Discovering the Decades: 1770s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1770s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Nov 25, 2020 at 10:43 AM

Points in Time

  • 1770: Boston Massacre   
  • 1773: Boston Tea Party   
  • 1773: first hospital for the insane in the thirteen colonies founded at Williamsburg, Virginia
  • 1774: Rhode Island enacts first slave importation ban in the American colonies
  • 1775: Revolutionary War begins; Washington named chief of Continental forces; first abolition organization founded in Philadelphia
  • 1776: Declaration of Independence
  • 1776: Adam Smith publishes The Wealth of Nations; Edward Gibbon publishes The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • 1776: first Shaker community founded at Watervliet, New York  
  • 1777: Articles of Confederation written  
  • 1777: Battle of Saratoga ; first national day of thanksgiving to celebrate the Saratoga victory  
  • 1778: Franco-American alliance
  • 1779: Spain enters war against Britain
Christ Church image
Christ Church, built 1773
Old Presbyterian Meeting House image
Old Presbyterian Meeting House,
built 1775

The 1770s: A Revolutionary Epoch: Economic and Physical Development

At the beginning of the 1770s, Alexandria's economy was on a sound footing as its merchants were gradually switching from the export of tobacco to wheat, corn, barley and oats, much of which was raised in the Shenandoah Valley. Most of the twenty or so international mercantile large firms in town were trading wheat and flour to the West Indies and Great Britain. Improvements were undertaken at Point West and Point Lumley, but one of the former public tobacco warehouses at Point Lumley (foot of Duke Street) was rented to Andrew Wales, the town's first commercial brewer. In 1774, Philadelphian Daniel Roberdeau constructed a large distillery at the foot of Wolfe Street (where the Harborside development is today). The same year, John Alexander laid out and sold eighteen new lots, also giving to the town the land for Wilkes and St. Asaph Streets.

The 1770s was also the time when the town's religious congregations began to complete permanent homes. As the official church of the colony, naturally the Church of England was at the center of religious and political life in Alexandria and the first to build a proper church. An 1750s Anglican chapel was eventually replaced by the James Wren designed Christ Church. The edifice took more than six years to construct, but was completed in 1773 by John Carlyle. Its location at what was then the upper end of Cameron Street away from the built-up section of town caused it to be referred to as the "Church in the Woods."

A Presbyterian congregation, made up largely of the local Scots, became quite active in this era. In 1775, John Carlyle and William Ramsay advertised for a builder to undertake the construction of a Presbyterian Meeting House  on Fairfax Street between Duke and Wolfe Streets.

The Revolutionary Era

As elsewhere in the colonies, the imposition of excise taxes on items such as glass, paper and paint caused furious debate in Virginia over the rights of the colonists and the prerogatives of the king and Parliament. In June 1770, Alexandrians John Carlyle, Robert Adam and Thomas Kirkpatrick met with other members of the Virginia legislature in Williamsburg to respond to the Townshend Act. All the delegates signed a new non-importation agreement. The agreement, a boycott of British products, was not very successful; according to factor Harry Piper, "all the stores on this side [of the Potomac] have imported goods as usual, and hitherto no notice have been taken of them." The other colonies took similar steps, with similar results. Virginia was the last colony to officially abandon nonimportation in 1771.

But events served to gradually radicalize the population of the colonies. Enforcement of the British acts, the levying of military supplies and the stationing of troops in American cities caused violence to break out in New York and Boston in 1770, including the incident known as the Boston Massacre. Then, a temporary relaxation of tension was followed by a series of mob attacks on royal ships enforcing trade regulations. The colonies began to set up "Committees of Correspondence" to regularize communication on the subject of England's actions and the responses of each colony.

Alexandrians formed a local committee of correspondence in 1774 at the time the British closed Boston Harbor. On behalf of the organization, John Carlyle and John Dalton informed the Bostonians that they were "deeply interested in the fate of their city now suffering the scourge of oppression... and make no doubt that the spirit which has distinguished Virginia as the intrepid guardian of American liberty, will shine forth in all its former Lustre." On July 18, 1774, George Washington, George Mason  and many other inhabitants of the town and county met at the courthouse on Market Square to approve the Fairfax Resolves. Penned by Mason, these resolutions were an assertion of the colonists' rights under British law and called for actions including a congress of representatives from each colony to prepare a plan for the "Defence and preservation of our Common rights"; a boycott of all English goods to begin September 1. Soon after, the colony also implemented a ban on the export of American commodities to Britain. Visitor Nicholas Cresswell confided in his diary that "Everything [in Alexandria is] the utmost confusion. Committees are appointed to inspect into the Character and Conduct of every tradesman, to prevent them selling Tea or buying British Manufactures." When the ship Hope arrived from Belfast with a shipment of Irish linen, the cargo was seized by the Fairfax County Committee and the linen was sold at auction to benefit the poor of Boston.

