Discovering the Decades: 1750s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1750s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on May 15, 2019 at 1:18 PM

Points in Time

Carlyle House WEB
Carlyle House, built by John Carlyle in 1752.
  • 1750: Population of Fairfax County is 5,546
  • 1752: The American Company performs The Merchant of Venice at Williamsburg
  • 1753: Fairfax County courthouse established at Alexandria
  • 1753: Philip Alexander dies
  • 1754: George Washington's soldiers fired the first shots of the French and Indian War in Jumonville Glen in Pennsylvania (also known as the Seven Years' War).
  • 1755: Braddock's army defeated by French in Pennsylvania
  • 1755: George Washington moves to Mount Vernon  
  • 1757: British army under Lord Clive defeats French at Battle of Plassey in India  
  • 1758: George Mason IV builds Gunston Hall 
  • 1759: British capture Québec 

The 1750s: "As agreeable a Place as could be expected"

"The town is built upon an arc of this bay; at one extremity of which is a wharf; at the other a dock for building ships, with water sufficiently deep to launch a vessel of any rate or magnitude." [Archdeacon Andrew Burnaby] "Belhaven," as the new town was often called by its residents, experienced a growth spurt in its first years, assisted by commerce and by the removal of the Fairfax County courthouse and jail from Springfield (near Tyson's Corner) to Alexandria in 1753. Still, it would be decades before construction would fill the twenty-one-block area originally chartered. Several of the lots were resold by the town's trustees in 1754, after their purchasers failed to build upon them. Travelers in the mid 1750s could have crossed a bridge over the marshy "gutt" at the north end of town (Oronoco Park today) and seen the tobacco warehouses, kiln, and other buildings at Point West (southeast of the intersection of Lee and Oronoco Streets). Continuing south on Fairfax, they would have seen at least a couple of houses on each block-face, some comfortable and others quite rude. Crossing Queen, one would have noticed a marked change: the wealthy merchants and landowners, who had purchased double lots on the central waterfront, had constructed the first masonry buildings and may have even had ornamental gardens. The finest was John Carlyle's stone mansion  south of Cameron Street (now open to the public), which commanded a river view and faced the new courthouse "paled in with Posts and Rails" next to market square. Several homes clustered around King Street, including William Ramsay's (today's Visitors' Center). Several more small houses stood along the way to the town's southern boundary. There were a number of frame structures along Royal Street, the only other north-south road, but not as many as on Fairfax. Near the river, of course, one would find several warehouses, including the new public warehouse at Point Lumley (foot of Duke Street) where the first boat construction began.

Alexandria was still lacking in urbanity and amenities. Mrs. Charlotte Browne, accompanying her brother, a British officer, wrote in March 1755: "Extremely hot but as agreeable a Place as could be expected, it being inhabited but 4 years. every House in the Place to get a Lodging, and at last was obliged to take a Room but little larger than to hold my Bed, and not so much as a Chair in it ...." Moving to the first floor, her situation improved: "It consisted of a Bed Chamber and Dining Room, not over large. The Furniture was three chairs, a Case to Hold Liquor and a Tea Chest..." The trustees found it necessary to "suppress the keeping & raising of hoggs...and that those already raised be either kept up in inclosure or killed..." And having witnessed several deaths and funerals, Mrs. Browne noted that "It is the Custom of this Place to bury their Relations in their Gardens."

But things were improving. Hugh West operated an "ordinary" or tavern adjacent to his ferry from 1745. Taverns were a growth industry; eighteen ordinary licenses were issued in the 1750s, although no more than six were operating at any one time, plus one at the Cameron settlement. Perhaps the finest was the "George," at the northwest corner of Cameron and Royal. It had six guest rooms, three fireplaces, a bar, a dining room and a billiard room. With all the house and boat construction, carpenters came to town, as did tobacco, grain and dry goods merchants, the first couple of doctors, and even a wig maker. Recreation reflected the very British interest in gaming; horse races were held outside of town, and the first school was financed largely by a lottery in 1760.

