its last military personnel departed.

Native American History of Potomac lands:

Today it is estimated that approximately 20,000 Native Americans live in Maryland, making up about 0.4 percent of the population, according to the 2010 census. Eight tribes have been designated as indigenous to Maryland, including the Accohannock, Pocomoke, Nause-Waiwash, Assateague, Shawnee, and Piscataway Indian Nations, although these were certainly not their attributed names at the time of colonial settlement.  Based on the extant records of the Powhatan Confederency it appears that there were at least twelve major tribes along the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia and Maryland.  Unfortunately, a political leader in Virginia was successful in destroying the official records of Native Americans.  Surviving tribal members have been unable to obtain recognition by the legislature for several decades despite concerted attempts.  Many factors contributed to the destruction of Potomac Native American life  including conversion attempts and settlement incursions by the Roman Catholic priests and their cohorts who first settled in Maryland, conflicts between the settlers and various tribes over the centuries, unfavorable treaties which required natives to give up their lands as well as  decimation and extinction due hostile attacks as well as widespread smallpox disease.

The story of the Potomac River region is one that reflects the American story.  It is a story of revolution, rebellion, and remarkable vision and strength as well as blind arrogance of an immigrant people.  The story also reflects the harsh reality of a conquered and vanquished people who once inhabited its fields, forests and waterways.

For me it is a beautiful river.  I love its marshes and shallows, it’s wide vistas and indigenous species of marvelous aquatic life within its habitat including indigenous species of bird, reptile, mammal, amphibian, flora, fauna, invertebrate and plankton life.   As an example, here is a listing of bird species that have been identified in Jug Bay, a similar area in the nearby Patuxent River in December 2011 Estuarine Research report.  A careful review of that report will give the reader a full appreciation for the importance maintaining this ecologically fragile but extraordinary River and its tributaries.