Preparing for an armed conflict which now seemed likely, the local militia began drilling on Market Square in 1774. There were two companies, one of "Gentlemen" and one of "Mechanics." George Washington came often from Mount Vernon to inspect and drill the troops. A poll tax was levied on the freeholders to purchase uniforms, arms and ammunition. Residents paid reluctantly, except for Quaker William Hartshorne, who, according to George Mason, "flatly refused; his conscience would not I suppose suffer him to be concerned in paying for the instruments of death." Nicholas Cresswell witnessed the Independent Company fire at an effigy of Lord North, the British prime minister, then carry it through the town to finally burn it. Much of Americans' anger was directed at North. The moderates were still not prepared to make the break with the monarchy; the Americans repeatedly pled with the king to rectify wrongs supposedly wrought by his ministers.

In 1774, however, the first Continental Congress  met to petition the king as united colonies, more or less. Soon, the closing of the port of Boston and British efforts to seize arms and powder stores brought New England to the brink of war.

"Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death"

When hostilities commenced at Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, Alexandrians were not long in volunteering for service. George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of all Continental forces largely on the strength of his French and Indian War experience. He selected Alexandrians Dr. James Craik  as chief physician and surgeon to the army and Dr. William Brown as surgeon general of the Hospital Middle Department. Townsmen participated in the 1775-1776 siege of Boston and in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine and Monmouth. And the Northern Virginia troops included not only adult white men, but also African Americans, women, and some who were virtually children.

The Alexandria Line was part of General Daniel Morgan's regiment of riflemen, conspicuous for its role in the Battle of Saratoga. The defeated British Brigadier General John Burgoyne is reputed to have told Morgan "My dear sir, you command the finest regiment in the world."

Back home in Alexandria, the residents began to fear attack as early as 1775. Washington wrote William Ramsay urging him to make efforts to obstruct the river and begin constructing shore batteries. While they never successfully blocked the river, two batteries were built, although these had no cannon until at least a year later. A small flotilla was organized from three purchased sloops and two galleys built at the shipyard. The force averted a baptism of fire when Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor, entered the Potomac with nearly ninety ships and boats, but turned back near Dumfries.

The former colonies declared their independence in 1776, making a final break with England and explicitly blaming George. There were still many in America (about one-third of the population, according to John Adams) who sympathized with England and remained loyal. From before the commencement of hostilities, they found themselves in an increasingly dangerous position. Many fled to Canada or Britain, and many joined the British forces. In 1777 a group of Loyalists were charged with trying to set Alexandria aflame. Apprehended and put under guard in the schoolhouse, they nonetheless escaped, probably with the help of friends. As a consequence, the guards were whipped and a group of six suspected Tories was rounded up and sent to Williamsburg for trial. The men were later acquitted, likely for lack of evidence.

Alexandria became the center for the inoculation hospitals of the Southern Department; hundreds of Virginia and Carolina men were given the vaccination against smallpox. The infirmaries here though were reportedly ill-equipped and poorly run. Hardee Murfree attested that one cold night "Dr. Parker said it was not worth while to give them physic when the men were so naked and lying on the cold floor... One of the sick men had no clothing but an old shirt and half an old blanket... that night [some of them] died and I believe it was for want of clothes to keep them warm."

Besides the purging of local Loyalists, the war had other consequences for local politics. The new independent state government of Virginia began to charter and re-charter towns and cities. With the passage of an Act of Incorporation in December 1779, Alexandria’s oligarchical trusteeship government was replaced with an elected mayor/council system.


