Discovering the Decades: 1760s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1760s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Apr 24, 2017 at 1:50 PM

Points in Time

Alexandria 1763
Conjectural image of Alexandria in 1763.
Drawing by Elizabeth Luallen

The young town of Alexandria entered a new decade with high expectations; Great Britain had all but won the war against France, the frontier was relatively secure, and local industry and trade was picking up. The merchants of Alexandria were buying primarily tobacco, wheat and corn in the countryside and selling to the farmers and townspeople manufactured goods from England and sugar, rum and molasses from the West Indies. Among the earliest local industries was shipbuilding, driven directly by commerce. Thomas Fleming was the most prominent shipbuilder here at the time, having established a yard at Point Lumley at the foot of Duke Street. More than once, George Washington visited Alexandria to witness the launching of new ships, including Capt. Isaac Littledale's 1200-ton Hero in 1760 and the Jenny in 1768. Perhaps the largest ship built here was the 257-ton, London-registered Recovery. At this time John and Peter Weis established the first tannery in town. John Carlyle built a mill on Four-Mile Run, and the grain and flour trade was beginning to outstrip tobacco. Of course, house joiners were occupied erecting the dozens of new homes, shops and warehouses.

With all this work going on, the demand for labor was tremendous. With a wide open frontier, free white workers could establish their own farms on the edge of the wilderness instead of work for an employer in town. Scarce white labor was supplemented by a truly captive labor force, black slaves and white convict servants. With the slave trade still unrestrained, African slaves were widely available and increasing in numbers in Virginia. By 1762 the number of blacks, all or nearly all slaves, had grown to 264 out of a total of 1,214 Alexandrians. That year the Maryland Gazette advertised the arrival here of a shipment of slaves from Gambia. By the mid eighteenth century, chattel slavery had become fully institutionalized. For employers who had not the means or desire to own slaves, they could rent their services or hire indentured servants for a fixed period of time. Many of those who submitted to indentured servitude did so only as an alternative to jail. While many slaves became superior craftsmen and while slavery and servitude possibly cost employers less on a day-to-day basis, the product of unwilling workers was often less in both quality and quantity than their masters hoped. Another drawback was the stubborn refusal of slaves and servants to blithely give up their freedom. The newspapers of the time were filled with ads seeking the return of runaway slaves and servants. George Washington offered a reward for the capture of three slaves, Jack, Neptune and Cupid who had escaped from his Dogue Run Farm. Robert Adam and Peter Wise lost four convict laborers trained in various crafts. Naturally, the various building contractors also lost laborers, including the Irish-born John Murphy, a joiner, and John Winter, an English housepainter who had worked on George Washington's Alexandria townhouse.

Development and the first annexation

Growth in trade and population invariably led to development of the waterfront. Riverside lots were at a premium, and occupants of those lots built up wharves with fill dirt and timbers. Among these were John and Thomas Kirkpatrick who were granted the right to build wharves and warehouses just north of Queen Street. The town trustees also improved the public facilities at Point Lumley and Point West.

Clearly, the trustees had great expectations for the town. They pressured the owners of the marshy lots on the north end of town to drain and improve the land. They encouraged those on the waterfront to put wharf construction before such quotidian concerns as keeping Water (Lee) Street passable. The trustees also rescinded laws which put deadlines on improvement of lots after their purchase; these laws, passed at the founding of the town, had the unintended consequences of discouraging land acquisition and encouraging makeshift structures.
At the urging of the local elites, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed in November 1762 an act permitting the enlargement of the town. This first annexation created several new streets and scores of additional lots which were auctioned in May 1763.

Alexandria's civic center at the market square was developing around the county courthouse. On the third Monday of each month, when court convened, it was the political, economic and social center of town. Tavern business, in particular, picked up as visitors from the hinterlands arrived for justice-and gossip. The Fairfax court "could try nearly all crimes committed by slaves, assault,...civil suits...for land, debts or damages. It also levied some taxes, registered most legal documents, judged cases of bastardy and public drunkenness, supervised the care of orphans by guardians and issued ordinary licenses, set tavern prices, and controlled the construction of roads and public buildings..." (Diaries of George Washington, Vol. II)

As a necessary adjunct to the courthouse, William Ramsay undertook the construction of a new, brick jail in December 1763. And the first school, paid for largely by a lottery was built in 1761. Its upper room served as a town hall and assembly room. Other institutions important to the Anglo-Americans were budding too. As early as 1753 Rev. Charles Green of Truro Parish preached here every third Sunday. In 1765 Fairfax Parish was created, and local residents sought to build their own Anglican church. An early "chapel of ease" was erected at the northwest corner of Princess and Pitt streets in the 1760s, but it would not be until 1773 that a true church would be completed.

