City of Alexandria, VA
Early Alexandria: The Colonial and Federal Periods
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1608 Map of Virginia, John Smith
1746 Survey Plat
1748 “Plan of the Land where on Stands the Town
of Alexandria.” George Washington
1749 “A Plan of Alexandria now Belhaven.” George Washington
1763 “Alexandria.” George West
1782 “Camp a’Alexandrie Le 17 Juillet 15 Milles
de Clochester [sic].” Comte de Rochambeau
1798 “Plan of the Town of Alexandria in the
District of Columbia.” Colonel George Gilpin
When John Smith mapped the Potomac River in 1608, he noted Native American settlements close to the area of what is now Alexandria. When Europeans settled in the area later in the 17th century, they most likely encountered remnants of a once-thriving community. Archaeological research into Alexandria's prehistory
shows that Native Americans first visited the area about 13,000 years ago, and historical documents suggest that they remained in the vicinity until about 1675. In 1674 the Virginia House of Burgesses authorized Governor Berkeley to construct a fort just south of Hunting Creek, to defend the northern frontier of the colony against the Susquehannocks and other Indian groups.
In 1654, Dame Margaret Brent obtained a patent for a 700-acre plot in what is now Alexandria. In 1669, Governor Berkeley awarded an overlapping land grant to Robert Howson, an English ship captain. This tract extended along the Potomac River, from Hunting Creek on the south to the Little Falls on the north. Less than a month later, Howson sold the land to Scotsman John Alexander. The town was later named for the Alexander family.
In the 17th century, plantations could be found along the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. By 1732, Hugh West had established a tobacco warehouse on high bluffs overlooking a small but deep bay, at what is today the foot of Oronoco Street in Alexandria. The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1732 designated West's warehouse as the official inspection point for this area. Hugh West oversaw the warehouse along with a ferry and tavern, while Philip and John Alexander farmed much of the surrounding land. To facilitate shipping, Scottish and English merchants petitioned the Virginia General Assembly in the fall of 1748 to establish a town at West's Hunting Creek Warehouse. In the spring of 1749, this site was selected and the new town was named Alexandria. John West, Fairfax County surveyor, laid out 60 acres (by tradition, assisted by 17-year-old George Washington), and lots were auctioned off in July 1749.
The new town of Alexandria thrived for the next few decades and attracted a growing variety of skilled craftsmen, small industries, and many taverns. During the mid-1750s, the town was a staging area for British troops involved in the French and Indian War. English General Braddock made his headquarters in Alexandria and occupied the Carlyle House while planning his campaign against the French in 1755. In 1763, another land sale was held, greatly increasing the size of the community. Twenty years later, more new land was created by filling in part of the Potomac shoreline, allowing merchants to build wharves which reached ocean-going vessels in the river’s deep water channel. Lots all over town were subdivided repeatedly by their owners who rented space to dozens of different types of skilled artisans, grocers and small merchants, tavern keepers and other tradesmen. The population included many slaves as well as free blacks.
Incorporated in 1779, Alexandria became a port of entry for foreign vessels and a major export center for flour and hemp. By the end of the 18th century, Alexandria was among the ten busiest ports in America and had been designated an official port of entry. Streets were lined with substantial brick houses. Alexandria's political, social, and commercial interests were of great importance to many local residents, including George Mason, John Wise, and George Washington. While his main residence was at Mount Vernon eight miles to the south, Washington maintained a town house here and served as a Trustee of Alexandria. Washington also purchased a pew in Christ Church, served as Worshipful Master of Alexandria Masonic Lodge No. 22, and shipped his wheat and fish through Alexandria merchants.
In 1789, Alexandria and a portion of Fairfax County were ceded by the State of Virginia to become a part of the new 10-mile-square District of Columbia. Formally accepted by Congress in 1801, Alexandria remained under the aegis of the new federal government until it was retroceded to Virginia in 1847.
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A TImeline of Alexandria History
See an Interactive Timeline for more on many of these 20th century events. Courtesy of the Office of Historic Alexandria and the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association.
- 1608 John Smith explores the Potomac River as far as Great Falls, noting Indian settlements called “Assaomec” and “Namassingakents” near present-day Alexandria.
- 1654 Margaret Brent, first female lawyer in America and advisor to the governor of Maryland, receives a grant of land from the Virginia governor that includes the future site of Alexandria.
- 1669 Scottish merchant John Alexander purchases some of the former Brent land from a Welsh ship captain for “six thousand pounds of Tobacco and Cask.”
