Discovering the Decades: 1740s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1740s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Sep 3, 2020 at 3:10 PM
Alexandria Map 1748
Alexandria in 1748. Titled on the reverse in George Washington's hand, Plat of the land where on now stands the town of Alexandria.
Alexandria Map 1749
Alexandria in 1749, showing streets and lots. The lots were auctioned in July, and the map lists the names of the owners and the prices paid. This map is labeled A Plan of Alexandria now Belhaven.

Points in Time

The 1740s: Alexandria is Born

In a Southern landscape dominated by plantations and farms, the mercantilist Crown, Parliament and colonial governments favored the establishment of settled places as progressive and beneficial – beneficial, that is, mainly to British merchants for encouraging the consumption of manufactured goods. The tobacco inspection system established hamlets accessible by river and road. These, in turn, encouraged new roads and ferries, as planters sought the shortest route to inspection and market. So, in the natural progression of things, many of these small settlements grew into something greater, and a marshy Potomac River tobacco depot became the chartered town of Alexandria.

The 1740s saw a great deal of change locally. The Virginia House passed an act in 1740 calling for a permanent ferry to run across the river between the "Hunting Creek" warehouses on Hugh West's land and Frazier's Point in Prince George's County, Maryland. Five years later, the ferry was permitted to land also at the landing of the Addison family at their Oxon Hill plantation. In 1742, Prince William County was divided, and Fairfax County was established with its seat at Springfield. Having split from Prince William, the new county did not have a true port of its own, so in 1748 inhabitants of Fairfax petitioned the House of Burgesses for the charter of a town at the Hunting Creek warehouse site. The organizers of the petition would have a struggle to gain the approval of their preferred site.

As with the siting of the first tobacco warehouse, there was debate over whether the town should be located near Point West or near the mouth of Great Hunting Creek. The earlier decision appears to have been merely a practical one; this time there were "lobbies" for each site. Those landowners adjacent to the Point West site naturally had plenty to gain from increased trade and land values. But their opponents, who had land bordering the creek, had similar dreams.

In the mid-1740s, John Minor and Colonel John Colville each acquired sizeable tracts of land along Great Hunting Creek from its mouth west to Telegraph Road (formerly known as the Back Road and Colchester Road). Near the Back Road ford they established a tavern (later operated by Richard Moxley). They hoped to establish an alternate point for the inspection and loading of tobacco, a site which would be more convenient and lucrative for them. Presumably to garner support for their project, they named their little settlement "Cameron" in honor of Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, Baron Cameron, the richest man in the Northern Neck and namesake of the county.

Because the sites were so near each other, the alternatives were mutually exclusive. The government would not permit the unnecessary expenditure of effort and money in a fruitless rivalry. So the contest was all or nothing. Hugh West opposed the granting of the license for the Cameron ordinary. The Cameron partisans, in turn, placed their competing petition for a town before the House of Burgesses while the Hunting Creek warehouse site was being considered. The Committee of Propositions and Grievances rejected both petitions on their first reading, perhaps reflecting the negative influence of both parties. On its third reading, however, the warehouse site proposal was forwarded to the entire house and passed, with amendments added by the Governor's Council. Governor William Gooch approved the bill in May 1749. Cameron may have lost because of practical considerations. By 1749, the site at West's Point had been a tobacco inspection station for 17 years, and it was not practical to establish a port town separate from where the inspection of the area's main crop was taking place. Thus was Alexandria born to be "Commodious for Trade and Navigation and tend greatly to the Ease and Advantage of the Frontier Inhabitants." Cameron remained a distinct area of settlement for many years, gaining its own boatyard, racetrack, and flour mill.

Place in Time: Cameron

Today we travel at top speeds (or crawl in traffic jams) along the Beltway between Telegraph Road and the Route 1 exits without realizing that we are driving in what was once Cameron Run. The water ran into Great Hunting Creek, which then emptied into the Potomac River at Jones Point. Drive to the Hoffman Town Center on Eisenhower Avenue and you will be near Cameron, which contained several structures, including the ordinary (tavern), the grist mill, and a bridge. Cameron was near the juncture of two important roads along the Potomac, the "Back Road" or inland road (Telegraph Road) and the River Road (Route 1). Several other major roads ran west and north from Cameron, as well as into Hugh West's landing.