The Revolutionary era was both the first crack in the institution of slavery and perhaps the last real opportunity for its destruction before the Civil War. The slaveholding patriots were not blind to the contradiction inherent in their claims for civil rights. Admirers of Locke and Rousseau, many foresaw the day when slavery would fade away; some even took some strides toward that end. Rather than give up their own slaves, however, Virginians looked first to curtailing the international slave trade. For many years they had been afraid that the continued importation of African slaves would encourage eventual revolt or frighten away white immigrants, particularly skilled craftsmen. And the soil in the Tidewater area was already tired; slaves already in the colony were proving sufficient for agricultural labor. In 1772 the House of Burgesses directed a petition to the Throne, imploring "your majesty's paternal assistance in averting a calamity of a most alarming nature. The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and under its present encouragement we have reason to fear will endanger the very existence of your Majesty's American dominions." The 1774 Fairfax Resolves called for "an entire stop forever put to such a wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade." The first anti-slavery legislation, however, came in the less slave- dependent New England. In 1774, Rhode Island legislated the emancipation of any slaves thereafter brought into the colony. Virginia forbade the importation of slaves from abroad in 1778-following closely Delaware's example-although the domestic trade was unaffected.

Part punitive measure, part practicality, and part humanitarianism, the British made it clear that they had no reservations about freeing, confiscating or accepting slaves into service. Some went to England or other British possessions, others served with the British armies and navy. Lord Dunmore raised a regiment of "Royal Ethiopians" to help put down the rebellion in Virginia.

A Place in Time

Today when we get together with friends or colleagues, we often choose to "go out and eat" or "go get a drink." So too did Alexandrians 225 years ago. Such eating and drinking behavior complemented games and discussion of the momentous events of the period.

In the 1770s, one of the best places to look at the taverns of Alexandria was the 100 block of North Royal Street. Richard Arell's Tavern was located on what is now Market Square. William McKnight's tavern was across the street, while widow Mary Hawkins's tavern (later known as Gadsby's) was near the corner of Cameron and Royal streets. They were only three of the eleven tavern-keepers providing bed, food and drink to travelers and townspeople in predominately two- and three-story frame buildings. In 1777 a new tavern of large proportions was under construction by John Dalton at the northeast corner of Cameron and Fairfax streets, but it was not completed until after his death. We know from an advertisement that this tavern was L-shaped and contained a two-story kitchen with an eight-foot wide fireplace with boilers and oven. A 28-horse stable and carriage house also graced the lot.

Jim Mackay, former Director of Alexandria History Museum at The Lyceum, wrote a fascinating thesis on taverns in Alexandria. He outlines their development and details their roles as cultural crossroads in eighteenth century towns. Individuals, predominately males, congregated in the taverns for social life, gaming, food and often excessive drink. People of all backgrounds and ranks would intermingle, although it is expected that gentlemen would have received some types of different treatment and greater respect. There were gentlemen's clubs in the taverns. We know from George Washington's diaries that he partook at both Arell's and Hawkins's taverns during this time.

While taverns generally had basic meals and beverages, they occasionally hosted fancy balls. In 1775, Nicholas Cresswell witnessed a ball here and reported: "Old Women, Young wives with young children in the lap, widows, maids and girls come promiscuously to these assemblies." Cresswell did not approve of the dances, judging them as "everlasting jigs." Although he left at 2 a.m., "part of the company stayed, got drunk and had a fight."

Artifacts from these taverns are quite different from those in homes. Alexandria Archaeology's tavern collections naturally have a high proportion of beverage related vessels including punchbowls, mugs, tankards, posset pots (for a hot milk-based drink), wine bottles and glasses, tumblers and firing glasses (thick bottomed vessels for toasting), and tea wares. They are made of glass and of the relatively inexpensive English cream and pearlwares, which obviously were broken in high quantities (and left for us to excavate). These artifacts held beverages like chocolate, coffee, tea (except during the Revolutionary period), apple cider, beer, wine, brandy, and rum punch.


Creamware, manufactured in England from the 1760s to ca. 1820, was the first "china" dinnerware which was affordable to a large percentage of Americans. Before the 1770s, it was more common to use wooden or pewter plates than to eat off costly ceramics such as white salt-glazed stoneware, delft, or Chinese porcelain. Creamware was popularized due to the marketing genius of Josiah Wedgwood, who gave a set of it to Queen Charlotte. Marketed thereafter as "Queensware," it satisfied consumer demand for something approximating the prized but expensive porcelain. Most creamware was undecorated, but some was transfer printed or hand- painted over the glaze in bright enamel colors. In the mid-1770s the Staffordshire potters began to add cobalt to the glaze and used cobalt blue Chinoiserie decoration, in imitation of porcelain designs. Once again, Wedgwood is credited with popularizing this ware, which he advertised in 1779 as Pearl White, and is known today as pearlware. When we find creamware on a site but no pearlware, we are likely to be digging a feature dating to the early 1770s.

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.