Place in Time

Alexandria was a young settlement in 1760. While some landmarks, such as the Carlyle House, defined the cultural landscape, many of our most precious buildings still had not been constructed. But Market Square had already been developed into the civic and commercial center in the 1750s. The town trustees acted quickly to define the governmental and economic center of the town. While occupying the geographical center of Alexandria, the market block's structures drew core activities and decision-making, which led to the town's ascendancy as the regional hub. Thanks to Penny Morrill's fascinating history of Market Square in the Alexandria Chronicle (Spring 1993), we can imagine the earliest functions on the block:

Stand on Market Square with your back to North Fairfax Street. Rather than a wide open area with the town hall looming in the background, you would have seen a series of wood frame and brick buildings along the perimeter-on Cameron, Fairfax and Market Alley, which bisected the block into a northern and southern half. As John Carlyle built his own house, the public buildings took shape. The Market House was constructed first in 1750 along the center of Cameron Street. In 1752, a jail was probably built just to the west of the Market House, a "necessary" (cesspool) was placed to the east, and a fenced constructed around the square. The Fairfax County Courthouse was added across from the Carlyle House the same year, as well as a pillory and stocks closer to Royal Street. In 1761 the School House and Town Hall was constructed from brick at Cameron and Fairfax streets, as were a watch House, a firewood House, and a prison at Market Alley and Fairfax Street. The Friendship and Sun Fire companies appeared along Market Alley.


GW Townhouse
Replica of George Washington’s 1769 townhouse on Cameron Street. (Not open to the public.)
Photo, Eric Kvalsvik

Excluding the few substantial, brick, Georgian homes, the average abode was probably much simpler and more difficult to classify as a particular style. Mostly constructed of wood, the humblest structures were one-room cabins with a loft. Some of these even had chimneys constructed of sticks and clay (although this was actively discouraged by the town trustees). More typical, perhaps, were those which consisted of one room on the first floor with one above or two rooms over two with a side passage. Based on the most economical pattern of narrow urban lots, this latter form became the most common during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some very fine, Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival townhomes came to be constructed in this fashion. This was also the predominant pattern in Philadelphia, America's largest city of the time and the urbane model which Alexandria consciously emulated.

Much of the architecture of the era was simple and understated-easy to forget when many surviving examples in the South are veritable mansions. George Washington's 1769 townhouse on Cameron Street was more typical of townhouses. Although finely finished, it was a modest, one-and-one-half-story, frame building without a kitchen. Although it burned in 1855, a twentieth-century replica of the townhouse now stands on the site, 508 Cameron Street.

Social Life

Despite living in a bustling seaport, Alexandrians did not believe in all work and no play. Horse racing was a very popular pastime, and prominent local figures like George Washington, John Carlyle and Robert Adam helped arrange contests at the two nearby tracks. Taverns proliferated and became more respectable, but the young town, called "inconsiderable" by one French visitor, still required some polish. George Washington recounted to his diary his attendance at a ball where "Musick and Dancing was the Chief Entertainment. However in a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded great plenty of bread and Butter, some Biscuets with Tea, and Coffee which the drinkers of could not distinguish from Hot water sweetened. Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs served the purposes of Table cloths and Napkins and that no apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this Ball by the Stile and title of the Bread and Butter Ball."


In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, Parliament adopted a series of tax measures to recoup the Crown's expenditures in defending and administering its colonies. The Stamp Act of 1765  required the purchase of tax stamps to be affixed to newspapers, pamphlets, documents, playing cards and licenses. Two years later, the Townshend Acts, mandating import duties on tea, glass, lead, oil and paper, were passed. Taxation was an issue upon which the cash poor colonials could make common cause. Patrick Henry  was particularly vocal in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and other colonists instituted boycotts of British products with a cry of "No taxation without representation." The boycotts had their desired effect, as did the sometimes violent protests in New England. Locally, William Ramsay rejoiced at the March 1768 revocation of the Stamp Act. "[It] was repealed at thee clamor the distress and importunity of the manufacturing towns in Great Britain-nothing cou'd have put the importance of the Colonies to their Mother Country, in so clear a light." The Townshend Act continued to be opposed by non-importation movements, but more effectively by epidemic smuggling and evasion. In 1769, Washington carried to the legislature a proposed agreement on non-importation drafted by George Mason, but the Governor dissolved the House of Burgesses before the proposal could be considered.

Locally, politics was in the hands of an elite few. While Americans could complain of inadequate representation in Parliament, only landed white men here could vote. To those who ruled, it was self-evident who should rule, namely the gentlemen: those with the most education, the best upbringing, the most to gain and the most to lose. On the fringes of empire, there was perhaps more upward mobility; successful businessmen of "the middling sort" could sometimes become pillars of the community through wise investments, advantageous marriage or connections. A law degree or aspirations to a political career were not prerequisites for holding a post as a trustee, magistrate, mayor, or representative to the colonial legislature. No, making decisions for the rest of society was the responsibility and prerogative of a fortunate few, the highborn and the very successful. It is almost no surprise that men like George Washington assumed a number of successive responsible positions at a relatively young age. It was expected. In 1761, William Ramsay, one of the affluent founders of the town was invested as "Lord Mayor" of Alexandria – a largely honorary role, but one which suggests the prevailing conservatism and hierarchical social outlook modeled on that of the mother country.

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.