Native American History of the Area

On the Anacostia River, a short distance downstream from Bladensburg stood the Native American trading center of the Anacostan Indians then called Nacotchtank or "at the trading town". In the 1660s, Europeans settled the banks of the Anacostia River and the Maryland government set up reservations to protect the Indians from European encroachment. Although there is no "Indian town" shown on the Anacostia River on a 1670 map, individual Indian households appear to have seasonally occupied the river banks in the late 1690s.

Late 19th century antiquarians were able to make important observations about the Nacotchtank and Bladensburg areas prior to urbanization. They noted a succession of archaeology sites at short intervals, apparently corresponding to small groups of households, extending from Giesboro Point on the Potomac River nearly all the way to Bladensburg. Concentrations of broken pottery, stone tools, and ceremonial items from the Anacostan occupations usually corresponded to small stream confluences with the Anacostia River. When runways for Bolling Air Force Base were built in the 1930s, at least two ossuary burials were found during construction. A pottery type known to modern archeologists as Potomac Creek is found on Piscataway and Anacostan sites as well as sites in Bladensburg. The Anacostans do not survive as a modern Native American tribe; however, three communities of Piscataway Indians exist in southern Maryland today and descendants of the Anacostans are likely found among them. 

The Battle of Bladensburg

During the War of 1812, British forces had control of the Chesapeake Bay for over a year by the summer of 1814. A U.S. military command was created under Brigadier General William Winder for the defense of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and eastern Virginia. Secretary of War John Armstrong believed these forces would be enough to protect the Capitol and the region.

On August 20, 1814, under the command of Major General Robert Ross over 4,500 seasoned British troops landed at Benedict, Maryland — 50 miles south of Bladensburg. The goal was to burn Capitol and federal buildings.

Secretary of State James Monroe was sent to spy on the British troops. He reported them “in full march.” President Madison ordered two bridges across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (Anacostia River) destroyed to protect the Capitol, leaving the bridge at Bladensburg as the only crossing. American troops were sent toward Upper Marlborough to meet the British, but quickly retreated upon seeing the superior size of the British forces.

August 23, 1814 – Overnight in Bladensburg, General Winder assembled the American troops. He first positioned troops on the high ground above Bladensburg. During the night, however, the troops began retreating toward Washington, ending up on the low field just south of town.

The next morning, Winder discovered troops in new positions and weary from moving overnight. Leader arriving for the battle second guessed Winder’s positions. General Samuel Smith of Baltimore and his aide, Francis Scott Key, organized troops a half mile away from the bridge. During this chaos, President Madison arrived to survey the troops, heading for the previous position – the high ground the troops had abandoned. Passing the American forces, he nearly rode into British hands before an aide could stop him. Members of his cabinet began to arrive to watch the “defeat of the British.”

At noon, British forces entered Bladensburg. American troops fired across the river and bridge, forcing the British back behind buildings in Bladensburg. Reorganizing themselves, British forces set off a new weapon – the Congreve rocket. British troops attacked again, as the “rockets red glare” burst above the American’s heads. Americans, unclear of their support behind the, began to retreat down the Georgetown Pike. The second line collapsed as the first line retreated. Cannons were left behind. Soldiers broke and ran. Leaders attempted to reform a line, but were surrounded by advancing British troops.

Around 1:15 p.m., in the small valley that held the infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, Kramer’s Militia — troops from Montgomery and Prince George’s County ­— met the advancing British forces. The British were now facing the largest onslaught of the day, less than an hour since starting the attack.Commodore Joshua Barney’s group of hired private soldiers, known as “flotiliamen,” led the final fight against the British. Barney had been left with orders to burn the “mosquito fleet” he commanded in the Patuxent River and his troops were to guard the lower Anacostia River bridge. Contradicting orders, they were directed by Barney to go to Bladensburg.

Flotilliamen arrived just as the British fired their first shots at the bridge. They formed a line on the Maryland/Washington, D.C. border on a small hill overlooking the battle. African American flotillaman Charles Ball watched as the militia below scattered and retreated.

