City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Jan 5, 2011 12:52 PM
Discovering the Decades: 1730s
Points in Time
The 1730s saw the transformation of the Alexandria area from river valley plantation to a nascent port. Since the late 1600s the colonial government had made several legislative attempts to centralize the inspection of tobacco at public warehouses along Virginia's numerous rivers. The Royal government hoped to standardize weights and the quality of the leaf, reduce fraud, and cut down on smuggling.
Virginia's Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 called for the establishment of a public inspection facility on the Potomac near Great Hunting Creek. It was to be one of two stations serving Prince William County (which included what is now Alexandria and the present-day counties of Prince William, Fauquier, Fairfax, Loudon, and Arlington). The other warehouse was set up on Pohick Bay. Charles Broadwater's land south of Hunting Creek was the intended site for the upper Potomac warehouse, but it was found to be "very inconvenient." So it ended up on what came to be known as West's Point, about a mile north of the creek at the east end of a 220-acre wedge of land conveyed by Robert Alexander to his son John and to Hugh West. West's Point was convenient for shipping; it was one of the last upstream anchorages, and it had the advantage of extending beyond the muddy river flats toward the deeper channel of the Potomac. Lewis Elzey and John Awbry were appointed the first inspectors. In 1734 the designation of Pohick at the second inspection warehouse was repealed, and the inspection station was moved to a site on the Occoquan River.
Who was here, at the future site of Alexandria, to benefit from convenient access to the tobacco warehouse and to the increased economic activity it would bring? Obviously, the tobacco inspectors, and Hugh West, proprietor of the warehouse. By 1731, Robert Alexander also had five tenants on his lands south of Four Mile Run, including miller Edward Chubb. It is interesting to note that three of the five were women--Judith Ballenger, Sarah Young, Sarah Amos – possibly widows with grown sons, but certainly redoubtable figures and veritable pioneers. More is known about the fourth tenant, James Going, who raised horses "and spent much of [his] money at the races." He and his brother, Thomas, ultimately acquired some land in what is now Arlington County. The nineteenth-century descendants of the Goings were buried behind 1407-1409 West Braddock Road.
The majority of the population was probably African or of African descent. It is likely that all of the significant landowners had slave laborers working their fields. At the time of Robert Alexander's death in 1735, his son John resided just south of Four Mile Run. He received title to the lands surrounding his home. Philip Alexander (Robert Alexander’s cousin) owned a 500-acre piece of land bounded by Hunting Creek, Hooff's Run, the Potomac and, approximately, the line of what would later be Cameron Street. Both Alexanders had extensive slave quarters on their lands.
Early utilitarian structures showed no concern for fashion. An early tobacco warehouse was a simple forty-or-sixty foot square, probably ten feet high inside, framed with hewn timbers and sided with rough riven clapboards. One such warehouse was erected in 1731 by area property owner Simon Pearson employing two carpenters, John and Derby Bryan, who may have been slaves.
"You are there"
If you stand in Founders Park at Oronoco and South Union streets and look north, you will see two warehouses. Although they may seem out of place among the lovely townhomes and landscaped waterfront, the warehouses are actually standing about where the earliest tobacco warehouse was constructed in 1731. Robinson Terminal provides a wharf and storage for the transshipment of newsprint for the Washington Post. Cruise ships and naval vessels also dock here. The corrugated metal buildings are clearly different from Pearson's weathered timber and board structure, but look inside. Workers today move around huge cylindrical rolls of paper with forklifts--an amazing similarity (updated by technology) to the rounded hogsheads of tobacco which were once rolled by enslaved African Americans from the plantations down the rolling road to the warehouse. This spot is still Alexandria's port to the world.
Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria’s early history.
Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.