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History of the Riversdale Site

The First Marylanders


Dozens of American Indian villages dotted the shores of the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers when the 2nd Lord Baltimore established the Maryland Colony. In 1608, Captain John Smith noted the village of Nacotchtank to the south of Riversdale at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. These Algonquian-speaking people were part of a large organization of tribes called the Piscataway Confederation. These semi-nomadic tribes move sporadically to follow game, search for fertile soil, or to avoid the warring Susquehannock tribe to the north. They also grew things like orn, beans, squash, tobacco, and melons. 


The work Nacotchtank was just one of many variants, including Nacostine, Anacostine, Anaquashtank, Nacothtant, and Nachatanke. They are all derived from the word "anaquashatanik," which means "a town of traders."


Though there were no villages located in the general area of Riversdale, there is archaeological evidence of the presence of earlier Indian peoples from thousands of years before. A small spear point from the Late Archaic Period (circa 1000 BC) was recovered in a layer of fill beneath the south portico of the mansion. The point is made of rhyolite, a mineral not found locally, but from northern Maryland. We can’t be sure who left this artifact, but it reminds us of the generations of people that were displaced by the later Europeans and Africans.

The Town of Bladensburg

When Henri Stier bought the 729¼ acres that would become Riversdale, it was at the time considered part of Bladensburg, a port on the Anacostia River. Built in 1742, Bladensburg was originally conceived out of the need for both a new town and additional revenue. A port served both of these needs, with the tariffs that could be charged for goods moving in and out of the city. It is thought that the town took its name from Thomas Bladen, who began his tenure as the Governor of Maryland the same year Bladensburg was established. The fact that Thomas' niece, Elizabeth Tasker, married Bladensburg's first citizen, Christopher Lowndes, also lends support to this idea. 

Christopher Lowndes was a merchant who "established trade rights along the Anacostia for a Liverpool firm of Henry and Edward Trafford." He was actively involved in the town and county. His home that he built in 1746, Bostwick House, was rented to the Stier family while they waited for construction of Riversdale to be complete enough to move into the home. 

Riversdale House


Henri Stier commissioned renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to draw up plans. However, Latrobe's responses were too slow, and he and Stier clashed over creative ideas. In 1801, Stier instead began construction with the assistance of builder William Lovering (possible designer of the Octagon House). It is not known if the work was done by enslaved or free laborers, although Stier at this point owned 15 enslaved laborers. In 1802, the Stiers moved from Bostwick House to the unfinished Riversdale. Henri Stier would not ever see Riversdale complete. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte had assumed power. As he consolidated his control over France, and surrounding territories, he issued an amnesty to the émigrés that allowed them to return—after swearing an oath of loyalty to the constitution—and reclaim their property. The Stiers made plans to return to Europe, and Henri Stier gifted his still unfinished Maryland house to Rosalie in 1803. She and George moved in, completing its construction in 1807 and continuing to furnish it over the next several years. 


Significantly, this gift was made to Rosalie, not her husband. Issues relating to the legalities of property transfers between citizens and foreign nationals, the political and economic turmoil that led up to the War of 1812, and the unusual nature of transferring property to a married woman instead of her husband, made the transfer of the property a long and protracted affair. Finally, in 1816, an act of the Maryland General Assembly officially made Rosalie Calvert the holder of the deed of trust.

Want a quick peek at what you'll learn on a tour of Riversdale House Museum? 

Join Joe Himali, a local raconteur and realtor who specializes in architecture, history and design on a tour. Check out more of his videos on local history and architecture on his YouTube channel.

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