Combining soldiers who were falling back from the battle, Barney’s Flotilliamen fired their cannons down the hill leading to significant British casualties. However, the better trained British troops encircled Barney’s position, overtaking his left and ending the battle. Commodore Barney lay in the middle of the road with a shot to the leg, surrounded by his loyal flotillaman. He had ordered the soldiers to retreat three times before most retreated toward Washington, D.C.

British leaders General Ross and Admiral Cochrane met with Barney and offered him a pardon for giving their soldiers a fight. Barney accepted and watched as British forces marched toward Washington, D.C.. They were led by a group of formerly enslaved men freed by the British and called the “Colonial Marines.” Barney would die from this wound two years later. The bullet was removed from his leg and is preserved today by the Daughters of American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C.

By four o’clock the battle was over and American forces were defeated. The British moved on to Washington D.C. By the end of the day, the Capitol, the President’s Mansion (White House), and many other public buildings were in flames.

Around noon on August 25, a hurricane-force storm extinguished the flames in the city. With no sign of support from British forces on the Potomac River and the mission accomplished, leaders called for retreat — back to the Patuxent River. At dusk, troops quietly withdrew to Bladensburg to gather their dead and wounded. Soldiers were miserable in sweltering August temperatures. They were tired, ill, and wounded. Troops were so exhausted that many died on the four-day march back.

Along the way, a few British stragglers were arrested by a group of citizens in Upper Marlboro and taken to a nearby jail. When word reached the British commanders, they immediately called for the arrest of Dr. William Beanes, a well respected doctor and town elder for exchange. Georgetown lawyer, Francis Scott Key, and U.S. Agent for Prisoner Exchange, John S. Skinner, were sent to arrange for Beanes’ release. They brought with them letters from British troops who testified as to the compassion that was received in Bladensburg. Key and Skinner rowed out to the British Fleet, now located in Baltimore Harbor.

On board the British vessel, Key and Skinner were detained until the Battle of Baltimore — the Defense of Fort McHenry — was finished. From this vantage point, Key would watch the “bombs bursting in air” and found the next morning that “the flag was still there.” His recent experience with “rockets red glare” in Bladensburg and this battle would inspire his writing of the poem that would become the United States of America’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

African Americans in the War of 1812

History of the Town of Bladensburg

Bladensburg was settled on the Anacostia River as a port town during the early 1740s. The river, then called the Eastern Branch, was once deep enough to support ocean going vessels carrying goods and indentured servants to the colonies from Scotland and tobacco back to Europe. In addition to water transportation, stagecoaches and carriages began to traverse the dusty roads once only used for horse and foot traffic.  By 1795, Griffith’s Map of the State of Maryland showed six roads leading out of Bladensburg towards Upper Marlboro, Annapolis, Baltimore, Frederick, Georgetown and Piscataway.  The following century saw improvements in road building methods as railroads and streetcars were introduced to the area.  The Baltimore Washington Turnpike from Baltimore through Bladensburg to Washington was completed in 1825.  A decade later, the Washington Branch of the B&O Railroad connected Baltimore to a station near Bladensburg. 

By the turn of the 20th century, Bladensburg evolved into a working class suburb and the street car lines eventually gave way to the personal automobile.  In the 1950s, road congestion grew and the government responded by funding numerous highway construction projects.  An increase in traffic resulted in the birth of Defense Highway (US 50), Baltimore Washington Parkway, dualization of US 1 ALT through Bladensburg, and construction of Kenilworth Avenue (MD 201).  By 1960, the state highway administration completed their current highway configuration in Bladensburg.

In October 1742, the Maryland legislature voted to create the town of Bladensburg on the east side of the Anacostia River (Eastern Branch).  They named the new Prince George’s County port for Thomas Bladen, who had become governor in that year.  As they had done for several of Maryland’s other incorporated towns, lawmakers required a certain amount of investment on the part of those who wished to settle one of the 60 town lots.  New property owners, called “Takers-up” in the bill, were required “within Eighteen Months after taking up … [to] build and finish…one good, substantial, and tenantable House with one Brick or Stone Chimney thereto, that shall cover 400 square Ft of Ground”. Takers-up who failed to build in the allotted time would lose their stake and the lot could be resold with proceeds going to the town commissioners.