- 1732 An official tobacco inspection warehouse is established on the property of Hugh West, approximately where the present Oronoco Street meets the river.
- 1749 Prominent landowners and business men, led by Scottish immigrants John Carlyle and William Ramsay, petition the Virginia House of Burgesses to establish a town called Alexandria, named in honor of the Alexander family.
- 1755 At the beginning of the French and Indian War, British General Edward Braddock and several thousand soldiers camp in and around Alexandria. Five of America’s royal governors meet at John Carlyle’s house to discuss war strategy. The Carlyle House is open to the public.
- 1773 Christ Church is built, so far outside of the tiny town that it is called “the church in the woods.” Christ Church is open to the public, as a house of worship.
- 1774 Upset over British taxation policies, Alexandrians approve George Mason's “Fairfax Resolves,” which call for an end to trade with England.
- 1774 Friendship Fire Company founded. The Company's 1851 building is now the Friendship Firehouse Museum, open to the public.
- 1777 Alexandria is the chief smallpox inoculation center in Virginia for the American army. A quarantine station was located at Jones Point.
- 1785 A meeting is called in Alexandria to discuss Virginia's and Maryland’s rights to trade along the Potomac River, raising issues which result in the Constitutional Convention two years later.
- 1785 John Wise, local tavernkeeper and entrepreneur, constructs what will be known as Gadsby’s Tavern, with the largest function room in Alexandria. Gadsby's Tavern Museum is open to the public.
- 1785 The Alexandria Academy, the town’s first public school, opens.
- 1785 Philip Richard Fendall builds house on Oronoco Street on lot purchased from his cousin, Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. The Lee-Fendall House is open to the public
- 1789 George Washington becomes first president of the United States of America and leaves Alexandria for New York. Before his presidency, he maintained a town house on Cameron Street, had a family pew at Christ Church, and dined, danced and conducted business at many of Alexandria's taverns.
- 1791 First and southernmost cornerstone for new Federal capital set at Alexandria’s Jones Point; the town officially becomes part of the District of Columbia in 1801.
- 1792 Edward Stabler opens an apothecary business, one of several successful commercial ventures by Quakers in Alexandria. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum is open to the public.
- 1792 The new “City Hotel” opens on Royal Street and becomes famous when managed by John Gadsby four years later. Gadsby's Tavern Museum is open to the public; the 1792 building also houses a restaurant.
- 1810 Robert E. Lee, young son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, moves to Alexandria with his family.
- 1814 During War of 1812, Alexandria surrenders to an attacking British naval force. To spare the town, a ransom of tobacco, flour, cotton and sugar is paid.
- 1824 The Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, visits Alexandria for a Grand Reception and Celebration held in his honor. Lafayette was invited by President James Monroe to be "The Nation's Guest," attending parades, ceremonies and receptions in every state. Lafayette souvenirs marked the occasion.
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Discovering the Decades
Discovering the Decades places Alexandria’s history in the context of U.S. history. Originally published in the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News, 1999.
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Archaeological Site Reports
Selected listings from the Alexandria Archaeology BIbliography.
Adams, Robert M
Artemel, Janice G. Elizabeth Crowell, Donald A. Hull and Dennis Knepper
Testing uncovered large buried timbers associated with the 18th-century wharf.
This report includes extensive research on wharf construction.
Foss, Robert M.
The courtyard showed evidence 18th-century outbuildings.
Hurst, Gwen J.
This was the site of a wharf adjacent to Fitzgerald’s Warehouse.
John Milner Associates
This Historic Structure Report of the “Church of Alexandria,” built in 1773 and attended by George Washington.
Knepper, Dennis A. and Kimberly Prothro
Wharf and rum distillery owned by Daniel Roberdeau. By 1791, the old distillery served as a warehouse and sail loft.
Morton, Brown W. III
Among the oldest preserved apothecaries in the United States and the only apothecary in Virginia to operate continuously from the 18th–20th century (1796–1933).
Schweigert, Kurt P.
- 1998 - West End. Prepared for Norfolk Southern Corporation (Carlyle Project).
West End Village was a small community on Duke Street
This report detailed the 1753 house’s construction and design influences and a history of the property Results of the archaeological investigation included such features as well shafts and privies with artifacts dating from the time of John Carlyle.
Williams, Martha R.
There were two adjoining mills by 1798. Excavated were foundations of both mill buildings, portions of a mill race, and a small pier on the old shoreline of Hunting Creek.
Williams, Martha R.
