Alexandria: A Brief History

Alexandria, founded in 1749, has a fascinating history, and many of its historic buildings are still preserved today. During its long history, Alexandria was a tobacco trading post, one of the ten busiest ports in America, a part of the District of Columbia, home to both the largest slave-trading firm in the country and a large free-black community, a Civil War supply center for Union troops, and a street-car suburb for Federal workers.

Page updated on Sep 1, 2021 at 10:05 AM

Alexandria: A Brief History

Bird's Eye ViewDuring its long history, Alexandria was a tobacco trading post, one of the ten busiest ports in America, a part of the District of Columbia, home to both the largest slave-trading firm in the country and a large free-black community, a Civil War supply center for Union troops, and a street-car suburb for Federal workers. Alexandria was also the hometown of George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Jim Morrison and Mama Cass.

Learning More

Alexandria's History includes links to resources on the Historic Alexandria website and elsewhere on the internet. See topical areas including the African American Community, the Alexandria Waterfront, and Historic Cemeteries. Also learn how to research your own Alexandria family or property.

Indigenous Peoples

(13,200 years ago to ca. 1675 CE)

The shoreline of the Potomac River where Alexandria is located today has been a useful and popular spot for centuries, long before the modern community was founded. Exploring the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, John Smith sailed up the Potomac River and contacted many different people along both banks. When Smith neared this point, he met at least two groups that we now refer to as the Tauxenents and the Nacotchtanks, both part of a larger affiliation known as the Conoy chiefdom. These people made up just a small percentage of the thousands of Native Americans who inhabited the region and enjoyed its rich resources of fish and game. Familiar place names today persist as reminders of Native Americans in the area include Dogue, Pohick, Accotink and Occoquan. After Smith's visit, it would be many years before white settlement would expand into this part of tidewater Virginia. The types of artifacts discovered in Alexandria indicate that Native Americans visited the area beginning about 13,000 years ago, and historical documents suggest that they remained in the vicinity until about 1675.

Learn more about Alexandria's First People

Alexandria Waterfront Drawing by Elizabeth Luallen image
The Alexandria waterfront in 1764. Drawing by Elizabeth Luallen (color added).

Early European Settlement and the Founding of Alexandria 


Much of present-day Alexandria was included in a 6,000-acre land grant from Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, which was awarded to Robert Howson, an English ship captain, on October 21, 1669. This land overlapped a 700-acre patent that had previously been issued to Dame Margaret Brent in 1654. The Howson tract extended along the Potomac River, from Hunting Creek on the south to the Little Falls on the north. The grant was made by authority of King Charles II in recognition of Captain Howson's bringing 120 people to live in Virginia. Less than a month later, Howson sold the land to John Alexander for 6,000 pounds of tobacco.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, plantations were established along both sides of the Potomac River and settlement began to spread further into northern Virginia. When Fredericksburg was founded in 1728, it was the northernmost town in Virginia but was still located in the tidewater, where tobacco production was profitable.

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. Philip and John Alexander farmed much of the surrounding land and Hugh West oversaw the warehouse along with a ferry and tavern. When Fairfax County was established in 1742, many of the county's residents already lived several miles inland, away from the river and from commercial ties to the outside world. Many of them found that grains like wheat and corn could be raised more profitably than tobacco in this upland area, but they desperately needed a trading place where they could gather their crops for export and could buy manufactured merchandise from abroad. To facilitate shipping, Scottish and English merchants who owned real estate at Cameron, a small hamlet four miles west of the Potomac, 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 in honor of the early owner of much of the land, Scotsman John Alexander. 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.

Learn more about early Alexandria

Banknote image
Detail from banknote, depicting port.

The Town of Alexandria: A Major Trading Place 


Alexandria thrived for the next few decades. 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 who lived primarily in neighborhoods called "the Bottoms" and "Hayti."

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, allowing foreign shipping to land and unload without registering somewhere else first. Its bustling harbor teemed with brigs, schooners, and ships of the line, which traversed the high seas and engaged in international and coastal trade. The streets were lined with substantial brick houses and the "sound of the hammer and trowel were at work everywhere." Alexandria's political, social, and commercial interests were of great importance to many local residents, especially to neighboring George Washington in Mount Vernon. 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. In 1796, a visitor, the Duc de La Rochfoucauld Liancourt, commented that, "Alexandria is beyond all comparison the handsomest town in Virginia--indeed is among the finest in the United States."

"Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War general, and the father of Robert E. Lee, brought his family to Alexandria in 1810. Robert lived here until his departure for West Point in June. 1825.

Despite increasing competition from Baltimore, which gradually replaced Alexandria as the main shipping point for the upper Chesapeake region, the town remained a bustling center for the export of grain and bread products, fish, a variety of small manufactures and rail transportation.

Alexandria also was a center of the slave trade during the early nineteenth century, from which thousands of blacks were transported to Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and other areas in the deep-South where cotton production demanded more and more labor. New gas and water works and many new homes were constructed in town during this period and Alexandria's population almost doubled in the decade before 1860.

View from Pioneer Mill.
View of Alexandria wharves from Pioneer Mill.

The Civil War


Within days of Virginia's secession from the Union in the spring of 1861, Federal troops arrived in Alexandria to take possession of the city. Union military forces arrived on May 24, 1861, and Alexandria became a logistical supply center for the federal army. Troops and supplies were transported to Alexandria via the port and the railroad and then dispersed where needed at the front. Wounded soldiers, brought back on the trains, crowded the available hospitals and temporary medical facilities in and around the town. Many of the largest buildings in town, including The Lyceum, were confiscated for use as hospitals and for other official purposes and many new warehouses were constructed along the waterfront. It was during this era that several forts were constructed in Alexandria as a part of the defenses of the City of Washington.  Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site contains one of these restored forts. From 1863 to 1865, the City was the capital of the Restored Government of Virginia, which represented the seven Virginia counties remaining under federal control during the Civil War. By the end of the Civil War, Alexandria's economy was in shambles but the city itself had been spared the destruction witnessed by many other places in Virginia such as Richmond and Fredericksburg.

Although Alexandria was a major slave-trading center prior to the Civil War, it also had a history of several  free black communities. African-American life flourished with the establishment of churches, social and fraternal organizations, and businesses. Many early Alexandria African-Americans were skilled artisans. During the Civil War, African American refugees flooded into Union-controlled areas, including Alexandria and Washington. Although many of the freedmen found work and some served in the Union army, others arrived destitute, malnourished, and in poor health. After hundreds of freed people perished in the area, a parcel of undeveloped land was seized from a pro-Confederate owner for use as a cemetery. This cemetery is now the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, open to the public. 

Learn more about Alexandria during the Civil War.

Modern Alexandria: The 20th and 21st Centuries

The 20th century saw the creation of new neighborhoods as Alexandria expanded to the west, the advent of historic preservation and urban renewal, two World Wars, the Civil Rights movement and designation of the Parker-Gray District, and the arrival of new immigrant communities.

Learn more about Alexandria during the 20th and 21st centuries.