Theodore Roosevelt Island in Potomac River
Theodore Roosevelt Island is an 88.5-acre (358,000 m2) island and national memorial located in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. During the Civil War, it was used as a training camp for the United States Colored Troops. Theodore Roosevelt Island is located at the fall line in the Potomac River, where the rocky Piedmont Plateau meets the sandy soils of the Coastal Plain. The river flows to either side of the island in two channels. The narrower channel on the west or Virginia side is known as the “Little River,” while the channel on the east or Georgetown side is known as the “Georgetown Channel.” The island was given to the federal government by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in memory of the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. The island is maintained by the National Park Service, as part of the nearby George Washington Memorial Parkway. The land is generally maintained as a natural park, with various trails and a memorial plaza featuring a statue of Roosevelt. No cars or bicycles are permitted on the island, which is reached by a footbridge from Arlington, Virginia, on the western bank of the Potomac.
Historically, Theodore Roosevelt Island has been referred to by many names: My Lord’s Island, Barbadoes, Analostan (also rendered as Anacostien or Annalostan), and Mason’s Island, reflecting its many changes in ownership over the more than 300 years since its settlement by Europeans. General John Mason (son of George Mason, original owner of the island) inherited the island upon his father’s death in 1792, and proceeded to clear the forest to create space for plantation-style fields and a large home. Between 1793 and 1798, John Mason paid for the construction of his home through the use of free Black laborers or “hired out” enslaved laborers. In 1793, John Mason placed an advertisement in the Alexandria Gazette in search of “12 to 15 Stout Young Negro Fellows,” presumably for assistance in clearing the forest and constructing the island home. It is unclear whether these laborers were “leased” enslaved persons or free Black laborers.
John Mason’s Analostan Island home was designed in a Georgian Revival fashion with classical elements such as arched windows, a small entrance portico, and a large brick patio. The main living quarters was one story with three bedrooms, and a full basement that held the kitchen and storage rooms. The foundation was laid at the tallest point of the island with a view of the president’s mansion, the Capitol building, and the growing City of DC.
Recorded outbuildings include an icehouse and what was most presumably living quarters for enslaved persons. John Mason grew corn and cotton on the property through the use of enslaved laborers. He was an active agriculturalist who farmed sheep, owned horses, and maintained a working plantation. The U.S. Census records 17 enslaved persons owned by John Mason in 1800, and 31 enslaved persons in 1830.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps deconstructed the remains of John Mason’s abandoned Georgian-Revival home. There are detailed photographs of the historic structure and any artifacts found through the deconstruction of the home. The foundation was buried and the site reforested in preparation for the designation of the island as a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt.
What This Washington DC Island Looks Like Now
In the 1930s landscape architects transformed Mason’s Island from neglected, overgrown farmland into Theodore Roosevelt Island, a memorial to America’s 26th president. They conceived a 'real forest' designed to mimic the natural forest that once covered the island.
Today miles of trails through wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands honor the legacy of a great outdoorsman and conservationist. A small island, Little Island, lies just off the southern tip; Georgetown and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts are respectively across the main channel of the Potomac to the north and the east.
The island functions as a memorial on two levels: the landscape, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and the monument to Roosevelt, by Eric Gugler and Paul Manship.