by Ann Kessler
The first people who lived here left their mark here.
Archaeologists believe that the first inhabitants of the Washington, DC area arrived around 13,000 years ago. According to a 2008 archaeologists’ report on Rock Creek Park for the National Park Service, these ancient people built villages and left many artifacts along the Potomac River. But except for the occasional travelers and the hunting parties attracted by abundant wildlife, the Rock Creek valley did not seem to interest them until around 2,000 BC, during the Late Archaic Period. That is when the indigenous peoples began quarrying stone in Rock Creek and living in nearby camps.
The stone they sought included soapstone, also called steatite. They formed it into cooking vessels, pipes and ornaments, but not weapons. One such site was near what we presently call the Soapstone Valley.
Louis A. Kengla (1861-1904), while a student at Georgetown University, drew a map of seven archaeological sites he had investigated in 1883. His map included a soapstone quarry on his father’s property on Loughboro Road near Tennallytown and another quarry in a spot he referred to as “Rose Hill.”
Since Kengla’s map is inexact we don’t know the precise location of the Rose Hill quarry, but we do know that the U.S. Department of Transportation placed it at Albemarle Street and Connecticut Avenue in a 1975 report detailing the environmental impact of a planned Metrorail route. In 1973, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority commented that “The only archaeological site in the immediate area of the A Route is the Rose Hill Quarry…. Excavated in 1890, the Quarry is now located beneath an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue.”
And the 2008 NPS report states that at the time of the 1890 excavation: “…the Rose Hill steatite quarry… was in the process of being obliterated by the construction of Connecticut Avenue. This now-vanished site was located at the western end of the present Soapstone Valley Park.”
The first excavation of the Rose Hill quarry appears to have been the work of Dr. Elmer R. Reynolds (1846-1907), a pension clerk and well known ethnologist. In his report to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1879 he states: “Notwithstanding the quarries are situated so near the city and convenient of access, they do not seem to have attracted any notice until the summer of 1874, when it was my good fortune during a half-aimless stroll, to stumble upon a curiously shaped moss covered stone which, upon examination, proved to be a fragment of a soapstone mortar.”
Reynolds proceeded to find a hill nearby that was totally composed of soapstone, with hundreds of broken pieces that appeared to be the work of ancient people. Aware of the significance of his discovery of Rose Hill Quarry, Reynolds contacted Professor Spencer Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Returning to the valley with Frank H. Cushing (1857-1900) and other scientists from the Smithsonian, Reynolds helped excavate the indigenous remnants in the valley: vessels, hammer-stones, picks and spades.
“We discovered the remains of no less than seven well defined shafts or excavations, leading into the hill, whence the early settlers had procured a quality of rock superior to that found on the surface,” Reynolds wrote. “With the exception of the southern side, the whole hill is made up entirely of soapstone.” The excavations revealed so many valuable fragments that “Mr. Cushing has selected and removed more than two tons of implements from the quarry, and when I visited the locality last I found at least two tons more awaiting transportation.”
(Out of curiosity, I contacted the Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian Institution concerning the current whereabouts of the Rose Hill Quarry soapstone remnants. A staff member quickly responded that their database does indeed show that at least 20 Rose Hill soapstone samples remain in their collection. Others may have been discarded in a mass cleaning out of quarry debris in the 1950s.)
Rose Hill Quarry was also one of William Henry Holmes’ (1846-1933) many research studies. Holmes was a 19th century intellectual, moving between the fields of anthropology, archaeology, geology and art. Starting his career as a scientific illustrator, he became a geologist focusing on the indigenous populations of New Mexico and Arizona. He held, at various times, positions at the U.S. Geological Survey, the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, Chicago’s Field Columbian Museum, and the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology. He ended his distinguished career as director of the National Gallery of Art from 1920 to 1932.
Holmes conducted investigations of Rock Creek Valley quartzite and steatite quarries between 1889 and 1894. His excavation of the Piney Branch boulder quarry was extensive. But he also found his way to the Rose Hill Quarry. In 1890 he wrote, “Deposits of soapstone occur at a number of points within the limits of the District of Columbia, but only one locality exhibits abundant traces of ancient working; this site is known as the Rose Hill Quarry and is situated on Connecticut Avenue extended, four miles from the Executive Mansion and three-fourths of a mile east of Tennallytown.”
Holmes studied the many soapstone pieces found at this site and concluded that this collection of steatite utensils had been created by the aborigines. “It is only when the pits are fully cleaned out that we come to realize the full nature and extent of the ancient work. Our excavations brought to light surprising evidences of the energy, perseverance, and skill of the ancient miner, and showed the practice of an art totally distinct from that carried on in the bowlder [boulder] quarries of Piny [sic] branch,” he wrote in 1892.
It was Holmes who concluded that Soapstone Valley was not used as a settlement by these indigenous peoples. “The remoteness of the site and the conformation of the hills upon which the quarries are located rendered it improbable that the locality was used for dwelling or for any other purpose than that of quarrying the potstone and roughing out the vessels.”
As our area of northwest Washington has been developed, Rose Hill Quarry is a name that remains only on old maps. While it’s exact location cannot be calculated, we know it was somewhere around the neighborhood of Soapstone Valley. Today we find this park to be an oasis in a highly populated area, where we can commune with nature for a few minutes. Hopefully during our leisurely walks we can take the time to contemplate who and what preceded us here in this quiet valley.
Brandes, Ray. “Frank Hamilton Cushing: Pioneer Americanist.” Ph.D. diss., University of Arizona, 1965.
Kengla, Louis A. Contributions to the Archaeology of the District of Columbia: An Essay to Accompany a Collection of Aboriginal Relics; Presented for the Toner Medal, 1882. Washington: R.A. Waters & Sons, 1883.
National Park Service. “Ancient Native Americans in Rock Creek Park,” 2009.
Proudfit, S.V. “Aboriginal Occupancy of the District of Columbia.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. v.25 (1923): 182-193.