The French and Indian War

The major event of the 1750s was the French and Indian War. Virginian participation in the wars between the European powers became significant only after 1739 during the "War of Jenkin's Ear" (1739) and "King George's War" (also known as the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-1748). By the time these conflicts had ended, Pennsylvanian and Virginian traders were pushing into the Ohio River Valley--territory claimed by France. From 1749 the French took steps to secure the Ohio Valley and, in mid 1752, attacked an outlying trading post. In 1753, Governor Dinwiddie sent the 21-year-old George Washington to protest the French action and to ascertain their intentions. Washington reported that the French were planning to build forts on the Allegheny River as they moved south from Canada into the Ohio River Valley. Convinced of France's hostile intent, in 1754 the Governor sent a small force to build a fort at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers (site of present-day Pittsburgh) and ordered Washington to assemble a larger army to follow and secure the area. However, the French arrived at the river junction with a superior force as the Governor's few soldiers had just begun to build their fort. The French quickly forced the British soldiers to leave and built their own Fort Duquesne. A short time later, on his way to Fort Duquesne, Washington and his men killed and captured a small group of French soldiers camping in a narrow glen. Angered, the French retaliated, defeating Washington at his hastily constructed and badly situated Fort Necessity. Thus began a two-year undeclared colonial war which coalesced into and helped spark a European "Seven Years' War" which reached from Canada to India.

General Edward Braddock arrived in Alexandria in March 1755 to lead an army of 1400 British regulars and 450 colonials to Fort Duquesne. At John Carlyle's house he met with the governors of five colonies--Dinwiddie of Virginia, Sharpe of Maryland, Shirley of Massachusetts, Morris of Pennsylvania and DeLancey of New York – to discuss strategy, finances, and campaigns against other French strongholds. Robert Orme's journal indicates Braddock did not want to stay here long, "as the greatest care and severest punishments could not prevent the Immoderate use of spirituous liquors, and as he was likewise informed the water of that place was very unwholesome...." Part of the army set out on the route we now know as Braddock Road. A cannon, said to be one of Braddock's, can be seen today at the intersection with Russell Road. On July 9, about eight miles from Fort Duquesne, Braddock's army and a smaller force of French and Indians collided head on. In the ensuing battle, Braddock's army was routed, and Braddock himself was killed. George Washington, who served with Braddock as a volunteer aide delivering messages between the General and his officers during the battle, was unharmed, but he had two horses shot out from under him and bullets tore four holes in his coat. Washington retreated to Virginia, burying General Braddock near the site of Fort Necessity.

For the next three years, the British conducted a lackluster and disastrous campaign. However, a new prime minister, William Pitt the Elder, committed England to total war and to reinforcing the colonies. The effects were soon felt. In mid 1758, the British took the fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Then the French were forced to burn Fort Duquesne, whose site was seized by the English and renamed Pittsburgh in honor of the vigorous prime minister. The following year was a nightmare for the French, who lost Fort Niagara, Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga), and Fort Frédéric (Crown Point) along the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. Finally, Brigadier General James Wolfe's superior army won a crushing victory over the Marquis de Montcalm's forces and captured Québec. The French surrendered Canada the next year, and thus ended the war on the American mainland.

A Place in Time

The crescent-shaped bay upon which Alexandria was founded offered proximity to the Potomac, but consisted largely of shallows and mud flats bounded by thirty-foot bluffs. The first citizens of Alexandria industriously altered the natural landscape to remove these impediments and fit their economic needs and concept of livability. The wealthiest merchants paid a premium for waterfront lots giving them the ability to construct homes between Fairfax Street and the bluff with private wharves and warehouses below. Work place and home were thus combined on the same one-acre "urban plantation" largely built and maintained by African slaves like John Carlyle's servants Jerry, Joe, Cook, Penny, Charles, Sibreia, Kate, Moses, and Nanny.

One of the best places to get a sense of this two-tiered town is the 200 block of Cameron Street and the rear of the Carlyle House. Although the terrace was not original to the house, it gives you a vantage point to appreciate the elevation shift between Fairfax Street on the bluff and Lee Street (formerly Water Street), which was originally literally covered with water midway between Oronoco Street (West's Point) and Duke Street (Point Lumley). Look at the now-exposed coarse stone foundations on the ca. 1777 Wise's Tavern (201 North Fairfax) and you will get an idea of how the bluff and Cameron Street block were cut down and graded. Grading probably first began in the 1750s, but continued in the area until around 1800. The soil was likely used to fill in the eastern part of Cameron and Water Street.