Archaeologists found the West family burial vault, seven associated burials, and seven graves outside the vault. Osteological studies tentatively identified the remains of four individuals in the vault as Hugh West’s wife, Sybil, and their children.
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Selected resources on the Historic Alexandria Waterfront.
- Travelers Accounts of the Historic Alexandria Waterfront
- Howson & Brent, by Ted Pulliam. It was probably the biggest real estate deal in the history of Northern Virginia. It took place in 1669 and included all the land on which Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon, Reagan National Airport, and Old Town Alexandria now are located.
- Alexandria and Belhaven, by Diane Riker. For the first dozen years of its history, Alexandria, Virginia, was a town with two names. Which came first: Alexandria or Belhaven? This paper attempts to disentangle fact from fantasy.
- Chadwicks on the Strand, by Diane Riker. From a sandy bank to a restaurant: the development of the Lawrason and Fowle warehouses on the Strand.
- Alexandria’s First Wharf, by Ted Pulliam. In 1749, Alexandria was situated on high bluffs that formed a crescent-shaped bay with two points of land at each end of town extending out into the bay. This paper examines the first wharf, its location, date, and builder.
- Fitzgerald Warehouse, by Diane Riker. At the corner of King and Union streets in Alexandria stands the earliest waterfront structure the city retains from its heady days as an international port. Seen today from across King Street, the brick and stone warehouse, built for Col. John Fitzgerald in the mid-1790s, appears to tilt toward the river. And the river is where its story begins. This paper is updated and enlarged from Ms. Riker’s, “The Fitzgerald Warehouse: The Early History of an Alexandria Landmark,” published by the Alexandria Historical Society in The Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 2007.
- The Warehouses of Lower King Street, by Diane Riker. In 1749, when the first town lots went on sale, the present 100 block was well east of dry land. But investors realized the potential. This paper examines early owners and development.
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Other Historic Resources
From the Historic Alexandria Quarterly:
- Loyalism in Eighteenth Century Alexandria, Virginia, by Marshall Stopher Kiker, Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Winter 2001
- Commercial Credit in Eighteenth Century Alexandria: Default and Business Failure, by H. Talmage Day and Barbara Morgan, Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Winter 2000
- The Development of Early Taverns in Alexandria, by James C. Mackay, III, Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Fall 2000
- Commercial Credit in Eighteenth Century Alexandria and the Founding of the Bank of Alexandria, by H. Talmage Day and Barbara K. Morgan, Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Summer 2000
- Inventories from Alexandria: What Personal Objects Reveal About our Historic Buildings and Their Owners, by William Seale, Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Spring 2000
- Viewing Alexandria from the Perspective of Gunston Hall: George Mason's Associations with the Colonial Port Town, by Andrew S. Veech, Ph.D., Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Winter 1999
From The Alexandria Chronicle:
- Hugh West and the West Family's Momentous Role in Founding and Developing Alexandria and Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, Virginia by Jim Bish, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2010
- Alexandria and Belhaven: A Case of Dual Identity by Diane Riker, The Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 2009
- A British Fleet Sails into Alexandria by Ted Pulliam, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2009
- A Tale of Two Continents: How Fortune and Ability Affected Two Brothers: Doctor George Carlyle of Cumberland County, England, and John Carlyle of Alexandria, Virginia by Jim Bartlinski, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2008
- Gunpowder, Flour, Fire and Heirs: A Waterfront Block from Duke to Wolfe Streets by Ted Pulliam, The Alexandria Chronicle, Fall 2007
- The Fitzgerald Warehouse: The Early History of an Alexandria Landmark by Diane Riker, The Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 2007
- Reaching for the Channel: Some Documentary and Archaeological Evidence of Extending Alexandria's Waterfront by Steven J. Shephard, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2006
- Isaac Todd's 1804 Alexandria Profiles by Mona Leithiser Dearborn, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 1994
- Alexandria, Virginia's Market Square by Penny C. Morrill, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 1993
- From Alexandria to Albany: The Journal of Mrs. Charlotte Brown, 1754-1757 by Ethelyn Cox, Alexandria History Magazine, 1980
- Gen. Edward Braddock: A Retrospective by Ethelyn Cox, Alexandria History Magazine, 1980.
- The Alexandria Market Square by Jamees D. Munson, Alexandria History Magazine, 1980.
- The "Precarious Trade" of a Virginia Tobacco Merchant: Harry Piper of Alexandria, 1749-1776 by Thomas M. Preissir, Alexandria History Magazine, 1978
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