Acadian flycatcher
Alder flycatcher
American avocet
American bittern
American black duck
American coot
American crow
American golden plover
American goldfinch
American kestrel
American pipit
American redstart
American robin
American rree sparrow
American white pelican
American wigeon
American woodcock
Bald eagle
Baltimore oriole
Bank swallow
Barn owl
Barn swallow
Barred owl
Bay-breasted warbler
Belted kingfisher
Bicknell’s thrush
Black rail
Black scoter
Black skimmer
Black tern
Black vulture
Black-and-white warbler
Black-bellied plover
Black-bellied whistling duck
Black-billed cuckoo
Blackburnian warbler
Black-capped chickadee
Black-crowned night heron
Blackpoll warbler
Black-throated blue warbler
Black-throated green warbler
Blue grosbeak
Blue jay
Blue-gray gnatcatcher
Blue-headed vireo
Blue-winged teal
Bonaparte’s gull
Broad-winged hawk
Brown creeper
Brown pelican
Brown thrasher
Brown-headed cowbird
Canada goose
Canada warbler
Cape may warbler
Carolina chickadee
Carolina wren
Caspian tern
Cattle egret
Cedar waxwing
Cerulean warbler
Chestnut-sided warbler
Chimney swift
Chipping sparrow
Cliff swallow
Common black-headed gull
Common grackle
Common loon
Common merganser
Common moorhen
Common nighthawk
Common redpoll
Common snipe
Common tern
Common yellowthroat
Connecticut warbler
Cooper’s hawk
Dark-eyed junco
Double-crested cormorant
Downy woodpecker
Eastern bluebird
Eastern kingbird
Eastern meadowlark
Eastern phoebe
Eastern screech-owl
Eastern towhee
Eastern wood pewee
Eurasian wigeon
European starling
Evening grosbeak
Field sparrow
Fish crow
Forster’s tern
Fox sparrow
Fulvous whistling-duck
Glaucous gull
Glossy ibis
Golden eagle
Golden-crowned kinglet
Golden-winged warbler
Grasshopper sparrow
Gray catbird
Gray kingbird
Gray-cheeked thrush
Great black-backed gull
Great blue heron
Great cormorant
Great egret
Great horned owl
Great-crested flycatcher
Greater scaup
Greater white-fronted goose
Green Heron
Green-winged teal
Hairy woodpecker
Hermit thrush
Herring gull
Hooded merganser
Hooded warbler
Horned grebe
Horned lark
House finch
House sparrow
House wren
Iceland gull
Indigo bunting
Kentucky warbler
King rail
Lapland longspur
Laughing gull
Least bittern
Least flycatcher
Least sandpiper
Least tern
Lesser black-backed gull
Lesser scaup
Lesser yellowlegs
Lincoln’s sparrow
Little blue heron
Loggerhead shrike
Long-eared owl
Long-tailed duck
Louisiana waterthrush
Magnolia warbler
Marsh wren
Mississippi kite
Mourning dove
Mourning warbler
Mute swan
Nashville warbler
Northern bobwhite
Northern cardinal
Northern goshawk
Northern harrier
Northern mockingbird
Northern parula
Northern pintail
Northern saw-whet owl
Northern shoveler
Northern waterthrush
Olive-sided flycatcher
Orange-crowned warbler
Orchard oriole
Palm warbler
Pectoral sandpiper
Peregrine falcon
Philadelphia vireo
Pied-billed grebe
Pileated woodpecker
Pine siskin
Pine warbler
Prairie warbler
Prothonotary warbler
Purple finch
Purple gallinule
Purple martin
Red crossbill
Red knot
Red-bellied woodpecker
Red-breasted merganser
Red-breasted nuthatch
Red-eyed vireo
Red-headed woodpecker
Red-necked grebe
Red-necked phalarope
Red-shouldered hawk
Red-tailed hawk
Red-throated loon
Red-winged blackbird
Ring-billed gull
Ring-necked duck
Rock dove
Rose-breasted grosbeak
Rough-legged hawk
Rough-winged swallow
Royal tern
Ruby-crowned kinglet
Ruby-throated hummingbird
Ruddy duck
Ruddy turnstone
Rusty blackbird
Sharp-tailed sparrow
Sandhill crane
Savannah sparrow
Scarlet tanager
Scissor-tailed flycatcher
Sedge wren
Semipalmated plover
Semipalmated sandpiper
Sharp-shinned hawk
Short-billed dowitcher
Short-eared owl
Snow goose
Snowy egret
Solitary sandpiper
Song sparrow
Spotted sandpiper
Summer tanager
Surf scoter
Swainson’s thrush
Swamp sparrow
Tennessee warbler
Thayer’s gull
Tree swallow
Tricolored heron
Tufted titmouse
Tundra swan
Turkey vulture
Vesper sparrow
Virginia rail
Warbling vireo
Western sandpiper
White ibis
White-breasted nuthatch
White-crowned sparrow
White-eyed vireo
White-rumped sandpiper
White-throated sparrow
White-winged scoter
Wild turkey
Willow flycatcher
Wilson’s phalarope
Wilson’s warbler
Winter wren
Wood duck
Wood stork
Wood thrush
Worm-eating warbler
Yellow Rail
Yellow warbler
Yellow-bellied flycatcher
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Yellow-billed cuckoo
Yellow-breasted chat
Yellow-crowned night-heron
Yellow-headed blackbird
Yellow-rumped warbler
Yellow-throated vireo
Yellow-throated warbler

I have a campsite within a marsh of the tidal waters of the Port Tobacco River.  I have come to enjoy the rhythms and patterns of local waterfowl and the changing seasons along its banks.


a great blue heron on the river banks: a few miles away there is a rookery in the upper branches of trees at nanjemoy creek and one must dodge falling fish remains as they walk underneath the sprawling nests in breeding season




Fortunately river traffic is usually limited to a few handfuls of boaters and fishermen.  Occasional large work and pleasure vessels can be seen, but this is unusual.






While Washington DC has always been a prime attraction for tourism and convention planners, it is only recently that the river itself is being more commercially developed to bring out of town and international visitors to enjoy its waters, riverfront and breathtaking views. 

national harbor 1


The National Harbor is an exploding new center for pleasure and commerce on the river.  In the recent election Maryland voters agreed that the state government will oversee the development of a large gambling casino that will further expand tourism just a few short miles of Mt. Vernon.  While this is an extraordinary departure from the careful planning that has been done over many decades to keep the natural appearance of the river from being disturbed, it is my hope that state and local planners will continue to maintain standards to prevent unattractive sprawl or anthropogenic stressors that could harm our beautiful estuary and its ecology.

It is a national treasure and we want to keep it so.