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Perhaps no other body of water in America has defined our country quite like the Potomac River. From the American Indian communities who first called this region home to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and industrial progress into the 21st century, the Potomac is truly “the Nation’s River.”
Captain John Smith was the first European to explore the Potomac River. When he sailed up the river from the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he found a majestic, living river full of fish, crabs, and oysters. But for thousands of years before John Smith explored the region, the Potomac’s forested shores were home to American Indians.
Since these colonial times, the Potomac has witnessed some of the most pivotal moments in the growth and development of the United States. Famous Americans such as George Washington and Robert E. Lee lived along its shores, and their lives are intertwined with the river’s history.
The Potomac River is the second-largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. Dozens of small, vibrant rivers and streams flow through forests, farms, towns, and rural communities, coming together to form the Potomac. The river provides a critical link to the Bay; before roads crisscrossed the landscape, the Potomac transported trade goods and travelers to the Chesapeake and the world beyond.
Although much has happened along the river since 1608, today’s explorer will find many of the same vistas that John Smith recorded more than 400 years. From its headwaters on the Allegheny Plateau to the tidewater Chesapeake, the Potomac connects people to nature all along its 383 miles.
In 1983, Congress designated the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which links communities throughout the river’s vast watershed in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. When you explore the Potomac today, you’ll not only discover natural treasures, but also find a gateway to many of the most significant historical and cultural sites in the country.
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