The wharf built by Carlyle and Dalton between Cameron and King Streets is one of the best archaeological sites for documenting the filling process. The Lee/Cameron intersection was just below sea level in 1750, but about eleven feet above in 1891. During the construction of the Torpedo Factory condominium project in 1982, City Archaeologists discovered Carlyle and Dalton's waterlogged, rough, yellow pine wharf logs beneath fill from the nineteenth-century Smoot's lumberyard and the World War I-era Torpedo Factory Building Number 1. Under the sidewalk of the south side of the 100 block of Cameron Street remain the timbers which formed the wharf's northern end.

Architecture and material culture

The eighteenth century was the era of the Enlightenment, a flourishing of faith in the power of human reason. Thinkers of the era "discovered" a rational order to the universe, an order which they claimed was also revealed by the use of reason. The Enlightenment held out the promise of the perfectibility of mankind, of imposing order on nature, and of dispelling superstition and tyranny. The supremacy of reason suggested the autonomy of the individual--or at least of educated and thoughtful individuals, and largely those who happened to be white, male adults with property of the "proper" religious beliefs--and thereby set the stage for the passing away of pre-industrial collectivism.

As seen from Alexandria's map of 1749, our ancestors began to reorder the world around them in a manner which was to them useful, understandable, comfortable and profitable. Georgians had a penchant for categorization, standardization, symmetry, specialization and, to the benefit of manufacturers and merchants, emulation. It is no coincidence that the period produced Samuel Johnson's English dictionary, or multiple-piece, matching sets of dinnerware. Tasteful images of symmetrical and geometric architecture were circulated among gentlemen through the publication of grand and expensive folio editions of pattern books like James Gibbs's A Book of Architecture (1720) and William Adam's Vitruvius Scoticus (1750).

Georgian architecture reached its peak in the mid eighteenth century. Originating in seventeenth-century England and later named for the British kings of the house of Hanover, it was heavily influenced by the classically informed architecture of Italian Renaissance villas and townhouses. The "ideal" Georgian house was a symmetrical, horizontally oriented and, preferably, masonry structure, two stories tall, two rooms deep, with a central entrance in an odd number of bays--preferably five. The prevailing horizontality and an ordered base, body and top were often emphasized by a projecting "water table" above the foundation, belt courses between stories and a prominent cornice. Windows and doors lined up vertically and horizontally. Central front and rear entrances encouraged a center hall plan, particularly useful in Virginia for air circulation during the summer. Masonry buildings often had articulated quoins at the corners, at the edges of projecting pavilions, or surrounding doors, adding to the perception of solidity and handsome workmanship. Windows with multiple small, squarish panes and heavy muntins are also characteristic of this period. Window and door surrounds often included decorative moldings or pediments, but true porches were rare. Practitioners of the high Georgian style also perpetuated the use of the tripartite Renaissance-period Palladian or Venetian window, usually as a central visual focus.

The first local Georgian buildings were probably the Alexander family's residences built in the 1740s at "Abingdon," the site of National Airport parking garages, and at "Preston" south of Four Mile Run on the Potomac River. The ca. 1753 stone Carlyle House  (121 North Fairfax Street), home of "merchant prince" John Carlyle, is the oldest high-style Georgian structure in Alexandria. Its design reflects the eighteenth-century taste for highly articulated and symmetrical buildings. The house is strikingly similar to William Adam's 1725 Craigiehall in West Lothian, Scotland, likely because Carlyle copied the design from Adam's recently published pattern book. Despite living in town, Carlyle built essentially a country house. Set well back from the street, unlike his neighbors' homes, it had symmetrically flanking outbuildings, not unlike many a riverside plantation. Did Carlyle simply believe that this was the proper type of home for a gentleman, or did he harbor doubts about the ultimate success of the town?

Additional Reading

  • Munson, James. Col. John Carlyle, Gent.
  • Miller, T. Michael. Pen Portraits.
  • Preisser, Thomas. Eighteenth-Century Alexandria, Virginia Before the Revolution, 1749-1776 (dissertation).
  • Grim, Ronald. The Origins and Early Development of the Virginia Fall-Line Towns. (dissertation)

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.