The Town Plan

By the mid-eighteenth century, a number of typical patterns of town planning had been developed in Virginia. For the most part, these were straightforward grid, with streets set at right angles, usually oriented to a riverbank. Alexandria's plan is no exception. In its reliance on the right angle, the plan of Alexandria is virtually indistinguishable from many other early- to mid-eighteenth-century towns in Virginia and Maryland. In many respects it is remarkably similar to the 1721 plan for Fredericksburg.

In both original plans there are seven parallel streets leading to the river and three streets oriented on the perpendicular. In each a portion of the town is depicted as in the river, presaging the filling of the shallows and mud flats. And in each a market square and an important civic building is located in the town's center.

The prevalence of the grid in the eighteenth century was due in large part to a conviction that rational order could be imposed upon nature. This belief is evident also in the ordered system of architecture of the same period. The grid was unimaginative, perhaps, but it served well the commercial life of these seaport towns and was expandable. The same grid plan of two-acre blocks was subsequently extended several times.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Alexandria's original plan is the hierarchical naming system of the east-west streets. One cannot walk around Old Town long without noticing that, beginning from the center of the original plan, these streets descend in order from King to Prince to Duke going south, and from Queen to Princess to Oronoco going north. This system begs two questions. First, how did Oronoco take the place of "Duchess Street?" And second, where did Cameron Street come from? We can only speculate that Oronoco reflects the early supremacy of the tobacco trade; Oronoco was a type of the leaf whose name originated from the great river in South America. As for Cameron, it was named for Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, Baron Cameron. Like the sponsors of the Cameron settlement, the Alexandria partisans apparently thought it wouldn't hurt to flatter the wealthiest and most influential man in the county. In fact, the geographic center of the original town--and its civic center--was the intersection of Cameron Street with Fairfax Street, also named for Lord Fairfax!

Naming the Town

As we have already seen, the naming of things – towns, streets, buildings – was then as now used to honor or curry favor with important individuals. No evidence has been unearthed which points directly to the rationale for naming our city "Alexandria." It is surely more than coincidence, however, that much of the land upon which the town was founded was then still in the hands of the Alexander family. It would appear that the name was chosen to gain the support of the Alexanders in the struggle for the town charter. It would also appear that the ploy failed; Philip Alexander opposed the legislation, perhaps having thrown his support to the Cameron partisans whose settlement also adjoined his tract. To the classically educated elites of the day, of course, the double meaning, i.e., the reference to Alexandria, Egypt, would certainly not be unintentional, coincidental or unappreciated. Given that city's illustrious history as a capital, a major port, and a center of learning, the naming of the new town was hopeful and ambitious, and, perhaps, a little pretentious.

"Belhaven," seems also to have been a contending alternate choice. It probably first appears as the label on the 1749 plat, "A Plan of Alexandria now Belhaven." Although it too, seems an auspicious name for a port, the appellation is said to remember John, Lord Hamilton, Baron Belhaven, an outspoken opponent of the Act of Union between England and Scotland at the beginning of the eighteenth century and a critic of the impositions placed on the Scottish by the Church of England. It was a name that would have resounded with the patriotic Scottish merchants who were then so active along the Potomac, particularly within three or four years after the failed Stuart uprising against the Hanoverian dynasty. Like Baron Belhaven, the local Scots were probably loyal to the English monarchy, but proud of their heritage and jealously protective of their rights.

Despite the fact that Belhaven did not catch on as the name of our town, it appears in several sources, including maps, as late as 1783. One might say it still exists, applied in altered form to a Fairfax County subdivision just south of town. What kept the name alive? Was it stubbornness, defiance, habit, or was flattering the Alexanders just no longer necessary? The reader may judge.

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.