The effort to legislate an urban landscape was successful and Bladensburg became a significant colonial port town shipping millions of tons of tobacco to Glasgow. The closing of the port in 1840 due to siltation of the river, coupled with the railroad being located outside of the town in 1833, caused the area’s gradual decline.  By the 20th century, Bladensburg served as a working class suburb to Washington DC. Over the last 30 years, this community has become invigorated with the restoration of the Anacostia River waterfront park and the historic preservation movements now led by the Amman Memorial Trust and Prince George’s Heritage Inc.

True or False

The only resistance to the British during the Battle of Bladensburg came from the Magruder House where someone fired a gun from an open window. 

We have not identified any written accounts about the battle to substantiate anyone within the town firing at the British troops.  

The Magruder House served as a field hospital after the Battle of Bladensburg.  

Approximately 185 British soldiers and about 50 Americans were wounded in the Battle of Bladensburg. Documentation states that the Ross’ Tavern in Bladensburg (operated by William and/or Richard Ross and located on Lot 4 or 5) was used as the American officer’s headquarters. The British officers allegedly stayed at David Ross Sr.’s stone house, then owned by Bailey Erles Clarke, and located across from the Magruder House. Since many of the wounded soldiers were unable to continue on to Washington, it is possible that many homes, including the Magruder House, were used as temporary field hospitals. 

The Magruder House basement was a “slave dungeon” and the rings for the shackles could still be seen in the floor up until the 1950s. 

There is no evidence that slaves were shackled in the Magruder House basement. Since the estate supported well over two dozen enslaved people of African descent throughout the 18th and very early 19th century, it is probable that the former log wash house, as well as other designated areas on the property, housed enslaved African Americans and indentured servants. The basement was actually used as the kitchen and those in bondage cooked numerous meals for the family and guests in the large fire hearth. A dumb waiter, much like the one seen in Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, was used to raise food and dishes up to the dining room. During restoration efforts, the dumbwaiter was removed and a closet was installed in its place. 

George Washington ate at the Magruder House. 

This is true.  Washington wrote in his diary on May 9, 1787 that he, “…dined at Mr. Richd. Hendersons at Bladensbg…”.   

The George Washington House and Indian Queen Tavern were the same building. 

As part of the revitalization efforts by the Jacyees in the 1970s, they decided to call the colonial brick building the George Washington House/Indian Queen Tavern.  Understandably, people began to think they were a single building, unaware that the archaeological remains of the tavern lay under the parking lot. Today, we know that the Indian Queen Tavern was a separate, 2 ½ story wood building that initially served as a German tavern operated by Jacob Wirt and his family. The large brick building was actually a brick store and residence during the 18th century and then served as a tavern in the mid 19th century. George Washington never ate or slept at the brick building, but he did eat and sleep at the Indian Queen Tavern, then rented and operated by Richard Ross. Washington documented in a letter on March 26, 1797 that, “At Bladensburg…a good house is kept by one Ross (sign of the Indian Queen).” 

Joshua Barney and his officers used Ross’ Tavern as their headquarters after the Battle of Bladensburg. 

This is true, but with an interesting twist. Richard Ross ran the Indian Queen Tavern between 1797 and 1802 on the north part of Lot 6 on what is now the George Washington House’s parking lot. By 1803, Ross left Bladensburg and purchased over 200 acres in College Park and called it Ross Borough where he built a brick tavern called the Indian Queen.  Six years later, Richard Ross sold this property and moved back to Bladensburg where he went into business with his brother William who operated a tavern on either Lot 4 or 5.  In 1814, William Ross received a license with Richard Ross pledging security for the license.  It is probable that Joshua Barney and other American officers used their tavern as a temporary headquarters and that this is the Ross Tavern referred to in the historic record.